The Well of Derrydownan

An old Story from Ireland

 
In a time, long before the coming of Saint Patrick, there was an old king in Connacht, who had been blessed with three sons. The old king had been bothered by a sore foot for many years, and he could get nothing to cure it. One day he sent for blind ‘Wise-man’ and said to him, “I’m giving you wages this twenty-years and you can’t even tell me what will cure my foot.”
“You’ve never asked me that question before,” said the ‘Wiseman’, “but I’ll tell you now that there is nothing in this world that will cure you but a bottle of water from the Well of Derrydowan. “
The next morning, the king called his three sons to him and told them, “My foot will never be better until I get a bottle of water from the Well of Derrydowan, and whichever of you brings me that, will inherit my kingdom.”
“We will go in search of it to-morrow,” the sons replied. The names of the three young men were Art, Nart, and Cart, and the next morning the king gave to each one of them a purse of gold as he sent them on their way.
When they came as far as the cross-roads Art spoke, “Each one of us ought to take a road for himself, and if one of us is back before a year and a day is past, let him wait until the other two come, or else let him set up a stone as a sign that he has come back safe.”
They parted company after that, with Art and Nart going to an inn, where they began drinking. But Cart went on by himself, walking all that day without knowing with any certainty where he was going. Then, as the darkness of night fell, he entered a great wood, and he pressed on until he came to a large house. Cart went into the building and looked around, but he saw nobody, except for a large white cat sitting beside the turf-fire. When the cat saw him, she rose up and went into another room, while a very tired Cart sat himself beside the fire. But it was not long until the door of the room opened, and out came an old hag and declared, “One hundred-thousand welcomes to you, son of the king of Connacht.”
Celtic King 3“How did you know me?” asked the king’s son.
“Oh, many a good day I spent in your father’s castle, and I have known you since you were born,” said the old hag. Then she prepared a fine supper and gave it to him and, when he had eaten and drunk enough, she said to him, “You made a long journey to-day, now come with me ‘til I show you a bed.” She brought him to a fine room, showed him a bed, and the king’s son quickly fell asleep.
Cart did not awake until the sun was coming in through the windows the next morning. Then he rose up, dressed himself, and was going out of the house, when the hag asked him where he was going. “I don’t know,” replied the king’s son. “I left home to find out the Well of Derrydowan.”
”I’ve walked in many a place,” said the hag, “but I never heard tell of the Well of Derrydowan before.”
The king’s son left the house and travelled on until he came to a crossroads between two woods. He did not know which road to take but he noticed a seat under the trunk of a great tree. When he went up to the seat found a notice, saying, “This is the seat of travellers.” The king’s son now sat down, and after a minute he saw the most beautiful woman in the world approaching him. She was dressed in red silk, and she spoke quietly to him, saying “I have often heard it said that it is better to go forward than back.” Then she vanished from his sight, as though the ground had suddenly swallowed her up.
The king’s son rose up from the seat and went forward, walking all that day until the darkness of the night began to come on, and he began to wonder where he would get lodgings. He saw a light coming from the wood, and he moved towards it. The light was coming from a little house where there was not as much as the end of a feather jutting up on the outside, nor jutting down on the inside, but only one single feather that was keeping the house up. He knocked at the door, and an old hag opened it to him. “God save all here,” said the king’s son.
“A hundred welcomes before you, son of the king,” said the hag.
“How did you know me?” asked the king’s son.
“It was my sister that nursed you,” said the hag, ” and sit yourself down a while until I get your supper ready.”
When he had eaten and drank enough, she gave him a comfortable bed, where he slept until morning. Then, rising the next morning, he prayed to God to direct him on the road to find his goal. “How far will you go to-day?” asked the hag.
“I don’t know,” said the king’s son, “I’m in search of the Well of Derrydowan.”
“Well, I’m three hundred years here,” said the hag, “and I have never heard of such a place before. But I have a sister, who is older than myself, and, perhaps, she may know of it. Here is a ball of silver for you, and when you go out on the road just throw it up before you and follow it ‘til you come to the house of my sister.”
When he went out on the road, he threw down the ball, and he followed it until the sun began to go under the shadow of the hills. Then he went into a wood and came to the door of a little house. When he knocked on the door, a hag opened it to him, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes before you, son of the king, who was at my sister’s house last night. You have made a long journey today, so sit yourself down for I have a supper ready for you.” When the king’s son had eaten and drank his fill, the hag put him to bed, where slept until the next morning. Then the hag asked him, “Where are you going to ?”.
“I don’t really know,” said the king’s son. “I left home to find the Well of Derrydowan.”
“Well, I am over five hundred years of age,” said the hag, “and I have never heard anyone talk of that place before. But I have a brother, and if there is any such place in the world, he will certainly know of it. He lives seven hundred miles from here.”
“It’s a long journey,” said the king’s son.
“You’ll be there to-night,” said the hag as she gave him a little horse about the size of a goat.
“Sure, that wee beast will never be able to carry me,” said the kings’ son.
“Wait ‘til you start riding it,” said the hag, and the king’s son got on the wee horse and together they moved as fast as lightning. When the sun was going down that evening, Cart came to a little house in a wood.
Celtic King 4He dismounted from his small mount, went up to the house, and it was not long until an old grey man came out, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, son of the king. You’re searching for the Well of Derrydowan.”
“I am, indeed,” said the king’s son.
