Irish Herbal Medicine
By Jonathan Self, Contributor
August / September 2013
The oldest form of healing, long practiced in Ireland, proved just the thing for writer Jonathan Self.
A leafy lane, not much more than a boreen really, dissects the middle of the Kingstons’ farmyard in Church Cross near Skibbereen. On one side lie the whitewashed farmhouse, weathered stone barns and tidy vegetable gardens typical of a traditional West Cork smallholding. On the other side, however, are signs that this is no ordinary farm. There is a large, somewhat chaotic herb garden, a greenhouse (also full of herbs), a drying shed, a dispensary and a surgery. This is the home of Ireland’s foremost medicinal herbalist, Rosari Kingston.
Ironically, for reasons that I will explain in a moment, it was an English doctor who suggested I consult Kingston. I had developed a severe intolerance to the drug I was taking for high cholesterol and he felt confident that herbal medicine would be able to supply an equally effective solution without any unpleasant side effects. It did. Within a few weeks of starting to take the herbal remedy prescribed by Kingston, my cholesterol was well within the acceptable range. Ever since, I have been a keen advocate of Irish traditional medicine, a school of medicine that deserves much wider recognition.
Irish traditional medicine is based on herbalism: the study and use of medicinal properties of plants. Herbs have been employed in this way all over the world for untold thousands of years. The earliest written documents, clay tablets created by the Sumerians around 5,000 years ago, list hundreds of medicinal plants, including myrrh and opium, and their uses. Knowledge about medicinal plants seems to have passed from civilization to civilization and from generation to generation. In Egypt, according to the Ebers Papyrus, a medical guide produced around 1500 B.C., over 850 plant medicines were regularly prescribed, including garlic, juniper, cannabis and aloe. The first Chinese herbal guide, the Pen Tsao, believed to be from around the same period, lists 365 medicinal plants, including ephedra (the shrub that introduced the drug ephedrine to modern medicine) and chaulmoogra (one of the first effective treatments for leprosy). In India, the Sushruta Samhita, a 6th-century B.C. Sanskrit text, describes 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources and 57 preparations from animal sources. In Greece, in Persia and throughout the Roman Empire, it was a similar story.
Herbalism may have been popular, but was it — is it — effective? Kingston, who helped to found the Irish Institute of Medical Herbalists (IIMH), has plenty to say on the subject:
“The modern pharmaceutical industry is built largely on natural remedies. There are thousands of examples, not least asprin, which comes from willow bark; digitalis, which comes from foxglove; quinine, which comes from the cinchona tree; and morphine, which comes (albeit indirectly) from the opium poppy. In clinical trials St John’s wort has proved itself an effective antidepressant, ginger has cured nausea, and hops has helped patients with sleeping disorders. If you have a cough, try catnip; acne, try pokeweed; and headlice, try pawpaw. If you are suffering from a fungal infection then you may be interested to know that garlic, when crushed, produces a large quantity of an antifungal agent known as allicin.”
To date, according to Kingston, some 12,000 compounds derived from plants have been discovered to help human health. These compounds do not differ a great deal from conventional drugs in terms of how they work.
Ireland’s legends and myths contain many examples of herbal medicine at work. Macha Mong Ruadh, the daughter of Aed Ruadh, is credited with establishing the first hospital in Ulster. It was called Broin Bhearg (House of Sorrow) and was used by the Red Branch Knights. It also served as a royal residence until its destruction in 322 A.D. Among the Tuatha Dé Dannan was a physician called Dian Cécht, which means God of Health. He had seven children, among them Miach and Airmed who were also herbal physicians and surgeons. He had a grandson called Lugh, who was the crowning glory of the Gaelic pantheon. Lugh had a magic spear that so thirsted for blood that outside of battle it was kept at rest by steeping its head in a sleeping draught of pounded poppy leaves. The Irish name for P. somniferum, the common opium poppy, is codalian, from ‘codal’ or ‘cada’ meaning sleep. Dian Cécht was jealous of his son Miach’s superior surgery and struck his head with a sword. The blow was superficial and only cut the flesh. Miach healed it easily. Dian Cécht struck again and this time cut through to the bone. Again, his son healed it and this so enraged Dian Cécht that he struck his son with a sword for the third time. This time the blow penetrated the membrane of his brain but, again, his son was able to heal it. Unfortunately for Miach, Dian Cécht assaulted him for a fourth time and succeeded in cutting out his brain. This time he died. Dian Cécht buried his son and subsequently 365 herbs grew up through the grave corresponding to the number of his joints and sinews. His sister, Airmed, uprooted these herbs according to their properties and spread them out on her cloak. Dian Cécht mixed up the herbs so no one would know their proper healing qualities.
