Anthony  D  Buckley

‘Beliefs in County Down folklore’

 In (ed.) Lindsay Proudfoot Down history and society: interdisciplinary essays on the history of an Irish county.  Dublin, Geography Publications,1997  547-566.


The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines folklore as 'the traditional beliefs and stories of a people'.' Accordingly, this chapter examines some of the stories and explores the nature of 'belief' in the folklore of county Down. It uses materials' which were collected in different parts of the county to examine, specifically, belief in fairies, ghosts and cures.

If someone were to ask, 'Do you believe in fairies'? we might take this to be both a factual but also a rather abstract question. It would be as though, for example, we had been asked if we believed in evolution; or if we thought the world was round; or if we believed it would rain today. We would give our opinion based on the evidence available to us. If, however, someone were to say that he had seen a fairy, and he then asked the question, 'Do you believe in fairies?', this would be a proposition of quite a different kind. He would be asking not only for a general opinion about the existence or non-existence of fairies, he would also be asking us to express an opinion of him, of his experience, and of what he had said. His claim to have seen a fairy would transform the discussion. No longer would the debate concern merely fact, the central question would now be one of veracity and trust. Was the man telling the truth, or was he mistaken, or mad, or a liar? Similarly, when we consider the nature of belief in folklore, questions which are about fact often turn into questions of trust. We are invited not so much to judge an opinion, as to judge whether a person (and what he says or does) is to be trusted.

Much of what is called folklore has three inter-related elements. First, folklore frequently affirms the truth of the non-rational. Many things held to be 'true' within folkloric discourse flatly contradict the judgements of science, or, indeed; of common sense. In some ways, much folklore directly subverts common sense realities. Because of this, many beliefs of folklore tend to be eccentric and marginal. If the study of folklore is the study of 'beliefs', then it is paradoxical that most of the beliefs studied by folklorists are those which very few people consistently believe in.

Second, much folklore affirms truths which are supposed to belong to ‘ordinary people'. As such it contradicts those truths which are the assumed property of intellectual or other elites. The challenge to rationality found in folklore sometimes also challenges those who have control over that rationality. Notably, it is doctors who are challenged, but so also are other professionals.

Third, there is a strong emphasis in folklore relating knowledge to inter-personal relationships and especially to relations of trust. In this, folkloric beliefs contrast heavily with those other forms of knowledge which are legitimised by more impersonal criteria. This third point takes the discussion of belief in folklore close to the idea of religious belief. Many beliefs of folklore are not simply an affirmation of fact, they are more an acknowledgement of trust. This trust may be in the person telling a story, or in the broad traditions of the populace, or, indeed, in the power and person of God.

At this point, we should perhaps clarify what is meant by folklore. Despite the dictionary definition, few folklorists confine their researches to beliefs alone. Most also include practices. Such customs as wake games or the mummer's play, for example, or more practical knowledge relating to domestic or agricultural life, do not always seem to have had any major component of belief. Even here, however, what folklorists tend to study in Ireland is not a cross section of the actual beliefs and practices of any given set of people. Rather, it is a somewhat skewed sample of these beliefs and practices.

A good starting point for the study of Irish folklore is the book which has become the very bible of Irish folklore studies, Sean Ó Suilleabháin's Handbook of Irish folklore.' Ó Suilleabháin's book is a practical guide. It is intended to help the folklorist to ask the right questions and to raise correct issues with informants as he sits in a farmhouse or cottage, collecting information. Ó Suilleabháin does not in fact guide collectors entirely towards 'beliefs'. His check-list includes topics such as practical farming techniques, patterns of rural and urban settlement, care and management of livestock, blacksmithing, sports and pastimes and countless others, many of which are firmly rooted in the common sense practice of everyday life. On closer examination, however, we discover that his seeming preoccupation with the everyday is, nevertheless, slightly eccentric.

In particular, Ó Suilleabháin places an emphasis upon the continuity of contemporary belief and practice with the past, and its reliance upon tradition. This emphasis has a strange effect. It ensures that the topics he recommends for study are those which are rather peripheral to the concerns of the informants themselves. One cannot even attribute all the skewing of the sampling to the idea of continuity. When O Sailleabhain refers to religious belief, for example, he directs attention to the fasting and prayers before and after the Mass and to accounts of the Holy Communion species being lost.' He does not deal directly with the Mass which is at the heart of the Catholic faith.

This preoccupation with the peripheral is one that is found in the work of many folklorists. The main journal of Irish folklore is Béaloideas, and many of its articles focus upon matters which are extraordinarily marginal to the beliefs and practices of everyday life. Often the beliefs examined are those which contradict the common sense of ordinary people. Matters which are at the centre of life, the economy, politics, the family, religion, are mostly ignored.

