Anthony D Buckley
Unofficial Healing in Ulster
by ANTHONY D. BUCKLEY
From Ulster Folklife 1980 vol 26 pp 15-34
DESPITE the considerable successes of modern scientific medicine in the last hundred years, there seems to have been only a slight abatement in the popularity of unofficial remedies in Ulster. In the course of fieldwork in the Mourne Mountains, the Sperrins, north Armagh and the Ards Peninsula, considerable evidence was collected that most people in these areas placed at least some reliance upon the curative value of 'fringe' medicine, and that probably a majority had at some time in their lives availed themselves of it.
Fringe medicine is not, of course, peculiar to Ulster. There can scarcely be a part of the world where modern scientific medicine does not exist in competition with other forms of healing, and outside Europe and North America, folk medicine is often so important that it may scarcely be regarded as 'fringe' medicine at all. In western culture there arc a number of well-established types of medicine which are outside the mainstream of official medicine. These forms of healing are international and are to be discovered in Ulster as elsewhere in Europe. In Ulster can be found naturopathy and other forms of herbalism, homeopathy, osteopathy, anthroposophical medicine, and even acupuncture. None of these forms of treatment are especially indigenous to Ireland, and they are not very important numerically. To become a practitioner of any of them requires training, often abroad, and their practitioners are conscious that they are part of an international movement and they may attend conferences in England or elsewhere in order to brush up their know¬ledge.
The central concern of this paper will be the two main types of unofficial medicine practised in Ulster. One is _called 'the cure' or 'the charm' ; the other, divine healing, has something of the international character alluded to above. It is to be found in various forms throughout the christian world. The cure, however, is peculiarly Irish. Those who practice it do not read journals or attend conferences and they are not trained to any appreciable degree. The task here will be to give a broad account of the different perspectives of patients and healers2 showing how their visions of the world determine their actions and how the interaction of patients and healers gives rise to the practices which we have called unofficial healing in Ulster.
Patients' attitudes to healers
When someone falls ill and when he makes the judgment that his illness will not recede of its own accord in a short time, he will try to find a suitable treatment. He will know of several alternative methods of treatment and be influenced by several factors in making his choice.
For most people in Ulster, the local chemist, 'the doctor', or the hospital provide the most immediate and most likely sources of treatment. There are a few people who have a direct commitment to some form of unofficial medicine who claim that they would never visit a doctor but such people are very few.
Almost as few, however, are those who would claim that orthodox medicine holds a monopoly of medical truth. Indeed 'the medical profession', at least in conversation, is to a remarkable degree of hostility. Almost any conversation that one has (except perhaps with healers themselves) on the subject of medicine is likely to bring [resentments towards 'the medical profession' to the surface. 'Doctors don't know what they’re doing half the time' is a common enough expression. Though doctors are seldom singled out for individual criticism, there is much antagonism towards medicine as a corporate institution. Often it is easy to detect a note of triumph in the voice when, in a successful unorthodox method of treatment, a person will say 'the doctors couldn’t do anything about' an ailment.
In practice, virtually everyone places great reliance upon orthodox medicine, and at first sight the generalised hostility which is so frequently expressed towards 'the medical profession’ seems to be grossly unfair. It is common enough to hear stories about the successes of unorthodox healers, while the doctors and hospitals are remembered chiefly for their occasional failures. Every successful cure by the unorthodox healer seems to be regarded as a blow against the pretentions of institutionalised modern medicine, almost, for`us' against 'them'. Yet despite all the talk, for most people, this same orthodox medicine provides the first and most important refuge against illness.
The reason for this discrepancy between a practical reliance upon modern medicine and expressed hostility towards it is perhaps a desire to rob modern medicine of its apparent omnipotence in matters of health. It is conceivable to most people that if there were no alternative to orthodox medicine, then a doctor would have it absolutely in his power to declare that one's illness was incurable or even fatal. By proclaiming the fallibility of doctors, and by seizing upon any scrap of evidence which suggests that other medical practices are more successful, the patient has, to a degree, restrained the doctor's power to pronounce a death sentence. Be this as it may, a significant number of people who turn to unorthodox healers are those who have a chronic or terminal illness. There are who have been treated by doctors and who, though their condition might not particularly serious, have continued to suffer. By expressing an interest in unorthodox it is not at all difficult to meet people who, with varying degrees of hopelessness, have taken their complaint to a multitude of different kinds of healers. Indeed the researcher himself can easily become a source of information for such people who are eager to find yet another cure for their disease.