“Many a good man went that way before you, but not a man of them came back alive,” said the old man. “However, I’ll do my best for you. Stop here tonight and we’ll have some sport to-morrow.” Then he prepared a supper and gave it to the king’s son, and when he had eaten and drank sufficiently, the old man put gave him a bed to sleep on. The next morning, the old man told Cart, “I found out where the Well of Derrydowan is, but it is difficult to get there. We must find out if you are any good at using the bow.” Then he brought the king’s son out into the wood, gave him a bow and arrow, and put a mark on a tree forty yards away from him, and told him to strike it. He drew the bow and struck the mark, causing the old man to say, “You’ll do the business.”
They then returned to the house, where they spent the day telling stories until the darkness of night fell over the wood. When the night came, the old man gave him a bow and a quiver of arrows, saying “Come with me now.”
They went on until they came to a great river, and the old man said, “Get on my back, and I’ll swim across the river with you. But, if you see a great bird coming, kill him, or we shall both be lost.”
Then the king’s son climbed on the old man’s back, and the old man began swimming. When they reached the middle of the river the king’s son saw a great eagle coming towards them with its beak wide open. The king’s son drew the bow and wounded the eagle. “Did you strike him?” said the old man.
“I struck him,” said the king’s son; “but here he comes again.”
He drew the bow for a second time and the eagle fell, dead and when they came to the riverbank the old man declared, “We are on the island of the Well of Derrydowan. The queen is sleeping, and she will not awaken for a day and a year. She only goes to sleep once every seven years. There is usually a lion and a monstrous beast watching at the gate to the well, but they go to sleep at the same time as the queen, and you will have no difficulty in going to the well. Here are two bottles for you. Fill one of them for yourself, and the other for me, and it will make me a young man again.”
The king’s son went off, and when he came as far as the castle, he saw the lion and the monster sleeping on each side of the gate. Then he saw a great wheel throwing up water out of the well, and he went and filled the two bottles he had been given, and while he was coming back, he saw a shining light from the castle. He looked in through the window and saw a great table, upon which sat a loaf of bread, with a knife, a bottle, and a glass. He filled the glass, but he did not empty the bottle. He observed that there was a writing on the bottle and on the loaf; and he read on the bottle, “Water For the World,” and on the loaf, “Bread For the World.” He cut a piece off the loaf, but it only grew bigger. “My God! It’s a pity we haven’t that loaf and that bottle at home,” said the king’s son, “and there would be neither hunger nor thirst on the poor people.” Then he went into a great chamber, and he saw the queen and eleven waiting-maids asleep, and a sword of light was hanging above the head of the queen. It was the sword that was giving light to the whole castle and when he saw the queen, he said to himself, “It’s a pity to leave that pretty mouth without kissing it.” He kissed the queen, and she never awoke, and after that he did the same to the eleven maidens. Then he took the sword, the bottle, and the loaf, and came back to the old man, but he never told him that he had those things. “How did you get on?” said the old man.
“I got the thing I was in search of,” said the king’s son.
“Did you see any marvel since you left me?” asked the old man, and the king’s son told him that he had seen a wonderful loaf, a bottle, and a sword.
“You did not touch them?” asked the old man, warily. “Shun them, for they would bring trouble on you. Come on my back now ‘til I bring you back across the river.”
When they went to the house of the old man, he poured water out of the bottle on himself, and made himself a young man again. Then he said to the king’s son, “My sisters and myself are now free from enchantment, and they are young women again.”
The king’s son remained there until the most part of the year and day were gone. Then he began his journey home, but he did not have the little horse with him. He walked the first day until the darkness of the night came down. He saw a large house, went to the door, knocked on it, and the man of the house came out to him. “Can you give me lodgings ?” he asked.
“I can,” said the man of the house, “only I have no light to light your way.”
“I have a light myself,” said the king’s son. He went into the house, drew the sword, and gave a fine light to them all, and to everybody that was on the island. They then gave him a good supper, and he fell asleep. When he was going away in the morning, the man of the house asked him for the honour of God, to leave the sword with them. “Since you have asked for it in the honour of God, you must have it,” said the king’s son and he walked that second day until darkness began to fall. He went to another great house, knocked the door, and it was not long until the woman of the house came out to him, and he asked her for lodgings.
The man of the house came and told him, “I can give you that, but I have not a drop of water to make any food for you.”
“Sure, I have plenty of water myself,” said the king’s son. He went in, took out the bottle, and there was not a vessel in the house he did not fill, and still the bottle remained full. Then a supper was prepared for him, and when he had eaten and drank enough, he went to sleep. In the morning, when he was going, the woman asked him, in the honour of God, to leave them the bottle. “Since you have asked it for the honour of God,” said the king’s son, “I cannot refuse you, for my mother made me promise her, before she died, never, if I could, refuse anything that a person would ask of me for the honour of God.” Then he left the bottle to them.
He walked the third day until darkness was came, and he reached a great house on the side of the road. He knocked on the door and when the man of the house came out, he asked if he could have lodgings there. “I can give you that, and welcome,” said the man, “But I’m sorry that I have not a morsel of bread for you to eat.”
“I have plenty of bread myself,” said the king’s son as he went in, got a knife, and began cutting the loaf, until the table was filled with pieces of bread. Yet, the loaf was as big as it was when he began. Then they prepared a supper for him, and when he had eaten enough, he went to sleep. Then, when he was leaving the next morning, they asked him, for the honour of God, to leave the loaf with them, and he left it with them. The three things were now gone from him and he walked the fourth day until he came to a great river, and he had no way to get across it. He went down on his knees, and he asked God to send him help. After half a minute, he saw the beautiful woman he had seen the day he had left the house of the first hag and, as she came near him, she asked him, “Son of the king, has it succeeded with you?”
