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A charming way to deal with your ailments


Margaret Armstrong who possessed a charm for the whooping cough. US36-746S

Margaret Armstrong who possessed a charm for the whooping cough. US36-746SP

PREVIOUS generations were regular users of charms and cures which they believed would rid them of various ailments. A charm normally consisted of some form of ritual and words and was administered by an individual who had been the recipient of a 'gift' passed down to them. Some charms had to be passed on from a male to a female within the family in order to preserve the 'gift'.

There are still individuals in the community today to whom 'believers' turn. Some of these charms and cures are also administered to animals.

Charms and cures were used to treat a variety of ailments including: Erysipelas ('the rose'), ring-worm, sprains, rheumatism, whooping cough, shingles, headache, sore throat, boils, colds, toothaches, stye, thrush, measles, burns, bleeding and warts.

The method and administration of the cure or charm varied from individual to individual, but one of the common traits was that the recipient had to believe.

An example of the diverse methods can be seen in the treatment of warts. Some of the cures included: Rubbing the warts with a coin and throwing it away, dipping the affected hand in bullock's blood, rubbing the warts with a snail and hanging the snail on a thorn bush and using water trapped in a hollow stone. The stonework normally had a religious connection - perhaps the grave of a minister.

Other cures involved a visit to a holy well, dipping the affected part in the forge water at a blacksmiths, placing a number of pebbles equalling the number of warts at a crossroads, the ashes of the dung of a cow mixed with vinegar, rubbing the wart with stolen beef and burying it, tying a thread or hair tightly around the base of the wart and giving the warts to a deceased person when a funeral passed.

There was a common belief that the charm wouldn't work if there was any form of compromise in the instructions given by the charmer. The application of castor oil, lemon oil, celadine or the milky sap from a dandelion were also well known remedies.

The Belfast News Letter dated Tuesday 28th July 1829 carried the following advice:

"To destroy and warts - Take one part of fine resin, four of linseed oil, and add a little litharge, which are well boiled together. The preparation, when wanted for use, must be heated with the hand and spread upon the gold-beater's skin, or a sticking plaister, and applied to the corn, so that its surface may be completely covered. At the end of five or six days, the plaister is to be taken off, and the corn cut with a pen knife as deeply as possible without touching the flesh, and in a few days the operation is to be repeated. The corn must be again well covered with the plaister; and at the end of one or two months it will disappear entirely."

It would be impossible now to find out how many people in the community claimed to possess such powers in the past. The older generations had a belief that should two persons with the same surname marry, one of them would acquire the gift of a charm. Extensive family history research into two local families revealed some astonishing facts.

Margaret Armstrong was born in 1869 in the townland of Aughnahough, outside Lisburn. In 1886 she married Hans Armstrong (born 1867) and they had six children. They originally lived at Whitemountain, outside Lisburn.

In later life they lived on a farm in the townland of Luganteneil situated between Lisburn and Glenavv. Margaret possessed a charm for the whooping cough. I was informed that she did not advertise the fact that she possessed the charm. Her services were passed amongst the community by word of mouth due to her success in curing the whooping cough.

The charm involved the use of potato bread.

Margaret's cousin Thomas John Armstrong (born about 1876) resided in a cottage located at Crew Park, Glenavy.

He was known locally as 'Bunty'.

I am told he had a cure for ringworm that was used on both people and animals. He was careful to apply the paste to the affected area only. One of the ingredients of this potion was believed to he lard.

Bunty was careful to guard the secret of the remedy that he applied. He went into his pantry and closed the door during the mixing process. The paste was put into a small box.

It was well known that the recipient never thanked him or paid for his services. To do so could result in the charm failing to work or the loss of the charmer's 'gift'.

Bunty would have passed the comment "I'll see you again." It is believed that he passed the charm onto someone prior to his death but I have been unable to obtain any further details. He was married but he did not have any children.

Another branch of the family were the Higginsons. This family can be traced back to the 15th century. They emanated from the Berkswell area in Lancashire.

The Higginson name is synonymous with the Lisburn area.

Ellen Sarah Higginson (born 1835 died 1927) appears in the 12th generation of this family of the Berkswell Higginson lineage. She was one of eight children horn at Dundrod.

In 1869 she married a Robert Higginson and they had five children. They lived at the Crew, a townland within the Glenavy area and are buried in St. Aidan's Parish Church.

Ellen possessed the charm for whooping cough which I am informed consisted of a constituency of soda bread, butter and sugar.

Incidentally, Margaret's great great grandfather was called Thomas Higginson who married an Elizabeth Higginson.

There have been many attempts to explain this curious phenomena by critics and sceptics alike. I myself have availed of the services of a charmer which cured a bout of warts. I, like others, tend not to question the power of the unknown.

I am always interested to hear the experiences of those who have availed of cures and charms and of course the names of those who are and still do administer them in the Lisburn district.

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