Herbs, Charms and Wise Women ~ Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland
collected and arranged by
G. P. Putman’s sons, New York and London, 1920
Herbs, Charms and Wise Women
There is a saying in Irish, “An old woman without learning, it is she will be doing charms”; and I have told in “Poets and Dreamers” of old Bridget Ruane who came and gave me my first knowledge of the healing power of certain plants, some it seemed having a natural and some a mysterious power. And I said that she had “died last winter, and we may be sure that among the green herbs that cover her grave there are some that are good for every bone in the body and that are very good for a sore heart.”
As to the book she told me of that had come from the unseen and was written in Irish, I think of Mrs. Sheridan’s answer when I asked in what language the strange unearthly people she had been among had talked: “Irish of course-what else would they talk?” And I remember also that when Blake told Crabb Robinson of the intercourse he had had with Voltaire and was asked in what tongue Voltaire spoke he said, “To my sensations it was English. It was like the touch of a musical key. He touched it probably in French, but to my ear it became English”.
I was told by her:
There is a Saint at the Oratory in London, but I don’t know his name, and a girl heard of him in London, and he sent her back to Gort, and he said, “There’s a woman there that will cure you,” and she came to me, and I cured her in two days. And if you could find out the name of that Saint through the Press, he’d tell me his remedies, and all the world would be cured. For I can’t do all cures though there are a great many I can do. I cured Pat Carty when the doctor couldn’t do it, and a woman in Gort that was paralysed and her two sons that were stretched. For I can bring back the dead with the same herbs our Lord was brought back with–the slanlus and the garblus. But there are some things I can’t do. I can’t help any one that has got a stroke from the Queen or the Fool of the Forth.
I know a woman that saw the Queen one time, and she said she looked like any Christian. I never heard of any that saw the Fool but one woman that was walking near Gort, and she called out, “There’s the Fool of the Forth coming after me.” So her friends that were with her called out though they could see nothing, and I suppose he went away at that for she got no harm. He was like a big strong man, and half-naked-that’s all she said about him.
It was my brother got the knowledge of cures from a book that was thrown down before him on the road. What language was it written in? What language would it be but Irish. Maybe it was God gave it to him, and maybe it was the other people. He was a fine strong man, and he weighed twenty-five stone-and he went to England, and then he cured all the world, so that the doctors had no way of living. So one time he got on a ship to go to America, and the doctors had bad men engaged to shipwreck him out of the ship; he wasn’t drowned but he was broken to pieces on the rocks, and the book was lost along with him. But he taught me a good deal out of it. So I know all herbs, and I do a good many cures, and I have brought a great many children home, home to the world-and never lost one, or one of the women that bore them. I was never away myself, but I am a cousin of Saggarton, and his uncle was away for twenty-one years.
This is dwareen (knapweed) and what you have to do with this is to put it down, with other herbs, and with a bit of three-penny sugar, and to boil it and to drink it for pains in the bones, and don’t be afraid but it will cure you. Sure the Lord put it in the world for curing.
And this is corn-corn (small aromatic tansy); it’s very good for the heart-boiled like the others.
This is atair-talam (wild camomile), the father of all herbs-the father of the ground. This is very hard to pull, and when you go for it, you must have a black-handled knife.
And this is camal-buide (loosestrife) that will keep all bad things away.
This is fearaban (water buttercup) and it’s good for every bone of your body.
This is dub-cosac (lichen), that’s good for the heart, very good for a sore heart. Here are the sianlus(plantain) and the garblus (dandelion) and these would cure the wide world, and it was these brought our Lord from the Cross, after the ruffians that was with the Jews did all the harm to Him. And not onc 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.