If it is usual for a person to consult a doctor before going for unorthodox treatment, there are some ailments which might be taken immediately to an unorthodox practitioner. These are conditions for which, according to popular ideas, medical science has no swift or sure treatments. Skin cancers, sprains and ringworm sometimes fall into this category. A cure for skin cancer in the Mourne Mountains is much praised locally and many have in the past chosen to undergo this rather drastic remedy rather than go into hospital for treatment. It is widely believed that orthodox treatments for cancers of all sorts have only limited success. The cure for skin cancer, while it often disfigures the patient, is believed to be highly successful. There are no 'cures' for internal cancers in Ulster, and patients make up a high proportion of the clienteles of faith healers. The cure for cancer in the Mournes has in fact been prohibited by law, much to the annoyance of its enthusiasts in the locality, and when I mentioned it to its owner he was aroused into wrath at what he called 'the collar and tie men', an inclusive phrase covering, it seemed, veterinarians, policemen, lawyers and, I suspected, while retreating from the attack, researchers like me. Certain less serious ailments, particularly ringworm and warts, are felt by some to be amenable to the treatment of specific healers. Many people assert p 17 that pharmaceutical ointments are incapable of eradicating ringworm, and it is known that preparations for warts purchased from a chemist take a long time to work and can be unpleasant to use. It is believed that certain healers with the cure for sprains can give immediate and drastic relief to a sprain which under orthodox treatment would take several weeks to be completely healed. In all such cases individual patients may judge that it is not worth their while consulting a doctor or chemist, but they will instead go directly to an unorthodox healer.
In nearly all cases, the approach to an unorthodox practitioner is the result of a judge¬ment by the patient that in a specific instance, orthodox medicine is inadequate for his needs. Although in general terms, people may express an enthusiasm for a cure or for faith healing or more occasionally for some other form of unorthodox medicine and though they may express hostility towards 'the medical profession', few in actual practice regard any form of unorthodox medicine as a first line of defense. It is held in reserve in case orthodoxy fails, or is deemed likely to fail.
It is not necessarily a simple matter to find someone who can provide an unorthodox treatment for one's ailment. If the patient does not know of a healer himself, then he is likely to be told of one by a relative, neighbour or other acquaintance. The information he seeks is the name and address of someone who can cure his specific ailment. It is generally known that there are people who specialise in particular complaints and that such people can cure one ailment but not others. Other people, among them faith healers, are known to be willing to treat a wider range of diseases. It is widely believed that there are many herbalists and bone setters in Ulster, as well as faith healers and people with the cure. In fact, both herbalists and bone setters are extremely rare. Since the patient's choice is severely restricted by the knowledge which he himself and his acquaintances have of specific healers most people in Ulster turn to those who have the cure or to faith healers. In general patients will approach a healer because they know someone, or know someone who knows someone who has been successfully treated. Geographical proximity may also affect their choice, but many people are willing to travel great distances in search of a successful cure.
Surrounding all unorthodox remedies is an atmosphere which can best be described as one of mystery. This same air of mystery exists even for those relatively few individuals who know about acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic or osteopathy. The exoticism of these remedies seems to lend them an appeal. The acupuncturist's needles, the tiny doses of drugs used in homeopathy, and the unusual theories of chiropractic appear to run counter to common sense and it is their exoticism which is seized upon by patients who have had experience of them. This feeling of mystery attaches itself particularly to faith healing and even more so to the practice of cures. It seems to come from the fact that, according to the dictates of normal everyday common sense, and also according to the rational scientific principles enshrined in modern medicine, these practices should not work. Knowledge of specific healers and therefore of their techniques is somewhat patchily distributed among the population. It is widely known that whooping cough can be cured by passing the patient over and under a donkey, that warts can be cured by rubbing them with bread or potatoes (or something else) and burying it in the garden, or that erysipelas can be cured by washing it in bog water at midnight on three consecutive nights. These and other snippits from the healers' reality are regarded as decidedly odd in the context of the normal common sense of the population.
There are two basic models by means of which unorthodox healing techniques are understood to work by the population at large. One might be described as a 'quasi-scientific' model. According to this, it is assumed that there is enshrined in folk tradition a knowledge of plants, animals and diseases which, though it cannot yet be justified in terms p16 of scientist’s knowledge is nevertheless valid. It is commonly expressed, sometimes in general terms, sometimes with respect to a particular cure or mode of treatment, that ‘they’ should investigate it. 'I think that if scientists would look into some of these things, they would find there's a lot of truth in them.' The fact that 'scientists' or 'doctors' do not ‘look into' these things is often regarded as symptomatic of their more general arrogant attitudes. In relation to healing, people seem willing to express a highly developed sense of relativism. For them science is but one method of approaching the healing of the sick. Folk tradition, or other theories which are not part of 'science' may, it is felt, ultimately be shown to be scientifically valid even where they conflict with contemporary scientific theory.
The other model for explaining the success of unorthodox healing techniques is 'faith'. According to this model, if a person has faith that he will be healed. This is indeed the most common explanation for charms and for faith healing. There are two sorts of emphasis which individuals give to this second model. The first is specifically religious. Here the idea is that God heals a person if the person has faith in Him. The other is more of a psychological approach, that if a person believes that he is going to get better then this correct attitude of mind will enable him to get well. 'If somebody thinks he is going to get better then he will.'
The model of 'faith' is more important than the quasi-scientific one. Though in its own terms this model is self-consistent, it is based upon criteria which are not applied in most situations. To be cured, one must suspend critical judgment, rationality and common sense, and 'believe' that one will recover. To some, this is merely an exercise in positive thinking; to others it is placing oneself in the hands of a merciful God.
