Aspects of Athenry Folk Medicine

Athenry, County Galway

Ronan Killeen

Athenry Local

‘Many of the men and women who practised it (folk-curing) were intelligent and honest and believed in the effi-cacy of their treatment’ – Seán Ó Súilleabháin , Department of Folklore UCD.

First of all I would like to thank the South East Galway Archaeological and Historical Newsletter for being the first to publish my article on folk medicine.

As far back as the 17th century, before so called modern medicine, people the world over could not explain (in any rational way) the causes of ailments or the diseases from which they suffered. This led them to look else-where for the explanations, and it seemed obvious to them that the blame for bodily disabilities / afflictions could rest with inimical beings i.e. fairies, spirits, the dead, and such.

The role of a ‘healer’ against such illnesses was an important one. The healer’s diagnosis of the ailment, and of the cause, was one of the main parts of these functions. The key to unleashing any placebo-effect appears to have been to leverage the patient’s faith. And if a ritual curing happened to fail and the patient did not recover, the belief was that a new type of ailment had come into being and the healer was again called to deal with that.

According to folklore archivist Sean O’Súilleabháin, ‘It maybe said that the Folk-healer had a social function to fulfil; not only to those who were ill, but the whole population group as well depended on him for advice and help’. Folk medicine provided treatment for all the ‘ordinary’ ailments, but it did not deal with all illnesses e.g. treatments for cancers were very rare and disorders of the central nervous system were almost never treated.

Folklore — Background

In 1937 the Irish Folklore Commission, in collaboration with the Depart-ment of Education and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation began the collection of folklore which we know today as the ‘School’s Collec-tion’. For the completion of this article the local cures documented by the students at the Presentation Covenant Athenry have been reviewed and patterns noted e.g. animals being the cure for illness like whooping cough and other strange cures offered for everyday conditions

Whooping Cough

One of the more common ailments for which folk cures were offered was for the whooping cough. The symp-toms, so the folklore informs, saw the patient having severe spasms of coughing during in which they feared they would die of asphyxia. The spasm lasted for a minute or more, and ended with a characteristic whoop.
Various, sometimes ridicules, treatments were offered in the folklore around the country e.g. in Co Leitrim it was suggested that any part of food which a ferret refused to eat should be given to the patients to cure their whooping cough; with ‘transference through animals’ another treatment offered i.e. to be cured the patient would crawl under the belly of an ass foal which had not been ridden.


One of the many skin diseases that a treatment was offered for was ‘corns’, where the ivy leaf tail around a soft corn was said to cure it. A more elaborate treatment offered was to soak the feet in strong solutions of washing soda. This was to be repeated daily for several days until the pain of the corn was relieved.
The following are two adverts, spanning 70 years, reflecting the desperation of people to cure ailments and dis-eases with ointments before modern medicine and treatments ‘caught up’ with the needs of people.
Galway Vindicator, 4 Sept 1844. Connacht Tribune, 20 June 1914 (see below).

Sore Eyes

In the 18th and 19th centuries many people suffered from ophthalmia, or had been blinded by smallpox. The most significant cause of ‘eye disease’ may however have been smoke which was a major inconvenience in the houses of the poor when efficient chimneys were rare, and more often there was no chimney at all.
For stys, there were a number of treatments offered and there was even a children’s game where the child called out to the patient ‘there is a sty in your eye’, with the cure given by replying ‘you lie’! One suspects the ‘cure’ had more to do with the children playing outside, away from the smoke irritation.

Keeping with the ‘religious belief’ tradition, another cure was to make the sign of the cross over the sty with a marriage ring and indeed this was offered for very many folk cures (to be repeated for nine days). The use of the number nine is part of ancient leech lore of the Irish and is sometimes still found in modern folk medicine.

Seventh Son & Seventh Son of the Seventh Son

Famously, the seventh son of the seventh son was ‘a healer’ e.g. for thrush on the mouth. Indeed, the seventh son is credited with the power to heal many diseases. This was evidenced by the fact that he could kill worms by touching them. He could also cure eczema and ringworm and very many other conditions by his folk medicine.
In realty, the ringworm ailment was caused by a fungus infection of the skin, understandable given the hygiene levels of bygone eras. One form of treatment was to put the Friar’s Balsam on the infected areas daily for about a week (or linseed oil), then fully cure by the touch of the seventh son… or sometimes the seventh daughter. For the record, almost a third of the cures nationally relate to dermatology.
As highlighted in the Winter 2015 edition of this journal, the folklore collection is important for local historians when studying the prevailing culture at various times and in understanding a place-specific history. Understand-ing the folk traditions is also an essential part of understanding the period in question. The collection is readily accessible on-line at and is well-recommended.

The following essays are from children of Athenry written in Presentation Convenant back in 1937
on local cures. Enjoy!

Cures by Nora Kilkelly, Ballydavid information obtained from Mrs. Kilkelly Ballydavid.

Long ago before chemical cures were invented the old Irish folk cured various diseases themselves.

