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Tuesday 16 September 2014

When cow-doctors, charmers and quacks ruled the roost

John O’Flaherty

Published 23/04/2014 | 02:30

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RESEARCH: John O’Flaherty from Kilflynn in Co Kerry is currently researching and writing a PhD examining the history of veterinary practice in Ireland and the corresponding decline of traditional animal medicine practitioners such as cow-doctors and charmers. Photo: Dominick Walsh.
RESEARCH: John O’Flaherty from Kilflynn in Co Kerry is currently researching and writing a PhD examining the history of veterinary practice in Ireland and the corresponding decline of traditional animal medicine practitioners such as cow-doctors and charmers. Photo: Dominick Walsh.
SAD BUT WISE: This illustration accompanied an 1857 article in The Illustrated London News, which portrayed the Irish cow-doctor as being cunning and working for his own gain.

Ever wondered how did farmers treat sick animals in the days before vets? For the last few years this question has taken up a lot of my time, and the results of my research provide a fascinating insight into a rural Ireland which has almost vanished.

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Before the arrival of vets in smaller Irish towns and villages in the 1950s, animals were treated by a wide variety of individuals ranging from cow-doctors, charmers and herbalists to chemists, blacksmiths and clergy.

Blacksmiths, for example, doubled as the horse-doctors and treated a wide range of equine conditions including farcy, flesh worms, gripes, skin eruptions, spavin and splints.

Charmers relied on elements of magic, superstition and religion to work a cure.

Most treatments, however, were carried out by either the farmer or local cow-doctor. On the farm, men treated the larger beasts, while women cared for the younger or smaller animals such as calves or poultry.

Most farming families had a basic knowledge of which herbs and plants possessed healing properties and an extensive range of treatments were used.

Administering strong black tea to calves was a cure for scour. The active ingredient in tea is tannin which was a recognised treatment for diarrhoea.

The tea of briar roots, also rich in tannin, was used in a similar way. Oak bark and willow bark were also used to treat the condition as was a herb called Mícheál gorm, which was mixed with spirits of nitre.

Oak bark contains tannin while willow bark has pain-killing, anti-inflammatory properties – similar to aspirin – which would have relieved the inflamed bowel.

Other ingredients required for home remedies were acquired from the local chemist; many chemists made up their own veterinary products.

Royal family

Arthur H Jones, a chemist in Doneraile, Co Cork, launched his world famous 'Scour Specific' in 1896 and it was in use for more than 60 years, with the British Royal family among the customers using the product for their herds.

Milk fever was treated by filling the cow's udder with air, using a bicycle pump. Each quarter was pumped in turn and then taped to keep the air in. Milk production was stopped, allowing calcium levels to rise.

The cow was also given her own milk to drink, therefore recycling the calcium. Vets treated the condition in the same way; in addition to pumping the udder, a vet would also pump a cupful of boric acid solution into each quarter as a mastitis preventative.

The use of herbs and the bicycle pump were based on sound scientific evidence, but other cures are hard to comprehend.

These included burning a corduroy trouser under a pony's nose as a cure for a cold and boiling a penny's worth of chopped-up envelopes in milk as a treatment for scour.

Paddy O'Connor, Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick, interviewed in his 99th year, recalled seeing a local man fill a pipe with tobacco and when he got it working well he put the pipe in the backside of a horse and let it smoke down to the very last – this was said to be a cure for colic.

Others procedures required more specialised attention than the farmer could provide. Every townsland had a 'specialist' for tasks such as calving cows, de-horning or castrating colts.

These local veterinary practitioners were variously described as cow-doctors, handymen and quacks.

These men were themselves farmers, skilled or handy with cattle and they used herbal remedies or simple surgical procedures in their work.

Evidence suggests that these local practitioners were interested only in helping their neighbours; they worked hard in all weather and expected little in return for their services.


James 'Heck' Collins of Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick remarked how it was all part of the comharing (sharing work) system and recalled that his grandfather, a cow-doctor, was repaid by having his cows serviced by a client's prize bull.

Retired Newport, Co Tipperary vet, Pakie Ryan, saw cow-doctors in action and praised their efforts.

"They were able to put in a vessel I'd say as good as any of the vets now and they were doing it without any epidural or often without any hot water or with no electricity, under terrible conditions."

The terminology used to describe various conditions has also changed over the years. Terms such as 'worm in the tail', murrain, blast and ruatha péiste are rarely used today.

Ruatha péiste was a common term for stomach or intestinal conditions and pains which caused the animal to lie kicking on the ground.

The condition was often associated with young calves.

Until the 1960s, separated creamery milk was returned to the farm and fed in large quantities to the young animals. Invariably this led to stomach problems and calves suffered colic, which often remedied itself within a short time.


When it didn't, a treatment – still used today – was to drench the animal with liquid paraffin.

The term snaidhm na péiste, translated as the worm's knot, described a rope charm also used to affect a cure. Ennistymon farmer, John Organ, interviewed in 2011, was an expert at making the knot.

Some understood the problem to be a knotted gut and were projecting their mental image of the problem on to the animal and imagining a solution by undoing the knot.

Another cure for intestinal problems was to dose the animal with a live eel, hoping that the eel would wriggle its way through the animal's intestine, removing the obstruction before exiting at the other end.

Another charm involved sticking a pin in the ground to rid an animal of red water. The first person who saw the animal urinating would stick a pin in the ground as near as possible to the place where the water was passed.

If the act was never mentioned to anyone, the animal could be cured. Foot rot was sometimes cured by 'turning the sod'; the impression made in the soil by the infected foot was dug out and turned over.

The notion of the magical reversal of things for the better no doubt underlines these rituals. Some of the charms were so far-fetched as to border on the ridiculous, but their main power was psychological.


Every effort was made to save an animal's life and if it died it was seen as God's will.

Sometimes, by accident more than by design, concoctions and rituals may have worked a cure because certain treatments slowed up the animal's metabolism, allowing its own natural resistances a chance to work.

Many factors contributed to the demise of the old treatments, particularly the stream of new drugs, including penicillin, available to vets from the 1940s onwards.

John Pierse, a Listowel vet, said that penicillin – as well as saving animals' lives – was also the making of many vets' reputations.

"Up to this we were only helping the animal to get over the illness by itself. The mortality rate dropped dramatically (with penicillin) and the veterinary surgeon gained a new status."

Paddy Nolan, a retired Kilkee vet, concurred: "Joe Farrell came to Kilrush in 1948 and he brought with him penicillin, an injection for red water and a black quarter vaccine.

"Any one of those three was enough to make him king but to have the three of them together made him God."

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