Although there is, as has been suggested, a widespread sympathy for all forms of unorthodox healing, and an almost universal desire to find evidence that unorthodox healing works, there is also a considerable measure of scepticism. These divergent attitudes are difficult to pin down, for they often exist within the same individual. Seldom indeed will a person totally reject the cure or divine healing outright, but seldom will he commit himself wholeheartedly. Assertions are usually guarded. Individuals will explain that they do not really believe in such things, but will tell a story of how they or their acquaintances are healed by someone who has a cure or by a faith healer.
This scepticism is related to the dichotomy between orthodox and unorthodox medicine. Unorthodox practices generally are defined as such by virtue of the fact that they are not acceptable to that bastion of the scientific method, 'the medical profession', and many of the forms of treatment which are available are not even explicable in principle according to the tenets of common sense or science. If belief in the unbelievable may be sympathically described as 'faith', the less sympathetic may regard it as 'superstition'. At all events, the question at issue when discussing a particular cure is always whether it 'really works' or whether it is 'just superstition'. Even to the most devoted enthusiast of a particular his very enthusiasm arises from the fact that the effectiveness of such remedies is always in doubt.
Here we must make a clearer distinction between attitudes to the cure and to divine healing. Divine healing is widely supposed to be effective, at least in principle. What is disputed are the credentials of the individual divine healer, whether this particular person can in fact heal. The cure however belongs to a broader pattern of Irish traditional folklore. It is understood to exist in the same cultural context as belief in the evil eye, banshees, ghosts and fairies. As people are in general sceptical of fairies, so they are, though to a lesser degree, of cures.
In popular imagination, it is widely assumed that, while there might be individual exceptions, those with the cure come from a very specific sort of cultural background. Many people have told me that the place to find cures is in the rural areas of Ulster, and specifically in mountainous regions or those in the far west, well away from the larger towns. Many assumed too that cures are to be found among the Catholic population. Typically the person with the cure is believed to be an old person, probably a poor farmer, or a labourer living in an isolated cottage in the hills. Fairy belief and other types of folk¬lore are also typically associated in the popular imagination with such areas and with the same type of person.
We might note in passing, that while this stereotype is a feature of 'common knowledge' about cures in Ulster, it does not remotely fit the facts. Those with the cure come from all walks of life. I have met shopkeepers, farmers, industrial workers, a haulage contractor, Catholics, protestants, rich and poor among those who have cures. Statistics would be meaningless, but one is as likely to find a cure in an urban council estate or a modern bungalow as in a labourer's cottage or a poor farm house.
This stereotype is, of course, familiar to all students of Ulster society. It is that of the archetype of the Catholic. Leyton notes its existence in Aughnaboy,3 Harris speaks of it in Ballybeg4 and it exists too in the Upper Tullagh.5 In contrast, in all of these studies, the archetypical protestant lives in valleys, in towns, and is a wealthy farmer, business or professional man.
More than this, however, the cure is subsumed into an ideal of a traditional neighbourly way of life, supposedly Catholic, but which stands not merely in opposition to orthodox medicine, but to the 'collar and tie men' in general, and which upholds traditional and often non-rational values against rationalism and bureaucracy.
Patients of all religious and social categories see the cure as an alternative to the rigor¬ously intellectual and rationalistic approach of modern medicine. It is one based upon tradition, and one which they suspect may be merely superstitious nonsense. But it is also a form of healing in which faith is involved. This attitude of faith, of the deliberate suspension of scientific and common-sense realities in favour of a child-like trust in God and in the authenticity of His doctrines is one which lies at the root of even the most rationalistic of the religions in Ulster. The search for an alternative method of treatment in order to avoid the pain of a prolonged illness may lead one to turn to an exotic form of science or to cures which seem to embody an ancient wisdom. Much more likely will the sick person turn to a healer who can promise that through trust in God and in the healer's sometimes odd but time-honoured practices he may confound human science and become well.
Healers are not merely healers, for like their patients, they too fall ill and die. They share to a considerable degree therefore in the social reality which we have just outlined. They have their own peculiar perspective which is our main concern here. Some of what the healer knows of his cure is known to him alone. But there are also several features of the healer's view which are known in varying degrees by patients and the population at large. Indeed it is because the knowledge which inherently belongs to the healer is somewhat imperfectly known to the general public that many of the patients' attitudes just described are as they are.
By far the most familiar sort of unorthodox medicine practised in Ulster is the cure. It is said that until comparatively recently there was 'a cure in every townland'. This is not the case today, but nevertheless there are many individuals in Ulster who have the cure, and in some localities the number of such people exceeds the number of orthodox medical practitioners.
The cure is closely identified with the person who administers it. The person who has the cure will attempt to treat only one specific type of condition. He will have 'the cure of the heart' or 'the cure of the sprain' or 'the cure of the bad back'. A man who has the cure of the heart will not attempt to cure, for example, whooping cough, or a sprained ankle. One may occasionally meet a person who has two or even three cures, but he will have acquired these fortuitously as separate cures.
To have the cure is not merely to possess, as might a doctor or pharmacist, specialised knowledge which allows a person to know what treatment cures a specific ailment. Know¬ledge of this sort is always involved in the cure, but the knowledge alone is insufficient. To use a cure, one must be entitled to use it, and one must therefore have acquired the cure according to clearly defined rules. Though there are other aspects of the cure which are significant the most important feature of the cure concerns the rules which govern entitlement to use it. From the individual healer's point of view, he is mainly interested in the rule which affects him. More importantly, these rules, which we are discussing as part of the healer's social reality, are also more generally known. By no means everyone in Ulster knows about them, but a sufficiently large number of people do and in specific cases such people, not necessarily healers themselves, are able to play a decisive role in the recruitment of healers.
