Miraculous Medicine – Frank McNally on those stalwarts of Irish life: people with ‘the cure’
An Irishman’s Diary
For people of my parents’ generation, belief in such cures ranged from absolute to a shrugged “sure it can’t do any harm”. Photograph: iStock
A colleague born in Tyrone, but living in Dublin, has a daughter who this week sprained her ankle. No great drama there.
But the colleague also has an 81-year-old mother, still in Tyrone, who on hearing the news, is said to have sprung into action to get “the cure” from somebody back home.
The first consultant she approached needed to see the sprain, which wasn’t practical. Happily, like the official NHS up there, the underground version is a great resource.
A second sprain-curer was soon found who could work remotely, given only the patient’s middle name and date of birth.
All this was done routinely, without much thought, until my colleague – a perfectly rational woman in most ways, at least outside GAA season – mentioned it to “people here”, ie Dublin. “They looked at me like I was a lunatic,” she said. And despite having grown up surrounded by people with cures for all sorts of things, she suddenly realised it “does sound a bit mad when actually vocalised”.
It didn’t sound mad to me, but then I too have been cured at least once.
It was a long time ago, in Monaghan. I was seven at the time, and had broken a leg. So my parents first brought me to a conventional hospital, for the X-rays, resetting, plaster of Paris, and so on.
But later, after the plaster had been removed, I vaguely remember being driven up a lane somewhere, where an old man came out and, without me even having to leave the car, performed some sort of ritual on the leg, involving a small bottle of something that I assume was holy water.
For people of my parents’ generation, belief in such cures ranged from absolute to a shrugged “sure it can’t do any harm”.
And in a way, that last attitude complements the Hippocratic oath. Doing no harm is a doctor’s first principle. For many cure-seekers, it’s the second-last.
By coincidence, I have recently been reading Stephen’s Rynne’s Green Fields, a classic account of farming in 1930s Kildare, in which at least one curer features prominently.
Rynne was not a believer in such people. Although a devout Catholic, he was a scientific farmer, university-educated, so when one of his heifers was struck down with epilepsy, he at first scoffed at the suggestion of an older workman that there was a local blacksmith who had a cure.
Only when the animal was clearly dying, in great pain, with the “books” having proved useless, did Rynne relent.
In part, he was persuaded by a second workman, “of a younger generation, [who had] served in the IRA and sometimes reads a newspaper”, that the cure had a herbal basis, albeit a darkly secret one.
When he did go to the blacksmith, the snob in Rynne was at first further assured by the sight of him using a handkerchief to blow his nose. The man was a “civilised modern”, he told himself, “who dwells within sight of the glare of Dublin lights”.
Alas, as Rynne discovered, “the margin between ‘dark secrets’ and ‘black magic’ is very thin”.
It turned out that the cure had to be administered on a “Thursday, Sunday, and Tuesday”, that the mysterious potion had to be rubbed in to various parts of the animal while the dispenser made the sign of the cross, and that it would take no less than three bottles, any left-overs from which had to be disposed of carefully “in some place where nothing goes near”.
In the event, its magic went untested. The heifer was dead on Rynne’s return, whereupon, “like a fool”, he disposed of the bottle’s contents as prescribed.
Remembering Rynne’s reassurance in the blacksmith’s location, I rang a very civilised friend of mine who lives on the Meath/Kildare borders, but whose mother is from Cavan, to ask if cures still proliferated in her locale.
She in turn asked her father, who at first suggested it was “more of a Cavan thing”, but was then quickly able to list several of his Meath neighbours who could cure shingles, bleeding, warts, and a range of other disorders.
The family employ the services occasionally of a lawn-strimmer, who despite being a martyr to hay fever refuses to touch anti-histamines in favour of a local healer. But most impressively, my friend’s father also listed a cardiac specialist among the curers.
There can’t be many of those still operating (I don’t mean in the surgical sense, which I trust they never did), surely, even in Cavan or Tyrone.