Monday is a good day for pulling herbs, or Tuesday, not Sunday. A Sunday cure is no cure. Thecosac (lichen) is good for the heart, there was Mineog in Gort, one time his heart was wore to a silk thread, and it cured him. The slanugad (ribgrass) is very good, and it will take away lumps. You must go down when it’s growing on the scraws, and pull it with three pulls, and mind would the wind change when you are pulling it or your head will be gone. Warm it on the tongs when you bring it and put it on the lump. The lus-mor (mullein) is the only one that’s good to bring back children that are away. But what’s better than that is to save what’s in the craw of a cock you’ll kill on St. Martin’s Eve and put it by and dry it, and give it to the child that’s away.
There’s something in green flax I know, for my mother often told me about one night she was spinning flax, before she was married and she was up late. And a man of the faeries came in. She had no right to be sitting up so late, they don’t like that. And he told her to go to bed, for he wanted to kill her, and he couldn’t touch her while she was handling the flax. And every time he’d tell her to go to bed, she’d give him some answer, and she’d go on pulling a thread of the flax, or mending a broken one, for she was wise, and she knew that at the crowing of the cock he’d have to go. So at last the cock crowed, and he was gone, and she was safe then, for the cock is blessed.
As to the lus-mor, whatever way the wind is blowing when you begin to cut it, if it changes while you’re cutting it, you’ll lose your mind. And if you’re paid for cutting it, you can do it when you like, but if not they mightn’t like it. I knew a woman was cutting it one time, and a voice, an enchanted voice, called out, “Don’t cut that if you’re not paid, or you’ll be sorry,” But if you put a bit of this with every other herb you drink, you’ll live for ever. My grandmother used to put a bit with everything she took, and she lived to be over a hundred.
An Old Man on the Beach:
I wouldn’t give into those things, but I’ll tell you what happened to a son of my own. He was as fine and as stout a boy as ever you saw, and one day he was out with me, and a letter came and told of the death of some one’s child that was in America, and all the island gathered to hear it read. And all the people were pressing to each other there. And when we were coming home, he had a bit of a kippeen in his hand, and getting over a wall he fell, and some way the kippeen went in at his throat, where it had a sharp point and hurt the palate of his mouth, and he got paralysed from the waist up.
There was a woman over in Spiddal, and my wife gave me no ease till I went to her, and she gave me some herb for him. He got better after, and there’s no man in the island stronger and stouter than what he is but he never got back the use of his left hand, but the strength he has in the other hand is equal to what another man would have in two. Did the woman in Spiddal say what gave him the touch? Oh well, she said all sorts of things. But I wouldn’t like to meddle too much with such as her, for it’s by witchcraft I believe it’s done. There was a woman of the same sort over in Roundstone, and I knew a man went to her about his wife, and first she said the sickness had nothing to do with her business, but he said he came too far to bring back an answer like that. So she went into a little room, and he heard her call on the name of all the devils. So he cried out that that was enough, and she came out then and made the sign of the Cross, but he wouldn’t stop in it.
But a priest told me that there was a woman in France used to cure all the dumb that came to her, and that it was a great loss and a great pity when she died.
I knew some could cure with herbs; but it’s not right for any one that doesn’t understand them to be meddling with them. There was a woman I knew one time wanted a certain herb I knew for a cure for her daughter, and the only place that herb was to be had was down in the bottom of a spring well. She was always asking me would I go and get it for her, but I took advice, and I was advised not to do it. So then she went herself and she got it out, a very green herb it was, not watercress, but it had a bunch of green leaves. And so soon as she brought it into the house, she fell as if dead and there she lay for two hours. And not long after that she died, but she cured the daughter, and it’s well I didn’t go to gather the herb, or it’s on me all the harm would have come.
I used to be gathering an herb one time for the Bishop that lived at Loughmore, dandelion it was. There are two sorts, the white that has no harm in it, that’s what I used to be gathering, and the red that has a pishogue in it, but I left that alone.
