Healing Herbs of the Isle of Green

Paddy the Dash of Ulster, Moll Anthony of Kildare, Old Deruane of Inis Maan, and Biddy Early of County Clare. Although these names may sound like fictional characters, they are the real-life wise men and women that practiced traditional herbalism of their native land more than a century ago. As legend tells it, they were successful due to being granted special powers of insight by the Sidhe ("Shee") of the fairy kingdom. While we may find this grand reference charming today, there’s no question that their knowledge of herbal medicine had little to do with pixie dust or luck.

According to the Trecheng Breth Féne (The Triads of Ireland), there are "three things that constitute a physician: a complete cure, leaving no blemish behind, a painless examination." However, traditional Irish herbalists, also known as bonesetters or wise men-or women, were also regarded as intermediaries between humans and the fairy folk, which rendered the additional title of “fairy doctor.” While these men and women were “away with the fairies,” they would gather the herbs best suited to address a malady at hand according to the healing properties the fairies bestowed upon the plants.

One of the curative herbs used by early Celtic healers was hawthorn, more commonly known at the time as the “Faery Bush” due to the belief that it was inhabited by fairies. As such, a mere mortal deliberately cutting the tree was in danger of being rewarded with a long string of bad luck. However, this taboo was lifted to permit collecting the flowers and branches in celebration of the fertility festival of Beltane in spring, providing appropriate reverence and offerings were made to the fairy folk. Having done that, decorating the home with branches of hawthorn during and immediately following the festival provided protection from negative influences.

Today, hawthorn is known to exert cardiovascular pharmaceutical effects. In fact, it is used to promote dilation of the blood vessels in the heart, to regulate blood pressure, and to lower serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Although the origin of the medical use of this herb for these and a variety of other conditions is attributed to the ancient Chinese, it was an Irish physician that first introduced hawthorn as the “valerian of the heart” to the Western world. This noted physician, Dr. Green of Ennis, County Clare, had quite the reputation for treating heart disease in his day. However, the good doctor apparently felt it necessary to preserve his elevated status by keeping his “cure” a secret, even taking the formula to his grave in 1894. Fortunately, his daughter eventually revealed that the secret was a tincture made from hawthorn berries.

Willow, one of the nine sacred trees known to the ancient Druids, was also important in early Irish herbal medicine. Known as Sáille in Gaelic, the willow tree is associated with the influence of the moon and Brighid, the Goddess of healing. Frequently, an old willow tree would be left standing in the middle of a plot of cleared land to represent “crann bethadh,” or the Tree of Life. The symbolism of the branches reaching toward the heavens and the roots taking nourishment from the earth below was a reminder of the connection between the two worlds and all living things. The tree was also considered a guardian and mentor, from which ancient Celtic priests sought guidance and inspiration. Willow was also regarded as the nurturer of love, wisdom, and feminine mysteries. Perhaps it was a willow tree that prompted the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, to pen, “Beloved, gaze in thine own heart, the holy tree is blooming there.”

Medicinally, willow bark was used to treat headache, fever, and body aches and pains. It was also commonly used to treat arthritis and rheumatism, a frequent complaint compounded by the damp environment. The efficacy of willow in relieving symptoms associated with these disorders hardly comes as a surprise since the inner white pith of the bark contains salicin, which is converted into salicylic acid in the body. Salicylic acid is the precursor to acetylsalicylic acid, otherwise known as aspirin.

Medicinal herbs were also cultivated by the common people, usually in small, enclosed plots of turf immediately adjoining the home. Since this garden typically served as an extension of the kitchen, it was referred to as a lubgort, which translates to mean “kitchen herb garden.” At first glance, many of the herbs found growing in these gardens may have seemed to be primarily culinary herbs and vegetables, such as dill, watercress, cabbage, nettles, and garlic. Be that as it may, many of these plants had medical benefits as well as gastronomic value. Dill, for instance, was used to treat intestinal disorders. Nettle was an effective remedy for the pains caused by rheumatism, a condition more frequently referred to as “fairy dart.” In addition to gracing the dinner table, watercress and "brasshagh," or cabbage, were pounded into a poultice to ease bruises and swollen muscles. Gairleog, or garlic, was combined with butter to form a salve to stave off udder infections in cows. Apparently, this remedy worked so well that an old Irish proverb was born: “Garlic with May butter cureth all disease.” Of course, the really interesting thing to note about these remedies is that each of them are recognized as valid today—dill is a carminative and expels gas; nettle, watercress and cabbage contain agents that block certain pain receptors; and garlic has confirmed antibacterial and antiviral properties.

Traditional Irish Recipes: Slow Roasted Pork Loin with Lemon, Garlic & Basil

More… This Month’s Herbal Profile: Watercress