Folklore: A Veterinary Perspective

Michael Doherty

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Eoin O'Kerrigan deserves special mention in the context of veterinary folkore. According to McGlinchey, he was born in 1805. There are two remarkable references to him; one was the following description of trocarisation or 'stabbing' to relieve a bloated animal: 'put his thumb on left hurdy and stretched his hand in direction of shoulder and where his middle finger stretched to that was the spot'. This is an accurate description that equals any found in current surgical texts. Another reference demonstrated his understanding of the extremely contagious nature of foot-and-mouth disease. It described how he removed his clothes before crossing a stream to his homeplace after examining affected cattle near Buncrana. This was a time before the contagious nature of infectious disease was properly understood.

The terminology for animal disease is rich and varied in Ireland and is closely intertwined with the folklore itself. It was from my father, Michael and Uncle Colm that I first heard the term 'galar na gcat' while working with lambing ewes in the townland of Aileach beag near Bridgend in Inis Eoghain. Some debate exists as to the precise origin of this term but it specifically refers to the skin disease of sheep known as photosensitisation. In contact with sunlight, affected lambs develop inflammation of the skin, particulary on the ears giving them a cropped, 'cat-like' appearance, which in my opinion best explains the origins of the term galar na gcat. In his account of sheep folkore, Seanchas na Caorach, Ó hEochaich, (1969-1970) reported that the people around Gleann Cholmcille in south Donegal linked the appearance of the disease in to the grazing of pastures containing plants with small yellow flowers known as lus na Maighdine Muire or Noinín buidhe. Modern veterinary science has linked this disease with the ingestion by sheep of the photodynamic chemical hypericin found in abundance within the yellow petals of these flowers known in English as St. John's Wort (Hypericum spp.)

In addition to their observational skills, the surgical talents of our ancestors is also apparent from reading accounts of sheep folklore in Seanchas na Caorach, Ó hEochaich, (1969-1970). The disease coenuriasis (gid) affects the brain of sheep. It is essentially a tapeworm transmitted by dogs that eventually grows as a cyst in the sheep's brain with predictably devastating consequences. Affected sheep lose weight, walk in circles and eventually die. A number of years ago the present author had the opportunity to use ultrasound technology to facilitate successful removal of such a gid cyst from a sheep's brain (Doherty et al., 1989). In this context, it is humbling to read the following account in Ó hEochaidh' s text. 'daoine eólacha a fhosclaíos cúl a gcinn..má thig siad ar an bhall cheart…tiocfadh siad ar an chrumhóg a bhfuil an dochar inti' It is clear therefore, that this form of brain surgery was routinely performed hundreds of years before the advent of ultrasound technology!

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