Congreve’s Balsamic Elixir will cure what ails you

If you are of a certain age you will no doubt still be able to rhyme off several natural remedies from your childhood. I recall the use of mud to ease aching feet, and of course the use of a dock leaf on a nettle sting. Although, whatever properties were in the leaf we negated by our vigorous rubbing on the wound that probably created an aggravation far worse than the initial sting.

Those remedies were largely unnecessary and were applied mainly as part of childhood play. But there was a time when local folk medicine was the only accessible cure. Traditionally, the absence of medical knowledge and medical means necessitated a close observation of the natural world. Nature’s complex balances were noticed by early humans and from that a dependence on natural flora and fauna extracted remedies existed. Each Mayo area had its own variation of a widely known cure for the most common physical and mental complaints. Herbs mixed with butter and goose grease were identified in the Louisburgh area as being cures for running sores, boils, and erysipelas (skin infection ). The district of Cross had its own cure for skin infection. Nettle juice taken about three times during the month of March was said to be a defence against all skin diseases for the year. Toothache was cured by smoking a clay pipe of tobacco, and for a swelling from a toothache in the face they would pull some chickenweed and apply to the inflammation as a dressing. Chickenweed is still used for its cooling effect. In some cases the remedies grew in time to become part ritual and were often fused with each locality’s Christian practices and became accepted locally as magic. A sprain was treated in Belcarra by the local weaver who would supply the injured with wool thread from his loom. The thread would be tied around the hurt limb and all would be fixed. The weaver enjoyed quite a reputation as a fixer and pieces of his thread would often be sent to England for boys from the district.

In rural areas of Ireland, including Mayo, folk medicine was often administered as the preferred option into the 20th century. By the 20th century, local chemists were dispensing remedies, cures, and elixirs for all manner of ailments, from the minor to the serious. The chemists or apothecaries offered the public a more scientific, modern approach to maintaining their good health. By today’s standards, the products on offer in the chemist shops of Mayo would be difficult to stomach. Dr Neligan’s Phosphorized Quinine and Iron Tonic was bought for the treatment of anaemia and to enrich the blood. The doctor’s Dandelion Blood Purifier for the treatment of scurvy, boils, and pimples, had more than a folk medicine feel to it. Clarke’s Blood Mixture was a popular cure for skin and blood diseases. Those with skin problems or rheumatism could bathe in Ozonia. The makers of the industrial sounding Congreve’s Balsamic Elixir claimed it gave immediate relief and was a permanent cure for coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, and even consumption (tuberculosis ). For the mentally or physically overworked, Coleman’s Phosphorus Quinine and Pepsine Pills were available. The phosphorous soothed the brain, quinine increased the taker’s appetite, and pepsine assisted digestion.

While the formally educated doctors of Mayo dismissed much of the local remedies and some of the earlier offers from chemist shops, some would say that modern medicine grew out of medieval herbalism from which folk medicine later emerged. Today there are synthetic drugs which ape what nature supplies, but for a fraction of the production cost. That said, modern herbal cures still exist and though the science behind them can now be explained, they have basically been created and honed through millennia of observing the natural world.


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