The Plague is Upon Us

This is not my sciencey viral intervention post.  That one is going to take me a few days to fact check and I am honestly dreadfully dreary of reading scientific journals and sitting through WHO modules. We have the first three confirmed cases of this blasted virus in our town and not surprisingly all contracted it on a cruise ship.  I am reminded of a story I heard once about the cnotan na gall – the “strangers’ cold” that came in on a vessel from a faraway land.

I needed a break from it.  I decided to write a history post because I felt the need to connect with my roots a little. My maternal grandmother was born in 1907. Which means that when the flu of 1918 hit, she was an eleven-year-old helping her mother (who was born in 1867) care for her siblings.   As I’ve mentioned before her dad died during that flu and her mother had a premature baby because of it, so you can imagine life lessons came early for her.

It seems that when Grandma was little the lives of poor, rural people were similar on both sides of the pond. When I came across first-hand accounts of the 1918 pandemic in the NFCSC material, they sounded like stories older family members had told me.  These stories in the collection were gathered about 15 years or so after the pandemic swept Ireland.

“In the year nineteen hundred and eighteen an epidemic of influenza spread over the country. It was one of the most fatal diseases in history. It sent more people to the grave than were killed in the great war. Owing to the war there was a scarcity of foodstuffs and beverages which if plentiful would hinder the spread of the disease. This disease which started as a germ in the air spread from Europe to the United Kingdom. It was an uncommon sight on an Irish country – side to see coffin after coffin being borne to the grave-yard.

Very few houses escaped its ravages. This was the first time that influenza became known as a fatal disease. No year has passed since, without it claiming some victims.  The influenza of nineteen hundred and eighteen ranks in the hearts of the people as the greatest disease in living memory.  It carried away hundreds of victims, including priests, nuns, doctors, and nurses.” [1]

Mr. Patsy Corrigan of Co. Cavan as told to Breda Callaghan,

One of those nuns had this to say:

“An epidemic of influenza broke out in Ireland in the year 1918 and it lasted for about three months. There were a lot of people stricken down with it and many of them died from the effects of it. It was different from the usual influenza cold, as very often people were nearly better of it, but got pneumonia and died.

In some houses all the inhabitants were sick together, and as the neighbors were frightened of the dread disease they did not like to go near them, so they suffered great hardship as they had nobody to nurse them. The Doctor was kept so busy that he had not time to visit all his patients every day. The shops in the villages were closed and a gloom was cast over the place. When people died their coffins were not brought to the Church fearing the germs of the disease would be spread, when crowds congregated for the funeral.”[2]

Sister Ní Chonaire Co. Westmeathe

It gave me a moment’s pause reflecting on what it would be like to live during a pandemic like that when there was no PPE, no antibiotics, and no oxygen therapy.  It hurts my heart because I know many people in our society still don’t have access to those things today. I sometimes feel foolish making recommendations about herbal adjuncts they don’t have access to either.  The affordable apothecary project is my priority this year.

What I wanted to do was to look at these first-hand accounts and draw some conclusions about how people weathered these events in the past. I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that social interactions were curbed considerably. We should be following that lead.

Mr. Corrigan’s observation about the fact that the war had left them short on healthy foods and beverages bears thinking about. Back in those days it was typical for women or their servants to put up a goodly number of pickles, jams, jellies, cordials, and liqueurs made from a variety of fruits and vegetables.  The variety of phenolic compounds in their diet was probably triple that of the standard American diet (SAD).  I don’t have any good proof of that other than knowing that mine was growing up.

My grandmothers and mother had huge gardens and gleaned fruit from all over the countryside to put up a variety of juices, jams and jellies up for the winter along with their garden produce.  I loved it when Mom made jelly because she sealed the jars with paraffin, and I liked to dip my fingers in it and play with the wax. I have always had a closet full of preserves also, although I am a safety gal, so I waterbath can my jams and jellies.

My point here is that my people weren’t putting up closets full of herbal tinctures, they were putting up condiments and confections full of the herbs and culinary spices we should be eating every day. The fact that people don’t eat a wide variety of nutritional phytochemicals anymore is already contributing to an epidemic of chronic diseases. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people with those same diseases seem more susceptible to harm from this virus. 

I want to point out to city folk that there is nothing wrong with being prepared.  Rural folkways have been Othered by marketers in such a way that a lot of city folk turning up their nose at perfectly safe preservation methods. Like for all of you out there going on and on about botulism in home canned food, have you ever looked at the actual data? I did’t think so.

I grew up country poor.  We had to put enough food away in the fall to get through winter.  If we didn’t, we ate mealy potato soup for weeks in the spring. I still don’t love potatoes and I will never get over the fear of running out of food before the garden comes in or the next paycheck. We lived out in the middle of nowhere and never knew when a snowstorm was going to keep us snowed in or without power for a week or longer.

These days I never know when my RA is going to flare up and I am going to be unable to get around while Steve is out-of-town on a business trip, and so those skills I have learned as a kid have served me well. So, I am pretty well stocked up most of the time. The only thing I bought compulsively was a big box of apples and a bag of oranges, while everyone else is stockpiling hand sanitizer and toilet paper. This brings me to another thing these stories brought up for me.

Sr. Ní Chonaire felt like it was their neighbors fear of going in and taking care people like they would have normally done that led to so many people passing on.  I think that’s worth thinking about. I mean today in many places neighbors don’t do that at all.