The best herb-doctor I ever knew was Conolly up at Ballyturn. He knew every herb that grew in the earth. It was said that he was away with the faeries one time, and when I knew him he had the two thumbs turned in, and it was said that was the sign they left on him. I had a lump on the thigh one time and my father went to him, and he gave him an herb for it but he told him not to come into the house by the door the wind would be blowing in at. They thought it was the evil I had, that is given by them by a touch, and that is why he said about the wind, for if it was the evil, there would be a worm in it, and if it smelled the herb that was brought in at the door, it might change to another place. I don’t know what the herb was, but I would have been dead if I had it on another hour, it burned so much, and I had to get the lump lanced after, for it wasn’t the evil I had.
Conolly cured many a one. Jack Hall that fell into a pot of water they were after boiling potatoes in, had the skin scalded off him and that Doctor Lynch could do nothing for, he cured.
He boiled down herbs with a bit of lard, and after that was rubbed on three times, he was well.
And Pat Cahel that was deaf, he cured with the rib-mas-seala, that herb in the potatoes that milk comes out of. His wife was against him doing the cures, she thought that it would fall on herself. And anyway, she died before him. But Connor at Oldtown gave up doing cures, and his stock began to die, and he couldn’t keep a pig, and all he had wasted away till he began to do them again; and his son does cures now, but I think it’s more with charms than with herbs.
The bainne-bo-bliatain (wood anemone) is good for the headache, if you put the leaves of it on your head. But as for the us-mor it’s best not to have anything to do with that.
Dandelion is good for the heart, and when Father Prendergast was curate here, he had it rooted up in all the fields about, to drink it, and see what a fine man he is. Garblus; how did you hear of that? That is the herb for things that have to do with the faeries. And when you’d drink it for anything of that sort, if it doesn’t cure you, it will kill you then and there. There was a fine young man I used to know and he got his death on the head of a pig that came at himself and another man at the gate of Ramore, and that never left them, but was at them all the time till they came to a stream of water. And when he got home, he took to his bed with a headache, and at last he was brought a drink of thegarblus and no sooner did he drink it than he was dead. I remember him well. Biddy Early didn’t use herbs, but let people say what they like, she was a sure woman. There is something in flax, for no priest would anoint you without a bit of tow. And if a woman that was carrying was to put a basket of green flax on her back, the child would go from her, and if a mare that was in foal had a load of flax put on her, the foal would go the same way.
I don’t believe in faeries myself, I really don’t. But all the people in Kildare believe in them, and I’ll tell you what I saw there one time myself. There was a man had a splendid big white horse, and he was leading him along the road, and a woman, a next-door neighbour, got up on the wall and looked at him. And the horse fell down on his knees and began to shiver, and you’d think buckets of water were poured over him.
And they led him home, but he was fit for nothing, and everyone was sorry for the poor man, and him being worth ninety pounds. And they sent to the Curragh and to every place for vets, but not one could do anything at all. And at last they sent up in to the mountains for a faery doctor, and he went into the stable and shut the door, and whatever he did there no one knows, but when he came out he said that the horse would get up on the ninth day, and be as well as ever. And so he did sure enough, but whether he kept well, I don’t know, for the man that owned him sold him the first minute he could. And they say that while the faery doctor was in the stable, the woman came to ask what was he doing, and he called from inside, “Keep her away, keep her away.” And a priest had lodgings in the house at the same time, and when the faery doctor saw him coming, “Let me out of this,” says he, and away with him as fast as he could. And all this I saw happen, but whether the horse only got a chill or not I don’t know.
My mother learned cures from an Ulster woman, for the Ulster women are the best for cures; but I don’t know the half of them, and what I know I wouldn’t like to be talking about or doing, unless it might be for my own family. There’s a cure she had for the yellow jaundice; and it’s a long way from Ennistymon to Creevagh, but I saw a man come all that way to her, and he fainted when he sat down in the chair, he was so far gone. But she gave him a drink of it, and he came in a second time and she gave it again, and he didn’t come a third time for he didn’t want it. But I don’t mind if I tell you the cure and it is this: take a bit of the dirt of a dog that has been eating bones and meat, and put it on top of an oven till it’s as fine as powder and as white as flour, and then pound it up, and put it in a glass of whiskey, in a bottle, and if a man is not too far gone with jaundice, that will cure him.
