Sore point: Ancient remedies for toothache often worse than the pain

DCU publishes research on folklore and cures in ‘Journal of the History of Dentistry’

If you found a live frog in your mouth in 19th or 20th century Ireland, it probably wasn't a kiss attempt gone awry. You were just probably trying to draw out its healing powers to cure a toothache.

If that didn’t work, you could try sucking on cloves. Or drinking water from the Holy Well. There was also the option of taking a tooth from a corpse.

These cures are among the many found in new research by Dr Carol Barron of DCU's school of nursing and human sciences and her research assistant, Tiziana Soverino, published in the Journal of the History of Dentistry.

The findings are taken from an analysis of narratives contained in the school’s collection of folklore, a scheme undertaken in Ireland in 1937 and 1938.


It includes over 250,000 stories gathered by school children who were aged between 10 and 14 at the time. The sheer volume of information the scheme produced makes it the largest collection of medical folklore in Europe.

Magico-religious cures

Over 400 of the cures addressed in the folklore were for treatment of an aching tooth. They were categorised into plant and mineral, quasi-medical and magico-religious cures.

Other cures were slightly more quotidian than the frog method. Salt and water were two of the most widely used curative substances. Potatoes were kept in pockets acting as an amulet to ward off toothache, and infected teeth were often packed with tobacco.

“It is a fascinating insight into the social culture at this time and also the transmission of ancient wisdoms and folk cures from one generation to another,” said Dr Carol Barron. “All of the remedies should be set against the wider social and historical background to which they belonged and to notice how embedded they were in everyday life.”