There are five basic ways in which a person is entitled to have a cure : the cure may be `passed on' from someone who already possesses the cure; a woman who has married a man who has the same surname as her own maiden name but to whom she is otherwise unrelated has a cure ; so also does a posthumous child; or the seventh daughter in a family; or the seventh son; or, best of all, the seventh son of a seventh son.
These different qualifications for possessing a cure are not grouped together in any significant way in common parlance. For clarity of exposition, however, we shall draw a broad distinction between cures which are 'passed on' and those which are not.
Cures which are passed on
It is possible that the cures which are 'passed on' from one person to another are the vestiges of a much richer tradition of herbal and ritual medicinal practice in the past. One does hear of individuals, long dead, who had many cures, embracing a knowledge of herbs. An old lady in the Mourne Mountains told me of someone she knew in her youth who had many cures. She recalled that horseradish in malt whiskey was a cure for pleurisy, and remembered that the old lady had said that the plants called 'tramp's friend' and 'bright eye' also had a medicinal use.
If 'herbalists' in any meaningful sense ever existed in profusion in Ulster, they do not exist today. I have discovered only one old man—over ninety years old—who has anything approaching a comprehensive knowledge of herbs derived from tradition. His father was a gardener in what is now the Irish republic, and he told his son about the healing properties of plants. The son has since read widely and now his traditional knowledge is integrated in the ideas of the ‘whole food’ movement which exists all over the western world.
Informally transmitted knowledge of remedies also exists, but we should from the beginning carefully distinguish this from the stricter forms of the cure. Enquiring about `old remedies' is as likely to elicit old and not-so-old pharmaceutical treatments with a more 'folksy' flavour. We may quickly list some of these.
(a) Hives are caused by the blood being 'fired' through eating too much citrus ducks' eggs. (This is the nearest I got to a folk aetiology for any disease.) One must avoid these foods. Docken leaves, damp baking soda, camomile lotion or cold water may be applied directly to the lumps.
(b) Headache may be cured by standing on one's head.
(c) Constipation in children is cured by castor oil or syrup of figs.
(d) Colds and bronchitis are cured by camphorated oil on brown paper applie, chest; or buttermilk and sugar given to drink.
(e) For mumps, we should rub the swellings with red flannel.
(f) A stye should be rubbed with a gold wedding ring, or touched with a rose th times.
(g) Diarrhoea can be cured with an infusion of sloe thorns.
(h) Warts can be 'bought' from someone—that is if one gives the person a coin will disappear; rubbing a wart with bread or potato or meat and burying th garden will cause the wart to disappear.
Except for the cures for warts which seem to be commonly used, in only one of the above cases were the remedies actually used by the people who told me of them. One had used camphorated oil on her child who had bronchitis—and she had heard this remedy on a radio programme about folk medicine. In general the meaning of the term ‘old’ in the description of these 'old remedies' is that they are no longer used.
Occasionally one does hear of traditionally known remedies of this type still being applied to animals. A farmer said that he had once kept a billy goat. The stench that arose in the animal during the rutting season adhered to the land and kept away 'abortion’ and `red water' in cattle. He said that he had written to a research establishment to tell them of the effectiveness of this procedure. They were unimpressed. 'Of course,' he said with mild irony, 'these people are experts and would not take advice from somebody like me. I’m not an expert—I've only been working with animals for thirty years.'
Few of the remedies which are 'passed on' in this uncontrolled and informal have any great significance, for they are not treated seriously. They are part of history, to be remembered with affection, perhaps tried out half-playfully, but they have largely been discarded.
We are much more concerned here with those cures which are 'passed on' in a more formal manner for these have far greater importance. Usually such a cure is practiced by an individual until he is quite old, and he will then select someone who can continue to use it. Passing one's cure on is, in many respects, similar to bequeathing one's property. deed, the expression 'pass on' is more generally used in the context of inheritance. The person who receives such a cure is commonly the child of the owner, but consideration is given to whether he is able or willing to use it. One hears, however, with remarkable frequency, of individuals who have taken on a cure and have subsequently refused to use it. One woman became a nurse and 'nurses aren't supposed to believe in such things'; another became ‘religious’ and was susceptible to the charge still occasionally heard, that ‘charms are the work of the devil’. If there is no suitable heir, among one’s own children, then a grandchild or nephew or niece is selected. In exceptional cases, the owner of a cure will p 21 give it to a neighbour to whom he is particularly close. One lady, a faith healer with a high reputation in south Down, has been given three cures, presumably because, since she was already a healer, she was felt to be a suitable recipient. And a man 1 met in county Tyrone, who already practised two cures was given a third probably for the same reason.
Passed-on cures are unlike other forms of inheritance practised in Ulster in that there is commonly a rule that the cure should be passed on from a man to a woman, or from a woman to a man. This rule does not universally apply, for it attaches itself to specific cures. Though the rule is widely known, the person who inherits a cure will be instructed in whether of not this is the correct mode of transmission when he receives it.
