Ireland’s indigenous medicine and its rich healing traditions.
The ‘person with the cure’ is still a well-known individual in many Irish parishes. He, or she, may have the cure for shingles, jaundice, skin cancer, heart fever or may even know how to ‘raise the breastbone.’ The latter is a procedure requiring three successive therapy sessions of approximately one hour, possibly longer, in some cases. It is sought after by those feeling under the weather or having experienced a bad cold or flu. There are other healers who just give you a ‘bottle’ with very specific instructions on where and when to take it, and even more importantly, how to discard the contents later. On analysis, this ‘bottle’ may contain nothing more than water but faith in its healing power is no less diminished by this knowledge.
So, are all these cures just superstition or piseógs? Or are they old knowledge passed down the generations, and kept alive by different families, in difficult times, to serve the needs of their communities?
John Neill, the bonesetter from Myshall, Co. Carlow, is in his 80s now but there is still a queue waiting for him each morning, as there is for Sean Boylan, a herbalist, from Dunboyne, Co. Meath. Boylan learnt how to use herbs from his father, but his knowledge is more deep-rooted than one generation. It goes back centuries as many healers belong to a healing lineage and they have told me that their cure has been in the family for ten or twelve generations.
This length of time brings us back to the turmoil of the 16th and 17th century and the demise of the Irish-learned medical system. There are other ways also to receive the authority to practise as a healer. One may be given a cure by somebody who already has it, but the stress here is on, ‘given the cure.’ You cannot ask for it. Usually, the healer will think long and carefully before they pass on a cure, as the person receiving it must understand that it is a gift for the community and not charge for its use. To accept a cure is to accept responsibility.
A cure may also be obtained by mysterious means such as licking a lizard* as a small child, and subsequently having the ability to heal burns – if you lick the burn. Being the seventh son of a seventh son or being a member of certain families such as Cahills or Keoghs also entitles you to practise as a healer for specific conditions. It is only by acquiring the cure in a clearly defined way that one is qualified to practise.
*The common or viviparous lizard (Zootoca vivipara) is Ireland’s only native species of reptile. It gives birth to live young, a rarity in the world, where most species lay eggs in order to reproduce.
Generally, those who use plant medicine have been taught from a young age, usually three to five. Sean Boylan was out weeding plants at the age of three, and another healer has been observing cancer lesions from about the age of five. A well-known bonesetter was foraging for plants for poultices as a young child, and also remembers the plants being processed in a “bothy out the back.” As they got older the level of knowledge increased, until gradually they were allowed to practise on their own.
The knowledge of the “person with a cure” is different to the cures that are available in the wider community. These cures have a broader reach and include visits to healing wells that are reputed to heal warts, eyes, skin problems, depression, or simply bring a blessing of good health. Visits to many wells involve pilgrimage and prayer and take place on saints or other special days.
There was a recognition also that some illness had no cause or, worse still, could be caused by the evil eye, or the fairies. Consequently, it was important to adhere to social rules that kept such malevolence at bay. Warding off the possibility of a fairy illness involves celebrations such as those that take place at Halloween and Bealtaine, as the veil between this world and the spirit world is deemed to be quite porous at these times and something untoward could happen. The cures known generally in a community involved the use of what was available. The swede turnip or rutabaga was used for coughs as the following account from Co. Mayo tells us.
A cough can be cured in the following way:
Get a piece of a turnip and make small slices of it. Then put the slices in a saucer, shake a grain of sugar on them and cover them by means of another saucer or deep plate and leave there for a few hours. Then take out the slices and drink a teaspoonful of the juice before your breakfast for fifteen mornings in succession. (This cured a severe cough that I had a few weeks ago.)
Chilblains are easily cured by turnips. Cut a hole in the middle of it put a fist of salt in the hole. Then put the cap back on it. Then leave the salt to melt, and rub the juice on the chilblains for a couple of nights. Adding salt to a turnip, also aids in the removal of corns. Scoop a hole out of a turnip, put a large spoonful of salt in the hole, leave it there for three days. The liquid that will have formed at the end of that time will cure the most obstinate corn.
(This liquid can be put in a jar and kept covered until required.) Bathe the corn in warm water and apply a small quantity of the liquid night and morning. These cures belong in the home medicine cabinet and have been passed down freely within the community – and we do the same with different remedies today.
These types of cures are different from the specific and advanced knowledge of the healer who not only knows what plants to pick, and when to pick them, but also how to process them so that the cure is effective. In my book, Ireland’s Hidden Medicine, I show how the knowledge currently manifested in the healers may reflect the Irish medical learned tradition.
Most of us are not aware that Ireland was home to many famous medical families, who organized the teaching and transmission of medical knowledge. There was a famous medical school at Aghmacart, Culahill, Co. Laois, built around 1425 under the stewardship of the O’Conchubhair family of physicians.
The O’Conchubhair physicians translated medical texts from Latin into Irish, thus giving their students the latest ideas and theories that were informing medicine in Europe. Unfortunately, this school did not survive the political turbulence of the 17th century, but we can speculate, even assume that some of their knowledge disseminated into the wider population and is evident in the healers today.
In Ireland’s Hidden Medicine, I also show how different factors that present in Irish indigenous medicine follow the Irish cyclical year, such as the traditions at Imbolc (February 1st), Bealtaine, (May 1st), Lughnasa (August) and Samhain (Halloween).
Taken together these traditions have a holistic approach, not just the body, but also to emotional and spiritual health. There is no reason why these same traditions cannot be adapted to today. By doing this we not only benefit our health but also continue to link with our forebears who kept these traditions alive down through the centuries. ♦
Dr. Kingston’s book Ireland’s Hidden Medicine explores the rich healing traditions, which resonate through the country’s landscape, music, festivals, and language, is available at drrosarikingston.com.