Folklore exists as a special category of popular thought largely because it is a form of knowledge which is at the edge of the everyday concerns of the people who espouse it. When contrasted with other more dominant or more prevalent forms of knowledge, folklore can be considered as an alternative or residual form.' As such it is sometimes, though not always, subversive of both science and common sense. To an extent too it is subversive of more orthodox forms of religion. However, it shares with much religion a concern for that which cannot be contradicted by argument or by evidence.

Occasionally, anthropologists have suggested that not every religion is constituted by belief.' Tooker has argued, for example, that, for many peoples, religion is more a matter of allegiance to gods and to social groups, with little or no element of 'belief in religious doctrines.' Few religions in the world have a creed. The implication of these studies is that christianity is unusual in that membership of the religious group, depends on a willingness to believe certain doctrines or propositions. The suggestion here is that while both orthodox and folk beliefs found in Ireland involve assenting to particular propositions, the idea of belief is rather more complicated than this. Also involved is the notion of trust.

While belief may include, to some extent, intellectual assent, it also embraces interpersonal trust. Since trust is an essential element in maintaining allegiances, the gulf between christianity and other 'non believing' religions may, therefore, not be so great as these anthropologists think.

This chapter does not shrink from the emphasis found more generally in Irish folklore studies on peripheral beliefs and practices. Indeed, it concentrates entirely on matters of belief and especially on those elements within folklore which contrast with the norms of science and of common sense. The aim here is to explore the curious quality of much folkloric belief, using certain beliefs found in county Down. The argument focuses particularly upon narratives about fairies and ghosts, and the practice of making 'cures'.


Fairy and ghost belief in county Down

There have been no significant published studies of the folklore of county Down. Collections of folkloric materials exist, however, in both the Department of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin and in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, where there are major archives. The archive at University College has its origin in the impulse, after independence, to create a repository of national culture, and much of this material, Ireland-wide, was collected in the Irish language. The sound archives of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum began in the 1960s and the pace of collection increased in the 1970s. Although there are undoubtedly regional variations, an impressionistic investigation of these sources as they relate to county Down does not reveal anything in the general spirit of the county's folklore which differentiates it sharply from that of other parts of Ireland. There are materials on ghosts and fairies and on banshees and seasonal customs, as well as information which might more properly be described as oral history.

There are, of course, many kinds of narrative found in county Down as elsewhere, but much of it is beyond the scope of the present chapter. One common form of narrative is the joke. Jokes have always been common, and the stories which are nowadays told as part of the modern storytelling revival usually take the form of a joke. This chapter concentrates on that non-joking form of narrative which folklorists call marchen', and especially upon stories of ghosts and of fairies. In this kind of narrative, there is a strong element of non-rationality, on belief in that for which there is little or no evidence. This emphasis leads eventually away from the idea of belief as an intellectual assent to certain propositions and towards the realm of faith, where belief has within it a major component of interpersonal trust.

The basis for this discussion has been well established by Ballard.9 This is the idea that such stories, however strange or unlikely, are told as 'true' stories. The narrator invites the listener to believe that the events told in the story did in fact take place. Ballard has shown that nearly all fairy and ghost stories are presented as though they were true. I want to suggest further that this is not, however, accidental. It is often the apparent truthfulness of the incident described, that gives the genre its charisma or point.

Fairy stories, differ, for example, from the wholly fictional joke, 'there was this man ...'. In the joke, the point of the joke lies in some form of surprise, occurring in the punch-line. The surprise may be in the unusual events described in the narrative, or (as in puns) in the words themselves, or, as in many dirty jokes, in the transgression of some conversational norm. Often, the joke is rather like a conjuring trick. The observer is led to believe that he understands what is going on, interpreting the events described in one framework. Then suddenly, by surprise, his understanding of the situation changes and he finds he did not comprehend it at all.

In the fairy or ghost story, the nature of the narrative is quite different. Here the tension in the story lies in whether the unlikely events described should be believed or not. A punch line – i.e. the surprising turn of events at the end of the story – is not necessary. What is necessary, however, is that the story be told as though it were true, or as though somebody, for example, the person who originally told the story, believed it to be true. If there is no tension between belief and unbelief in the fairy or ghost story, then the story loses its force. It may have to be rescued by being turned into some other genre. It may have to be turned into a joke by giving it a punch line.

The non-rationality of fairy and ghost narrative is most obvious in the simplest of stories. In Portaferry, for example, a schoolchild told me of a man who was playing cards with his grandfather. During the game, the grandfather noticed that the other card player had a cloven hoof (and was, therefore, the devil).' Lurking in this story is perhaps, as a moral sub-text, a puritanical warning against the playing of cards. Its narrative structure, however, its dynamic, its point, is constituted by the tension between two elements. First, there is the fact that, by the criteria of common-sense rationality, the story cannot be true. But second, the story was first told as a first hand experience to a child by his grandfather. We must therefore take the story as having been intended as an account of true events. At the heart of the narrative, therefore, is the question of whether it ought to be believed. But the question of belief turns into one of trust. Ballard draws attention to a common word used in this context. We want to know if the man is lying." Would a grandfather really deceive his grandson? Is the grandfather, we wonder, to be trusted?

