As part of this year’s heritage week line up, Emer Magee the NPWS Ranger for West Donegal, led a nature walk on Sheskinmore Nature Reserve. Anything Emer organises is informative and very enjoyable; this event was no different. As usual, it was delivered in her own friendly and informal style.
If you regularly turn up at these events, you will eventually end up with a job… mine was to walk at the very back of the group and offer what assistance I could. Basically, I had to assist anybody, who was not sure-footed, over tricky terrain; encourage the faint-hearted; and to use an electric cattle prod on anyone who was falling behind through pure laziness… luckily I only had to threaten one walker with this implement and he was off like a shot; I didn’t have to ‘encourage’ him a second time!
I am happy to say that I do not have to write much, as ‘Gabreelle’ (A.K.A. Claire), has given us an excellent and comprehensive account of Emer’s outing; thanks Gabreelle! There was just one thing I noticed when everybody was heading off home… the Marram Grass at the entrance to Tramore Beach is full of Ergots!
Full of what? I hear you say… Ergots, Claviceps purpurea, are poisonous parasitic fungi that infect the seed heads of a great variety of grasses, especially Meadow Fox Tail. Some of our most important food crops are also susceptible, (in order of decreasing susceptibility) rye, wheat, barley and oats, with cross contamination from wild grasses to grain crops and visa-versa. Areas with Copper or boron deficient soil are more prone to ergot infection.
Severe Ergot infection of Grass
Ergots are highly toxic. They contain a number of powerful chemicals, some of which are relate to the hippie’s hallucinogen, Lysergic Acid, commonly known as LSD. Others cause the restriction of ‘smooth muscle’ such as that which is found in blood vessels and the womb. The symptoms from Ergot Poisoning can take two general forms. Firstly, that of a burning sensation in the limbs, followed by the onset of gangrene, due to the constriction of blood vessels; all this is accompanied by bizarre psychological affects. Ergots can cause hallucination, psychotic behaviour, convulsions, abortion and seriously weaken the immune system (1)… pretty nasty stuff!
Poisoning by Ergots, although not understood, has been recorded since the Middle Ages. Outbreaks were so sudden and inexplicable that many myths and superstitions grew around the affliction, which was widely believed to be divine punishment on sinners. Such were the beliefs and symptoms of the disease that for centuries, it was commonly known as ‘Holy Fire’ or ‘Divine Rapture’. Ironically, the most recent documented case of Ergotism occurred in London in the early 1980’s when a Health Food shop imported ‘Organically’ grown Rye from Poland.
Perhaps the most infamous case of Ergotism is thought to have occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. A highly religious (Puritan) agricultural community was inexplicably plagued by an epidemic of convulsions, psychotic behaviour and miscarriages. The bizarre and distressing events were interpreted as symptoms of Witchcraft. In the ensuing “witch hunt”, 19 people were hanged, 4 died in prison and another man died after enduring two days of torture. Arthur Miller’s famous play ‘The Crucible’, is based on the events of this time.
Ergots occur frequently in Donegal, especially on the Marram Grass along our coast. It can be safely assumed that Ergots would have regularly infected the agricultural crops on local farms, before the advent of fungicides. As mentioned above, Rye is particularly susceptible to Ergot infection. Evidence of the widespread consumption of Rye bread in this locality, is evident from the following Famine Workhouse menu (Glenties 20th May 1848) given to able- bodied adults and those over the age of fifteen (2).
8oz Meal made into stirabout, 1/3 oatmeal 2/3 Indian meal. 2 naggins of sweet milk and 2 of buttermilk.
1lb. Rye Bread 1/3 quart of Buttermilk.
1/2lb Rye Bread 1 naggin of sweet milk.
(a naggin or a noggin is approximately ½ pint).
We still live in what was a largely agricultural and highly superstitious society, with belief in fairies and bizarre supernatural events. One can only speculate as to how much Ergotism might have contributed to this facet of our culture.
On a happier note, the story of Ergots is not entirely bad – purified Ergot derivatives are now used in medicine to aid childbirth and to treat migraine.
(1) Roger Philips, “Mushrooms and other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe”.
(2) Pat Conaghan, “The Great Famine in South West Donegal 1845-1850”.