Cures for the Whooping Cough circa 1950. By Pádraig Turley

If I may paraphrase Dylan Thomas , I am not sure if I was six years of age when I had the misfortune to get the whooping cough that lasted five weeks or I was five years of age and it lasted six weeks. I was then living in Clerhane, a townland near Shannonbridge with my mother, her parents and my uncle. My father was living in Dublin, where he worked as a mechanic. He and his father had run a public house in Shannonbridge in the hungry thirties, and when it did not do very well he was forced to go to Dublin to seek work.

Margaret Turley Nee Claffey
Margaret Turley (nee Claffey)

So to set the scene for the little generational tug of war I am about to relate, my grandfather Michael Claffey was from Bloomhill, Ballinahown and was born in 1868. His wife, my grandmother was an Elizabeth Molloy from Parkwood, Moote, County Offaly and was born in 1880. My uncle Joe was born in 1918 , and my mother Margaret had been born in 1914. We all lived in a three roomed thatched cottage, which did not have electricity or piped water, on a farm which also included a quarry.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial disease. During the acute stage of the illness, the patient usually a child has severe spasms of coughing during which, to an anxious parent, he appears to be about to die of asphyxia. It has even been known for a rib to be damaged during an episode. The spasm may last as long as a minute and invariably ends with the characteristic whoop. When the attack is over the child recovers and seems perfectly well until the next attack. Adding to the distress of the parents the child is likely to vomit during the attack. These attacks can persist for weeks and even months, gradually reducing in frequency until they finally cease, leaving the child none the worse in virtually all cases.

I don’t remember the initial stages of my illness which are similar to the common cold, with runny nose, fever and a mild cough. I do very clearly recollect the severe stage, and can remember to this day, almost seventy years later, the cough and the fright as I could not breathe. The pertusssis vaccine had not yet reached Clerhane.

Dr Meagher, Ferbane
Dr Maher, Ferbane

As my illness persisted, my mother wanted to bring me to Dr. Maher in Ferbane, a distance of about 20 km, not very far if one had a car which we did not. She also mentioned the possibility if going to Dr. D’Alton in Birr. My grandfather said this was nonsense and he had seen many children with the whooping cough, who made satisfactory recoveries without going off spending money on doctors.

My grandparents pointed out that there were plenty of known cures for whooping cough. Grandfather remembered a well known cure from his youth around Ballinahhown.

In the first such cure, you put a winkers of a donkey on the patient and you lead him around the pig sty three times. When this is done those with the child kneel down and say prayers. My grandfather said we will try it and he was sure it would help. My mother was very skeptical, and very much against her better judgment allowed this remedy to be tested.

The winkers was fetched from the shed, hung around my neck and my grandfather and my uncle took me for a walk around the pig sty three times, and then they knelt down and prayed for a while. Sadly that night the cough was back at its most virulent best. My mother was none too happy, still saying we should go to the doctor. My grandfather demurred, sure there was no need. I have looked up this remedy in various books on folk medicine and the best explanation I could locate for it, suggested that the origin of the cure was to transfer the illness to the pig.

My condition did not improve, and my poor mother had the task of writing to my father each week to report on my condition. My father wrote each week and our Postman Kieran Fallon would deliver these letters. As he arrived one day, I went into a  right fit of coughing. Kieran was much taken by this. After I calmed down he sat down for a cup of tea, and told us of a cure he knew of which never failed. This cure involved husbands and wives with the same surname. In this cure the husband and wife give the first portion and last of their breakfast to a messenger, who would then take it to the patient. This impressed my grandfather who felt there might be something in it. However finding such a couple was the problem. Enquiries were made far and near but we were unable to find such a couple, so I am not able to report of the efficacy of this cure, but I doubt very much if it would have worked. I have looked up this cure in folk medicine and in some counties the remedy is said to lie with the children of parents.

My condition continued and the coughing must have been very scary for my mother. She was still canvassing the idea of consulting a doctor, but her parents would not hear of it. She did not have access to a car, which made a solo run by her difficult. So we tried hot drinks, lozengers, honey, Vick and various other rubs to soothe the chest. Of course she prayed endlessly for a cure, I can only guess at the number of rosaries offered up during this illness.

On Wednesday nights, Paddy and Kieran McGuinness and Joe Egan used to come rambling to play 25, chat and generally sort out the problems of the World. One night they were joined by Paddy Morgan a truck driver who used to ferry stones from our quarry. He was from the north of Ireland. My grandfather did not have much time for him, he was very wary of folk from the north, and always referred to him as Mr. Morgan.  On the night in question I went into a right convulsion.  When I eventually calmed down, and the lads had  gotten  back to their game of 25,  Mr. Morgan told them he knew of a cure for whooping cough used in the Cavan/Monaghan area. Sometime in the 1830`s when a Church was being pulled down, three skulls were found under the altar. Now he told that two of these skulls disappeared but a child suffering from whooping cough who drank water from the remaining   skull would be cured. He even told us that on one occasion, the skull was taken to England to treat a case of whooping cough. He vouched that no child who ever drank from the skull died of whooping cough. Probably not a great boast when we consider that death from whooping cough is very rare. My mother asked if we could try this remedy and where was the skull now. Mr. Morgan said he did not know. Maybe he never knew. My grandfather muttered under his breath, ‘a north of Ireland man, nothing good ever came from that part of the country not even the wind.’