A friend from Killydressy in the Ards told me a typical ghost story. He told of an acquaintance who saw a light as he walked along the road from Six Roads to Rubane. The ghost was one of Nancy Clint, a woman who once owned a shop there. She haunts the place and sometimes she jumps out at the cars.''- Here again, there is the same tension. The story cannot, by normal standards of reason, be true, but the story was told to my friend as a first hand experience. The question of whether to believe the story, therefore, transforms itself. No longer is it merely a question of intellectual assent to some matter of fact. What is also at issue is whether my friend's acquaintance (and, therefore, my friend) is to be trusted.

Another informant, a retired labourer, formerly of Kearney village on the Ards, full of stories and a writer of occasional poems, told me of the fairies:


I was working at Cyril Lord's factory at the time, and two men I'd say one was maybe sixty and the other one might have been fifty-eight, but (it was) wonderful how serious they were, mind you.

I'd more or less gone down the toilets to have a smoke, you know, and I was just standing, with the door ajar a wee bit, having a smoke. And these two boys came in, two men, aged men. And they stared talking about fairies, aye, a big thorn bush that was growing away about half a mile off the factory.

And one of the boys says to the other (and I was taking the whole thing as a joke. I was laughing, but I didn't let them see me). And he said, "Do you see that? Do you see that bush up there boy?" he says to the other fellow. "Aye," he says, "that's a fairy bush. That's a fairy bush." .... So the one started to tell the tale, and I can tell the tale effectively, I think.

He says, "I worked the building site", he says, "thirty five years ago, and", he says, "there was a fairy - a tree - just the same as that there, one lone thorn tree and there weren't another within, well", he says, "a mile of it, over a mile of it. It was sitting there on its own".

"And the contractor came", he says "And, of course, he says that this whole site has to be levelled for these new houses to go on. And", he says, "I know the man well that was asked to go and cut the thorn down, and he wouldn't do it".

"Now", he says, "remember. I'm talking about the days", he says, "when you'd have done anything to hold your job.... This fellow wouldn't go to cut it... And none of them {would} go".

"But", he says, "there was a young boy", he says, "he was about twenty-one or twenty-two years of age, and I can remember it because - I can even see him", he says, "tonight, a big strong young man", he says, "and he had black curly hair. A 'terror of the devil' sort of type, you know.

Oh, he would knock the thorn over. He wasn't afeared of fairies, you know. So he went out and he took a saw with him, and he sawed the tree down and these other boys looked on and, `the hell,' he says, 'that bush has to come down. Somebody's got to take it down-.

"Aha", he says, "You done wrong. You shouldn't have taken that down"....

"And", he says, "it's as true as I'm standing, as soon as he emerged from the thorn at all, all of a sudden", he says, "that young fellow that cut down the thorn - nothing wrong with him, but he couldn't go on to do a day's work for the rest of the day".

"Well the next morning he came in. Now", he says, "this is just

the way it was, and that's the truth. I was one of the boys that witnessed it". (And that boy was actually serious. Although I, I didn't swallow it you know.) He says, "The young man came walking in the next morning, and they were all talking at the hut ready (for the boss hadn't come in) to start the work, you see, and he's coming down the road, and", he said, "he walked forward", he says, "(and I) just stood speechless", he says, "looking at him.

He's black curly hair. And there wasn't a hair on his head that wasn't as white as snow. A head of white coloured hair. And," he said, "it wasn't grey. It was white".

And he turns round to this boy and he says, "What happened to your hair overnight", he says. Or "God What did you do"?

"I done nothing", he says, and he was a perplexing sort of boy with it.

And the old boy says, "Well, I'll tell you", he says, "you cut down the fairy thorn".

And that was the tale they're telling: that he's a black curly hair one day and the next day, after they cut the thorn down, his hair was just a mass of white curls where they were black."

The same man told me too of how he came across some fairy pipes near to Kearney.


I remember ... that very old woman telling me. Mrs Donnan sent me and another fellow round. "Go to the fairy bush and you'll dig up clay pipes". Well, you know, we were only ten years old. You know, we were silly enough to go, which I can remember so vividly clear in my memory.

And we went, and we dug at the bottom of this thorn hush. A big thorn it was. And we got several small pipes. Like, I've saw them since, you know, but I don't think they were manufacturing them in them days. Well, it was just about the size of the joint of my finger, and the shanks {stems} on all on them. About half a dozen of them.

And we ... thought the fairies, for that was a fairy bush. But then, when I thought back, when I got older where did they come from, these pipes? Or had it been an old custom to bury the pipes and make somebody like me think they were fairy pipes? I don't know."