The passed-on cure usually comprises a special technique which is said to cure the particular ailment. These techniques vary considerably. There are ointments and plasters, and here the cure may be popularly known as 'an ointment' or 'a plaster'. In other cases, the outside observer might be tempted to use terms like 'ritual' or 'magic'. These terms are not used directly or indirectly by healers or their patients, though the use of the term `charm' has 'magical' connotations for people who do not themselves possess a cure. Often, an important part of the technique is a formulaic prayer. It is usual in all kinds of cures for the patient to be asked to return three times for treatment and there can be little doubt that, in the land of St. Patrick, the number three in the context of cures has symbolic association with the Trinity. It is not possible to make a clear distinction between cures which are religious, magical or neo-scientific, and though individuals do employ the models of faith or 'science' to explain the effectiveness of cures, they do not, except in the loosest manner, distinguish between individual cures on the basis of their magicality.
The techniques which they use are kept, as far as possible, secret. Most cures have a public aspect, in that the patient can see what is going on, but most also have an aspect which can be concealed from the patient. This may be a silent prayer or the ingredients for an ointment. Where it is possible to keep part of the technique secret, the healer will take care not to divulge this part to anyone except in order to 'pass the cure on' to his chosen successor.
It is indeed the secrecy of the cure which allows its transmission to be controlled. And there are undoubtedly some healers who do not wish their cure to be used by just anyone. `If I told you how to do it you'd be able to do it just like me,' said someone as she refused to tell me the procedure. Most people who have a cure will not tell its secret even to their spouse or closest relatives except in order to pass it on to them. Some find this aspect of the cure irksome, for it is common complaint that cures are disappearing because a man who dies suddenly may carry his secret to the grave. Some healers however say that to divulge the secret indiscriminately will prevent the cure being effective. This view is not held by everyone, and few people seem to have thought about why the cure is kept secret. It seems to be just part of the tradition adding an extra touch of mystery. The few passed-on cures which do not have a secret aspect to them do not nevertheless differ significantly from those which are kept secret. Only when someone has been formally given the cure can he use it. Even where there is no aspect of the cure which is secret, it seems that a person must be given instruction on the technique and be told that he may now use it before he will be able to cure someone with it. One man attempted to cure a wart on my finger. He tied a simple knot in a piece of cotton and placed the bight around the wart. He allowed the knot to slip off the wart as he pulled it tight. The cotton, he explained, would be buried in the garden and as the cotton rotted in the ground, the wart would disappear. Here was no secrecy, but he assured me that I would be unable successfully to practice the same cure because the cure had not been passed on to me. In fact, although a number of cures for warts are held by people who take the same view, the techiques for cures for warts are p22 well known and practised by those who have not specifically received them. Where the techniques are secret, control over the use of cures is much more effective.
Some passed-on cures
Because so many of the techniques discussed below and elsewhere in the text have a secret aspect, most of the information presented here is gleaned from hearsay, but also, except where it is otherwise indicated, from often guarded conversations held with tl themselves.
(a) Jim's ointment for ringworm was passed on to him by his mother. He say ointments obtainable at the chemist only drive the ringworm deep into the flesh, and in his experience, it is easier to treat those patients who have not been first to see a doctor. He rubs the ointment on the back of the patient's neck no matter ringworm has affected the body. Ringworm, he says, is highly infectious; it may lie in ditches for up to seven years and then reappear. It may be transmitted, for example, by coins, and it is possible for an entire housing estate to be afflicted by it. It seems to appear 'in the spring of the year and the fall of the year—round about the time the blood changes'. His constant contact with his ointment has so far protected him from infection.
(b) Sarah has a cure for ringworm. She mixes lemon juice, washing soda and water. Then she places her hands over the liquid and says three Our Fathers. The liquid is used to wash the affected part.
(c) John showed me his ointment for ringworm. It was a noxious-smelling mixture of fats, including perhaps lard and butter.
(d) Rosemary was most reluctant to discuss her ointment for ringworm, though she did say that her cure was 'sort of religious'. Unlike the others, it did not have to be passed on from man to woman or from woman to man.
This cure is unusual in that it contains ingredients which are known to be dangerous It is a 'plaster' or poultice, containing probably arsenic which 'draws out' the cancer ‘by the root'. I have received graphic descriptions of how such cancers emerge from the body in the course of treatment. A lady who was treated with this cure says that it was effective but it has done great damage to the surrounding flesh. Defenders of the cure, and there are many who support its use, say that it is no more unpleasant and dangerous that remedies. The owner has been prevented from using it apparently following the patient he was treating. It is said, however, that the patient in question was already so ill that no treatment, orthodox or unorthodox, was likely to have been successful.
