University College Cork, Ireland | Published: 31 October, 2017
ISSUE 12.2 | Pages: 91-106 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2017-7597
2017 by Rosari Kingston | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Irish folk medicine is perceived to be dying, if not dead already. It lies as a parallel system to modern biomedicine and is known only through word of mouth. However, no matter what modality is practised, be it bone-setting, plant medicine, charms or rituals, there are traditional characteristics common to all as a whole. An examination of these traditional elements allows us to see how Irish folk medicine is currently practised and to ascertain whether it has reached the second life that Lauri Honko suggested. If this were the case, “the recycling of material in an environment that differs from its original context” (Honko, “The Folklore” 42) should be evident.
Existe una percepción bastante extendida de que la medicina popular en Irlanda está moribunda, si es que no se considera muerta directamente. Esta práctica se presenta sin embargo como sistema paralelo al de la medicina moderna y se transmite de boca en boca. Cualquiera que sea su modalidad, ya sea colocación de huesos, medicina a base de plantas, hechizos o rituales, comparten características propias. Un análisis de estos elementos tradicionales nos permite examinar cómo se practica actualmente la medicina popular irlandesa y si ha alcanzado la segunda vida del folklore en definición de Lauri Honko. Si este es el caso, “el reciclaje del material en un medio que difiere de su contexto original” (Honko, “The Folklore” 42) debería manifestarse de forma evidente.
Medicina popular irlandesa; tradición; segunda vida; discreción; procedencia.
This article examines contemporary accounts of folk healers in Ireland. Given the widespread occurrence of folk medical practices in Ireland today, the traditional aspect of such practices may be questioned and we may wonder whether they are a modern recycling of tradition, such as that described by Lauri Honko in his influential study of the “Folklore Processes” (1991), where he distinguishes between the (traditional) “first life” and its (non-traditional) “second life”. The “second Life” of folklore, Honko explains, concerns “the recycling of material in an environment that differs from its original context” (“The Folklore” 42). In this article, I will examine some instances of Irish folk medicine, as it is currently practised, to ascertain whether they fall into Honko’s “second life” category or should rather be regarded as modern attestations of a living vernacular tradition of folk medicine.
To answer this question, I interviewed thirteen practitioners with different healing methods in various parts of Ireland. This included healers from the south, the south-east, the west, the Midlands, as well as counties Meath, Westmeath, Leitrim, and Tyrone. This broad sweep across many of the counties of the island of Ireland is to investigate the current situation of their healing practice, as well as to establish values, norms and traditions that are common to them. Names of healers were obtained through word of mouth from patients and colleagues and initial contact was made by telephone call. The healers interviewed ranged in age from the mid-fifties to the mid-eighties. Each interview was recorded between 2012 and 2016 and lasted, on average, one to two hours. Some of the most interesting comments and information came after the recorder was turned off. This informal chat and openness “off the record” confirmed, for me, the fear of publicity and reticence that is so prevalent among the healers including those that did not mind their names being used. Some healers did not wish to be identified and, in these instances, I chose a forename as a pseudonym and did not use their real name. Where there was no objection to identity disclosure, I have used both forename and surname as well as location details. This openness reflects the position of Peter Nolan who notes that a “considerable degree of rapport is needed to gain cultural and psychological insights into how the rural Irish people construct their world and into the meanings they attribute to human behaviour” (44).
Protection of identity is also necessary as Irish healers are shy of publicity and, as Ronnie Moore notes, the “cures, curing, and healing were not casually talked about” and “information on cures and charms was not normally volunteered but … often introduced by a family member or close friend in a personal and private context” (111). Buckley also observed that it was difficult to find a healer, and a person “is likely to be told of one by a relative, neighbour or other acquaintance” (17). Sr. Nora Smyth from Belfast, who has written about the healers she has met over the years, stated that healers have a natural reticence about their gift: “Most of the healers that I have dealt with are extremely reticent to talk about their gift” (Smyth, Personal communication). She reiterated: “Genuine healers, in my limited experience, are usually very reluctant to speak about their powers”. This diffidence is almost a hallmark of the profession and unless the healer has changed his/her mode of practice, it remains a persistent trait among them. Yet, Nolan contends that because the Catholic Church, since the Second Vatican Council, has encouraged lay people to use any gifts they have in the service of the sick, it “may have made quack healers less reticent than they were to admit to having a cure” (55). Nolan further points out that in Ireland, unlike England, the term “quack” is not derogatory but simply “refers to someone not medically trained but who is regarded as having the cure for certain physical diseases or a special gift to help those in need” (45).