Kieran Daly, Creevagh
Kieran Daly, Creevagh

Word of my illness spread about the area, and many suggestions as to how to cure it were put forward. Our neighbour Kieran Daly heard, that if I could meet a man with a white horse and asked such a man for a cure he would know it. Jimmy Flannery from Carrigeen had a white horse and if he were to meet me, we might be in business. A couple of days later, who should arrive at our house, but the said Jimmy Flannery riding his horse. My grandmother came out and said `Man on the white horse, what is the cure of this disease?’ ‘Give the child a pint of buttermilk` Jimmy responded.  So we tried this, yet again without success as the whooping cough continued. I have tried to find the origin of this remedy. Halls in their book Mr. and Mrs. Hall’s Tour of Ireland 1840 mentioned that a doctor in county Leitrim always rode a white horse. Patrick Logan in his book Irish Country Cures suggests if might survive from mediaeval medical practice in Ireland, when a doctor might have ridden on a white horse.

My mother was really getting bothered by this time, ‘I have to take him to the doctor’ she insisted. Grandfather dissented, he felt the white horse cure did not work because Kieran Daly had in all likelihood asked Jimmy Flannery to come over to see me and thus messed up the cure. ‘There is no need to be going off to the doctors’ my grandfather insisted. A proper row took place between them but in the end my grandfather won out and it was decided to hold off going to the doctor for the moment. I was administered hot drinks, cough mixtures, soups, but still the symptoms persisted. Rosaries continued to be offer up.

At that time where was a farmer from Cappaleitra just over the river Shannon in county Roscommon,  a Mr. Kilduff who used to graze his cattle on our land presumably in consideration of a  sum of money. Mr. Kilduff arrived one Sunday to check that his cattle were in good order and thriving. While he was having a cup of tea, I had one of my attacks and went through the usual convulsions. After I had calmed down, Mr. Kilduff said he knew of cure for whooping cough used in his parish which was very effective. We were all ears as he explained how this worked. To treat the patient it was necessary to put a piece of red flannel on the chest of the patient, but to get the full benefit of this treatment, the red flannel should be put on by the godfather of the patient. My uncle Joe was my godfather so that would not prove a difficulty. So my mother headed off to Morans of Shannonbridge and procured the required flannel. That evening when the day’s work on the farm was over my uncle was ‘instructed’ to put the flannel on my chest. Joe did as told and we all waited to see if this cure would work. There was a good degree of confidence as Mr. Kilduff was a serious man and could be relied upon.

My symptoms continued, my grandfather insisting we had to give the cure a chance to work. My mother was no doubt demented by this time. After a number of days it became clear enough that this was not the answer. My mother was raising the matter of the doctor once more, only to be shushed. She retained her sanity by continuing to pray.

My grandfather was mulling over the failure of the cure to work and came up with a possible answer that seems comical or Jesuitical  in retrospect.  I was actually born in Dublin during the latter stages of the war/emergency. It was decided that my uncle Joe would be my Godfather. During the Emergency with fuel restrictions in place, it was  be nigh impossible for Joe to get to Dublin. In the event it was decided that his duties at the baptism would be carried out by a proxy. This was what happened. Now my grandfather felt this was the likely reason Mr. Kilduff’s suggested remedy had not worked.  This explanation did not calm my mother or indeed cure my whooping cough.

My mother in her mithered state blurted out after breakfast one morning ‘I wonder would St. Kieran`s clay be of any use?’ Don`t be an idiot’ my grandfather retorted, ‘sure St Kieran’s clay was only for crops, and would be of little use to cure whooping cough.’ My mother remembered how the late Terry Callery a stonemason from Oldtown, county Meath, who worked in the quarry had said that St. Kieran’s clay could help in all situations. My mother somewhat chastened decided to stay mute, and did not mention the doctor.

She was in Shannonbridge shopping later that week and was in conversation with Mrs. Killeen, who with her husband ran a pub and grocery store. Mrs. Killeen was aware of a cure she heard might be useful. It was really a type of a cough mixture. The prescription was a combination of equal parts of the white of an egg and honey. As I look back now Mrs. Killeen’s ‘cure’ was the most likely to help, as it would sooth the cough and could be of benefit. We tried this remedy, and while it did not take away the whooping cough it did help. By this time, I would imagine the whooping cough must have been nearing it`s end, but had not gone.