His story was later coorborated by a neighbour


Well we used to go the the fairy bush.  There was a stile that comes right across the fields right to the top on Dooey Hill there. And they called that the Piper stile. And it was the next stile into the next field. You turn right, and there was a wee bush. I mind when we were small, we used to go in and scrape the soil away and we got the wee pipes — wee small pipes ... And the bush is there yet.15

Another man, more sceptical, said that he thought these pipes were used by children to smoke the herb coltsfoot. Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is a small plant with yellow flowers used sometimes as an ingredient in commercially-made herbal tobacco. He said that one place where such pipes were found was in a spot where children used to walk to school. He said, with a smile, that it was 'like opium'.16

Even this attempt to rationalize and discount the story heightens an element common to all the stories. In all of them, a central feature is that the events are in doubt. By the standards of scientific or common sense knowledge, the events could not possibly have taken place.

We are not speaking here of skilful storytelling (though some of my informants were entertaining). Again it is useful to contrast these stories with the joke. In the joke, as in conjuring, there is an element of surprise. The surprise comes in part from the nature of the tale, and in part from the skill of the performer. The emphasis on skilful performance and verbal dexterity is also absent from the fairy or the .ghost story. It was suggested above that folkloric kinds of knowledge or 'belief' are often founded in trust. The fairy or ghost story depends upon the story seeming to be truthfully told. At the very least, the storyteller will look to the authority of the person from whom he first heard it (or from whom that person first heard it). In contrast to the joke or the conjuring trick, a lack of skill in the performer can actually enhance the power of the fairy or ghost story. My poetic informant from Kearney once spoke of a man who told him he had seen - a fairy. The man, he said, was 'a harmless sort of a man who would not tell a lie'. Unlike the joke, the authenticity of the tale is increased and not diminished by this lack of skill. This is because the element of truth so vital to the fairy story is entwined with the element of trust. These stories are only successful when at least somebody seems to believe them to be true. And this then requires that the listener must decide whether to put his trust in the narration.


County Down cures

The denial of the importance of skill and knowledge, the emphasis on non-reason and the subversion of rationality, and finally the emphasis on trust is even more apparent in matters of the cure. But there is another element here. This is the similarity with religion. With the cure, the beliefs in question are again not merely forms of propositional knowledge. When we say we believe in a cure, we are saying that we are prepared to put our trust in it. This may imply that we will put our trust in the traditional knowledge of the other person. It may imply that we trust in the traditional knowledge of our own community. Frequently, however, with the cure, we must also put our trust in God. The cure, therefore, dramatizes a faith in a relationship either to another person or to the divine. Belief in a cure is not merely a belief in an impersonal technology.

Cures are a practical activity, but there are also narratives about the practice. The narrative generally tells the tale of how a little man or woman with his non-rational practices can do what the doctor cannot. He or she can cure an illness 'when the doctors couldn't do anything for it'. First let me speak of the practice, by beginning with an anecdote of my own.


In 1978, it so happened that I had a torn cartilage in my right knee. For some time, whenever I walked along, my knee would give a sickening 'crack'! It would thus become painful and misshapen so that I could not walk until I had paused to push the joint back into shape.

Then, I found myself in the home of an elderly couple near Hilltown in the Mourne Mountains. Someone had told me that the old gentleman had a cure for the sprain. Seizing my opportunity, I thought it might be interesting to get myself the cure for my sprained knee.

The old man asked me if I were a Catholic or a Protestant. This was important, he said, it affected the manner in which the cure was performed. I replied that I was 'brought up in the Church of England'. He then knelt down on the flags in the kitchen, asked me to roll up the leg of my trouser and he began his cure.

First, he blessed himself. Then he ran his hands over my knee from top to bottom, stroking it. With his thumb, he made a small sign of the cross on the top right (his top left), of my knee. He made a second cross below it on the same side of my knee, and a third cross was placed below that. He then went on to make a set of three crosses down the centre of my knee. And then he made yet another set of three crosses down the left side of the same knee. While his hands were not busy making the signs of the cross, he ran his right hand over my knee. When he had completed the crosses on my knee, he put some crosses on the floor. All this time, he prayed visibly but not audibly.

Abruptly, he looked up and explained that he would do the whole thing three times, Because, he said, I lived so far away, this would be easier for me. In normal circumstances, I would have to return on three consecutive days, or in the morning, afternoon and evening. It would save me a lot of bother if he did it all in the one go.

When he had completed his prayers and the crosses on my knee, he blessed himself, climbed off his knees and stood up. He explained that the cure might take perhaps two weeks to work. It might even seem for a time to get worse. As it healed, it might give me pain, particularly at night.17

This is, in many ways, a typical cure found in county Down but also elsewhere in Ireland. The essence of the cure is a technique, usually, as here, a prayer, which the healer has learned from somebody else. The technique is secret and its transmission is carefully restricted. Here, as often happens, the cure must be passed from a woman to a man or from a man to a woman.

Many cures are similar to this. I met a man in Leitrim near Hilltown who had a cure for the heart. His cure was a secret prayer. It had the additional feature that the sick person had to place a cup of oaten meal against his or her chest to test whether the cure had been successful. If it had been successful, then a depression or hole appeared in the oaten meal in the cup. If, on the other hand no depression appeared then the cure would have been unsuccessful. I was told locally of a man who Went to this cure, and for whom the oatmeal failed to move in the necessary manner. He died of heart failure some short time later.'

Cures for ringworm are common enough. One man had a black, rather evil smelling ointment consisting of three sorts of fat which he applied to the ringworm. He instructed his patients to leave it on for a week before washing it off:9 Another man, living near to Kilkeel, also had an ointment. He told me that ringworm was highly infectious. It can lie, he said, in ditches for up to seven years. You can also catch it from money. Whole housing estates can get it. It seems to appear, he said, 'in the spring of the year and in the fall of the year, when the blood changes'. The man learned his cure from his mother and because the cure is so popular and because he is away such a lot being by trade a haulier, he has passed it on to his wife.2°

I met a woman in Portavogie who had a cure for bleeding. She inherited it from a male relative and must pass it on to a male relative. As with the cure for the sprain, it is a 'religious' cure, consisting of a silent prayer. She can give this cure over the telephone. The sufferer must not even thank her for the cure. She had to forcefully prevent

people from saying thank you. Often she had to put the phone down suddenly or slam the door because people find it difficult not to say thank you.21

A blacksmith near Annalong told me of how his grandfather was cured of excessive bleeding by similar means:


The brother and I were building a house, building a shed ... It was a tin roof we were putting on. So this evening I had to go away, and he had to go away, so we just left it till tomorrow or next day. But my grandfather, he went out and, you see, ... we had this roof half tinned, and there was this loose rafter here, and he gets up on a ladder and puts his hand on the loose rafter, and the loose rafter comes down this way and his head takes the tin; splits him straight across here.

Well ... the blood run from that couch ... out through that door and out through there. And the doctor had his head stitched and all, and couldn't get the blood stopped.

This man came in. "Did you not get the cure of the stopping of the blood?"

"No", my granny says, "no".

He jumped on the bicycle. He was back in fifteen minutes and the blood was stopped ...

Now two years ago, Mervyn Gordon got the horns taken off a bullock. And the bullock was lying in the field and the blood was running out of him ... And (an acquaintance) got on the phone and he rang a man in Portadown.

And the man (on the other end of the phone) said, "that's all right"...

Mervyn Gordon told me, he says "Would you believe that"?

I said, "I can believe that, for it happened to my grandfather twenty--five years ago"...

He stopped the blood over the phone!22

Cures of this kind, which are the property of particular people, are usually secret. One woman, explained why she could not tell me the details of her cure for the sprain. She said that if she told me then I would be the one who could use it and that the cure would no longer work for her."

Not everybody takes this view, however. The owner of a ringworm cure passed the cure on to his wife, while continuing to use it himself. He thought that sometimes if you 'broke' a cure (i.e. revealed the secret), then it would be the patient that suffered. The illness would return even worse than before. As he said this, he had in mind another

cure he knew of for toothache. This cure consisted of a prayer written on a piece of paper which the sufferer had to carry with him on his person. Somebody he knew cured his toothache with this medicine, but, when he opened up the tied-up piece of paper, the toothache suddenly returned and he had to go immediately to the dentist, so great was the pain."

Cures are administered sometimes to animals. One hears, for example, of individuals who can whisper into the ears of horses and heal them of stiffness of the joints."

Not all cures are the outcome of particular techniques. Many are attached to particular types of people. First, and most common of all these types of person are those women whose maiden name is identical with their husband's surname, as, for example, when a Miss Jones marries a Mr Jones. (Some people also insist that there must be no blood relationship between the couple). Such a woman will usually have the cure of either jaundice or whooping cough. Second, a child whose parents have the same surname (whose mother, therefore, has a cure) will also have a cure. A girl will, in general, have the same cure as her mother. The son will usually have a cure for the inflammation known as erysipelas, also called 'wildfire' or 'the rose'. Third, posthumous sons (I met two posthumous sons in county Down, never daughters) have the cure of the mouth infection called thrush. Finally and famously, although I never met any who were native to county Down, seventh sons of seventh sons can cure any illness.

I encountered individuals with these kinds of cures in a single working-class street in Newry:" In all, though I met only four of the individuals in 1978, there were, then, five people with the cure in this street. They were almost, I thought, a group practice. One lady has the cure of whooping cough. When a child is brought to her suffering from whooping cough, she gives it bread, butter and sugar. Her maiden name was the same as her married name which is why she has the cure. When she married, it was her sister-in-law who told her that she would have the cure, and that bread, butter and sugar is what she should give the children. The cure should be repeated three times. On the day of my visit, she was sending, through the post, the last instalment of her cure to a man in Lurgan, a bank manager, who is her daughter's boss. This lady has a relative in the same street who also has the cure for whooping cough, by virtue of being married to a man with the same surname. She too gives her patients, bread, butter and sugar.

Living next door to the first lady is a man who has a cure of the mouth infection called thrush. This ailment causes blisters to appear in the mouth. He has this cure because he is a posthumous son – his father was dead when he was born. He has been practising the cure from as early as he can remember, perhaps since he was three years old. I lis cure takes the form of giving a cup of tea to his patients. Later, I was told that some posthumous sons cure the thrush by breathing into their patients' mouths.

In the same street, I found an eighteen year old girl who cured bad backs. In a similar way to the man who could cure thrush, she has been curing bad backs since she was a very small baby. To effect the cure, she places her feet upon the sufferer's bad back. The reason she has this cure is that she is a seventh daughter. I have not heard elsewhere of seventh daughters having a cure and the belief is no doubt related to the widely known idea that cures can be effected by seventh sons of seventh sons.

In Portaferry lives a lady whose parents had the same surname. Like her mother, this woman has the cure for jaundice. She gives bread or a biscuit to sufferers. Her brother has a cure for erysipelas. This he cures by bathing the affected part in tap water.27

Sometimes the remedy is quite simple. In other cases it is more complicated. My friend who came from the village of Kearney in the Ards, told me of how someone cured his jaundice:

I myself was cured of jaundice, so like I've no doubts. That's one thing I don't intend saying, "Well I have my doubts about it". I've no doubts about it, because I went to the doctor. I was really, real bad, so I was, but I told him only once, just once. I wasn't eating one bite. Oh, I was awful sick of it, for a fortnight maybe. I couldn't even take a sup of milk, a drink of milk. I couldn't even take a drink of water. And I was the colour of an orange. And I went to her (the woman with the cure) and she said, "Willie dear, you've got it bad". And the doctor was giving me this and giving me that in the end till I wasn't getting anywhere with it. They were going to send me to the hospital. I went into this old woman away down the road house in Ballygelagh. And I'd heard tell she had the cure of the jaundice and I went in till her and I came home. I felt that much better the next day, (in) three days time, I was back at my work. The whites of my eyes was yellow as soon as I went and the whites of my eyes started getting white again. Oh I was cured of the jaundice! She had the cure for it....

Now I'm a non-believing – I tell myself – I like the proof of a thing. But she had a one wee piece of bread, lovely home-baked bread, you know this home-baked country soda bread...

"One wee piece", she says, "Willie, take that at dead hour of midnight. No not a minute after. Take it at twelve o'clock", she says. "Put it in your mouth. Chew it. Swallow it. Forget about it".

The same man also told me of the same woman's cure for erysipelas.

She cured it with bog water. She would have Liked you down there and she would have bathed whatever you had maybe in your jaw or in your leg or your arm where you'd got it. You've got to go to the bog twelve o'clock either twelve in the day or twelve in the night for bog water out of the drain, boggy, muddy water.

She'd wait until the water showered down to the bottom of that in the dish and she would have said to you, "Lean over that dish dearie. Lean over it. Do you see your face in that? No? Well in a long while when you look — can you see your own face in —"

"Aye I see my face in it".

"Now, you see, the water all settled down". The water became clear and you could see your face, reflection. And she'd start bathing your face with that bog water with just a rag just, not sponge, just a piece of rag.

I. mind I took a boy down to get a cure. She said, "Oh no. Don't dry it. "No", she said, "don't dry it". He went to dry it off with his wrist.

"Oh don't dry it", she said. "Don't dry it. Never dry it. Let it dry itself".

It wasn't a very long time drying before the heat was on it, a tremendous heating and flame, you know. Oh, it hurt that much! And that boy came up, and he was back he had to go at twelve o'clock the next day."

Yet other cures do not really belong to anybody at all. In Warrenpoint, I was told of several such cures. The swellings of mumps should be rubbed with red flannel; a stye should be rubbed with a gold ring; or else it should be jabbed nine times with a rose thorn." In the Ards, someone told me how his grandmother cured a stye by sticking a gooseberry jag into it nine times and throwing the last one over the shoulder:30

A secretary in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, told me of several other cures. Hives, she said, were caused by the blood becoming 'fired' and this in turn was caused by eating too many oranges or other citrus fruit, or by eating duck's eggs. She thought a poultice of damp baking soda, or camomile lotion or docken leaves could cure hives. Docken leaves, she said, were also a cure for nettle stings. And one can cure a headache by standing on one's head. She said too she could remember syrup of figs and castor oil being 'poured into her' when she was a child.3'

Occasionally, the cures which belong to particular people are nevertheless not secret. One man in the Mournes showed me his cure for warts. To make the cure, he takes a piece of cotton and ties it in a loop. He then slips the loop over the wart as though to tighten the knot over the wart. As the knot tightens, he allows the wart to slip off the knot. The knot is then pulled tight and it is taken away and buried in the garden.-

And finally, there are holy wells. The one I am most familiar with is St. Cooey's wells on the Ards peninsula. These wells are associated with a local saint and what is supposed to be the ruin of his hermitage. The well has been tidied up and transformed into an attractive shrine by the local Catholic parish and it now receives many visitors. There, spring water feeding into a stream forms itself into some small rock pools allowing those who wish to wash in the water or use it to drink. The man who first showed me the wells likened them to the waters at Lourdes. There, as a younger man, he had helped the infirm to make use of the water. He said that it was your faith that cured you, and that if you believed in something enough, it would work-for you.-

There is in all of this a sense that the cure is available when the doctors let you down. Certainly, as I became interested in cures, I found myself approached by many people with chronic or terminal illnesses who needed cures. Many clung to the hope that 'doctors' or `the medical profession' might not know everything there was to know about healing. And behind this was also an idea that in these residual forms of knowledge, lay truths that the medical and other authorities resisted. For example, there was a cure for skin cancer in the Mourne Mountains. It consisted of a plaster containing some herbal ingredients, including, I understand, some dangerous drugs, which 'drew out the cancer by the root'. Here, the healer fell foul of the law. One is not, of course, allowed to administer dangerous drugs without proper authority. Some detectives from Newry, therefore, came to his house and took away everything connected with the cure.

When I spoke to the owner of this cure, his main complaint was that `collar and tie men' or 'educated men', among whom he singled out doctors and vets (but among whom, I suspected, he might easily include me) prevented people from doing things themselves. A man could not use his cure because only the doctors knew how to cure people. A man could not castrate his own animals because only the vet knew how to do that. And they charged a fat fee for doing

This complaint against orthodox medicine is found quite generally among those who heal. One man in Rostrevor told me how for many years he kept a billy goat to ward off abortion (brucellosis) in cattle. Every year, from November onwards, the goat would go into the rutting season. It would start to drink its own urine, and in no time would smell abominably, apparently to attract female goats. My informant told me that this powerful smell would communicate itself to the soil and it kept the cattle free of disease for a whole year. The smell would still be in the soil until the next November when the rutting season began again. He no longer kept a he-goat, he said, but he did still have the leather strap which he had used to tether it. The odd thing was, he said, that during the rutting season, the strap always began to smell. Like the man with the cure for cancer, he was annoyed at the attitude of the authorities. He had written to an agricultural research establishment to tell them about the effect of billy goats on cattle disease. Apparently, they were not very impressed. These people, he said with mild irony, were experts and he was not. `After all', he said 'I've only been working with animals for thirty years'."

In all of this there is a strong element of the non-rational. If the treatment works, then the knowledge of its efficacy does not form part of any theory of the human body and its workings. This unofficial healing sharply contrasts with the official practices of doctors and hospitals, where medicinal practice is, at least in principle, enshrined in theories of the human body. In orthodox medical practice, the ad hoc treatments that do still exist will, it is hoped, one day be integrated into such theories. In contrast, the cure is almost a celebration of the ad hoc remedy. The seventh son, or the woman with the same surname as her husband has the cure for no good reason that anybody can articulate. .The best that anyone can say is that the cure 'seems to work'. All that is required is that the patient believe.



This chapter has emphasized here the coincidence of the idea of belief with that of trust. The two concepts are, at first sight, quite different, but on closer examination, they merge. In this context, the idea of 'belief' is essentially one derived from religious practice, and here there is an essential ambiguity. Many churches have a creed which lists a whole series of rationally formulated propositions to which church members are supposed to give assent. In contrast, however, for many religious people, this aspect of belief is less important than one might expect:3') For many people, the term `belief' refers less to doctrinal propositions and more to trust. When a person says that one must `believe in the healing power of God' in order to be saved, he is speaking as much of trust as of intellectual assent. Alternatively, his beliefs may also include the trust that they have, whether this is in the Bible, in the Church, in a priest or minister or in God.

Folkloric beliefs have the same kind of ambiguity. A person will say that he thinks a cure will work if the sick person believes that it will work. Such a belief does, of course, assent to matters of fact, but it is much closer to an act of trust. My argument has been, however, that this element of trust is a central element in much of what is called folklore. Folklore often tells of inexplicable events, events which could not happen. So when we hear of such events, we can only rely (or choose not to rely) on the good faith of the original narrator.

To an extent, however, fairy and ghost belief and the cure represent a symbolic act of 'rebellion'.37 The rebellion in question is against the forms of everyday thought. Folk belief is opposed to the tyranny of orthodoxies and the tyranny of reason. The rebellion, we should note, is not a radical repudiation of common sense, reason and science in favour of non-reason and anti-science. Nevertheless, by espousing belief in fairies and ghosts and cures, or at least by playing with such ideas," there arises the possibility of avoiding more dreary and threatening aspects of life conjured up by reason.

