Herbalism, Returning to our Celtic roots

Apothecary Tinctures, courtesy of Wiki Commons.

By Geneva Pattison

Evidence of humans using medicinal herbs dates all the way back to the Paleolithic age and we have a long history of it in Ireland. In Celtic mythology there was the legend of a master healer called Diancecht, who served the people of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Diancecht had two children, a son named Midach and a daughter named Airmeda. Both son and daughter exceeded their father’s abilities as a healer, which made Diancecht angry. Diancecht is believed to have murdered his son Midach in a fit of jealous rage.

Midach was buried and his sister wept at his grave. When her tears touched the soil, herbs started to sprout from his grave, 865 herbs from the 865 joints and tendons in his body. Every herb that grew from a certain part of his body had the power to heal ailments from that part of the body.

Understanding the importance of this knowledge, his sister Airmeda picked the herbs, categorised and dried them for use. Again, Diancecht was overcome with jealousy and mixed up every herb, so no healer could ever know the true power of the herbs.

Later, the early Celtic people of Ireland had male physicians called Liaig and female physicians called Banliaig, who were held in high esteem as herbal healers. When invaders came to the shores of Ireland, this tradition was almost destroyed and had to be forced underground. It survived by means of being passed down by an oral tradition.

Today, herbalism has seen a revival, with many people taking an interest in learning the skills and natural remedies that our ancestors used to fight off common illnesses and promote better health.

A Holistic Approach

In his book, The Holistic Gardener, author Fiann Ó Nualláin refers to Herbalism as “a self-empowered, self-sufficient approach to health”. The book comprises of a comprehensive list of common ailments and some more chronic ones. Each sickness is given care and consideration on how to approach treating the illness.

He begins by giving a short but detailed explanation of the different causes behind the illness or injury. He then goes on to explore the herbal and home-made remedies that you can create in the Kitchen Support section and the Garden Treatment section.

If there’s any terminology you’re not familiar with, Ó’Nualláin provides an informative glossary of terms for reference at the beginning of the book. If you are new to the world of herbalism and folk remedies, he covers topics such as side effects, herb interaction with other medications, dosage and allergies. He even takes into account ethical production of certain ingredients he refers to in the book, stating “some supplements mentioned in this book come from parts of the world where harvest exploitation could exist, but just as you may choose a fairtrade coffee, your local health store can help you find an ecologically conscious and ethical brand.”

Some of the remedies explained by Fiann include; How echinacea and apples work to reduce seasonal allergies, how acid reflux can be alleviated by a lemon balm and peppermint brew and how using dried thyme can boost iron levels in those with anemia. 

Online Hedge School

If you are really interested in delving into the world of herbalism, Dublin City Libraries offers free access to an upskilling site called Universal Class. All you need to do is enter your library card number and email. The website offers many different courses, including one on the basics of herbalism. All About Herbs illustrates the numerous ways herbalism has permeated our society through the ages and across nations.

The module layout of the course is very accessible for people of all abilities and perfect for anyone who is short on time and  wants to continue education. Module topics include the history of herbs, herbal medicine, identifying herbs, how to create tinctures and decoctions and aromatherapy.

Having completed the course myself, I would absolutely recommend it. Your written assignments are graded and your tests are marked by an individual teacher. You’re also given personal feedback, so if there’s anything you’re unsure of there’s always someone to contact.

Should you want to do further research into a topic, extra reading materials are linked at the end of each lesson. Best of all, you can complete the course in your own time, so there’s no pressure. 

Ask a Herbalist

Pharmacist and herbalist Niamh Boden of BodeWell Botanicals in Rathmines kindly answered some questions on the topic of Herbalism. 

Q: When did you first get into Herbalism? 

I got into herbal medicine about six years ago. Being a pharmacist and pharmacy owner, I decided that I wanted to specialise the pharmacy in natural health and herbal medicine. I was always interested in a naturopathic approach to health and was becoming a little disillusioned with the dependence on pharmaceutical medication. I also understood that many medicines on the pharmacy shelves were originally formulated or derived from plants e.g. digoxin and aspirin. So I enrolled in a herbal medicine course in CNM (College of Naturopathic Medicine) Dublin. This took four years to complete part-time. Over the last five years I have slowly developed the pharmacy in this direction and we are still in transition!

Q: What are your top three herbs for treating ailments and which ailments do they treat?

My top three herbs are chamomile, dandelion root and passiflora. Chamomile is a highly underrated herb, useful for the nervous system and its mildly bitter action makes it a great digestive herb. Dandelion root is so gentle for the liver, and a truly Irish herb, on everyone’s doorstep. Try to make some dandelion root coffee. Then passiflora is useful in many herbal combinations. Great for stress, sleep and even IBS symptoms.

Q: What precautions would you take when prescribing herbal medicine to a new patient?

Being a pharmacist my main concern is other medications! Most people who come to me are taking something for their health. Special patient groups are also to be approached carefully.

Q: How would you describe your client base?

My client base varies greatly. Many are acute situations, where people come to the pharmacy and are looking for a natural approach for a sore throat or mouth ulcers etc. Others need more time, maybe they have recurrent urinary tract infections, or menopausal symptoms. I do consultations in the pharmacy by appointment only, scheduled when I am not dispensing.

Remember, Knowledge is Power

It goes without saying that you should never ingest or use a plant without fully identifying it and making sure you’re not allergic to it. Plants can be poisonous and dangerous when not used properly. If in doubt, leave them be, if you’re curious, you should always speak to a professional herbalist or a professional forager. With that being said, once you’ve taken all possible precautions, using herbal medicine can have many positive effects on your well-being and it can be as simple as brewing a cup of chamomile tea. 

You can access Universal Class for free through the Dublin City Libraries site, or visit this link: https://libraries.dlrcoco.ie/online-library/online-courses

The legend of Diancecht is available in the book A Smaller Social History of Ireland, by P.W Joyce, from the link below. 


Alternatively, visit this link for the chapter on Historical Medicine in Ireland. 


To read further into Celtic herbal traditions visit the Old Moore’s Almanac site. 

For further information from Fiann Ó’Nualláin please visit his website.