Analysis: a folklore collection highlights the many folk cures used by Irish people to deal with warts and other ailments

Ireland has a unique archival record of folk cures. The Schools' Collection (1937 -1938) was a folklore collection scheme initiated by the Irish Folklore Commission and ran predominantly from 1937 to 1938 with some minor exceptions until 1939. Over 50,000 schoolchildren from nearly 5,000 schools in their final year of primary school were invited to collect local folklore and there are approximately 740,000 handwritten pages of local tradition compiled by the children with information from their parents, grandparents, other family members, and neighbours. 

Local cures is one of the topics which the children collected information on and this has resulted in one of the largest collections of folk cures in Europe. The material was recorded first by the children into their homework copybooks, then "corrected" by teachers and re-written into larger official notebooks (usually by children with the best handwriting) which were bound to become large manuscript books. This large scale, systematic survey at a national level resulted in 1,128 manuscript volumes, with a further 40,000 copybooks. The entire manuscript collection, which is now available online, is a fantastic national resource and worth checking out to see if any of your own family members contributed to the collection. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, a report on the Schools Collection with TG4's Máire Trasa Ní Cheallaigh and Anna Bale from the Irish Folklore Collection at UCD

Warts were the most common ailment for which cures were recorded nationally (749 out of 6,843 cures) across all 26 counties. There are two main varieties of folk cures; folk cures which use animals, plants or minerals (natural substances) and magico-religious folk cures which use charms, holy words, and holy actions to attempt to cure ailments

Over 70% of all the wart cures fall under 10 specific wart cures and were recorded across the country. The most widespread mineral cure utilises water. This usually denotes rainwater lodging in the hollows of rocks and stone in which the sufferer would bathe the warts. More elaborate rituals were sometimes recorded, such as washing the affected part in the water a set number of times, usually three, and prayers were occasionally said while engaging in this cure which was rendered more effective by fasting. Using water from holy wells to treat the wart was also a common cure and some wells were known as "The Warty Well" as an indication of their power to specifically cure warts.  

Placing stones at a crossroads was a cure where the sufferer collected stones or pebbles (the same number as there are warts in many cases). The stones are first rubbed to the wart, put in a bag and then taken to a crossroads and left there. The person who picks up the bag is then supposed to get the warts.

From RTÉ Archives, Aindréas Ó Gallchóir visits the well of St Colmcille in south Dublin for I Remember Colmcille (Tá Cuimhne ar Cholm Cille) in 1962

Crossroads have played a very important role in the folklore of many cultures, including Ireland. As intersections of two or more roads, they are viewed as liminal or "betwixt and between" spaces where normal rules do not apply. They were used as burial places for unbaptised children, murderers, executed criminals and suicides in our past.

The two most common animal cures for warts involve the use of snails and raw meat. Indeed, the "snail cure" was the most common wart cure nationally from the representative sample and was recorded across every county. The sufferer procures a snail and the slime from the snail is rubbed onto the warts (with some cures specifying the number of times this must be done).  The snail is then placed on some form of thorny bush, normally gooseberry, blackthorn, or whitethorn. Religious ritual is also undertaken in some snail cures, the most common being to invoke the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The snail is left to die and rot away; the underlying principle seems to be that as the snail decays, so will the warts, which have supposedly been transferred to the snail. 

Rubbing the wart with raw bacon, which was procured by stealing it, or taking it without the owner knowing and then burying it was another popular cure. Again, the belief is that the wart has been transferred to the meat and as it rots away, so too do the warts. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, a report on how the Irish Folklore Collection has been inscribed into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register

Many wart cures involving plants are also recorded - rub the milk from the stem of a dandelion on the wart - though more detail is rarely given. However, cures focusing on straw have a magico-religious component. The cure predominantly consists of rubbing straw to the wart, which may be sprinkled with holy water and saying specific prayers. The straw is then buried. Clay and funerals play a role too: pick up some soil after a hearse had passed over it, rub it to the wart and then throw the soil after the hearse. The idea seems to be that the warts are sent to the world of the dead, and thus thought to leave the sufferer. 

In the early 20th century, medical professionals, medical knowledge and health care services were not as common as today. Our forefathers used natural substances that they found locally to treat their ailments and they had no difficulty mixing their folk beliefs with religious belief and superstitions in their treatments. While some of these folk cures may seem strange, they do highlight the necessity Irish people had to treat themselves and their own self-reliance.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