Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Charms - "they're a' aff the Divil!"

What do you make of charms? They've more or less died out now round our way, but when I was a wee lad it was quite commonplace for folk to visit the local charmer if they had a specific illness. Charmers seemed to specialise in particular ailments, and they'd get results when the doctor's medical/chemical treatments had failed.

For example, if you had something like a wart then you'd go to the local wart charmer who would give you a very odd daily "ritual" which would result in the wart disappearing. What I remember is the wart charm involved getting an old potato, cutting it into eight pieces, rubbing the open surface of each piece on the wart. The potato was then wrapped up in a new handkerchief and buried deep in soft mud. Within a specified period of time - say a month - the wart would be completely gone. But you couldn't just do this by yourself - it wouldn't work unless you'd been "briefed" on the ritual in person in a private session with the charmer.

The same with shingles - you'd go to the shingle charmer, who'd give you their specialised ritual. I even heard of a knee charmer, an old lady, to whom many of the big local football clubs sent their injured players when the team physio had run out of ideas. I'll even confess to my own family using a charm for whooping cough (cut a bit of your hair, stitch it into a vest in the middle of the chest area); there's also one for jaundice.

The charmer would usually claim to have been given their "gift" from an older charmer just as he or she was about to die. They in turn would choose someone to pass their gift on to, to perpetuate the charm. And never, ever thank the charmer - or the charm won't work!

In the Ards Peninsula charms were dominant around Portavogie, but were shunned in other places. My aunt Rhoda flatly refused to go anywhere near charmers - "it's a' aff the Divil!" she would exclaim. However, I know many believers from local evangelical families who would furtively nip off to visit the charmer, and keep it secret lest any of their fellow believers would find out!

I don't know if these are exclusive to Ulster, or if you get them all over Ireland and Scotland. Maybe they're to be found all over Europe, or all over the world. And maybe there is an occultic aspect to them, or maybe it's just old-time folk medicine. Whatever, they are certainly a bit weird...

> Here's a website from County Waterford that lists some

> Here's another from the Isle of Man

> The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, England, 1947

> Folk Remedies, Cures, Potions and Charms

I'll do a wee bit of local research and post more. Don't try them at home!

PS - I forgot to add, maybe there's a placebo effect at work here, as I've heard many times that the "patient" has to believe that the charm will work, otherwise it won't.


Colin Maxwell said...

I had a very painful verruca when I was about 12 or 13. I dinnae know any charmers (in thon non female sense)round East Belfast though or I micht hae been tempted. It was no fun hobblin' about 2 miles tae school. A Protestant cripple - that's what I was :o)

Fair fa' ye!