Secret Charms and 7th Sons: “The Cure” is alive and well in Ireland
PULLOUGH, Ireland – For two hours on Sunday mornings, they come to the pub with everything that ails them. A little boy with a rash. A farmer with ringworm. A man with a throat infection.
They are here to see Joe Gallagher, owner of this canary yellow pub, nestled along a canal in the tiny Irish village of Pullough, County Offaly.
They believe that as the seventh son in his family, he holds a cure.
“I’ve been here my whole life,” said Mr Gallagher, 75, taking a deep puff of his cigarette. As he explained how he was healing – putting his hands on the affected area, making the sign of the cross, and reciting a few prayers – he exhaled ribbons of smoke that swirled around his face.
Mr Gallagher is just one of hundreds of men and women across Ireland who are healers or have ‘the cure’, an approach to health care that mixes home remedies with mysticism, superstition, religion and a pinch of magic.
It is part of a belief in traditional medicine, healing charms and healers that are still a way of life for many in Ireland, even though it is fading away.
Some of those believed to have the cure are seventh sons, like Mr. Gallagher, a birth order long thought to confer special powers.
Others are the keepers of family customs that range from rituals, prayers, and charms to herbal tinctures, offered as treatments for everything from burns and sprains to rashes and coughs.
Since he was a child, people have searched for Mr. Gallagher. “I think you have to have the conviction,” he said, acknowledging that the process doesn’t always work. “I wouldn’t say I can work miracles.”
For Mr Gallagher, a former monk who said his religious order had accepted the cure, the practice is deeply religious.
“You have to put your heart and soul into it, and ask God to help you with this thing,” he said.
For others, healings depend less on a deep Christian faith than on secrets handed down through centuries of oral tradition.
Bart Gibbons, 57, a grocery store owner in Drumshanbo village, County Leitrim, has a remedy for warts passed to him by his father and his father’s father before him.
This involves taking a bundle of rushes and saying a combination of prayers as they are held over the affected area. Then he buries the reed-like plants. The belief is that when they break down, the warts are gone.
Mr Gibbons had no plans to continue the treatment after his father died, but a woman then came to his door asking for the remedy to remove his warts before his wedding day. He said he would try. It worked, he said, and people have been coming since, some hundreds of miles away.
He said it would be wrong to receive payment for treatment, and the idea that payment is taboo is something experts say is rooted in tradition. Mr. Gibbons described being a “vessel” of his healing. “I am not a saint,” he said. “And I don’t pretend to be.”
In Mr. Gibbons’ view, the cure is for belief rather than religion. “If people believe enough that this has happened, I think your body is doing it,” he said.
Attributing the remedy’s positive results to something like a placebo effect makes sense to Ronald Moore, an associate professor of public health at University College Dublin who has spent years researching folk remedies and pointed out that there was little scientific evidence of the effectiveness of these practices.
But that doesn’t mean the medical community completely rejects the potential benefits, with some doctors known to send their patients for treatment, often for skin issues or other minor issues.
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“Modern practices on the poop side are outrageous, outrageous and quackery,” said Dr. Moore. “But in fact, and in reality, they use it.”
While many cures have been imbued with a religious element in a country with an overwhelming Catholic majority, the tradition – variations of which still exist in many cultures across the world – is ancient.
“The remedies and charms go far beyond the established church, they predate Christianity,” Dr. Moore said. “It’s basically a pagan system.”
But there are cases of priests who have pastors and others who send people for them, although the Catholic Church is “more than ambivalent about this”, said Dr Moore.
The remedies and charms themselves are often shrouded in secrecy, but the community knows who has the remedy is widely known, and in modern Ireland, a world technology hub, it is not difficult to find someone when you need someone. Even in Dublin, a cure is never more than a phone call or a text.
“It’s the whole community element of folk medicine that is so important,” said Bairbre Ní Fhloinn, Associate Professor of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin.
“The whole of the interdependence of our physical and mental health and emotional and spiritual health – this is something that is sort of built into so many folk medicinal remedies,” said the Dr Ní Fhloinn, “that still modern medicine, for all its miracles, can miss.
Most of the healers Dr Ní Fhloinn met see their remedies as a system that works alongside conventional medicine, not against it, and she said she knew of skeptics who have turned to the cure.
“Just because we don’t believe in miracles doesn’t mean we don’t hope for them,” she said.
Yet there have been cases of people taking advantage of the vulnerability of the sick, charging high prices for miracle cures. “Popular medicine can attract charlatans and chancellors of all kinds,” said Dr Ní Fhloinn.
Sometimes there are several cures under one roof.
Patricia and Peter Quinn, who own a small farm in County Offaly, both have cures with their own rituals.
Mr. Quinn has a cure for warts, passed down from his father.
To treat shingles, Ms. Quinn soaks cotton wool in holy water and dabs the affected area with it while reciting the prayer her grandmother taught her. After the third treatment, she throws the cotton wool and the water into a fire.
One recent morning, a woman Mrs Quinn had treated for shingles stopped with a plate of cupcakes. “Everyone appreciates that you do this,” she said.
As Irish families have grown smaller, seventh sons have become much rarer. But Andrew Keane, 37, who lives in County Mayo, is one. When he was a baby, his parents learned from another seventh son that theirs had the cure for ringworm, and he showed the boy the ritual. His mother still has vivid memories of Andrew as a young boy holding out small hands and reciting prayers for healing.
In their farming community, where ringworm is common in cattle and easily spread to humans, it was a popular remedy. Now, with two children of his own, getting the cure is part of his daily routine, and he never quite guessed it.
“I would feel bad if I stopped,” said Mr. Keane, who treats people after work evenings like a builder. “I feel like I was given this gift. And why wouldn’t I use it? “
Mr. Keane also cares for animals. That night he went to visit neighbors Áine McLoughlin, 54, and her husband, Chris McLoughlin, 55, both of whom had ringworm.
“I thought it was worth it because the dogs weren’t improving,” McLoughlin said, adding that they had already visited the vet.
Mr Keane stroked the ground three times, made the sign of the cross and placed his hands on the Highland Westies’ backs, while saying the Hail Mary.
Watching him play, Ms McLoughlin said she grew up with a belief in healing. But she fears the rituals will be lost in the next generation.
“It’s something,” Ms. McLoughlin said. “You will never be able to use Google”.