The two main types of healing systems used in the world today are biomedicine and traditional medicine. The former is the usual/common health care system in the Western world, including Ireland, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the science or practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease (in technical use often taken to exclude surgery)”. Traditional medicine includes all medical traditions other than biomedicine and may be further divided into two branches, literate and oral. China, India and Greece have given us the great literate traditions of Chinese, Ayurvedic and Unani medicines with their vast respective repositories of medical manuscripts and centuries of clinical expertise evident in tomes such as the Characa Samhita in Ayurveda which dates, according to the estimations, from between 100 BCE and 200 CE. The second branch of traditional medicine covers the oral medical traditions of indigenous communities. Irish folk medicine falls under this classification. Oral medical tradition comprises two categories: on the one hand, the medical practices that are focused on the supernatural, and on the other the medical practices that employ empirical means such as using cobwebs to stop bleeding or holly to stop ringworm in cattle. Researchers in various disciplines have noted this division. The anthropologist W.S. Lyons attests to its presence in his extensive work on Native American medicine and so does the psychiatrist A. Kleinman in his exploration of the effect of culture on illness (Kleinman, Patients; “Medicine’s”; Kleinman and Benson). Ó Súilleabháin alludes to this division within Irish folk medicine when he notes that the herbal medicine specialist is seen as having a lower status than the “wise” man or woman who effects a cure through ritual. He ascribes this to the “attitude of primitive man everywhere towards sickness and disease, an attitude that is completely foreign to the rational world in which we live” (58). The “primitive man” is more impressed by the “ceremonial curing of a complaint, by the recitation of an often corrupt spell or charm (ortha in Irish), as well as by complicated acts and gestures” than “the straightforward cure of an ailment by the application of a plaster” (58) or other remedy.
The worldview that informs indigenous medicine is very different to that of biomedicine and Nolan maintains that, in Irish folk medicine, it is the “cultural and ideological context which gives meaning to their practices” (46). Folk medicine is tied to local culture and environment and is based on traditional beliefs, the knowledge of which is kept alive by a few active bearers of tradition in each community (Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk 10). Ó Súilleabháin also sees folk medicine as “an integral part of folk culture” and posits that any enquiry into its efficacy must take the environment into which it is practised into consideration (“Foreword” viii). He is aware of the effect of the modern (European) world view, with its emphasis on reason, on its practice and does not see the “cures” and rituals that are present in Irish folk medicine as practices to be retained, as they are the cultural response of their time to illness and “completely foreign to the rational world in which we live” (Irish Folk 58).
He ascribes these practices to a large body of superstitious belief that appears strange to the modern mind but which seemed normal and rational to those who used them in the past (Ó Súilleabháin, A Handbook 304). He does admit however that “In their own day, all of these ‘doctors’ and many others whom I have not enumerated filled a very useful social function, although their activities would be looked upon askance in our less sympathetic days” (Irish Folk 60). Some of these social functions included, “sound advice beyond the power of others”, and therapeutic efficacy through the placebo effect (Irish Folk 58; “Foreword” x). Nolan also attests to the importance of local knowledge to the healer: “The important thing about quacks is that they have an intimate knowledge of the villages they live in and of the people they live with” (45). Logan affirms that many patients will be “greatly helped by being able to tell all their worries to a sympathetic listener” (2).
Unlike Ó Súilleabháin, Moore (105) does not see folk medical practices as confined to the past: according to him, they are still an integral part of the health beliefs and health resources of the communities living in the rural towns of Ballymacross and Hunterstown in Northern Ireland that he surveyed in 1995/6. He noticed that the communities in these towns “utilised health-belief models that paradoxically straddled both formal (scientific) and lay (superstitious) accounts of health and illness with relative ease” (105). In both communities, there were healers and some of these individuals were ascribed “special mystical healing properties”. There was a strong belief in both communities in “the cure” and “the charm” and these terms were interchangeable (111). Like Ó Súilleabháin, Moore also noticed the importance of ritual and the supernatural and remarks that “the cure” is associated with “pagan cosmological ideas of health involving magical and supernatural beliefs, and not necessarily tied to religion or religiosity per se” (“A General” 115). Wayland Hand maintains that the curing rituals present in folk medicine bring “an added measure of power and healing efficacy” but it is not easy to prove the connection of these curing rituals with ancient cultic and mythological ideas (140). This association of the cure with the supernatural also concurs with the many narratives in the Irish National Folklore Collection (NFC), where healing is associated with the spirit world. These accounts “provide an indicator of attitude to belief in fairies and healers among large sections of the rural population” (Corrigan Correll 14).
