Country Cures from Three Thousand Years Ago

As a child Jacinta Owens was 'cured' of heart failure

It was a barren winter’s day in 1983. The storm clouds gathered high above the mist that hung over us like a ghostly marquee. My father grabbed my small mittened hand as the muddy field grabbed my lace-up boots.

I could feel my hackles rise as the sky became darker, not much light left. We hurried along and when we reached a certain point along the stone ditch dad said, 'Take out the box'. It was a funny shaped plastic container saying ‘Eat Me’ on the lid. My mother used to keep dressmaking pins in it, and she had told me to bring it back to her.

I carefully opened the lid and stared down at the little white cloth packages inside. 'Over your left shoulder' dad said, 'Make sure they go over the ditch'.  I flung them one by one as high as I could and didn’t look behind once. There was mumbling and the sign of the cross. And that was it, my first cure. The cure for 'the Heart Failure'.

‘Heart Failure’, in it’s literal sense, sounds life threatening or even fatal, but it is in fact a general feeling of listlessness and lethargy. That wretched tiredness that cannot be shifted, a failing of the heart to make you feel alive. I was five years old when my father suspected that Heart Failure might be the reason I wasn’t my sprightly little self, so he phoned the only specialist that could treat it, he phoned a healer.

The lady on the other end of the phone came to see me to first ascertain if I had the Heart Failure, which involved pinning a piece of lint to my clothing, close to my heart. The lint will become tangled if the wearer has Heart Failure, which, it turned out, I did.

I recently found the cure I received written in the journal of my Grandfather: 'If the wearer of the lint has Heart Failure then a piece of meat (beef) is made into three small packages which the sufferer must take into the country and find a ditch with running water in it that separates two townlands and dispose of the packages by standing with your back to the ditch and throwing the packages over their shoulder one at a time.'

I remember parts of this experience vividly (obviously the meat packages and bizarrely the fact that we stood between the border of two townlands.) But perhaps what I won’t forget are the healer’s lips moving but no sound coming out. That, I know now, was the magic ingredient that isn’t covered in Grandad’s journal.

Cures have been practiced for thousands of years in Ireland but cures such as this one that involve a curer would not work without the mystical prayer handed down through generations. In pagan times in Ireland the words would have been devoted to Druidic gods and nature itself but when Christianity arrived these incantations were replaced with prayers to the Holy Trinity.

However, the structure of the prayer and the action carried out by the curer remain unchanged, meaning the cure you would receive today is the same as you would have experienced three thousand years ago.  This bears testimony to the superstition with which these cures are guarded.

WartwellIt would seem that it wasn’t just the need of our impoverished ancestors to invest hope into something that ensured the survival of cures but possibly the fear of not upholding these traditions. Certainly it was, and is, thought extremely unlucky to scorn the cure tradition. It is easy to mock what appear to be ridiculous pagan rituals but as a society we have turned away from the two fundamental components behind these traditions – a respect and practical knowledge of nature and an unshakeable unquestioning faith.

In contrast to cures where a curer must be involved, some charms can only have been thought up with the help of liberal doses of poitin. There are tomes of cures for warts, such as selling them or, my personal favourite, 'firing a spud after a funeral'.  The most well known cure is to find a rock with a hole in it that contains water, known as a ‘bullaun stone’ or more simply a ‘wartwell’, and immerse the affected areas.

Wartwells can be found all over Ireland including one that even has its own signpost at Dungiven Priory. The rock itself is almost completely obscured by branches tied with pieces of cloth, babies’ bibs, socks, gloves and rags, mementos left behind by those who were cured at the well, giving it an eerie pagan feel.

Other saints’ wells can be found around the country bedecked with crutches and casts, as holy well water is commonly believed to have the ability to cure almost anything. As with all cures, it is the recipient’s faith that will determine the outcome. But what self-help guru or glossy magazine doesn’t tell us all to believe in ourselves?  If we believe, we can have whatever we want.

Cures are now a somewhat underground practice, even though they have been used and trusted for centuries, but the principles of this hidden culture may be able to remind us that we did at one time hold the power to heal each other by more imaginative means than popping a pill.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation