Folklore: A Veterinary Perspective

Michael Doherty

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Michael Doherty is a native of Derry with his roots in Inishowen. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, he began his career in Veterinary Medicine working with Jim McCarroll in Carndonagh. He is now senior lecturer in Large Animal Medicine at UCD

My first contact with folkore occurred in Inis Eoghain when I heard the story of the 'evil eye' or droch shúil for the first time while attending a sick cow in the townland of Tulnavin near Moville in the early eighties. This belief which still persists in certain parts of the country, held that individuals, particularly strangers coming onto the farm for the first time, had the ability to 'blink' an animal resulting in the appearance of disease or a drop in milk production. "tnúth daoine chuirfeadh sé mart 'na coire agus fear 'na cille" (ó hEochaidh, 1969-70).

In a recent survey of folklore collected from veterinary practitioners, reports of a belief in the supernatural ability of people to influence animal health were gathered from counties Clare, Galway, Kildare, Offaly, Sligo, Tipperary, Tyrone and Waterford (Doherty, Ní Fhloinn and Ó Cathain, unpublished observations). A veterinarian in county Kildare reported the following: 'I was called to a cow with post-parturient haematuria (a type of redwater) and the owner's wife said to me, "I don't care how good a vet you are, no matter what you do that cow is going to die…the evil eye has been put on her, I found a smear of grease on the shed door this morning, put there by a neighbour". In this case, the cow was successfully treated using a blood transfusion.

The Inis Eoghain farmer's remedy for the 'blinked' cow was to drench her with a mixture of garlic and soot. Attaching a red ribbon or flannel to the animal was thought to prevent 'blinking' and it is fascinating to read McGlinchey's colourful account of the cattle at the Pollan fair with red ribbons attached to them. Garlic was commonly cultivated in Ireland until about the time of the First World War and its use is common in a variety of traditional herbal remedies. It is likely that the plant used was the species of wild garlic (Allium ursinum) shown in Figure 1. One of the most consistent uses of garlic was in the treatment of a cow that was unable to rise after calving, an bhó cloíte. Tradition required that the 'worm in the tail' was removed. Typically, an incision was made over the base of the cow's tail and cloves of garlic were inserted under the skin or a garlic poultice applied to the site; "if it was a milking beast you could taste the garlic in her milk that night" (McGlinchy, C.).

This remedy may seem rather bizarre in an era of advanced veterinary pharmaceutical science. However, following a lecture I gave to 4th year veterinary students in March 2000, a student from near Ballycastle, Co. Antrim told how only the previous spring, a man from her locality performed this ritual on a cow that had been recumbent for two months on her home farm and how 'she got up the next day!'

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