There was one Carthy at Imlough did great cures with charms and his son can do them yet. He uses no herbs, but he’ll go down on his knees and he’ll say some words into a bit of unsalted butter, and what words he says, no one knows. There was a big man I know had a sore on his leg and the doctor couldn’t cure him, and Doctor Moran said a bit of the bone would have to come out. So at last he went to Jim Carthy and he told him to bring him a bit of unsalted butter the next Monday, or Thursday, or Saturday, for there’s a difference in days. And he would have to come three time, or if it was a bad case, he’d have to come nine times.
But I think it was after the third time that he got well, and now he is one of the head men in Persse’s Distillery in Galway.
A Slieve Echtge Woman:
The wild parsnip is good for gravel, and for heartbeat there’s nothing so good as dandelion. There was a woman I knew used to boil it down, and she’d throw out what was left on the grass. And there was a fleet of turkeys about the house and they used to be picking it up. And at Christmas they killed one of them, and when it was cut open they found a new heart growing in it with the dint of the dandelion.
My father went one time to a woman at Ennis, not Biddy Early, but one of her sort, to ask her about three sheep he had lost.
And she told him the very place they were brought to, a long path through the stones near Kinvara. And there he found the skins, and he heard that the man that brought them away had them sold to a butcher in Loughrea. So he followed him there, and brought the police, and they found him–a poor looking little man, but he had £60 within in his box.
There was another man up near Ballylee could tell these things too. When Jack Fahy lost his wool, he went to him, and next morning there were the fleeces at his door.
Those that are away know these things. There was a brother of my own took to it for seven years–and we at school. And no one could beat him at the hurling and the games. But I wouldn’t like to be mixed with that myself.
There was one Moyra Colum was a great one for doing cures. She was called one time to see some sick person, and the man that came for her put her up behind him, on the horse. And some youngsters began to be humbugging him, and humbugging is always bad. And there was a young horse in the field where the youngsters were and it began to gallop, and it fell over a stump and lay on the ground kicking as if in a fit. And then Moyra Colum said, “Let me get down, for I have pity for the horse.” And she got down and went into the field, and she picked a blade of a herb and put it to the horse’s mouth and in one minute it got up well.
Another time a woman had a sick cow and she sent her little boy to Moyra Colum, and she gave him a bottle and bade him put a drop of what was in it in the cow’s ear. And so he did and in a few minutes he began to feel a great pain in his foot. So into the Street and broke it, and she said, “It’s better to lose the cow than to lose my son.” And in the morning the cow was dead.
The herbs they cure with, there’s some that’s natural, and you could pick them at all times of the day; there’s a very good cure for the yellow jaundice I have myself, and I offered it to a woman in Ballygrah the other day, but some people are so taken up with pride and with conceit they won’t believe that to cure that sickness you must take what comes from your own nature. She’s dead since of it, I hear. But I’ll tell you the cure, the way you’ll know it. If you are attending a funeral, pick out a few little worms from the earth that’s thrown up out of the grave, few or many, twenty or thirty if you like. And when you go home, boil them down in a sup of new milk and let it get cold; and believe me, that will cure the sickness.
There’s one woman I knew used to take a bit of tape when you’d go to her, and she’d measure it over her thumb like this; and when she had it measured she’d know what was the matter with you.
For some sicknesses they used herbs that have no natural cure, and those must be gathered in the morning early. Before twelve o’clock? No, but before sunrise. And there’s a different charm to be said over each one of them. It is for any sort of pain these are good, such as a pain in the side. There’s themeena madar, a nice little planteen with a nice little blue flowereen above on it, that’s used for a running sore or an evil. And the charm to be said when you’re picking it has in it the name of some old curer or magician, and you can say that into a bit of tow three times, and put it on the person to be cured. That is a good charm. You might use that yourself if it was any one close to you was sick, but for a stranger I’d recommend you not do it. They know all things and who are using it, and where’s the use of putting yourself in danger?
