Chapter 5 - The Irish Traditions
In this chapter we will examine the Irish Healing Traditions as evidenced in the collected folklore, and look at some of the beliefs and practices, and especially at that most fascinating of characters, the Faery Doctor.
A Very Brief History of Magical Healers in Ireland
Although in later years, Irish doctors became familiar with the medical information and healing practices of the great Greek and Roman healers (later still, even becoming conversant in Latin), the most ancient mode of healing procedure in Ireland was the religious-medical mode of herb cures, fairy cures, charms, invocations, incantation, and magical ceremonies, quite possibly originating, as we have said previously, with the Druids. Interestingly, during the Christian era priests were held to have the ability to cure, a belief which possibly may have been a continuation of the earlier belief in the healing abilities of the Druids.
Many of these procedures and charms were preserved traditionally by the people and handed down through families, since the profession of physician was hereditary in certain familiesthe OLee, OShiel, and the OHickey families among them. This accumulated lore was usually handed down from generation to generation in these families in the careful way of oral transmission, hands-on teaching, and example.
Similarly, blacksmiths and millers were held to have power and people sometimes went to them for cures. Those who practiced these professions were seen as powerful because, by virtue of their professions, they held the power of transformation and worked with the very Elements of Life. Smiths, who worked with fire, water, air, and the ever-powerful iron, transformed the hardness of metal into useful objects by the use of these elements, a quite magical thing to do. Millers likewise transformed hard kernels of grain into useful flour for making bread, the staff of life. Millers used water and water wheels in their profession; thus they worked with not only the life sustaining power of water, but the sacred round of the water wheel which brought in echoes of the circles and cycles of lifethe turning Earth, the swirling stars, the wheel of the seasons. Both millers and smiths utilized all the Elements in one way or another, but smiths are predominantly associated with Fire, and millers with Water.
Even within the safekeeping of these blacksmiths, millers, and hereditary physician families the healing lore became fragmented over the course of time, and some of it was lost. By the end of the 19th century with the rise of modern medicine, many of these charms, herbal cures and folk healing practicesnow diffused into the hands of many beyond the original healing familieswere regarded simply as so much superstitious quackery, although the more honest of the new doctors were forced to admit the efficacy of at least some of this quackery.
William Butler Yeats felt that the Irish country peoples belief in the faery folk was really a religious belief since faeries are spiritual and invisible beings. The people believed the faeries were a race of invisible beings living all around, having a life very similar to human life, and having the ability to take from our human world people and animals as they so desired. Yeats thought that this belief had its priesthood in the Faery Doctors, who were also called Knowledgeable Men and sometimes Cow Doctors since they treated faery-afflicted cattle and other animals as well as people. Women Faery Doctors were sometimes referred to simply as Faery Women, or Wise Women.
These Faery Healers, and indeed, even the more ordinary medicine men and women, were treated with great respect, and it was thought that the women derived their knowledge from the fairies, and the spirits of the mountain.
In some instances, the line of demarcation between Faery Doctors and herbal healers was a bit indistinct as herbal healers often used charms and Faery Doctors were known to use herbs as well. One of the people interviewed by Yeats and Lady Wilde mentioned that the herbs with which Faery Doctors cured were so natural and normal that you could pick them at all times of the day. An important distinction, however, is that the Faery Doctors alone held the secrets of the magical and mystical uses of these common herbs.
Indeed, the Faery Doctors possessed many secrets which they had learned from the faeries. They were disinclined to talk freely about them as they lived in terror of the faeries who often punished and hurt them when they did talk too freely. Faery Doctors often were good herbalists and able to offer herbal cures for illnesses, but could only work their specific Faery Healings on faery-caused ailments, which they must always first diagnose as such.
Yeats felt that the faery beliefs had blended with the Christian Beliefs, though they predated them, and thus were able to exist harmoniously side by side with them.