Celtic King 1“I got the thing I went in search of,” said the king’s son; “but I don’t know how I shall get over this river.”
She drew out a thimble and said, “It would be a bad day that I would see your father’s son without a boat.” Then she threw the thimble into the river and made a splendid boat from it. “Get into that boat now,” said she, “and when you come to the other side, there will be a horse there ready to bring you as far as the cross-road, where you left your brothers.”
The king’s son stepped into the boat, and it was not long until he was at the other side of the river, and there he found a white horse standing before him. He mounted it, and it went off as swiftly as the wind, bringing him to the cross-roads at about twelve o’clock that day. The king’s son looked around him, and he did not see his brothers, nor any stone set up, and he said to himself, “Perhaps they are at the inn.” When he went there, he found Art and Nart, and both were two-thirds drunk. They asked him how he gotten on since he had left them. “I have found the Well of Derrydowan, and I have the bottle of water,” said Cart.
Nart and Art were filled with jealousy, and they said to one another, “It’s a great shame that the youngest son should have the kingdom. We’ll kill him, and bring the bottle of water to our father,” said Nart, “and we’ll say that it was us that went to the Well of Derrydowan.”
“I’m not with you there,” said Art, “but we’ll get him drunk, and we’ll take the bottle from him. My father will believe me and you, before he’ll believe our brother, because he has an idea that there’s nothing in him but a half-wit.” Then, he said to Cart, “Since it has happened that we have all come home safe and sound we’ll have a drink before we go home.” They called for a quart of whiskey, and they made Cart drink the most of it, causing him to fall drunk. Then, they took the bottle of water from him, went home themselves, and gave it to the king, who put a drop of the  water on his foot, and it made him as well as ever he had been. Then they told him that they had great trouble to get the bottle of water. That they had to fight giants and overcome great dangers.
“Did you see Cart on your road?” asked the king.
“He never went farther than the inn, since he left us,” they told him, “and he’s in it now, blind drunk.”
“Sure, there never was any good in him,” said the king, “but I cannot leave him there.” So, he sent six men to the inn, and they carried Cart home and, when he recovered from his drunkenness, the king reduced him to a servant and was to do all the dirty jobs about the castle.
When a year and a day had gone by, the queen of the Well of Derrydowan and her maids-in-waiting woke up, and the queen and her eleven maidens found a young son by her sides. The queen was extremely angry, and she sent for the lion and the monster, to ask them what had become of the eagle that she had left in charge of the castle. “He must be dead, or he’d be here when you awakened,” they said.
“I’m destroyed! Myself, and the maids-in-waiting,” said the queen angrily, ”and I won’t stop until I discover who is the father of my son!” Then she called for her enchanted coach to be made ready, with two fawns to pull it, and she hurried off until she came to the first house where the king’s son had been given lodging. There she asked if there had been any stranger there lately, and the man of the house said that there had.
“Yes!” said the queen, “And he left the sword of light behind him! It is mine, and if you do not give it back to me quickly, I will turn your house upside down.” They immediately gave her the sword, and she went on until she came to the second house, in which he had been given lodging, and she asked if there had been any strangers there lately. They said that there had been. “Yes!” said she, “And he left a bottle after him. Give it back to me immediately, or I’ll bring this house down upon you!” They quickly returned the bottle to her, and she went off again until she came to the third house, where she asked if there had been any strangers there lately. They said there was. “Yes!” said she, “And he left the loaf of lasting bread after him. That belongs to me, and if you don’t return it to me quickly, I will kill you all!” She got the loaf, and she set off once more, and never stopped until she came to the old king’s castle, where she pulled the challenge bell outside the gate. When the king came out, she asked him, “Have you a son?”
“I have,” said the king.
“Send him out here ‘til I see him,” said she and in response the king sent out Art. The queen asked him, “Were you at the Well of Derrydowan?”
“I was,” said Art.
“And are you the father of my son?” she asked.
“I believe I am,” said Art.
“I will know that soon enough,” she said, and she drew two hairs out of her head, flung them against the wall, and they were made into a ladder that went up to the top of the castle. Then she said to Art, “If you were at the Well of Derrydowan, you can go up to the top of that ladder.” Art went up half-way before he fell and broke his thigh. “You were never at the Well of Derrydowan,”said the queen and she asked the king, “Have you any other son?”
“I have,” replied the king.
“Bring him out,” said the queen. When Nart came out, she asked him, “Were you ever at the Well of Derrydowan?”
“I was,” said Nart.
“If you were, go up to the top of that ladder,” said the queen, and he began going up. But he had not gone very far until he fell and broke his foot. “You were not at the Well of Derrydowan,” said the queen and again she asked the king if he had any other son. When the king said he had, he added, “But it’s a half-wit he is, that has never left home.”
“Bring him here,” said the queen, and when Cart came, she asked him, “Were you at the Well of Derrydowan ?”.
“I was,” said Cart, “and I saw you there.”
“Go up to the top of that ladder,” said the queen, and she watched as Cart went up the ladder like a cat. When he came down, she said told  him, “Yes, you are the man who was at the Well of Derrydowan, and you are the father of my son.” Then Cart explained the trick that his brothers played on him, and the queen was about to slay them both, until Cart asked her to pardon them. The king then declared that Cart must inherit the kingdom, and he dressed him in robes and put a chain of gold around his neck. Then, Cart got into the coach beside the queen, and they departed the castle for the Well of Derrydowan. The maids-in-waiting gave Cart a great welcome, and they all came to him, with each one asking him to marry them. He stayed in that place twenty-one years, until the queen died, and then he brought back with him to Galway his twelve sons Galway. Each of the sons married a wife, and it is from them that the twelve tribes of Galway are descended.