Tom Gaffey a neighbour of ours, who like my grandfather was from Bloomhill, called one day looking for something or other. As we were chatting to him, my whooping cough came up, and Tom remembered from his youth, that if you were to hang a black pot around the neck of the sufferer, and said some prayers the disease would vanish. I honestly can`t rightly remember what prayers were involved. Once again we tried this remedy. A large black pot somewhat like a cauldron was placed around my neck, held in place by my uncle, the prayers were recited and we awaited the outcome. Sadly this too proved fruitless.

Pat Flannery, Creevagh
Pat Flannery, Creevagh

I was still having convulsions and quite bad bouts of the whooping cough. Sometime later that week Kieran Fallon the postman arrived with the post, and he had news of a cure from up the country. The prescriptions consisted of boiling ferret`s droppings in milk, and giving it to the patient. My mother freaked. This was not going to happen. She got on her bike, and went straight down to Pat Flannery in Creevagh, who had a car for hire, and booked him to take us to the doctor. He would call up at 9.30 A.M. and we would head off to the doctor in Athlone, I am not sure why Dr. Maher in Ferbane or Dr. D`Alton in Birr were forgotten. May well be that living in west Offaly we tended to orientate toward Athlone and Ballinasloe as they were closer at hand.  Even though Tullamore was the county town we rarely went there except perhaps for the odd football match.

In any event, the following morning we were up early and cleaned and well togged out, by the time Pat Flannery arrived in his car. My mother gave a knowing wink to Pat and said I was being taken to the doctor for and she spelled out a word I was not able to understand. In retrospect I assume the word was injection. My grandfather came with us, as we set out on the fifteen miles journey. Now it appears we did not know the name of any doctor in Athlone, but Pat said that there were a number of doctors living in Garden Vale, which I now know is a row of quite substantial Victorian period houses. Funny I can still remember when we reached Garden Vale, Pat slowing down and we went along noting the names of the doctors. We settled on the last one, who was a Doctor Curly. We rang the door bell and this lady answered, presumably his receptionist, she took our names and a brief outline of my complaints. She took us upstairs to a waiting room, where we could wait for the doctor. I recall when going up the stairs there was a lady vacuuming the carpet on the stairs. I had never seen a vacuum cleaner before.

Garden Vale (1)
Garden Vale, Athlone

Sometime later the door of the waiting room opened, and Dr. Curly appeared, shook hands with my mother and grandfather, gave me a big smile, and brought my mother and I into his room. Once again my mother said I had come for and she spelled the word again, doctor smiled, knowing that injections are never welcome to young children. He got me to take off my shirt, and produced what I now, of course, know to be a stethoscope. He then examined me in detail, making the odd assenting sound, yes, yes, ok. He then turned to my mother and told her that the whooping cough had broken and that I would be fine in a few days. Had we come earlier he could have given an injection but it would be of no benefit now. He told us to go, continue taking hot drinks and wished us all the best. I recall him as a very gentle and kind sort of man, and later on in life I got to know a doctor in Athlone, who was able to confirm that this was the case.

As a treat I was taken to Malocca, a café in Church Street, where we all had a meal. I remember having chips. I do recall my mother leaving us for a while as she wished to do some shopping in Burgess’s, a well known local store, still going today.

My grandfather and Pat were chatting away. He told Pat that he knew I would be  alright and there had been no need to go bothering the doctor. I wonder now, if he thought I had recovered as a result of one the various cures we had tried at home.

He was from a different era but he was one of the most  kind men I ever met, and I hope this piece has not painted him as a Chekhovian Firs. He was a very well read man, would be glued to the wireless every night for the news, yet believed in ghosts, the fairies and of course the banshee. The electricity had not yet reached us so the fairies etc had free reign. He was also a musician, played the fiddle/violen. He used to play at house dances all his life. A slightly funny aside, he felt the folk from Tullow, a townland between Clonmacnoise and Clonfanlough were bad dancers. He said all he had to do at a house dance there, was to start the music and once people were up dancing, he could stop and they would continue on regardless. I am sure this can`t have been true and apologies to the kind folk of Tullow. Perhaps those folk remedies were good to him, he lived a good long life, dying in his bed just six months after his ninetieth birthday.

I recovered fully shortly after that and returned to school. My mother got back her piece of mind and could write ‘true’ letters to my father. The quantity of rosaries reduced.

Almost seventy years later I am still around, so maybe there was something in those cures.The pertussis vaccine was introduced into Ireland in 1952, so I reckon those remedies are likely to drift away into the mists of time. It can be said they were of help to our ancestors, as they gave them hope and relief while waiting for the illness to break.

Padraig Turley
Pádraig Turley, author