Delving among the sepulchres while searching for macabre tales for The Victorian Book of the Dead I ran across this disturbing ritual.
During my residence at the Lakes I heard of a practice which some writers on Ireland state is frequent in that country; viz., securing immunity from disease by eating holy clay, or, in other words, earth blessed by the priests before being cast into graves. The result of my inquiries, which were numerous, among the peasantry, does not warrant me in agreeing with a writer in the Quarterly Review (vol. 68.), who declares that this “practice is common;” but the following extract from a communication by Dr. Picknell, physician to the Dispensary at Cork, and published in the 4th vol. of the Transactions of the Dublin College of Physicians, is evidence that the habit alluded to is no myth:
“Mary Reordan, a native of Cork, was afflicted with a most surprising complaint, whereby at intervals she discharged, by vomiting, &c., quantities of insects of the beetle species, some more than half an inch long, in all stages of their existence; some as larvae, some as pupae, and some in their winged state, which, as soon as they were discharged, flew about the room. The doctor, in anxiety to elicit every circumstance which might tend to develop the mode of the introduction of these insects, asked the patient had she been in the habit of eating clay? Her answer was, that when she was about fifteen years of age two clergymen of her persuasion died, and she being told by some old woman that if she would drink daily during a certain period a portion of water in which was infused clay taken from the graves of those clergymen she would be secured for ever against disease and sin. She accordingly walked to Kinsale, a distance of twelve miles, where one of the clergymen was interred, and succeeded in bringing away an apron and handkerchief full of the clay from the grave; to this she added some mugs full of clay from the other clergyman’s grave, who was buried in the city of Cork. Her practice was to infuse from time to time, according to the exigency, in a vessel of water a portion of the holy clay, the mixture being always allowed to rest until the grosser particles of the clay subsided. She had been in the daily use of the water medicated according to this disgusting formula. The beetles discharged from the woman were principally of the bleps mortisaga species [sic], which is well known to inhabit churchyards.”*
Reading this, we can no longer be surprised that the superstitious ceremony of waking a body, accompanied as it is with offerings for the speedy release of the soul of the departed from purgatory, is, if at all within the means of the surviving relations, conducted with extraordinary observances.
*The capability of many species of parasitical animals to live within the human being, is well known. Experiments were lately tried in Germany on a criminal left for execution, by giving him in his food, without his knowledge, a few hours before his death, various parasitical insects. [!!!] When the body was opened after execution, many of them were alive and had propagated.
Vacations in Ireland, Charles Richard Weld, London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts, 1857
The original is found in Extract from a communication of Dr. Picknell, Physician to the Dispensary at Cork, April 4th, 1823. Published in the Transactions of The Fellows of the College of Physicians of Dublin, vol. iv. p. 189.
Devotees scooped up the clay in rags, which were returned to the grave after consuming the holy clay.
The grave looked like a shallow pit, the bottom of which was covered with small stones and rags, scraps of cloth, cotton, and linen. On inquiring why this grave had such a peculiar aspect, I was informed that the clay was all carried away, in order to be infused in water, and drank by Catholics and their cattle, as a cure for disease in the one, and a remedy against sin in the other; and that it was deemed proper in every case when a devotee carried the holy clay away, to bring back the rag in which it was conveyed, and deposit it on the grave. Sketches in Ireland, C.O., Dublin: William Curry, Jun. and Company, 1839.
“Secured for ever against disease and sin.” The sin part I leave to the priests and theologians. But could the clay actually be a cure for man or beast? People all over the world consume clay for various reasons, some of them medicinal and some religious. Dirt and clay do contain some nutrients, like calcium. The 19th-century “Carolina Clay-Eaters,” ate white clay, claimed to be a cure for indigestion. I know persons prescribed clay by their doctors for morning sickness. For the surprising numbers of modern clay-eaters in the US see the section “In the United States” in this entry on Geophagy. An obvious parallel is pica, the disorder where persons crave dirt, chalk, ice, and other non-food substances. It is often linked with social stresses: poverty, pregnancy, and family chaos, as well as physical diseases such as anemia as a result of hookworm. Rural Ireland was rife with all of these stressors, and more. Was holy clay merely the Church’s blessing of a practice born of desperation?
Is holy clay still eaten in Ireland? Precipitate in a little water and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.