I’m originally from outside Boston, but my family came to America from Ireland, as did my husband’s, in the early 1900s. My husband got a job teaching philosophy in Maynooth University, so we’ve been living here for almost five years. I have five kids, aged between 15 and three, the youngest born here. We travelled a lot, living in France, Italy, Belgium, before settling in Ireland.
When my husband got the position we started looking for places to rent. A cottage on the Hamwood Estate in Dunboyne, Co Meath, happened to come up on one of the websites and we connected with Charles Hamilton, the owner, and it just slid into place.
I’ve always been into herbal remedies, foraging before I knew it was called anything beyond “go out into the woods and find some medicinal plants”. My parents always had that natural side; my dad and I gardened these massive gardens with massive flowers, and I was at my first home birth for a neighbour when I was seven. It’s always been in the background.
I suffer from hormonal migraine headaches, I would get them 48 hours before my cycle, every single month. It was debilitating. I went to the traditional doctor and the things that worked had terrible side effects. I was on beta blockers and injections, I just couldn’t find a solution. Somebody said, “Oh you should try this plant called butterbur.” I was 22 at the time and I just thought, “Thanks a lot, but I’m sure that a herb is not going to help me.” They bought me a bottle and I started taking it, and it’s something I use every single night and day now, a combination of butterbur and feverfew. I experience one migraine a year now, it has radically improved my life.
My interest in foraging evolved out of living at Hamwood. There is so much around here – traditional Irish hedgerows, hawthorn, elderberries. Much of the area has been inadvertently rewilded. Charles’s partner Lisa and I had a lot of things in common, so the very first foraging I did, she and I did together. Now, I run foraging and wildcrafting classes on the estate, and Lisa does yoga and mindfulness. Last March we put in allotments and have 27 people growing their own food. Some do medicinal herbs too.
Foraging is basically going out into the woods, seeing what you can find and consuming it, either on the spot or somewhat quickly as a food or a very quick aid.
On the course, we spend two hours walking through the woods. I go over the benefits of the plants we find, how they are used, some folklore behind them. There’s a lot of toxic lookalikes so we ID those too. Then we sit down for the wildcrafting segment. We make tinctures, elixirs, oxymels; they’re actually very simple.
Let’s say your immune system is down. You can make a tincture out of elderberries. You use a clear alcohol, as close to 50 per cent alcohol as you can get; that extracts the medicinal properties. You set that on your counter for six weeks, strain out the berries and that liquid is your tincture. You take a few drops a day, so it could last for years.
In the autumn, everything we forage for is packed with vitamin D, so it has immune-boosting properties. Mullein is coming in now, which is great for coughs and colds.
When people sign up to do foraging, they’re coming because they are feeling a call back to the land, to nature, to something more holistic
Sometimes the local scouts come, they have a blast. It’s important that children are exposed to nature. It gives them a strong familiarity with their environment and sets them on a path to becoming more creative thinkers.
When you forage, you have more focus on what’s going on with the seasons and the environment. At the moment we’re having a second spring, so nettles are starting to pop up again; cleavers, which would be a springtime medicine, are coming up for a little bit too, but then quickly die back because they’re not going to make it through hard frost. We can see the effects of climate change on the plant world.
One of the things that strikes people most when they come foraging is that these plants have stories, they’re not necessarily weeds. One of the most common plants that grows in grass is called selfheal – once you know what you’re looking at, you’ll see it everywhere. Selfheal has a fantastic story; it was considered a holy herb. In the 1700s, women accused of witchcraft would grow selfheal in their medicinal herb beds, because the people prosecuting them thought that if they could hold selfheal, a holy herb, then they were not a witch. Woundwort was planted by nurses during the World Wars near field hospitals because it’s antiseptic, antimicrobial, antibacterial.
When people sign up to do foraging, they’re coming because they are feeling a call back to the land, to nature, to something more holistic. Older people come and tell stories about when they were kids, the lore that they were told as children. There’s a lovely sense of community, and often we keep in touch. I’ve formed a lot of friendships.
Sometimes people think that to get into foraging or herbalism, you have to look a certain way, or have a certain lifestyle. But this is not the case – you can eat McDonald’s for lunch and go outside and make your own tincture, that’s fine. How you connect, why you connect and where you connect to nature doesn’t matter, just get out there.
In conversation with Ellen O’Donoghue