One day, in my early years in practice, a mother brought in her toddler, who was quite sick with a chest infection. He also had oral thrush. She was happy for me to treat his infection with antibiotics but asked if I could hold off prescribing for the thrush. She explained that she was heading on to a neighbouring county for a “consultation” with a man whose father died before he was born. This man had the “cure” for thrush and his method of blowing into the child’s mouth was her preferred treatment option.
It was an interesting introduction to Irish folk medicine. And it is referenced as the “posthumous child” cure in Cecily Gilligan’s authoritative book.
“In Ireland there is a traditional belief that if a child is born after their father’s death they will have the cure of ‘foul mouth’ which is thrush (an oral fungal infection). To make the cure the person must breathe three times into the mouth of the sick individual, often a baby, and they usually bless themselves and say a prayer,” Gilligan writes.
What marks this book out from others is Gilligan’s qualitative approach in interviewing some 93 people with various cures between 2005 and 2010. Her interviews took the form of a series of standardised questions which she felt were the most relevant to the subject. “The answers supplied in these interviews have formed the core of this book,” she notes.
Gilligan’s approach lends some authority to health interventions that have not been scientifically validated. The economic, social and cultural changes that have taken place in the 21st century have diminished the quantity and diversity of cures but a significant number continue to be used.
Gilligan’s research identifies two types of cure in current use: faith and herbal. Some 80 per cent of cures are faith cures centred around prayer, while 20 per cent utilise healing plants and herbs. Their provenance reflects a mix of pagan and early Christian life; their survival a testament to a continuing faith in traditional folk medicine.
What does the future hold for cures in Ireland? Gilligan believes they have strengths that will help them live on – primarily their ability to change with the times.