Medical Superstitions and Ancient Charms

The healing art in all the early stages of a nation's life, and amongst all primitive tribes, has been associated with religion. For the wonderful effects produced by certain herbs and modes of treatment were believed by the simple and unlettered people to be due to supernatural influence acting in a mystic and magical manner on the person afflicted.

The medicine men were therefore treated with the profoundest awe and respect. And the medicine women came in also for their share of veneration and often of superstitious dread; for their mysterious incantations were supposed to have been taught to them by fairies and the spirits of the mountain.

The Irish from the most remote antiquity were devoted to mystical medicine, and had a remarkable knowledge of cures and remedies for disease, obtained through the power and action of herbs on the human frame.

The physicians of the pagan era formed a branch of the Druid priesthood, and were treated with distinguished honour. They had special places assigned to them at the royal banqueting table at Tara, and a certain revenue was secured to them that they might live honourably.

When in attendance on a patient the doctor was entitled by law to his diet, along with four of his pupils; but if he failed to cure from deficiency of skill, he was obliged to refund the fees and pay back all the expenses of his keep; a measure which no doubt greatly stimulated the serious attention of the learned ollamhs of healing to the case in hand.

So great, indeed, was the importance attached to the healing art in Ireland, that even prior to the Christian era, a building of the nature of an hospital was erected at Tara, near to the palace of the king. This was called "The House of Sorrow," and the sick and wounded were provided there with all necessary care.

On one occasion it is recorded that a great chief and prince out of Munster was brought to "The House of Sorrow" to be treated of wounds received in battle, but the attendant, through treachery, placed poison in the wounds, and then closed them so carefully that there was no external sign, though the groans of the wounded man were terrible to hear. Then the learned Fioneen was sent for, "the prophetic physician," as he was called, from his great skill in diagnosis; and when he arrived with three of his pupils at the hospital they found the chief lying prostrate, groaning in horrible agony.

"What groan is that?" asked the master of the first pupil.

"It is from a poisoned barb," he answered.

"And what groan is that?" asked the master, of the second pupil.

"It is from a hidden reptile," he answered.

"And what groan is that?" asked Fioneen of the third pupil.

"It is from a poisoned seed," he answered.

Then Fioneen set to work, and having cauterized the wounds with red hot irons, the poisonous bodies were extracted from beneath the skin, and the chief was healed.

In later times the Irish physicians were much celebrated for their learning, and numerous Irish medical manuscripts are in existence, both in Ireland and England, and are also scattered through the public libraries of the continent. They are chiefly written in Latin, with a commentary in Irish, and show a thorough knowledge on the part of the writers of the works of Hippocrates, Galen, Aristotle, and others as celebrated. For after the introduction of Christianity Latin was much cultivated in the Irish schools, and the priests and physicians not only wrote, but could converse fluently in Latin, which language became the chief medium of communication between them and the learned men of the continent. But the most ancient mode of procedure amongst the Irish ollamhs and adepts was of a medico-religious character; consisting of herb cures, fairy cures, charms, invocations, and certain magical ceremonies. A number of these cures have been preserved traditionally by the people, and form a very interesting study of early medical superstitions, as they have been handed down through successive generations; for the profession of a physician was hereditary in certain families, and the accumulated lore of centuries was transmitted carefully from father to son by this custom and usage.