These ancient tales suggest that Irish traditional medicine was well advanced before the introduction of Christianity and the advent of more formal, written records. From the fifth century A.D. onwards a clearer picture emerges. According to surviving documents, early Irish doctors held positions of considerable status and the importance of their work was recognized by sizeable grants of land. Many communities had their own hospitals (considerable stress was placed on cleanliness and access to running water) and patients were treated by an ordinary physician (liaig), a master (ollam) or an expert (saineolaí). There were medical schools throughout the country and it took many years to qualify as a doctor. There were hereditary physician families. For instance, Ó hÍceadha (Hickey) and Ó Leighin (Lane) mean literally healer and leech respectively.
A good description of medical care in Gaelic Ireland comes from the seventeenth-century Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont, who wrote:
For I remember the Chieftains of Ireland used each to give a piece of land to a healer who lived with them; not one who came back trained from the universities but one who could really make sick people well. Each such healer has a book crammed with specific remedies bequeathed to him by his forefathers. Accordingly, he who inherits the book inherits also the piece of land. The book describes the symptoms and ailments and the country remedies used for each, and the people of Ireland are cured more successfully when ill, and have generally far better health than the people of Italy.
Van Helmont was writing about the very recent past. By the early part of the seventeenth century the profession of liaig had been destroyed by English colonization. Under new penal laws, no Irish person could practice their profession or receive an education. Some Irish doctors went abroad, and those who stayed behind were forced to find other occupations. The hospitals and medical schools closed. The huge body of knowledge that had been built up over many hundreds of years largely disappeared. Largely, but thankfully not completely. Some of it was preserved in the form of folk cures. These were gathered by the Irish Folklore Commission, which, in 1937-38, enrolled school teachers in a campaign to record folk remedies, resulting in 4,500 notebooks full of information that would otherwise have been lost for all time.
What of Irish traditional medicine today? There are some promising signs of its resurgence. The IIMH has thirty members and sponsors a three-year BSc in Herbal Science through Cork Institute of Technology and a two-year master’s program in association with the Irish College of Traditional and Integrative Medicine. It is actively lobbying both the Irish government and the EC to support herbal medicine. Kingston points out that: “Herbal medicine is proven, natural and environmentally friendly. Unlike conventional drugs, it is relatively inexpensive and has few side effects. It frequently offers solutions where conventional medicine has failed.” As someone who has benefited, I definitely concur with that.
• Rosari Kingston: rosarikingston.com
• Irish Institute of Medical Herbalists: iimh.org
• Irish College of Traditional and Integrative Medicine: irishcollegeoftraditionalandintegrativemedicine.com
• Irish Medical Herbalist blog: irishmedicalherbalist.blogspot.ie
• The Irish School of Herbal Medicine: herbeire.ie
• To find a U.S.-based herbalist check out: americanherbalistsguild.com
Jonathan Self is an author and journalist. He lives in Glandore, West Cork, Ireland. He is a regular contributor to the UK press including The Times, Mail on Sunday, Vanity Fair and Country Life. He mostly writes about the environment, farming and country life. His next book, Emerald, about the emerald trade, will be published by Thames and Hudson in November.