My mother learned to do a great many cures from a woman from the North and some I could do myself, but I wouldn’t like to be doing them unless for those that are nearest me; I don’t want to be putting myself in danger.
For a swelling in the throat it’s an herb would be used, or for the evil a poultice you’d make of herbs. But for a pain in the ribs or in the head, it’s a charm you should use, and to whisper it into a bit of tow, and to put it on the mouth of whoever would have the pain, and that would take it away. There’s a herb called rif in your own garden is good for cures. And this is a good charm to say in Irish:
A quiet woman.
A rough man.
The Son of God.
The husk of the flax.
The Old Man on the Beach:
In the old times all could do druith–like freemasonry–and the ground was all covered with the likeness of the devil; and with druith they could do anything, and could put the sea between you and the road. There’s only a few can do it now, but all that live in the County Down can do it.
There was a girl in a house near this was pining away, and a travelling woman came to the house and she told the mother to bring the girl across to the graveyard that’s near the house before sunrise and to pick some of the grass that’s growing over the remains. And so she did, and the girl got well. But the mother told me that when the woman had told her that, she vanished away, all in a minute, and was seen no more.
I have a charm myself for the headache, I cured many with it. I used to put on a ribbon from the back of the head over the mouth, and another from the top of the head under the chin and then to press my hand on it, and I’d give them great relief and I’d say the charm. But one time I read in the Scriptures that the use of charms is forbidden, so I had it on my conscience, and the next time I went to confession I asked the priest ‘vas it any harm for me to use it, and I said it to him in Irish. And in English it means “Charm of St. Peter, Charm of St Paul, an angel brought it from Rome. The similitude of Christ, suffering death, and all suffering goes with Him and into the flax.” And the priest didn’t say if I might use it or not, so I went on with it, for I didn’t like to turn away so many suffering people coming to me.
I know a charm a woman from the North gave to Tom Mangan’s mother, she used to cure ulcers with it and cancers. It was with unsalted butter it was used, but I don’t know what the words were.
If you cut a hazel rod and bring it with you, and turn it round about now and again, no bad thing can hurt you. And a cure can be made for bad eyes from the ivy that grows on a white-thorn bush. I know a boy had an ulcer on his eye and it was cured by that.
There was Leary’s son in Gort had bad eyes and no doctor could cure him. And one night his mother had a dream that she got up and took a half-blanket with her, and went away to a blessed well a little outside Gort, and there she saw a woman dressed all in white, and she gave her some of the water, and when she brought it to her son he got well. So the next day she went there and got the water, and after putting it three times on his eyes, he was as well as ever he was.
There was a woman here used to do cures with herbs-a midwife she was. And if a man went for her in a hurry, and on a horse, and he’d want her to get up behind him, she’d say, “No,” that she was never on horseback. But no matter how fast he’d go home, there she’d be close after him.
There was a child was sick and it was known itself wasn’t in it. And a woman told the mother to go to a woman she told her of, and not to say anything about the child but to say, “The calf is sick” and to ask for a cure for it. So she did and the woman gave her some herb, and she gave it to the child and it got well.
There was a man from Cuillean was telling me how two women came from the County Down in his father’s time, mother and daughter, and they brought two spinning wheels with them, and they used to be in the house spinning. But the milk went from the cow and they watched and saw it was through charms. And then all the people brought turf and made a big fire outside, and stripped the witch and the daughter to burn them. And when they were brought out to be burned the woman said, “Bring me out a bit of flax and I’ll show you a pishogue.” So they brought out a bit of flax and she made two skeins of it, and twisted it some way like that (interlacing his fingers) and she put the two skeins round herself and the daughter, and began to twist it, and it went up in the air round and round and the two women with it, and the people all saw them going up, but they couldn’t stop them. The man’s own father saw that himself.