While fairies and ghosts do this in a rather abstract manner, cures touch on more vital issues. Sometimes, the scientific reasoning of doctors can sound like a sentence of death. In such a case, the phrase that one hears in stories of successful cures can offer the prospect —however remote — of healing. When 'the doctors can't do anything with' the ailment, the notion that there are alternate realities and alternate cures can be a beacon of hope. It is not uncommon for an individual to express scepticism of unofficial healing, and, then in the next breath, tell how he was himself cured:3'

In a Bangor hotel, I interviewed the most famous healer in Ireland, Finbar Nolan. He is the seventh son of a seventh son, and, like many others who have the cure by virtue of being a particular type of person, he has been practising his cure from an early age. He is an exceedingly persuasive man, whose company I enjoyed. As our interview ended, he asked me whether I agreed that his form of healing might work. I hesitated to give a clear opinion, hut he insisted on his question.


Finbar Nolan 'Well, listen, if you were sick, would you go to a healer? On the evidence that you've seen?'

Tony Buckley 'If I was very sick?'

Finbar Nolan 'Suppose a doctor said, "Listen, I can't do any more for you". From your experience of what you've seen?'

Tony Buckley 'I suppose it's one of those questions I've tended to put off' ....

Finbar Nolan 'But would you go?'

Tony Buckley 'I might come and see you actually.'

Finbar Nolan 'Would you go and see any of the other people that you've spoken to?'

Tony Buckley 'It's difficult to say.'

My equivocation shows how attractive alternative and residual ways of thinking can become when science, common sense and rationality fail. For most of the time, we find common sense realities useful and comforting. Sometimes, however, we are also pleased that other more residual realities might just possibly be found lurking behind a hedgerow.



1. R. E. Allen (ed.), concise Oxford dictionary of current English (London, 1991).

2. These materials were collected on behalf of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and are lodged, in the form of tape recordings, transcripts and fieldnotes, in the Museum's archives.

3. S. Harrison, 'Ritual as intellectual property' in Man (new series), xxvii (1992), pp 225-44.

4 S. O Stiilleabhain, A handbook oprish folklore (Dublin, 1942).

5. p. 151.

6. R. Williams, 'Culture' in D. McLelland, Marx, the first 100 years (London, 1983).

7. R. Needham, Belief language and experience (Chicago, 1972); D. E. Tooker, `Identity systems of Highland Burma: belief, Akha Zan, and a critique of interiorized notions of ethno-religious identity' in Man (new series), xxvii (1992), Pp 799-819.

8 Tooker, 'Identity systems'.

9. L. M. Ballard 'Ulster oral narrative: the stress on authenticity' in Ulster Folklife, xxvi (1980), pp 35-40. See also L. M. Ballard, 'Tales of the troubles' in P. Smith (ed.), Perspectives on contemporary legend (Sheffield, 1982).

10. A. D. Buckley, Fieldnotes 1976-79, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, p. 178.

11. Ballard, 'Ulster oral narrative', p. 37.

12. Fieldnotes, pp 272-3.

13. Tape C77.99, Field recordings 12, pp 86-7.

14. Tape 077.89, Field recordings 12, p. 19.

15. Tape C77.108, Field recordings 12, pp 183-4.

16. Fieldnotes, pp 75, 83.

17. Fieldnotes 1976-79, pp 250-52. To my surprise, my knee did, indeed, get better. As he predicted, for several days, my knee itched and felt uncomfortable. Thereafter, and for about a year, though I continued to feel a weakness in it, I had no recurrence of the dreadful 'crack', and I had no more need to push my knee back into shape. Then, about a year later, and with no warning, I bent over to pick up something from the floor. My knee collapsed and I was rendered completely immobile. In considerable pain I was driven to the hospital, where it took an operation to make it better.

18. Fieldnotes, pp 254-5; see also tape C77.10.

19. Fieldnotes, p. 263.

20. Fieldnotes, pp 264-5; see also tape C78.17.

21. Fieldnotes, pp 274-5; see also tape C78.32.

22. Tape C78.20.

23. Fieldnotes, p. 271.

24. Fieldnotes, pp 264-5; see also tape C78.17.

25. Fieldnotes, p. 253.

26. Fieldnotes, pp 285-8.

27. Fieldnotes, pp 273-4; see also tapes C78.31 and C78.32.

28. Tape C77.100; Field Recordings, pp 12, 114-6.

29.Fieldnotes, p. 246.

30. Fieldnotes, p. 232.

31. Fieldnotes, pp 261-2.

32. Fieldnotes, pp 278-9; see also tape C78.33. My informant practised the cure on a wart that I had on my own finger. The wart eventually did go, but sadly it was many years later.

33. Fieldnotes, pp 92 ff.

34. Fieldnotes, p. 265; see also tape C78.17.

35. Fieldnotes, pp 257-58; see also tapes C78.10 and C78.11.

36. A. D. Buckley and M. C. Kenney, Negotiating identity: rhetoric and social drama in Northern Ireland (Washington, 1995), chapters 7 and 8.

37. M. Gluckman, Rituals of rebellion in south-east Africa (Manchester, 1954).

38. Buckley and Kenney, Negotiating identity, see chapters 8-10 for a discussion of the idea of play.

39. Fieldnotes, pp 252-53.

40. Tape R84.7.