Magical mystery cures
Hundreds of faith healers harness mysterious powers to cure all sorts of illnesses
Faith healer Francis McGlynn at Lough Key, Co Roscommon: he uses holly and prayers to heal people
Amanda Hamilton from Donegal Town who works with those who have sprains and epilepsy. Photograph: Jason McGarrigle
Keith Moran – who was cured of shingles by a faith healer – with his sons Dylan (4) and Jamie (2). Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The woman beside me says that she can cure my wart without any medicine. I’m sitting with Linda Rogers and her 95-year-old mother, Isobel, around an open bog-turf fire in their Co Westmeath home. Linda has the power of “the cure”, which, put somewhat crudely, is a belief that magical or religious thinking, occasionally combined with herbal remedies, can cure all sorts of illness, ailments and disease.
There are hundreds just like Linda, in every part of Ireland, with cures for problems that include shingles, colic, burns, sprains, eczema, warts and verrucas, heart conditions, epilepsy, ringworm, asthma and thrush, all passed down in secrecy as part of an unbroken folk tradition which predates Christianity in Ireland. It is taboo for healers to take any money from the thousands of people who still visit them each year, and advertising is virtually prohibited. Healers and their patients can be young or old, urban or rural. They are as educated as the rest of the Irish population, and they approach cures from a wide variety of perspectives and beliefs.
Triona, aged 38, is originally from Limerick and now lives in Dublin. She has a Masters in Clinical Medicine from Trinity College. She married a man whose father had a cure for sprains in both humans and animals.
A few years ago, Triona developed pains and sprains around her own back and wrist. The family discovered that her father-in-law had a cure. “His own children didn’t even know,” says Triona. “He made it for me, and I threw my eyes up to heaven and laughed. But it has worked, without a shadow of a doubt. If the pain comes back, I ask him to make the cure for me again, and it disappears completely.”
What was this cure?
Her father-in-law is wary of being identified. Referred to here as Johnny, he is a recently widowed farmer in his mid-60s, born and raised in Co. Leitrim. He does not seek out clients and accepts neither payment nor gift.
Over tea at his kitchen table, Johnny says that he got the cure for the sprain about 15 years ago from a local man. “I went to him because my bull was lame, and I was going so often that he told me how to make the cure. I get calls from people of all ages, but a lot of young people might sprain a wrist or an ankle playing football, and their parents will come to me or more likely call me on the phone. They don’t need to be here in person. I just need to know their name, and what part of their body, and I make the cure.”
What does it involve? Like virtually all healers, Johnny won’t say. “I make the sign of the cross, and say a few prayers after it.”
Healers guard the tradition jealously, and are very cautious about who they pass it on to. Johnny hopes that one of his four sons will agree to inherit the cure. More often than not, the ritual has a Christian element, but in many cases they have been adapted from pagan belief systems. Although modern tradition is divided over whether people seeking the cure must believe, healers generally agree that the person with the cure must have faith that, whether through religious, spiritual, or psychological means, it can and will work.
SOME HEALERS express a fear, rooted in tradition, that widespread knowledge of the cure would dilute its potency. Francis McGlynn, a healer from Co Roscommon, says that it could fall into the wrong hands, and not be respected. He has cures for shingles and bleeding, as well as a herbal remedy for burns which “arrived in a greasy envelope” slid under his door. Over the hills and beyond the trees, Boyle Abbey, the ruins of a Cistercian monastery, towers over the local landscape. According to legend, the Cistercians once held all the cures in Ireland but, fearing Norman invaders and political turmoil, they secretly dispersed different cures to families throughout Ireland for safekeeping.
McGlynn is married, with two grown sons. Religious iconography dots his home. His Catholic belief system is deeply rooted in spirituality and mysticism. This spirituality forms the basis of his healing. He has suffered grief and a serious illness, as well as chronic pain. Francis is dyslexic, but sees it as a gift which allows his mind to work faster and think in images. He frequently refers to the interconnectedness of all belief systems, seeing them as different ways of reaching the same God. He says that the Christian Trinity can be seen as representing the connections between a person’s mind, body, and soul.