Irish Traditional Cures

The Wisdom of the Ancestors

 

Throughout the world, there are tales of Shamans; Medicine Men; Witch Doctors; Faith Healers; Quacks; Bone-Setters who are known to the people of their district for having cures for a wide variety of ailments, hurts, and diseases. t was no different in the Ireland of bygone years, when the majority of the population were poor, peasantry who could not afford proper medical assistance and depended on such people as these to aid them in their need. There were certain women, often called ‘Wise Women’ who had no education but were able to work their charms to help those who were ill. By some means, natural or mysterious, they had discovered the healing power contained within certain plants. In an island of green fields, woodlands, mountains, and lakes they knew the plants and herbs that gave some relief to every part of the body, both internally and externally.
Trad 4
Ribwort

There were tales that these healers had lived among the fairy folk or other strange unearthly people from whom they had learned their magic charms. Some even specialised in their area of expertise and became known as Fairy Doctors, Cow Doctors, and Horse Doctors, each one being educated by the unseen spirits in their own Irish language. Their success in the different districts in which they worked made some famous all over the whole island as their reputations grew and people sought them out in their desperation. Not all of these healers could cure all the ailments that people had, but there were a few who could almost do the impossible and became famous for their cures, especially those who succeeded in healing a patient whom the medical doctors had failed. Some healers were acclaimed by a superstitious people to be able to bring back the dead with the ‘Slanlus’ and the ‘Garblus’ which were the same herbs that revived the Lord after his death on the Cross.

‘Slanlus’, a ‘Ribwort Plantain’, which is a perennial weed with almost worldwide distribution and grow aggressively. The leaves would be plucked fresh, cut, chewed up and applied to the sore. Apparently, it was known to prevent blood poisoning and encourage healing. ‘Garblus’, better known to us as the ‘Dandelion’ was considered as being able to cure the world … “and it was these brought our Lord from the Cross, after the ruffians that were with the Jews did all the harm to Him. And not one could be got to pierce His heart till a dark man came and said, “Give me the spear, and I’ll do it,” and the blood that sprang out, touched his eyes and they got their sight.
And it was after that, His Mother and Mary and Joseph gathered their herbs and cured His wounds. These are the best of the herbs, but they are all good, and there isn’t one among them but would cure seven diseases. I’m all the days of my life gathering them, and I know them all, but it isn’t easy to make them out. Sunday evening is the best time to get them, and I was never interfered with. Seven “Hail Marys,” I say when I’m gathering them, and I pray to our Lord and to St. Joseph and St. Colman. And there may be some watching me, but they never meddled with me at all.”Lady Augusta Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920).
There were also healers who were known to have cures for cattle and other animals, as well as cures for human being diseases and injuries. There were those, like many today, who claimed that they have the cure for a bald-head and can make hair grow on any skin irrespective of age. Below is a shortlist of ailments and some of the cures suggested for them, quite a few of which are still in use today.
Jaundice – “Jaundice” itself is not a disease, but a medical term that describes yellowing of the skin and eyes. Although it isn’t a disease, Jaundice is a symptom of several possible underlying illnesses, many of which are serious and can lead to death if untreated. It is formed there is too much bilirubin in a person’s system, Bilirubin being a yellow pigment created by the breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. In normal circumstances the liver would rid the body bilirubin along with old red blood cells, exhibiting Jaundice may indicate a serious problem with the function of your red blood cells, liver, gallbladder, or pancreas, caused by such things as Hepatitis; Cancer; Anaemia; Liver Failure; etc.
Trad Cure 2Modern medical advances have helped make Jaundice less severe than it used to be in times when it was not known what it indicated. There were several holistic cures practiced by the Healers in Ireland, one of which was made from a weed (Chickweed), the seedless plant and not the female variety. The weed was pounded into a pulp to extract the juice, which was then boiled in stout and sweetened with sugar. The resulting mixture was then squeezed, strained and given to the patient, and was said to be a sure remedy. It doesn’t sound to be a particularly pleasant concoction for a person to drink but, maybe, not as much as some other remedies that were used. One other remedy required ten snails to be boiled in a cup of water until they disappeared, and the cup was then strained and given to the affected person to drink. Some patients were even encouraged to drink their own urine, which was made sweet with sugar and lemon juice and was said to cure the sufferer when other remedies failed them.