(a) Paddy Joe has a cure for the sprain, and he attempted to cure a torn cartilage in my knee. He asked my religion, saying that he had no personal interest, but that he had to know in order to perform his cure. He knelt down, asked me to roll up my trouser leg and began. First he blessed himself. Then he ran his hands over my knee from top to bottom, stroking it. With his thumb, he then made three small signs of the cross down the right-hand side of my knee. This he repeated down the centre and finally down the left side of my knee. All of this time he prayed silently, his lips moving in what was evidently a formulaic prayer. When his hands were not busy making signs of the cross, his right hand continually stroked my knee. Because he thought it would be inconvenient for me to return to his house, he repeated the whole procedure three times. When all was over he concluded by making three similar small crosses with his right thumb on the floor. Then he blessed himself and stood up. I was told that as the knee mended, I might feel more pain than usual, especially at night, but that it would improve after a couple of weeks. My knee in fact improved spectacularly from that time and gave me no trouble for almost a year then it collapsed and I took it to the hospital.
(b) Patricia's cure for sprains is also a prayer. The cure she received belonged to an old man who lived in the country area where she was brought up. He 'fell out' for a time with his neighbours, and it happened that Patricia's father was one of the few at that time to show him kindness. As he approached death, some people urged him to pass his cure on to someone. Since he had no relations, and since the cure had to be passed from a man to a woman, he chose the daughter of the man who had stood by him.
Patricia has been in hospital several times recently, and she wonders whether it is because she has the cure. She has heard that those who have the cure take upon them- selves the sufferings of those they help.
(c) Joseph's cure for the sprain also has the form of a prayer, and he must rub his hands over the affected part. Their grand- mother gave he and his late brother. Joseph's nephew, discussing the cure with me, said that he did not think 'faith had much to do with it. He could recall watching his father cure a lame horse. The horse had recovered almost immediately but he doubted whether the horse believed the cure was going to work.
(d) Mary too cures the sprain by placing her hands upon it and praying.
(a) Patrick s cure for the heart is a prayer. He uses however a cup of oatmeal which he places against the patient's chest. When the cup is removed a 'hole' or depression can be seen in the oatmeal if the cure is going to succeed. If it does not appear, the heart condition will not improve. Discussing this cure with Patrick's neighbour. I was told that a man had recently come to be healed, but when the cup of oatmeal was applied, no hole appeared. The man has since died.
(b) In this case I did not meet the healer. Her cure is to give the patient a bowl of oatmeal porridge without salt, milk or sugar. She uses a piece of string to measure the forearm of the patient. At each measuring, the string seems to grow in length. The seriousness of the ailment and the likelihood of recovery may be measured by the extent of the string's growth. The daughter of a former patient gave me this information.
The woman who was given this cure told me that she had been required to carry around a small bag slung 'like a schoolbag' across the shoulders beneath her clothes. Before putting it on she had to recite the creed and, in the course of treatment she was told to abstain from alcohol.
The healer rolls up some chickweed into a small ball. This he rubs 'upward' on the affected place (that is, towards the heart). He says, 'In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,' as he does this. He received this cure from a woman who is not a relative, and it must be passed on from a woman to a man.
The lady who has this cure received it from her brother-in-law. It must be transmitted from a man to a woman or from a woman to a man. She rubs the wart with a piece of apple (I gathered from her expression that any fruit or vegetable would do) and this is buried in the garden.
Cures which are not passed on.
There are some cures which are not passed on but are attached to specific social statuses. These statuses are carefully defined and may briefly be stated.
A woman who marries a man who has the same surname as her own maiden name but who is unrelated to her husband will have, by virtue of this fact, a cure. For all the women of this status I met, this cure was either for whooping cough or for jaundice. The children of such a woman will also have a cure derived from her status, but they may not pass their cure on to anyone else. Usually, it seems that the daughters of such women have the same cure as their mothers, either of whooping cough or of jaundice. Sons on the other hand usually have the cure for erysipelas - a skin disease sometimes known as 'the rose'. There are occasional exceptions to this pattern. I have met one man who, because his mother's maiden name was the same as her married name, practises two cures, one for whooping cough and another for mumps. And I was told of a lady whose mother had this status who cured styes. Her sister, however, cured whooping cough in the more normal pattern.
A posthumous child, one whose father was dead when he was born, will have a cure. I have met only one man in this somewhat unusual position. He has the cure for thrush, the infection of the mouth.
There is a seventh daughter who has the cure of the bad back. She is the only seventh daughter I have met.
Seventh sons, or most specifically seventh sons of seventh sons, are also said to have a cure, though I know only indirectly of one seventh son who practises a cure. His is for erysipelas. This rule, listed here for convenience, is part of 'common knowledge' in Ulster. In every case, however, the seventh sons I have met and others of whom I know, have stepped outside the general pattern of the cure, for they have become faith healers. These will be dealt with separately.
Apart from the fact that they are not passed on, what distinguishes this group of cures from the previous group is the relative lack of emphasis upon technique. Cures for jaundice and whooping cough, for example, take a very simple form. When the patient calls upon the healer, he will be invited in and given a gift of food by the healer. Some healers have a specific food or combination of foods which they give to their patients, but some feel that the nature of the food does not matter very much. Some say that three objects should be given, for example, bread, butter and jam, or that perhaps that three liquids, tea, milk and lemonade are suitable. Others are less precise and merely give their patients a piece of bread a cup of tea, or a biscuit.