I am not suggesting we all put ourselves in harm’s way, though I am obstinate enough I probably will.  But I am suggesting that we need to pull our heads together and plan to do something. The kind of preparedness I advocate for is being prepared to help yourself and your neighbors like that regardless of what comes along- be it a pandemic or just general hard times.

This weekend I made up a roaster full of broth heavy on the garlic, thyme, and pepper so that I can make some “sorry you are sick” soup and drop it off on people’s doorstep. We are making the brew pot full of ham and bean soup because we have some care packages for the mutual aid collective to deliver this week, too.

I thought I would give you a few recipes for other things you could include in a care basket to comfort people when they are ill that contain ingredients that you could pick up here at the store and not have to order online. And you know me, I love to trace things back to my roots, so I included some historical references just for fun.

Black Currant Tea
Judging by the folklore commission accounts, black currant tea was probably the most common cold remedy made in homes at the turn of the 20th century in Ireland.  They also called them Quinsy berries.  Quinsy is a complication of tonsillitis that we call a peritonsillar abscess, these days. The tried-and-true grandma’s way of making tea is explained here:

“This is a cure for a bad cold.  Before going to bed at night make a good mug of black currant drink. But only put a tea spoon-ful of black currant jam in the mug. Then fill it up with hot water and let it cool off. Do that for two or three nights and your cold will be gone in three days.” [3]

Mrs. Quinn of Co. Dublin

There is a good deal of modern clinical research to support the idea that it’s a good adjunct.[4] If you can’t find black currants, that’s okay. You can tuck a nice jar of blackberry jam or bilberry jam in a basket with directions on how to use it. This is one of the things I make with my bramble berry syrup, and a teaspoon is a little stingy. I use a good tablespoon or so, but maybe my mugs are bigger, or my teaspoons are smaller? 

Blackberry Brandy
Modern herbalists often write about taking blackberry root infusions for diarrhea (the leaves work just as well), but the anthocyanins in the juice are what you want during cold and flu season. Kiva told me once that Michael Moore taught that, too.   Most of the old-timers simply stewed the berries and strained the juice through a jelly bag.  Some people preserved the juice by making it into wine.  Kate Donegan of Co. Westmeath simply wrote:

Blackberry Wine. Stew the blackberries with sugar. This cures colds.”[5]

I don’t have any blackberry wine made and we drank up the cranberry wine, but I am thinking I will make up some blackberry liqueur to have on hand. I have this quick recipe for making it:

Highland Bitters
This bitters recipe is quite simple. I’ve adapted from one of my favorite books  A Hundred Years in the Highlands in which the author noted of his uncle “On the sideboard there always stood before breakfast a bottle of whisky, smuggled of course, with plenty of camomile flowers, bitter orange-peel, and juniper berries in it — ‘ bitters ‘ we called it — and of this he had a wee glass always before we sat down to breakfast, as a fine stomachic.[6]

1 cup chamomile flowers (you can use the tea bags you buy at the store)
¼ cup bitter orange peel or mixed peel
¼ cup juniper berries
1 bottle of whiskey

They sell juniper berries in the spice section of the bigger grocery stores and you can use chamomile from tea bags.  If you can’t afford juniper berries steal some cedar needles or pine needles off a tree at the park.  Grind the ingredients and put them in a jar with an airtight lid and pour the whiskey over top.  Close the lid and shake every couple of days for two weeks.  Then strain and bottle it. You can drink it like Sir Mackenzie up there did or you can put just a few drops in some sparkling water.  Bitters have been shown to improve digestion and assimilation of nutrients.

Heat is a wonderful adjunct.  It can relieve aches and pains by causing muscles to relax which in turn helps people rest.  It can ward off the chills that often accompany an illness. People who know me know that I have had a long love affair with my hottie, so it made me smile to come across this recommendation:

“Yarrow is one of the most valuable herbs that grows in the district. It is great for curing colds influenza and all classes of fevers. If you have a cold, influenza or fever, go to bed between two blankets, have a hot-water bottle placed to your feet and drink a cup of hot yarrow-tea.”[7]

Ellen Evans of Co. Wicklow

I will have more to say about a yarrow in my more serious post about viral interventions but what I want you to think about here is tucking in the other things in a care basket, that could provide people comfort like a hot water bottle with a wool cover.

You could also share a reusable ice bag and a big bag of ice.  I find that tucking an ice bag under the base of my neck helps with a headache.  Migraine sufferers should try my favorite trick which is an icebag under the neck and a hot water bottle at the feet.  I like actual ice because it puts some pressure on my neck, but you can also sew up hot/cold rice packs.


[1] NFC: The Schools’ Collection Volume 1000, Page 337-338
[2] NFC: The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0734, Page 402
[3] NFC: The Schools’ Collection Volume 0798, Page 103
[4] Ikuta, Kazufumi, Koichi Hashimoto, Hisatoshi Kaneko, Shuichi Mori, Kazutaka Ohashi, and Tatsuo Suzutani. ‘Anti-Viral and Anti-Bacterial Activities of an Extract of Blackcurrants (Ribes Nigrum L. ): Anti-Microbial Activity of Blackcurrants’. Microbiology and Immunology 56, no. 12 (December 2012): 805–9.
[5] NFC: The Schools’ Collection Volume 0740, Page 101
[6] MacKenzie, Osgood Hanbury. A Hundred Years in the Highlands. London, England: Arnold, 1921.
[7] NFC: The Schools’ Collection Volume 0915, Page 165

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website

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