Whooping Cough –  We all know the dangers to children who suffer from whooping cough, or ‘Chin-cough’ as it was once know in Ireland. Before vaccination and modern medicines helped reduce the instance of this terrible child disease, it was a major cause of infant mortality and was not unknown to visit the older people of a community. The Healers in Ireland used a small white flower shaped like a chalice, which was known as ‘The Blessed Virgin’s Chalice’, or ‘Lady of the Valley’, which was boiled in milk. Another cure employed to relieve the suffering of the infected was heated asses milk, given to the patient to drink in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In some cases, the milk that a ferret leaves behind after it has eaten is heated and given to the patient to drink. A more strange cure for ‘Chin-cough’ was a hair from the tail of a white horse being boiled in milk, which is then given to the patient to drink. One tale spoke of a person in the house. where the sick person is, would see a man driving or riding a white horse  and going to him would say, “Man with the white horse give me a cure, for the chin-cough” The man on the horse would then give the hair from the horse’s tail to be boiled in milk, or Poitin.
Trad Cure 3Warts – Warts are one of those things that can plague both humans and animals. I have heard of one remedy for warts in animals that was said never to fail, and the truth of that statement is in the story that the ‘Wise-Woman’ was visited by ailing animals being brought to her from all parts. The remedy that she is said to have used for curing warts in animals was said to contain the following ingredients i.e. 1 oz Tincture of Spanish Fly; 3.5 ozs Compounded Camphor Liniment;  3.5 ozs Soap Liniment; and a bit of soot which was said to thicken the mixture. The accuracy of this prescription cannot be vouched for and this may have been only some of the ingredients required.
Warts on human beings is a widespread ailment which, I would say 90% of us have suffered, and used modern treatments to have them removed or medically burned off. In the days of the healers, when these modern medicines were unknown, people were told to acquire a black snail and stick it on a thorn from the Whitethorn Bush (‘Fairy Tree’) and the wart subsequently rubbed against the same snail each morning, for nine mornings, before breaking their fast. It was said that as a result, the wart would fade away as the snail withered on the thorns. A less gruesome remedy, however, called for warts to have ‘fasting spit’ rubbed upon them each morning for nine mornings and this would cure them.
Some patients were told to carry a bag of stones, one for each wart, which was then thrown one by one over the shoulder in the hope that the warts would be passed on to the finder of the stones and removed from the sufferer. Another stone, known as ‘Bluestone’ is considered to be a cure. “Bluestone” is a cultural name often given to a number of building stone varieties, including limestone, which is quarried in Counties Carlow, Galway, and Kilkenny. This was also considered a cure for ‘wildfire’ on the lips.
Some of the other old prescriptions for warts included the patient carrying dampened Washing Soda in a pocket and then, rubbed on the wart several times a daily. There was also the scrapings from the inside of an Oyster Shell mixed into a paste and applied to warts. In the same way, the juice from the stems of a ‘Dandelion’ should be smeared on the wart daily. It was also said that if you were journeying someplace and, by chance, came across a small hollow in a limestone block that is filled with water then the wart should be bathed in that water at least three times, and it will fall away. There was also the tradition of rubbing a piece of bacon on the wart, which is then taken from the house and placed under a stone. In a few days, the patient would do the same thing, followed a few days after that by a similar action, then the wart was said to vanish when the bacon had gone.
‘The Spool of the Breast’ – The spool is a bone which is found under the middle – rib of a person’s chest, and it can be displaced by overexerting yourself or straining yourself by lifting heavy weights at the front of the body, causing the spool to fall down on the stomach.  It was said that the raising of the spool of the breast was a cure peculiar to the local bonesetter. People become very weak and unable to work when their spool falls, and the bone-setter is immediately called. It was a complaint that affected people both young and old, and the ‘Bonesetter’ raises the spool of the breast by using his fingers in a specific manner, which took at least five minutes to complete. During the ‘operation’ the patient would sit in a chair and would often faint during the procedure. On occasion, the ‘Bone-setter’ would raise the spool of the breast using a lighted candle or cup, although I am personally unsure of how this procedure was carried out. Although these operations were continuing in the middle of the twentieth century, the medical fraternity gave no credit to the cure much as they do today with holistic medicine. There have been, incidents when sufferers were sent to the hospital and x-rayed, and doctors could not cure it. But, the local ‘Bone-setter’ was successful where the doctor failed.
Chilblains and Corns – Chilblains are small, but itchy swellings on the skin which arise as a reaction to cold temperatures, and they most commonly affect the extremities of the body e.g. toes. One common cure prescribed by the local healers was to rub in the affected areas a mixture made from salt and lemon juice, or rubbing in Paraffin Oil. Other remedies used included measures of whiskey or Poiteen briskly rubbed into the areas affected. Also, at this time, it was widely held that unsalted butter was good for both chilblains and rashes of the body. Local tradition, in fact. said that unsalted butter was a great cure for anything, even on the outside of the body, while a drop of good, hot poiteen was a cure for the flu or any ailment of the body’s interior.
Trad Cure 5
Camphor

