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.”