Cures for erysipelas usually take the form of washing the patient with water. Sometimes the healer will insist that the water be bog water (perhaps, even water taken from the bog at midnight on three consecutive nights), but most seem content to use water from the tap. The posthumous son who cures the thrush gives his patients a cup of tea.
Very rarely is there anything elaborate about the cures associated with statuses. In the cure for mumps (which is in any case rather outside the general pattern) the patient is dressed in a horse's harness and 'driven' down to a stream to drink water. The seventh daughter cures the bad back by placing her bare feet on the patient's back. The seventh son who cures ringworm does so by turning his back on the patient, spitting on the ground and rubbing the spittle on the patient's head and face. Apart from these which are somewhat more elaborate the normal pattern for the cures associated with specific statuses is merely to give the patient an item of food.
'Divine healing', as many of its practitioners insist on calling it, or 'faith healing' as it is more popularly known, is closely related to the cure, and is well known in Ulster though fewer people practise it. The divine healer is one who has 'the gift' of being able to transmit God's power to a sick person so that he can be healed.
The recruitment of a divine healer is much more idiosyncratic than the recruitment of the person with the cure. Whereas the latter is bound by clearly defined cultural rules which admit few variations, the divine healer either decides himself that he should practise healing or else he receives a pressing invitation direct from God Himself.
One old lady who has practised divine healing for many years first became interested in healing through an interest in spiritualism. In the course of a trip to London where she was attending meetings held by spiritualists, she was recognised by certain clairvoyant individuals there to have healing powers. She allowed this to become known to her acquaintances, and after a few successful cures, she became more widely known and her reputation is now established throughout south Down, where she is visited by people from well beyond.
Her close friend in the next village who is not a spiritualist came to healing by a different route. She became interested first of all in 'dowsing', sometimes called 'divining'. Attending a conference of dowsers, she was advised by a colleague that successful practitioners often had the power of healing. She too has a considerable reputation locally, though her fame is attached more to her divining pendulum. She uses this with uncanny accuracy both for serious purposes and to entertain her friends and such groups as Women's Institutes. Her technique of dowsing is to swing her pendulum (any small weight suspended on a thread will do) and to ask it questions; if it swings clockwise, the answer is 'yes'; if it swings, anti-clockwise the answer is 'no'. She regards this dowsing ability as an amusing but useful skill, but, though she can give no explanation, she does not regard it as having a religious significance. She uses it in order to diagnose the diseases of man and animal and it thus is a valuable aid to her in her divine healing.
Another divine healer, a presbyterian minister, seems to have taken an interest in healing through reading theological or similar journals.
All of these individuals are aware that they participate in a broader movement of divine healing which is to be found throughout the Christian world. The techniques they use are those found elsewhere. The normal procedure is one which is known as 'the laying on of hands'. Here the hands of the healer are placed either upon the head of the patient or upon the affected part of the body, whichever seems appropriate, and the healer prays for the recovery of the patient Where it is not possible for the patient to visit the healer, the healer may use 'absent healing'. Here, with or without the consent or knowledge of the patient, the healer directs God's healing power towards the patient by means of prayer.
The fact that so many divine healers repudiate the use of the term 'faith healer' is significant. Whereas for the general public, such healing is successful because of the 'faith' of the patient, divine healers invariably reject this suggestion. All of the divine healers I met said that the faith of the patient was irrelevant to the cure. Several asserted that they had had successful cures where the patient did not even know that healing was being attempted. It was not the faith of the patient, but rather God's power transmitted through the healer which effected a cure.
With only the one unsubstantiated exception which has been mentioned, seventh sons, and the seventh sons of seventh sons, where they practise healing at all, always seem to fit into this pattern of divine healing rather than that of the cure. In the popular imagination, seventh sons have the power to heal in much the same way that a woman whose married and maiden names are identical or a posthumous child has a cure. I have managed to speak to two seventh sons who practise healing. In neither case do they regard their healing powers as being in any way connected to their being seventh sons of seventh sons.
The first of these, Danny Gallagher, a well-known healer from Maghera, first knew himself to be a healer at the age of eight years old when he had a dream which instructed him in the technique for healing the sick. Mr. Gallagher says that he resisted this divine impulse to heal until he was in his twenties. Now he practises healing professionally, advertising in the press and setting up 'clinics' in towns and villages in Ireland and occasionally in England and beyond. Danny Gallagher's method of healing is superficially similar to the methods used in several 'passed on' cures, in that it is somewhat ritualistic. But whereas elaborate techniques used in the cure are transmitted verbally by a person who already possesses the cure, Danny Gallagher's technique was depicted in a dream, and his technique should not be regarded as a cure but rather a form of divine healing - and it is in such terms that he himself describes it.
His procedure is to ask the patient to bring him some consecrated earth - say from a graveyard. This is immersed in a bowl of water. To it is added the remains of a burnt-out candle. The candle however is first lit and placed in the patient's hand by Mr. Gallagher who then blows it out and, a small crucifix in his right hand, he places his hands upon the patient's head and upon the affected part of the body which has to be exposed for the purpose. The patient must wash himself with the water, and he must also return three times to receive the prayers and the candle from Mr. Gallagher. Danny Gallagher has been told that his procedure is vindicated by a biblical account of Jesus who once used an essentially similar technique to heal a blind man. He does not however justify the use of his own technique with reference to the text; for him the direct divine inspiration through his dream is his prime justification.
