Donal Hickey: Ancient goodness of garlic

Donal Hickey: Ancient goodness of garlic

An old belief in Irish folk medicine was that there’s a plant or herb for every ailment, if you could only find them. And there’s no problem this year in locating a valued plant that you’ll often smell before you see.

Wild garlic is growing in profusion in woodland floors, fighting for space with flowers like bluebells and buttercups. Maybe it’s because people are taking more notice of the natural world as they have the time in current circumstances, but several have commented to us about wild garlic in recent weeks.

Some friends have kindly given us samples of pesto made from it, saying it can be used to flavour a variety of dishes. All fine if you like garlic. Despite being told while growing up that ‘garlic is good for you’, it’s not to everyone’s taste.

It was a highly-rated food plant in ancient Ireland and every tenant was legally obliged to give a garlic feast to his landlord annually. A steep fine was imposed for failure to do so. We’re told the feast was a mixture of garlic, cheese and milk. There was also a fine to the value of two and a half milking cows for anyone caught stealing garlic from private land.

Donal Hickey: Ancient goodness of garlic

In his book, Irish Wild Plants, Niall Mac Coitir says the plant was highly valued for preventing infection and as a cure for coughs, colds and flu. “It was also believed in many parts of Ireland to clear the blood of impurities and wounds of infection and to cure toothache,’’ he adds.

All of which is borne out in the schools’ folklore collection of 70 years ago. A widespread prescription for a cold was to boil the garlic stalks in milk and then give the potion to a sick person. For a sore throat, a similar concoction with sugar was recommended.

The plant was also touted as a cure for tuberculosis, sciatica, rheumatism, worms, warts, corns, asthma, stomach pain and indigestion, among many other things Around Loughrea, Co Galway, it was used to treat blackleg in cattle. And the ingredients seemed potentially explosive: the garlic was mixed with gunpowder and lard! A small cut was made in the animal’s skin and the mixture then pushed in.

People picking wild garlic for food nowadays are warned not to confuse it with poisonous plants, but the pungent smell will clearly tell your nostrils it’s garlic.

In the 19th century, garlic was used instead of salt to flavour butter and has been found in bog butter unearthed by turf-cutters. Finally, given the coronavirus crisis, some Irish people carried wild garlic in their pockets in the hope of warding off the deadly Spanish flu during the 1918 pandemic.

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