10. Apr, 2020

Snippets of Folklore 2

Snippets of Folklore 2

 

A Wise Woman

There was once a farmer and his young wife who lived and worked on a County Armagh farm. Their home, however, was one of sadness following the death of their first child and one day, not long after this event, the young woman was sitting alone in the house still grieving when a knock came to the door of the house. An old lady was standing there, exhausted by her journey, and she was invited in to rest for a while. "You're a good woman," said the old woman, " I know that you are lonesome, and you're just after burying your wee child. But I tell you that you will soon have another wee baby boy, and only I have come this was you would have had to bury him too. Now, do what I tell you to do and don't tell your husband, or all will be of no use. I'll gather some herbs for you, and when the child is born boil some of them in milk and make him drink it. The remainder you may keep dry, but if any sickness takes the lad when he is growing up prepare some more herbs in milk and it will cure him and will last twenty years at least." And so, it came to pass that whenever he was ill his mother took out the packet of herbs, and when put in the milk they became quite fresh-looking, and they were almost twenty years old. But they still had the power to cure the child.

 The King’s Evil

 It is believed by many in Ireland that the seventh son of a seventh son is gifted with the cure for 'Scrofula', known as the 'King's Evil.' Scrofula is a Latin word for a 'brood sow', which has been applied by medical science to describe the affliction of tuberculosis of the neck. It has been known to affect people since ancient times and, during the Middle-Ages, it was said that the touch of a king was the only cure. However, in modern times, surgery has played a pivotal role in the diagnosis and treatment of Scrofula.

There is a story from Donegal that says in the middle of the nineteenth century there was a farmer's daughter who became terribly afflicted with this disease and the family sent out for a man who was said to be have a cure for her. But, his treatment did her no good and she died, much to the grief of her family. There was, however, a tale of a man called Brian who, it was said, suffered from the 'King's Evil'. Again, word was sent to a person who had the correct qualifications and, miraculously, the very first time he touched the site on Brian's body the 'Evil' withered. On the third visit by this 'doctor', all of Brian's symptoms completely disappeared, leaving him a healthy man for the rest of his life.

Tradition and superstition tell us that any child that has the proper qualifications as to birth and descent can be tested at any time prior to his christening by placing in the palm of his hand a small earthworm, which dies at once if the power of healing is present.

 The Newt

 We, in a modern Ireland, look upon the newt as nothing more than a harmless, small amphibian. But our ancestors looked upon things with different eyes and gave the creatures names that were clear descriptions of what they could do, or what they believed the creature could do. In the case of the newt they began with the name 'Airc' or 'Alp' (from 'Aspain', meaning 'divine'). In some places this was followed by 'Luachra', which caused the creature to be known as 'Alp-luachra' and derived from the word 'Luachair' (Rushes). In the counties Kildare and Wicklow, it became known as the 'Delecha Luachra', and the "Dark Looker", which was most likely a slight corruption of the derivation.

The small creature was not considered to be harmless by the Irish peasantry because it was reputed to have a frightening habit of jumping into the mouth of any person who drank the water from a stream or pond where the creatures lived. The same fate, it was said, awaited the person foolish enough to fall asleep beside such places with their mouths opened. Known as 'Man-keepers', the newt or Alp-luachra became an object of terror throughout the rural areas of Ireland, and it has been reported that those unfortunate people who had one in their stomach suffered terribly when the smell of food became perceptible. There were ways, of course, by which the unwelcome creature could be gotten rid of. One method was for the afflicted person to lie down with their mouth opened over a dish of steaming meat until the creature came out with all of her' family'. Another cure was said to be a fast for at least twelve hours, and then eat some salted herrings without taking any kind of liquid. When this was done the patient would have to lie down, with their mouth open, on the bank of a small stream whose rippling waters could tempt the 'Man-keeper' out of the victim's body.

The Alp-luachra had one beneficial character and that was its ability to cure a burn, although it wasn't a pleasant experience to undergo. The first step was to catch an alp-luachra and hold on to it tightly to prevent it from jumping into your throat, while you licked the creature's back with your tongue, which would cure the burn by licking the wound. In some areas of Ireland, they had a method of reducing inflammation in an eye, or to remove a fly or other intrusive matter by getting an 'alp-luachra licker' to lick it out. Sounds disgusting, but these cures were admired and well respected by the Irish peasantry of the day.

 The Connaught Worm

  I was talking to an old farming friend one evening and he was talking about things he had been told by his grandfather many years previously. He told me that he was warned about an illness to which cattle were very prone, and that was caused by a beast swallowing a grub while grazing. This grub was known to be the full-grown larva of the large 'Elephant Hawk' moth, which became known as the 'Connaught Worm.' This caterpillar is remarkable in the way that it reacts when disturbed. It retracts its head and the anterior segments of the body, raising this swollen portion above the rest of the grub's body, giving it an attitude similar to that of a 'Sphinx'. The eye-like markings on the front segments then appear like two pair of enormous eyes. On the last segment of the tail a fleshy spine projects outward as if it was a sting.

The illness in cattle appears to have been caused by the the 'worm' being found on the grass when covered with dew, and tradition said it could only be cured in two ways. The first of these methods requires the getting of a specimen of the insect, which is then crushed between the palms of your hands and allowing the oily substance to dry on them. Afterward, the first water in which your hands are washed each morning acts as medicine for the beast suffering from the complaint. The other method is to bore a large hole in the stem of a hawthorn tree and put a 'Connaught Worm' into it, plugging the hole securely afterwards. The leaves of the tree then become impregnated with virtue and are given to the sick beast as a cure.

This illness was reputed to affect both cattle and pigs, and within veterinary circles was better known as 'Blaines'. It was a well-known cattle illness during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it is unclear if it still exists and what modern animal illness corresponds to it. But it cause a bladder-like growth on the root of the tongue, which pressing against the beasts' windpipe as it swells makes breathing difficult and could lead to death if untreated.