Donal Hickey: Hawthorn was a natural medicine for the heart

Time was when people in Ireland didn’t run to doctors and pharmacists with every ache. Instead, they had their own medicine drawn from herbs and plants.

Donal Hickey: Hawthorn was a natural medicine for the heart

Time was when people in Ireland didn’t run to doctors and pharmacists with every ache. Instead, they had their own medicine drawn from herbs and plants.

Hawthorn was used as a natural medicine for the heart and circulation and berries as a treatment for heart conditions.

A commonly-used plant was sphagnum moss — essentially the substance that makes a bog — and it has antiseptic qualities containing bacteria and fungi such as penicillin, according to an article in the latest issue of Sherkin Comment.

Charlotte Salter-Townshend of the National Botanic Gardens says women healers and their folk knowledge of local plants were a mainstay of Irish health for generations.

“Their use of plants is an important part of Ireland’s cultural heritage which has largely been forgotten,” she writes.

The online archive from the National Folk Collection, under the schools’ collection heading, is an invaluable source of information. From 1937 to 1939, pupils from 5,000 primary schools countrywide took part in a project to collect folklore from their elders.

Michael Cremin, of Newtown West, Bantry, Co Cork, got information on cures from a Mr O’Donovan. His account, in impeccable handwriting on the page of a school exercise book, gives insights into traditional folk medicine.

"The people got their cures from herbs which they picked on the fields and mountains,’’ he began.

Wild sage was used for coughs; people made plaster from fox’s cabbage (penny leaves) to treat sores and wild crowfoot was a remedy for toothache. Michael also reveals Lady’s Well, outside Bantry, was a place where rheumatics was cured.

Herbalism and magic got mixed up at times and some women became known as witches, the most famous witch healer being Biddy Early, of Feakle, Co Clare, who died in 1874.

Maureen Burke, of Carrobaun national school, not far from Feakle, got an account of Biddy from her father.

“She had a cure for all diseases,” Maureen wrote for the schools’ collection. “People used to come from faraway places to get cures from her and before they came to her she knew their names, where they came from and the medicine they wanted.”

Some cures are still around — that dock leaf juice can ease a nettle sting, for example.

Experts at the BBC’s Wildlife Magazine are sceptical but feel dock leaf juice evaporating from the skin may have a surface cooling effect on the burning sensation.

Also, dock leaves might contain natural antihistamines that reduce the irritation, though none have been identified.

And neither can the placebo effect, where faith in dock juice might lower the perception of sting symptoms, be discounted.

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