Shingles can be brought on by a weakened immune system and by stress. More people are coming to him since the recession hit, dhe says. “They sit here and we might talk for an hour about what has caused their illness. The next day, I see them lifted and more at peace. I try to help them to be mindful and more aware of the present moment where their heart beats and their breath lives, instead of in the future where they will be anxious and nervous, or in the past, where resentment and hatred dwell.”
The ritual itself is equally important, Francis says. It involves touching the rash with a holly bush – which is believed to be sacred – while reciting a particular prayer.
A panel-beater and part-time farmer, Francis feels that he was called to healing.
He does not accept money, although many visitors bring a small gift, such as a cake or box of chocolates.
“My father had the cures. The year before he died, he said, ‘Francie, you’ll carry on the aul’ cure,’ and I says, ‘of course I will.’ I know that my boy will take it too, if he wants it.”
Cures are not restricted to any religious denomination, and can be performed on, and by, people of all faiths and none. Amanda Hamilton, aged 34, is from a Protestant family who trace their arrival in Ireland back to the Plantations. She lives outside Donegal town and was just 14 when her grand-aunt Ida passed on a cure for epilepsy. Her brother, Jason, also has the cure.
Initially, Amanda is reluctant to speak. “Part of the condition for the cure was that I cannot advertise or encourage people to come to me,” she explains hesitantly. “It is important that they find me themselves. Another condition was that I can’t take money. Sometimes people get offended if I won’t take a gift, so I will reluctantly accept something small, but I don’t encourage it. Charitable donations are a better idea.”
She recognises that folk cures for epilepsy may be particularly controversial. She studied psychiatric nursing in Trinity College, and quickly found her medical training in direct opposition to her lived experience. In her job, she kept it quiet. “I did have some conflict, but it was mainly internal conflict. I’m a nurse – what if this doesn’t work? Will I have daggers in my back? Will people judge me? Should I know better? I have resolved that conflict now.”
Crucially, Amanda insists that anybody who comes to her must also go to a conventional medical doctor, and that they must follow that doctor’s advice. Her cure involves reciting a Christian-based charm or prayer – unsurprisingly, she won’t reveal it – while patients must also drink a specially prepared herbal remedy, which she says can only work if it is made fresh.
In recent years, a local man gave her the cure for sprains. This, she says, is based in Roman Catholic tradition, but she is still able to carry it out successfully. Both cures, she says, will only work if people follow a strict set of conditions. Unfortunately, feedback is low, although she says that only patients with positive outcomes have reported back to her. Around 15 years ago, Linda Rogers inherited the cure for warts and verrucas, for both humans and animals, from her father. Linda runs the farm. During the day, as she did for her own late husband, her mother Isobel often answers the phone for people in search of Linda’s cure.
For several months, I had been firing various freezes and paints from the chemist at my wart. Each time, it had yawned in provocatively dismissive boredom. I saw little harm in Linda having a pop at it.
“There tend to be outbreaks of warts in schools, and one parent might tell the other parent about me, and they’d all be at my door,” says Linda. “Coming up to Communion is a particularly busy time, as people want the kids to look perfect.”
This year, Linda noticed an outbreak of warts among animals. “The milking machines can hurt the cows, and they were in distress. It’s a desperate situation for farmers. One man came to me for help this summer, and I made the cure.”
Calls come from far away. “A paramedic on relief work in Africa was unable to deal with one little boy’s warts, so she contacted me. A lady in Germany sends me letters regularly, as her children get warts every now and again. It works over distance.”
I’m sceptical, but the cure has survived for centuries before me, and warts appear particularly susceptible to its power. In one clinical study, researchers painted a bright but completely inert dye over patients’ warts and promised that they would be gone within days. They were.
Was the power of suggestion, or placebo, at play? Healers and their adherents dispute this, pointing out that cures are often performed on animals and babies, who do not have the capacity for faith (although several scientific studies have indicated that both babies can animals can be affected, in complex ways, by suggestion from adults). Warts will almost always disappear within months or years without any treatment, but people claim the healers speed the process up.
