In ancient times, Ireland was renowned for the skill of its physicians, particularly their herbal-lore. Mythology tells us not just of famous battles, brave warriors and tragic love stories, but tales of miraculous healing, too.
Of all the Irish Gods, the most well-known and beloved of them all were those who practised healing, such as Brigid, Lugh, Dian-Cecht and his son Miach, and daughter Airmid.
Dian-Cecht came to Ireland with the Tuatha de Denann invasion over 4000 years ago as King Nuada’s physician. When Nuada’s arm was struck off in battle, Dian-Cecht replaced it with a fully working one of silver. Later, his son, Miach, was able to cover the silver arm with skin, and thus restored and unblemished, Nuada was able to return to his position as High King of the Denann people.
It seems impossible to us now that such a feat could have been performed in primitive times, and so the story has been dismissed as pure fantasy. I don’t believe that. We are discovering more and more that ancient civilisations held the key to knowledge we cannot comprehend today.
When the Red Branch Knights of Ulster rode into battle with Cúchullain, they were accompanied by a medical corps. Each one of them carried at their waist a bag known as a lés (pronounced lace), which was full of medicines, ointments and medical implements.
Historically, as with most aspects of ancient Irish society, the role of the physician was governed by the Brehon Law. If someone was injured by another, the victim was entitled to be paid compensation by his aggressor. Likewise, if a doctor failed to heal his patient, he was required to pay a similar compensation, and return any fee paid by the patient.
The early Irish even had hospitals in which to treat their sick and wounded. The Tain refers to a hospital at Emain Macha (Navan Fort, near Amagh) known as Bróinbheg (pronounced brone-ver-rig), which means ‘House of Sorrows’, a name which in my mind doesn’t bode well; I wouldn’t want to be taken in there!
The Brehon Law had very strict rules pertaining to hospitals; they were required to be kept clean and well-ventilated, had to have four open doors, and a stream running through the centre of the floorspace. Patients were expected to pay for their food, medicines and physician’s services, so it is quite likely that only the wealthy ever visited a hospital for their healing.
As with Nuada and Dian-Cecht, kings and nobles employed their own personal physicians, although his services weren’t always exclusive to his employer. He was provided with land and a home at the expense of his employer, and was also paid for his services.
In those times, the role of a physician was a hereditary one. He passed down his skills and knowledge to his offspring, and often to apprentices living with the family. In later years, this wealth of information was written down in manuscripts and books. The most famous of these is the Book of the O’Lees, which has quite an intriguing history.
Of course, medical services were not just required as a result of injury from battle. Disease spread like wildfire through communities which were rapidly growing, following on from the Neolithic farming revolution.
Plague was common. Plague victims would be buried in specially marked graveyards, which Cormac’s Glossary calls tamhlacht, meaning ‘plague grave’. Tallaght near Dublin is named after a tamhlacht; it is said that here nine thousand Parthalonians were buried after they all died from plague within a week. The Partholonians were the second wave of invaders said to have arrived in Ireland three hundred or so years after the Great Flood when the island was still uninhabited.
It was believed that disease could not travel over the sea further than nine waves distance, a thought which persisted into Christian times. This is why during times of epidemic people fled to safety on small coastal islands, or established colonies and hospitals there for the afflicted.
The early Irish developed some amazing skills and techniques which would be impressive even by today’s standards. They were able to;
- Stitch wounds. King Conchobar mac Nessa had a wound stitched in his head with thread of gold to match his golden hair.
- Use suction to remove infection. Female physician, Bebinn, drew out poison from the leg of Caoilte of the Fianna, using two tubes called fedan. This technique was called ‘cupping’. She also prepared five medicines for him by steeping herbs in water, then administering them to him individually over a period of time, until his full health was restored.