Moore (116-117) noticed in his work that health professionals, including GPs, were aware of folk healing and gave it a tacit acceptance. This acknowledgement was due in part to their belief that folk healing, especially for minor ailments, took pressure off overburdened practices and were, in the main, therapeutic. Some health care professionals also sought “the cure” for themselves or livestock and some “routinely incorporated traditional healing into their own practice” (“A General” 118). From his ethnographic research in Ballymacross and Hunterstown, Moore sees folk medicine as a means of “emphasizing ritual and culture, social bonds and neighbourliness”. Belief in “the cure” was the “mortar binding a distinct and fundamental value system in these communities” (125), one which, Buckley says, resides in a cultural context that also included belief in the evil eye, banshees, ghosts and fairies (18). This pragmatically orientated world view, in relation to “the cure”, may be clearly seen in Buckley’s observation that for some illnesses, the patient bypasses the local doctor and goes “immediately to an unorthodox practitioner”. This approach is taken where it is well known that biomedicine does not have a swift cure and includes health issues as widely varied as “skin cancer, sprains, and ringworm” (“Unofficial” 16).
It is this common fund of traditional beliefs, values and knowledge that informs folk medicine. In the following pages, some of the aspects of traditional healing, explicated and clarified by the folk healers interviewed, shall be explored. The discussion of these central elements of the contemporary healers practice shall also seek to identify whether these particular folk medicine traditions have achieved a second life distinct from their first life which ends with documentation and archival of that tradition (Honko, “The Kalevala” 185). The work of the NFC with their collection of folk medicine narratives, as well as studies such as that of Buckley, Nolan, and Moore, are instances of this documentation. The question is then: are these elements, as expounded by the healers themselves, divorced from their traditional cultural context, do they have a different modus operandi, or are they still part of a traditional community and its functionality? Each interview included questions such as: “how long are you or your family practising?”; “How did you get the cure?”; “What do you cure?”; “Will your children carry on the tradition?” The interviews were open-ended and, on analysis, the responses were much broader than the questions asked but fell generally into the following divisions: dislike of publicity, lineage, oral tradition, difference between the cure and the bottle, sense of identity, sense of service, no payment, and scope of practice. These divisions will now be explored.
Elements of folk medicine
1. Dislike of publicity: A dislike of publicity is a common trait among healers. Agnes, who has a blessing for shingles,1 acted very promptly when she heard that her cure had been mentioned on a local radio:
… I had a friend living down in Mayo and she rang me and said that my cure had been mentioned on the local radio, the Mid West radio or one of those kinda
- Agnes performs a blessing for shingles where she touches the lesions in three places, three times and says a short blessing each time she touches a lesion. The person seeking the blessing has to return three times but not necessarily on three consecutive days. [↩]
- Simon makes a cream for psoriasis, ringworm and eczema. This is a plant-based formula which he inherited from his father. The plants are wild-crafted in May or June depending on the weather. [↩]
- Brigid learnt the technique of “raising the breast bone” (sternum) from her father. It is a form of cupping. Cupping involves the placing of a glass/cup on the skin for a few minutes to create suction. This action influences the underlying deep tissue. [↩]
- Anne’s cure for shingles involves touching the lesions in two places only, the first one and the last one on the nerve. She also places her thumb in the base of the skull, a position she calls “the holy water font”, and makes the sign of the cross there. A person returns three times for the blessing. [↩]
- This cure is a recipe that involves Guinness and chalk. It is extremely difficult to take and there is no set ritual associated with it. [↩]
- This charm is similar to other charms for stopping bleeding, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem, baptised in the river Jordan…” (Boylan 2012 Interview). [↩]
- Sean inherited four plant-based formulae from his father. These were for asthma, tuberculosis, dropsy and arthritis. He inherited a plant-based formula for burns, a cream for external application, from his mother and a charm for stopping bleeding from his uncle Joe. This charm is similar to that of J. P. Dowd. [↩]
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Unpublished Primary Sources
Agnes. Blessing for shingles. Interviewed by R. Kingston. August 2016.
Anne. Cure for shingles and whooping cough. Interviewed by R. Kingston. August 2016.
Boylan, Sean. Transmission of healing. Interviewed by R. Kingston. Dunboyne, Co. Meath. 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.
Brigid. Raising the breast bone. Interviewed by R. Kingston. August 2016.
Dowd, J.P. Charm for Haemorrhage. Interviewed by R. Kingston. Carrick on Shannon. August 2016.
Kingston, R. Field note recording 159. August 2011.
Lane, V. Bonesetting. Interviewed by R. Kingston. Newmarket, Co. Cork. 2011, 2012, 2017.
Nolan, R. Prayer for shingles. Interviewed by R. Kingston. Co. Kilkenny. November 2016.
O’Neill, Dan. Bonesetting. Interviewed by R. Kingston. Myshall, Co. Carlow. November 2012.
O’Neill, James. Informal communication. Moyshall, Co. Carlow. November 2016.
Simon. Cure for psoriasis. Interviewed by R. Kingston. August 2016.
Smyth, Sr. Nora. Reticence. Personal communication. May 23rd; May 30th 2016.
Stephen. Skin cancer. Interviewed by R. Kingston. August 2016.
Williams, K. Folk remedies. Interviewed by R. Kingston. Co. Waterford. 2012.