When whoopong cough spread among the children the old people cought a hedgehog, boiled it and gave the soup to the children to drink. If they did not succeed in capturing a hedgehog they gave them milk that a ferret left after him.
Another cure for whooping cough was to walk under a white horse or to ask a cure from a man who owned a white horse.
If a person was aflicted by “thrush” he went to a man who had never seen his father. If the wan breathed into his mouth he was sure to be cured.
There was a very peculiar cure for warts. If the person havin such got a snail and rubed the wart with it, then put a needle through the snail and left it in a wall. By the time the snail was decayed the wart also vanished.
If a person suffering from ring-worm went to the seventh son of the family and asked him to breathe over it he was instantly cured.
Those who had “leitne” got flagger leaves and put them on in the shape of a cross. This was supposed to cure the disease.

(Author’s Note to above essay: The last line that says ‘Those who had ‘leitne’ got flagger leaves and put them on in the shape of a cross’. The word ‘Leitne’ is probably a phonetic transcription of themselves Irish word ‘Leicneach’ which means ‘mumps’. As for the ‘flagger leaves’ according to one of the Irish Folklore School’s Manuscripts a pupil from Ballinderry National School writes in the essay ‘Herbs’ that ‘Flagger Leaves’ were were herbs that grew in old gardens. It could cure a sore throat. It is a flat herb. These were sown together and put round the place where the throat was sore. This herb was able to cure that disease.’ The informant go this from his Unlce Patrick Freaney, Ballinastack, Ballyglunnin, Co. Galway.)

Cures by Mary King, Rahard, Athenry information obtained from Mrs. King, Rahard, Athenry

Long ago few people visited doctors, but they were cured by animals and by various other things. The seventh son born in succession without an intermission of a female is a called a Doctor and the female is known as a Lady Doctor. It is said if they breathe upon a person who is suffering from ring worms and boils they are cured instantly.
If the whooping cough should break out in the neighbouhood a few men would go about in search of the hedge hog. After getting it they must take its rough thorny coat off while still alive. Next it is cooked and put into bottles. It is left in the bottle for 3 or 4 days then it is given to the person who has the cough and after the second drop taken the cough is banished. Another cure for the whooping cough is the leavings of the ferrets. A basin of milk is given to the ferret and whatever is left in the basin after he has taken his amount is given to the person. After the person has drank the milk they are cured. If a person got a very bad cut they would be cured by first rubbing a piece of grease over the cut and next etting a collie dog to lick it. After the second rub of the dogs tongue the sore is cured. If a chip of wood should get into the skin it is said if a fox would be killed and its tongue pulled out and put on to where the sore is that the tongue would suck out the chip, however far it would be stuck into the skin after two days. A person who would be suffering from sore eyes could be cured long ago by getting a jet black cat and rubbing cream on its tail and then rubbing the cats tail three times round the sore and reapeating may I be cured. After the third time the sore is cured.

Local Cures by Maisie Hahesy, Station House, Athenry information obtained from Mr. Hahesy, Staion House, Athenry.
1. A cure for a sore finger is to pour the first drop of milk on the sore when any person is milking a cow. 
2. A cure for a cut is to put a cob-wel on it.
3. A cure for a headache is to drink strong tea without sugar.
4. A cure for a sore eye is to bathe it is cold tea.
5. A cure for a toothache is to mix soot and salt and put it into the tooth.
6. A cure for a sore throat is to heat salt or oats and put it into a stocking and tie it around your neck.
7. A cure for a whooping cough is to eat the food left over by a ferret.

Local Cures Continued by Eileen Everand, Old Church Street, Athenry information obtained from Mrs. Everand, Athenry.
1. If you have corns put bread-soda in hot water and soak your feet in it.
2. If a person was aflicted with rheumatism they drank the water of boiled nettles.
3. Smoke a pipe for a toothache.
4. If you have a swelling in your leg put a red flannel bandage on it.
5. Get an iwy leaf and put the dull side to heal a sore and bright side to draw it.
6. A cure for a wart is to put your fasting spittle on it.
7. If you had the whooping-cough drink the milk of a donkey.

Local Cures Continued by Clementine McGuinness, Clarke Street, information obtained from Mrs. Nolan, North Gate Street, Athenry.

1. If you have a stye on your eye it can be cured by putting the Sign of the Cross on it with a gold ring three times for nine mornings.
2. The rough side of a leaf of cabbage draws a wound and a smooth side heals it.
3. A cure for a headache is to put your head over a teapot of hot tea.
4. If you get a burn rub it with soap, apply bread, soda and wrap it up paper and it will keep it from rising.
5. If you have corns walk through a bog in your bare feet.
6. Any person that never saw their father can cure a desease called the thrush.

– The Irish Folklore – The School’s Collection,
– Logan, Patrick, Irish Folk Medicine, (Appletree Press, 1981), vii-viii.
– I would also like to acknowledge Mr Cian Marnell for his help on this subject of folk medicine

This page was added on 14/05/2017.

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