Corns, much as they are today, were a regular and common ailment among people, on all areas of their feet. For Corns that appeared on the soles of the feet, people were told that they should wear insoles with holes cut in them where the corns are. But a common remedy for Corns that was employed in these days was the use of ‘Comfry’, which is a weed-like ‘Docken.’ This plant was cut fresh and the root was washed in clean water. The plant would then be pulped into a paste and, when cold, applied to the area in a cloth bandage and prevents them from becoming inflamed. As a first resort, however, some would be told that they should walk in their bare feet through the bog, assured that this would cause the corns to fall out.

Sore Back, Sore Head, and Sore Throat – It was common for the healers to make an embrocation that could be used on a sore-back. I have heard that the following is a recipe for just such an embrocation, but I cannot guarantee that this is complete – Mix one noggin of Whiskey/Poitin; One noggin of Turpentine; One noggin of Vinegar; The white of two eggs; one pound of ‘Castile’ Soap;  60 grains of Sulphur Zinc; 120 grains of ‘Sugar Lead’. I have also read that some people would go to a local (monastic) graveyard and entered through a hole in the wall and went out again through another hole in the wall to cure the pain in their back. In fact, it is told that certain men came to rob the monastery at one time and they were immediately struck dead and turned to stones. it is said that these stones are still to be seen, standing up in the field, just outside the graveyard wall at ‘Tempaill Mologga’ near Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.
For those who suffered a sore head or headache, the remedy was to use a ribbon around the head. This was no ordinary ribbon, but one that was put out on a window sill, or in the open air, on Eve of St. Brigid’s Feast day. The faithful believed that the ribbon grew in length during the night and was empowered by the Irish Saint. However, even in the early years of the twentieth century, the best cure for a headache was known to be the melting of  ‘Aspirin’ tablets in a cup of water, which would be subsequently used as a  and gargle it in your throat.
Of course, there were occasions when people developed a sore throat, and the recommended cure was the wrapping of your stocking around the throat at night time.  In extreme cases, however, it was recommended by healers that a piece of fat bacon be roasted on a fork and then placed in a flannel that would be held against the throat as hot as it possibly could be. Another cure that was widely recommended for curing a sore throat was to put some bread soda into a cup of water, stir it and drink. Now, Mumps in those days was much more serious than it is today and healers often recommended putting warmed salt into a stocking, which would be tied around the patient’s neck. It was also used as a means of relieving the pain of Neuralgia.
One particularly odd cure was used occasionally to cure a child’s sore mouth, which was to permit an old man, who was fasting, to blow into the affected mouth.
St. Anthony’s Fire and Ringworm – ‘Erysipelas’ is a bacterial infection of the skin that typically involves the lymphatic system. It is, however, also known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, which accurately describes the very real fiery intensity felt by sufferers of the rash. To cure the affliction healers were told that blood should be drawn from an old man’s finger and rubbed it into the sore. Another clue was said to be to write the afflicted person’s name around the spot on the face. This was also known to be a cure for ‘Ringworm’, a disease which grows in the form of a ring and usually appears on the head of an infected person, causing that patient’s hair to fall off and the skin rots away. It was traditionally known that the ‘Seventh Son’ had a cure for this nasty ailment, and there is a story in Mayo about a man from Newport who had the cure for ringworm. It is reported that he cured a boy in the district after the young man had spent a while in Castlebar hospital, and was sent home because the doctors could not cure him. Those who have seen the cure in practice tell that the seventh son simply rubs his hand on the earth before placing his hands over the ring-worm. there is testimony that states the ring-worm gradually disappears, but the hair will rarely ever grow on that spot afterward.  The mysterious thing about this all is that tradition tells us that when the seventh son is born a worm must be put into his hand, and if he possesses the cure then the worm dies.
Stomach Complaints and the Fear a Gorta – Everyone of us has suffered from a stomach complaint of one kind or another and have taken antacids, Epsom Salts, laxatives, and even warm milk with sugar to help us get some relief. Prior to the outbreak of World War One, however, ‘Flummery’ was an article of food that was in common use in Ireland. When a farmer used to take his crop of oats to be ground in the mill, he also brought home with him the bran and pollen of the oat grains. It was from these that he would make a drink, which was called ‘Shearings’. This was said to be a cool thirst-quenching drink, which when boiled became ‘Flummery’, a thick, jelly-like food that was brownish in colour. It was said to be a  little sour to taste and some people would add sugar to sweeten it. However, this was considered a good cure for indigestion and provided a great pick-me-up for those who took it. Others swore by the curative properties of Buttermilk with regard to the stomach, and hot buttermilk was often taken by those suffering from a cold. Wild garlic was picked by healers and boiled in milk, or eaten raw to cure colic.
But when it came to stomach complaints the superstitious peasants also feared the approach of the ‘Fear a Gorta’, the sudden and terrible feeling of hunger that was said to overcome a person who passed over a place where some poor person who had died during the famine was buried. The traditional remedy for this was a handful of oaten meal, and a farl of the oaten-meal cake was carried by many people in those days when they went on a journey, to cure the ‘fear a gorta’ if they were unfortunate enough to get it.
Trad Cure 6
Ringworm

Minor Hurts – People are always vulnerable to picking up a variety of minor injuries and complaints. For skin complaints like pimples, people were often prescribed oatmeal powder to be put in the water the person washed with, while for a scratch on the skin-bone the cure was said to be the person’s own ‘fasting spit’ spread upon it. If someone was suffering from a sore ear they would be advised to take a piece of cotton with some home-made ointment put on it and placed into the ear for a cure. Other more odd-sounding cures were those like a ‘Dog’s Lick’ is a cure for a running sore or the sting of a nettle being used to cure rheumatism, and the pumping of a cow’s udder to help cure a fever. When it came to cows, should they take ‘the staggers’ the farmer would cut the cow’s ear and bleed it as a cure to make the ‘staggers’ leave.

Stranger still was the cure for toothache recommended to some sufferers that called on them to visit a graveyard at night to acquire a skull in which to collect water that the sufferer would then drink. A more common cure for a toothache, however, was to put a bottle of hot water under the jaw and go to bed. Similarly, warm water and salt were supposed to be good for styes in a person’s eyes, or they might be recommended to look through a widow’s golden wedding ring three times.
Many people, including myself, have suffered from in-growing nails and found it to be very painful. in my case, I was told that I should finely pare the middle of the nail and then cut straight across the top. It worked for me, but I didn’t realise that this was a cure that was also given to sufferers by the wise women and healers in bygone days. In the same way, I have been told that whiskey can be applied to an open wound since it acts just like iodine or another disinfectant, but did you know that scraped raw potato could be used on a burn to ease the pain, and a paste of bread-soda could be put to a scald? From my childhood, I always knew that a nose bleed could be stopped by using the age-old remedy of putting a cold object, such as a key or ice pack to the nape of the neck. As for a wound that is bleeding, in bygone days a clean cobweb would be applied to the wound to stop the bleeding, or the heart of a dock leaf was also used for the same purpose.
For Muscular Cramp, called ‘Taulagh’, the cure given was to tie a piece of dried eel skin tightly around the affected wrist. On occasion, an ordinary leather strap could be used on the wrist as a preventative measure, while another recommended cure was to tie a silk thread around the wrist that was affected. As for a sprained wrist or ankle, it was recommended the patient hold the injured part in a rushing stream of cold water and, afterward, tie it up in a spraining web got from a weaver.
An age-old remedy for boils, which I still recommend to people, is a poultice made from bread and salt, wrapped in a cloth or bandage and applied to the boil as hot as possible to draw out the contents. In a similar way, as in the treatment of Corns and Chilblains above, a plaster made from ‘comfrey’ roots was another method used for drawing and healing boils.
Those who suffer from weak, tired or sore eyes the recommended cure was to wash them in cold, clear water before going to bed while bathing with cold tea was said to be particularly good for relieving weak eyes, and honey was a popular remedy for sore eyes. On occasion, however, our eyes become scratchy or gravelly and the old cure for this condition was said to be the juice, or sap, from the Dandelion, which was commonly known as the ‘Pissy-Bed’. The use of water from a ‘Holy Well’ was also said to cure many things, including any eye trouble a person might have. there is a story told of a man whose trouble was threatening him with total blindness and was cured by washing his eyes in the water of the well. It is also said that a person who sees a trout in the well is guaranteed a cure, whatever the affliction they suffer may be.
Unfortunately, up to the middle decades of the twentieth century ‘Rickets’ was the curse of the poorer and undernourished people, and in particular the children of the peasantry or urban poor. To cure them, the children would often have been sent to the local blacksmith for a cure, which involved holding the child over the anvil and, while drawing some blood, speaking some mysterious words.
Trad Cure 1Some of you might recognise old cures that are still used in the family, and others might write them all off as nonsense. let me say, however, the ones that I have used have invariably worked. There is one cure that I have not tried because I have only heard about it recently. The old cure for those people who had a weak heart was said to be Water-Cress, which is said to put a new heart in people. Suffering from congenital ischemic heart disease I have decided to start eating the posh Water-Cress sandwiches that always seem to make an appearance in the afternoon teas taken by the ‘quality’. I will certainly let you know how I progress with the recommended cure…..