There was a woman from the County Down was living up on that mountain beyond one time, and there was a boy in the house next to mine that had a pain in his heart, and was crying out with the pain of it. And she came down, and I was in the house myself and I saw her fill the bowl with oatenmeal, and she tied a cloth over it, and put it on the hearth. And when she took it off, all the meal was gone out of one side of the bowl, and she made a cake out of what was left on the other side, and ate it. And the boy got well.
There was a woman in Clifden did many cures and knew everything. And I knew two boys were sent to her one time, and they had a bottle of poteen to bring her, but on the road they drank the poteen. But they got her another bottle before they got to the house, but for all that she knew well, and told them what they had done.
There’s some families have a charm in them, and a man of those families can do cures, just like King’s blood used to cure the evil, but they couldn’t teach it to you or to me or another.
There’s a very good charm to stop bleeding; it will stop it in a minute when nothing else can, and there’s one to take bones from the neck, and one against ulcers.
I went to Macklin near Loughrea myself one time, when I had an ulcer here in my neck. But when I got to him and asked for the charm, he answered me in Irish, “The Soggarth said to me, any man that will use charms to do cures with will be damned.” I persuaded him to do it after, but I never felt that it did me much good. Because he took no care to do it well after the priest saying that of him. But there’s some will only let it be said in an outhouse if there’s a cure to be done in the house.
A Woman in County Limerick:
It is twenty year ago I got a pain in my side, that I could not stoop; and I tried Siegel’s Syrup and a plaster and a black blister from the doctor, and every sort of thing and they did me no good. And there came in a man one day, a farmer I knew, and he said, “It’s a fool you are not to go to a woman living within two miles of you that would cure you-a woman that does charms.” So I went to her nine times, three days I should go and three stop away, and she would pass her hand over me, and would make me hold on to the branch of an apple tree up high, that I would hang from it, and she would be swinging me as you would swing a child. And she laid me on the grass and passed her hands over me, and what she said over me I don’t know. And at the end of the nine visits I was cured, and the pain left me. At the time she died I wanted to go lay her out but my husband would not let me go. He said if I was seen going in, the neighbours would say she had left me her cures and would be calling me a witch. She said it was from an old man she got the charm that used to be called a wizard. My father knew him, and said he could bring away the wheat and bring it back again, and that he could turn the four winds of heaven to blow upon your house till they would knock it.
A Munster Midwife:
Is it true a part of the pain can be put on the man? It is to be sure, but it would be the most pity in the world to do it; it is a thing I never did, for the man would never be the better of it, and it would not take any of the pain off the woman. And shouldn’t we have pity upon men, that have enough troubles of their own to go through?
Did I know the pain could be put on a man? Sure I seen my own mother that was a midwife do it. He was such a Molly of an old man, and he had no compassion at all on his wife. He was as if making out she had no pain at all. So my mother gave her a drink, and with that he was on the floor and around the floor crying and roaring. “The devil take you,” says he, and the pain upon him; but while he had it, it went away from his wife. It did him no harm after, and my mother would not have done it but for him being so covetous. He wanted to make out that she wasn’t sick.
At childbirth there are some of the old women are able to put a part of the pain upon the man, or any man. There was a woman in labour near Oran, and there were two policemen out walking that night, and one of them went into the house to light his pipe. There were two or three women in it, and the sick woman stretched beyond them, and one of them offered him a drink of the tea she had been using, and he didn’t want it but he took a drink of it, and then he took a coal off the hearth and put it on his pipe to light it and went out to his comrade. And no sooner was he there than he began to roar and to catch hold of his belly and he fell down by the roadside roaring. But the other knew something of what happened, and he took the pipe, and it having a coal on it, and he put it on top of the wall and fired a shot of the gun at it and broke it; and with that the man got well of the pain and stood up again.
No woman that is carrying should go to the house where another woman is in labour; if she does, that woman’s pain will come on her along with her own pain when her time comes.
A child to come with the spring tide, it will have luck.