- Make sleeping potions. Warrior woman and teacher, Scathach, gave a sleeping potion to Cuchullain to prevent him from going into battle. It was said to be so strong, that a normal man would have slept for twenty four hours. Cuchullain, of course, awoke only after one. Grainne administered one to the guests at her wedding to Fionn mac Cumhall by slipping it into the wine supply, so that everyone but her lover, Diarmuid, fell asleep. Although these examples are not medical ones, they do imply that making such medicines was common knowledge.
- Build saunas. Early Irish sweat-houses look like little stone beehives with a low doorway, and can still be seen dotted around the landscape today, although their true purpose is one of debate. They were called Tigh nAlluis (pronounced Tee-noll-ish). A fire would be lit inside, in which stones were heated. The ashes would be scraped out, and water sprinkled onto the stones to produce a heavy vapour. The patient would crawl inside, and the door sealed. Afterwards, he would be plunged into a trough of cold water and rubbed till warm again. This treatment would be repeated until the patient was pronounced cured.
- Perform surgery. We have already learned that Dian-Cecht fashioned a fully working arm of silver for his King, Nuada. Inevitably, attachment would have required some form of surgery. (Hopefully, his sleeping draught was more effective than Cuchullain’s!). In AD 637, following a head injury received at the Battle of Moyrath, a young chieftain named Cennfaeladh was taken to receive treatment from Bricin at the School of Tomregan in Co Cavan (county where I live; Tomregan is near Ballyconnel, I feel a field-trip coming on!). It is said he was healed by trepanning, a surgical intervention which involves drilling a hole into the skull, usually to release pressure. Evidence of this has been found on skulls dating back to Neolithic times.
Google Celtic healing, however, and you’ll encounter something quite different altogether. Nowadays, it’s called Bio Energy Therapy, but most of us have heard of it as a far eastern treatment called Reiki. Reiki is based on releasing blocked energy in the body through zones known as ‘chakra’. It is a gentle yet powerful non-invasive treatment still practised today which is said to be able to cure a whole range of ills and promote relaxation and a sense of well-being.
In Ireland, the chakras were known as ‘doors’ through which energy in the form of light was brought into the body to enable healing via the ritual of Imbas Forosnai. Whereas the energy in Reiki is channelled from the universal life force through the head, in Celtic healing it is drawn from the earth.
This mystical, spiritual aspect of healing can also be found in mythology. Fionn mac Cumhall was said to have acquired it by eating the Salmon of Knowledge. After Diarmuid eloped with Grainne, a reconciliation was organised which involved a boar hunt. Diarmuid was mortally wounded by the boar, but could have been saved by receiving a drink of water from Fionn’s healing hands. Unable to forgive Diarmuid for his misdemeanour, twice Fionn let the water drain through his fingers. Finally he relented, but by the time he returned with water cupped in his hands, Diarmuid was dead.
Finally, I could not end this post without mentioning Holy Wells. Ireland is riddled with them, named after various saints, but most often attributed to Brigid or Patrick. They are usually associated with some form of healing; often each well is devoted to a particular ailment, such as eye complaints, or warts, and such like. The afflicted must circle the well deiseal-wise, while reciting certain prayers at prayer stations situated along the route.
Although adopted by Christianity, these holy wells were undoubtedly pagan in origin, and known as Wells of Healing.
The Cath Magh Tuireadh gives a fine example of this; at the Battle of Moytura, Dian-Cecht established a well of healing at a small nearby lake with his children, Miach and Airmid. Into it, they threw many herbs and walked its perimeter muttering incantations. The wounded and exhausted warriors bathed in it every night, emerging refreshed and fully restored. It was said the healing magic was so powerful, that even the dead could be brought back to life.
This gave the Denann a distinct advantage when battle was rejoined every morning, which did not go unnoticed by the enemy. The Fomorians sent a spy into the Denann camp to suss out their secret. When they discovered the Well of Healing, they sent a company of men to secretly attack the Denann camp while the Denann warriors were all occupied in the battle. The Fomorians filled the Well with boulders dragged from the River Drowse, so that it was impossible for anyone to enter the water and bathe in it thereafter.
The Well of Healing at Moytura is said to be located beneath a large cairn at Heapstown.