The Witches of Islandmagee

A Story of County Antrim

The story of the ‘The Witches of Islandmagee’ is a strange tale, which has become very famous in the history and folklore of Ireland. It’s a story is located on the small Islandmagee peninsula, that lies along the east coast of County Antrim, and it is famed for being the last recorded witch trial held in Ireland. Although a witchcraft statute had been passed in Ireland in 1586, the record shows that not too many actual witch trials were conducted in any areas of the land. In fact, the record shows that only three witch trials were held, in which eleven individuals were accused of the crime of witchcraft. It is, however, the Islandmagee witch trial that stands out among them all because of the intensity of feeling it caused in a small, tightly knit community that numbered some three-hundred people of Scots-Presbyterian descent.

Witches of Islandmagee 3During the time of the ‘Tudor Plantation’ in Ireland Scottish Protestants, mostly from the Scottish Lowlands were encouraged to take up land that the crown had confiscated from Irish lords that had risen in rebellion. Among these new Scots-Presbyterian settlers there was a widely held belief in the existence of witchcraft, and they brought their superstitious ideas with them to Ireland. In Scotland, the hunting and destruction of witches was far more widespread than that carried out in England. In fact, Scotland was widely recognised as being one of the most vicious anti-witch countries in Europe. There was a total of approximately 3,800 people prosecuted in the Scottish courts, and more than three-quarters of these were put to death by strangling and/or burning. In England, and so by extension in Ireland, however, there was ‘Common Law’, which meant that those convicted in those courts of witchcraft could only be hanged. In Ireland, such trials were few in number, but there is an account of a trial that was held among the English ‘Planter’ community that lived in the Youghal area of County Cork, during 1661. Fifty years later, in March 1711, eight women were taken into custody and brought before the court at Carrickfergus, Co.Antrim. The subsequent trial was a major sensation at the time, shocking everyone when all eight women were found guilty of the demonic possession of the body, mind, and spirit of a local teenage girl. The judgment levied on them was that they were put in the stocks, where the public could throw stones and rotten fruit at them, prior to them being taken to serve a year in jail.

Witches and witchcraft had always been an integral part of Irish folklore, but the image portrayed by the folklore tales was that of a witch that was non-threatening to ordinary mortals. We have all heard the stories that tell us about witches stealing the ability for churning milk into butter, or other tales saying that they had the power to turn themselves into hares and steal the butter that had already been made. It was, however, the Scottish ‘Planters’ who brought their beliefs about witches to Ireland, introducing the witch as a malicious, expert in magic that was extremely dangerous to ordinary mortals. Thankfully, the ‘Trial of the Islandmagee Witches’ was well recorded by the authorities and the media of the day, which has provided modern researchers with ample primary historical resources to aid their studies. These include statements from the trial of the main characters, copies of newspaper articles at the time, pamphlets that were produced, letters, correspondence and legal depositions from witnesses. From all these documents it has been discovered that the origins of the case can be traced back to the previous year, 1710.