Francis refers to a cure for bleeding which he performed for a young man in Scotland, who fell into a coma after a fall on ice. From his home in Ireland, he recited the secret prayer, which refers to the River Jordan. Four hours later, by coincidence or otherwise, the man awoke. “He could not have known what was being done on his behalf,” says Francis. But is it possible that the belief of others may affect us in subconscious ways, ways which have nothing to do with magic? And does it even matter whether or not magic is at play, if the cures work for people?
Scepticism is healthy and normal, says Linda. “Lots of people say that they are coming because their mother told them to, and they don’t believe. A week or month later, you might get a phone call to say the wart or verrucas have gone.”
She disappears from the room and returns with a leather-bound, shiny black volume. She approaches, looks and my hands, and asks me to write my full name, including my second name and confirmation name, in her book.
Now what? “Now you forget about it,” says Linda. “It may take a week, or a month, but it won’t be much longer.” Sadly, this doesn’t give me enough time to report the outcome for this story. In just under a week, the wart has shrunk slightly, but it has not gone away.
Dr Bairbre Ní Fhloinn is Head of Irish Folklore at the UCD Delargy Centre for Irish Folklore. She has researched and taught about the cultural significance of folk medicine for over 20 years. Almost every year, her young students tell her about cures. “Cures work on the level of the community, shoring up personal relationships and helping people to form connections,” she explains. “Cures connect the past to the present, and in doing so, they connect different parts of our own systems – or what healers may call mind, body and spirit.”
She is not a scientist, focusing instead on the symbolism of cures. She points out that many are passed on to people who may have been somewhat disadvantaged: a child born after his or her father died, a poorer person, or the seventh son or daughter who would have been far down the successidon line. There are many cases of cures not working, she says.
Far from a dying vestige practiced by backward cranks, cures are modern, rooted in everyday life, and concerned with the here and now. “In my own experience, people who go for cures are on the internet, they have iPhones, they are often young, and they are plugged into contemporary society,” says Dr Ní Fhloinn.
Cures have survived for millennia. They may be here to stay.
People of all ages, from all parts of Ireland, say they have had positive outcomes from cures. Niamh Fenton, 31, from Waterford, collapsed at work with shingles, a viral infection related to chickenpox.
The condition can be treated, but the only cure is time. She was brought to a healer. “I was completely sceptical, but I was in so much pain, I was willing to try anything,” she says. “This man put a drop of his blood on my scalp and rubbed it in, and that was all. I know how f***ed up it sounds, but I felt instant relief. He’s dead now, but he passed the cure to his son. It still freaks me out.”
Keith Moran, a married father-of-two who is originally from Monaghan but now lives in Leopardstown, CoDublin, tells a similar story. The doctor handed him a bottle of camomile lotion for his shingles and instructed him to wait it out. Full of pain and deep cynicism, Keith was brought by his father to the home of an elderly woman in Emyvale who was reputed to have the cure.
“She told me to take off my top,” Keith recalls. “She took out a holy medal from a cloth pouch and rubbed on it the affected area. It was metal, and it burned like a hot knife. I closed my eyes and winced as she whispered a prayer – I couldn’t hear what she was saying – and when she stopped, the burning sensation left. She said it would be gone within three days. On the fourth, it was gone.”
Colm, also from Monaghan, has an embarrassing story. He was just 10 when his older brother sprayed farting gas in his mouth. His throat numbed. Colm’s mother brought him to a healer. “I thought it was a doctor. She said some kind of prayer, and rubbed my neck, and I felt better instantly.”
Cures appear to be particularly current in north Leinster, Ulster, and parts of Connaught. Trim, Co Meath is an unexpected stronghold. Online forums, such as boards.ie, contain a treasure trove of ancient cures that are still practiced today. Travellers have a particularly strong belief in cures.
Belief is notoriously difficult to quantify. Some of us may claim to be sceptical, but we may be more susceptible to belief than we are consciously aware of.
Others might think it is all nonsense but desperately want the cure to work, perhaps out of nothing more than sheer interest and the natural, hopeful, human tendency to think that real magic would be nice.
One misconception should be cleared: almost nobody who visits folk healers is credulous. Visitors are perfectly capable of forming critical and usually wary opinions, based on their own observations and experiences. Science has a right and duty to interrogate these cures, but condescension will not provide any answers.