Herbal medicine: A relic of the past or a signpost of the future?

Did you know spider's webs were used to stop bleeding and the most common cures sought were for warts

You’re in a field. You trip and fall onto a rock, and you’re in a lot of pain. The nearest GP is not just a few miles away, but 50, 100, 1,000 years in the future. What do you do?

Dr Carol Barron has been researching the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin (UCD) to see what people used when they were sick. The collection is an archive of folklore collected throughout Ireland between 1930 and 1970. It consists of more than 3,000 bound volumes of folklore, primarily handwritten.

“For colds, people took garlic or onion, and the fumes worked like a eucalyptus decongestant,” says Barron. “We see elderberry wine feature heavily. But it’s not wine as such: they mean elderberry with sugar and some blackcurrant. This is straightforward vitamin C. Fruit comes up a lot. We find cures which say to use fresh fruit.”

Some of the cures are simply fascinating in their own right, she says. “A lot of the herbs were either boiled in milk or mixed with butter or lard as an emollient, ointment or cream. Mint was commonly used.”


The Schools’ Collection is part of the main collection. About 740,000 pages (288,000 pages in the pupils’ original exercise books; 451,000 pages in bound volumes) of folklore and local tradition were compiled by pupils from 5,000 primary schools between 1937 and 1939.

The children collected the information in copybooks, and what the teacher judged to be the “best” material made it into one of 1,128 bound, handwritten manuscript volumes comprising about 750,000 pages.

Barron has sampled every barony in the 26 counties of the schools collection, looking at holy wells and cures, and has gathered 5,500 of them.

Spider’s web

One cure that comes up again and again is a spider’s web, used to stop bleeding in various cultures, including Ireland, for thousands of years. We now know that spiderwebs are high in vitamin K, which helps to clot blood.

Do cobwebs work? There might be something to it, but the jury is out, says Helen Sheridan, a professor of pharmacology at Trinity College Dublin. “That said, the cobweb is a very fine mesh and wrapping it around a wound serves the same purpose as a bandage.”

But you’ll be hard pressed to meet someone who would prefer a spider’s web over a plaster: who needs to grimace through that anymore when we can just whack a plaster on it?

“This was 1938,” says Barron. “You could be up in the field, 30 miles from the GP. You needed to know how to stop problems yourself. There was more dependency on each other and less dependency on the medical profession.

“People were clever and they made use of what was available in their natural environment.” She says all of this with interest, but she’s neutral; there’s no sense she is harking back to a mythical past.

Barron identified 131 categories of illness or ailment in the collection, starting with abscesses and ending with wrinkles. Her research shows that people were plagued by the same problems again and again, with just 19 illnesses or ailments making up 67.61 per cent of all the material on folk medicine.


Warts were the most common cure sought, but much of the cures were magical rather than herbal (or a combination of both). This was followed by cures for toothache and whopping cough, burns, ringworm, styes in the eyes and sore eyes, boils, sore throats, thrush, headaches, rheumatism, sprains and chest colds.

“Think of society at that time: warts were prevalent, toothache was inevitable and child mortality was higher. Whooping cough was a killer and there was an epidemic in 1912.

“There were a lot of open fires in homes so burns were common. Ringworm, styes, boils, sore throats, thrush, colds: these were infection-based problems. But now we have antibiotics.”

There were healers in every county. It wasn’t confined to just urban or just rural areas. “The attitude was that you never paid healers: they had a gift and helping out the neighbours was a decent thing to do.” Indeed, some of the accounts collected by the archivists reinforce this point, says Barron.

She recalls one account: “One healer had a cure for farsy and decided to start charging money, but he couldn’t cure from that day on.”

Marshmallow plant is in there a lot, as are roots and vegetables including a lot of turnip. Were they useful, or were they just there? “You tend to see people use products that are available locally,” says Barron. The cures also relate to the problems of the day, giving us an insight into life in 19th and 20th century Ireland.

“There were cures for foot problems such as bunions and corns, because kids in rural areas didn’t have shoes and there were no chiropodists. This is a vital source of social history.”

Criostoir Mac Carthaigh, director of the collection, says there has been a resurgence of interest in herbal medicine over the past few years, with doctors, nurses, pharmacists, botanists, anthropologists, sociologists and folklorists from universities and medical colleges across Ireland using the UCD archive to unearth this often-forgotten knowledge and see if it still has any relevance to us today.

Over the coming weeks we will delve into the collection and look at who is using herbal medicine today and what they are using it for. What does it mean to them and to Irish culture in general? And what does the science say?

We’ll talk to doctors, pharmacists, herbalists, healthcare professionals and skeptics about the risks and potential benefits of herbal medicine.

What is the National Folklore Collection?

The National Folklore Collection at UCD is an archive of folklore collected throughout the island of Ireland primarily between 1930 and 1970. It consists of more than 3,000 bound volumes of folklore, mostly handwritten.

The collection also includes a sound and video archive, a collection of folk art and an extensive library that includes rare and valuable books and periodicals. There is active collecting work still underway today.

The archive contains an as yet uncounted amount of information about herbal medicine and how it was understood in Ireland around the middle of the last century: in one manuscript collection alone, there may be tens of thousands of individual entries.

They include what people took when they had a cold; what to do if you get burned; how to get rid of a wart; how to save a child dying from whooping cough; and using herbs such as marshmallow , yarrow and foxglove.

Academics at Trinity College, the Royal College of Physicians, DCU, NUIG and UCD are among the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, botanists, sociologists, anthropologists, folklorists, historians and, of course, herbalists, who are now investigating this archive. Many want to see whether any of this knowledge may have relevance for us today. Much of the material gathered by collectors was concerned with everyday health and treatment of mild to moderate illness.