Witches of Islandmagee 2We are told that it was in 1710, that a young 18-year-old girl called Mary Dunbar arrived in Islandmagee from her home in Castlereagh, which lay at the edge of Belfast. It is suggested that the young girl had come to stay and help in the home of her cousin, Mrs. James Haltridge, whose mother-in-law had recently died. At the time of the woman’s death, it was alleged that her passing had been brought about through the black arts of witchcraft. Witnesses further alleged that Mary soon began to show signs that she, herself, had been possessed by an evil demon. These signs included Mary issuing threats to people, shouting, swearing, blaspheming, and throwing Bibles everywhere. On those occasions when a clergyman approached her to help, Mary would suddenly be overcome by violent fits, accompanied by vomiting various household articles, such as pins, buttons, nails, glass, and wool. In her statement to the court, Mary Dunbar claimed to have seen eight women appearing to her in spectral form, and this evidence alone would prove to very important at the trial. ‘Spectral evidence’ was a tactic used by the prosecution lawyers in cases, where the possessed person claims to have seen and been attacked by the witches, which then caused his or her possession in spectral form.  This sort of evidence had been common in England in earlier trials but, by the time of the Islandmagee case, this type of evidence was rarely used because it had become less and less convincing in witch trials. ‘Spectral Evidence’ would, nevertheless, become one of the main proofs of guilt that were brought against the eight women in the trial of 1711. The main problem about such proof was that Mary would have been the only person to have seen this spectral possession occur. But Mary Dunbar was a relative stranger to this area, and she would never have seen any of these women before. However, this evidence was sworn to be true by her, and the trial jury in Carrickfergus chose to believe her. There were other types of ‘proof’ offered by the prosecution, of course, including their apparent inability to say, ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. And the authorities went even further to prove their case against the women by setting up a form of the identity parade, in which Mary Dunbar was blindfolded while a line of women came in to touch her. It was believed that the demoniac would go into terrible fits if he or she was touched by a witch, and Dunbar apparently succeeded in picking out the eight women that she had claimed to have bewitched and attacked her in spectral form.

Alongside the witness testimony, the character of the accused women themselves was also important in them being convicted. These women were all from the margins of society in the small community and were suffering from an impoverished life. It is said that some of them claimed to possess some form of witches’ craft. But, in Irish folklore, there was the character of “The Wise Woman”, who knew about love potions, healing plants, and various natural remedies that the people of their community sought. They were not witches in the true sense of the word but would have been readily accused of witchcraft by some. This was especially true in an age when the widespread belief was that a witch looked like a wizened old crone, much like the image we have of witches today, and these eight women apparently fitted that description.

In small villages and towns, the reputation of a person, or a family, is always well known. If a person had a less than perfect reputation and some act of misfortune happened within the community, then that person and his family would be suspected and even accused of being the guilty party. In this case, the misfortune that had occurred was the bewitching of Mary Dunbar, and some of these women already had the reputation of using witchcraft. Moreover, these women appeared to fall short of the ideals of womanhood espoused by others, which helped to fuel the suspicions of them being witches. Several of the women, for instance, were accused of drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and swearing, none of which met the expected requirements for being considered a lady. On the other hand, Mary Dunbar was an intelligent, attractive young lady from a good family.

Witches of Islandmagee 4There is no record of what happened to Mary Dunbar or the eight women after the trial in Carrickfergus. Unfortunately, the public records office that held many Church of Ireland records was burned down during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923). According to the Act of 1586, the eight women would have been put in prison for a year and pilloried four times on market days for a first offense. However, we have no knowledge what happened to any of them after their sentence was served, for they simply disappeared from the historical records. As for Mary Dunbar, it is widely considered that she had made the entire thing up, for some reason or another. After all, she was not the first demoniac in England and Scotland to do such a thing and, being an intelligent young woman, such precedents would have provided her with an excellent example to follow.

Prime examples of misleading evidence were seen during the witch hunts and trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, and in Scotland in 1697, where an eleven-year-old girl called Christian Shaw, who was the daughter of the Laird of Bargarran, complained that she was being tormented by a group of local witches. She said that these witches included one of her family’s servants, Catherine Campbell, whom she had reported to her mother after witnessing her steal a drink of milk. As a result of Christian’s statements Seven people (Margaret Lang, John Lindsay, James Lindsay, John Reid, Catherine Campbell, Margaret Fulton, and Agnes Naismith) were found guilty of having bewitched the child and were subsequently condemned to death. One of this group went on to hang himself in his prison cell. It is also believed that Agnes Naismith may also have died while she was imprisoned. The remaining five accused were hanged, and their bodies burned on the ‘Gallow Green’ in Paisley on 10th June 1697. This proved to be the last mass execution of ‘witches’ in western Europe.

It is very likely that Mary Dunbar had learned the part of a demoniac from accounts she had heard or read about events in Salem or, more likely, Scotland, from where people were pouring into the ‘Ulster Plantation’ at this time. Maybe she sought fame or was simply doing the same thing that she is accusing others of doing. But, because it would not be considered her fault, there would be no moral responsibility attached to her actions. And, because she claims that it is someone else who is doing these things to her, she can comfortably break the type of behavioural constraints that were placed upon her as a female at the time.

Witches of Islandmagee 5As far as seeking fame is concerned, Mary Dunbar was a stranger in that community and may have felt that she was invisible and undervalued. She may have seen her accusations as being an opportunity to make herself visible in that community and her cousin’s family, as well as being able to act in ways that would normally be socially unacceptable. Whatever Dunbar’s reasons, it seems incredible to modern society that she should have succeeded. While it is easy to dismiss the people of that time as being blatantly ignorant, or disastrously superstitious, we must understand how things were in those days. Dunbar’s accusations made complete sense to the people, especially when they are supported by members of the clergy and the medical professions. In fact, doctors were called in to examine Mary Dunbar’s condition and concluded that her condition did not have physical causes but was due to supernatural influences.

Although the ‘Islandmagee Case’ was the last witch trial to be held in Ireland, there continues to be a belief in witches and witchcraft. There may have been no further prosecutions in Ireland for witchcraft since 1711, the Act of 1586 continued to be on the statute books until 1821, when it was finally repealed. There is little doubt that some cases did make it to the court, but the judges of the day would reject them because they were better educated and did not believe in such superstitions. There remains some belief in such things, with ‘Fairy Doctors’ and ‘Wise Women’ being asked to cure ‘fairy attacks’, and to perform traditional rites to remove curses and bewitchments. Such people are very small in number, compared to many years ago, but they are a sign that belief in witchcraft is not yet dead in Ireland.