Old Animal Charms and Cures, a Tale from Co. Mayo

This tale is an extract from the book "Tales from the West of Ireland" by Sean Henry. The folk histories in this book differ from others tales because some of them are based on actual historical events and are enthralling glimpse of an eventful past with all its sadness and an evocation of the indomitable spirit of a people.

The Tale

Two miles west of Bohola along the main road to Castlebar lies the townland of Loughkeeraun. The tiny bogland loch or lake from which the townland got its name has completely disappeared over the past half century owing to local drainage operations.

There was an old tradition that St Kieran cured a valuable cow that was dying with water taken from the loch and because of this the loch was a popular place of pilgrimage for centuries. Pilgrims came to Loch Kieran mainly to pray for luck and prosperity with their livestock in the forthcoming year. Not to be outdone in religious fervour, or whatever, some pilgrims took rolls of butter to throw into the lake as an offering to the saint. More practical local people came later and salvaged the rolls of butter. Having recycled the butter, it was packed into their butter firkins and sold in the Swinford butter market. I can remember pilgrims going to Loch Kieran on 15 August, which seemed to be the most popular date of all for local pilgrimages in this country.

For a kicking cow, a popular cure was to get two people to pass a burning sod of turf under and over the standing cow in the names of Saints Patrick, Bridget and Colmcille.

For a newly calved heifer cow to give butter-rich milk, a similar ritual was performed. In this case, the lighted turf sod was passed around the cow's back legs in the names of the Blessed Trinity. I can remember on one occasion, while assisting an aunt in this operation, the cow showed her disapproval by kicking the burning sod into a bundle of straw, almost setting fire to the byre. Having been rebuked for laughing, I was told that the fire was blessed. However, I felt that the ritual was more of pagan than Christian origin.

In some districts down to the present day, giving away milk on May Day was forbidden as it was regarded as giving away one's luck for the rest of the year. Giving away fire on that day was also taboo. I recall a story by an old neighbouring woman who absent-mindedly went to borrow a coal on May morning when she found her fire had gone out. Her return trip was done in record time without the coal of fire.

Some years ago, I called to a well-known County Mayo chemist for a remedy for calf scour. I mentioned to him that in my neighbourhood people of old had great faith in the soup of boiled briar roots for this ailment. The chemist said that tannin was a popular agent for contracting the lower bowel to arrest scour. Briar root, he said, contained a high percentage of tannin.

In bygone times, beef and butter were the most important items in rural economy as they are at the present time. Anybody found trespassing on a neighbour's land on May Day might be suspected of gathering certain lucky herbs in order to take the neighbour's luck. If the trespasser could be heard saying the words 'im agus bainne 'gám' when plucking herbs on another man's land, he was in real danger.

The use of the dead hand to bring luck in butter gathering is happily a thing of the past. The last known instance of anything in that line being practised in Mayo was over a hundred years ago at a point where the three parishes of Killedan, Knock and Kilcolman join, almost midway between Claremorris, Kiltimagh and Knock.

An old woman who lived alone was being waked in the year 1850. A frightening thunderstorm sprang up during the night which so frightened all at the wake that they all rushed out and away home. When some of them returned the following morning, they found that the old woman's right hand had been severed and taken away. I heard this tale being told by an old man, John Hynes, over fifty years ago. His father was one of those who attended the old woman's wake.

In some cases, animal help was invoked to cure human ailments. Donkey's milk and ferret's (food) leavings, together with the fasting spit and boiled primroses, were time-honoured cures for jaundice and other mystery complaints. Some of those confirm the saying of the cure being worse than the ailment.