Another seventh son, a former labourer from county Londonderry, uses no such elaborate technique. Like most divine healers, he simply places his hands upon the patient and says a prayer. He is an intensely religious man, and a keen upholder of the literal truth of the bible. In his late teens, he was 'born again'. This event had a major impact on his life, and he subsequently rejected organised religion, believing the true Church, the Body of Christ, to be not those who attended services on Sundays, but the communion of those whose hearts had been penetrated by divine grace.
He came to be a healer rather fortuitously. A man whom he described as a 'sinner', not 'someone who was truly Christian' (that is, not born again) told him that he could cure a wart upon his own neck by placing his hand upon it and blessing it. He tried this and the wart soon disappeared. Turning to his bible, he naturally found ample justification for this sort of healing and decided that any true Christian could practise divine healing. Now he is visited from miles around by sick people whom he tries to convince of his own brand of Christianity. He claims that a true Christian should have no need of a doctor, and that in any case a Christian's body will not in any real sense die.
The direct inspiration of the individual by God to undertake a mission of healing, though not common, is not unusual. In the Mournes, a Catholic lady possesses a medallion, a relic of St. Martin, which she uses to heal the sick. She was unwilling to discuss her healing with me, but the outline of her story is well known and it has been possible to piece it together. Like Danny Gallagher, she had a dream in which it was revealed that in a particular spot was hidden the medallion and that this was a relic of the saint. She went to the spot and found the medallion, and since that time she has used it to heal the sick who flock to her farmhouse every Sunday. Somewhat similar is another lady from north Armagh. Her attitude derives from a mixture of religious and scientific models. She says that olive oil taken internally is a cure for rheumatism. She also recommends that a mixture of baking soda, tartaric acid and water acts as a cure-all remedy for most illnesses. These medicines are not a 'cure' in the sense that we have described. They were in fact the product of a direct divine revelation. She is a pentecostalist Christian who believes that God communicates not only advice on matters of personal conduct but also cures to those who allow themselves to listen to His voice. But if her medicines are the product of divine inspiration, she does not regard her techniques as being themselves divine healing. The olive oil, she surmises, contains traces of radium, and this may be the reason why it cures rheumatism. The soda and cream of tartar, familiar ingredients replacing yeast in Irish baking, she thinks have a general beneficial effect upon the body. Like the owners of certain cures, she has, therefore, a vague and ill-defined view that her medicines could be explained scientifically, though she does not really know what these explanations might be. But unlike the cure, her remedies are divinely inspired.
Divine healing thus takes many forms, and the practice of divine healing, while it has a certain basic outline, is not rigidly confined by conventional rules. Each divine healer has his particular method derived largely from his personal experience. All divine healers, however, (with the exception of the last example which is not, strictly speaking, divine healing) regard themselves as the agents of God's power. None would say, save as a figure of speech that they themselves cured the patient. They may claim to have the power to cure. But this power is a gift from God. They are the means whereby God's power is communicated to the patient, nothing more.
Giving and receiving
All of the healers discussed regard health as something which cannot be paid for. All of the divine healers, and most of those who have the cure, though in different ways, regard their procedures as merely the instrument through which God heals the sick. It is widely felt that it is immoral to accept payments for practising divine healing or the cure. Those few individuals who make their living from divine healing - Danny Gallagher and another seventh son, Finbar Nolan, are commonly cited - are much criticised for their apparent interest in money.
Danny Gallagher finds this criticism rather annoying. He complains that he devotes himself full-time to healing the sick, and that he has to pay the rent and live like anyone else. Nobody, he says, worries that doctors earn a salary. It is indicative of his own ambiguous attitude towards the payments he receives that he does not in fact charge a fee for his services. He does not expect payment from the very old or the very young, and he merely recommends a sum, leaving the payment to the discretion and generosity of his patients.
Divine healers and people with cures who accept cash from their patients form a small minority. Among the remainder, attitudes to remuneration vary considerably. Few ask for a gift in any form. Where a gift is offered by a patient the healer usually makes it clear that he does not regard it as a payment for services rendered. It is rather a token of appreciation. Healers often say that they accept such gifts because it would be rude to refuse them 'I don't like to say that 1 can't take it.' Sometimes the healer allows the patient to give sweets or a toy to his children. Others accept the gift but pass it on to a charity, often their local church. Some refuse gifts altogether, saying (and this is often the case with 'passed-on' cures where a formulaic procedure was laid down at the time of its transmission) that the cure would not work if any payment or gift be involved.
The most extreme case of this is in the case of a woman who has the cure to stop the flowing of blood. She will not even accept thanks. Her cure was 'passed on' to her, and consists, I gather, in a prayer which she must say. It is not necessary for the patient to be present when the cure is administered and patients often telephone her when her services are needed - as they often are - in an emergency. It is in fact quite difficult to avoid saying 'thank you' to someone who has helped you. Recognising this, the healer adopts the practice of standing the patient outside her front door, and after explaining the necessity of what she will do, she informs him that he will get better and slams the door. Where the patient has telephoned, she slams the telephone down for the same reason. Thus she avoids hearing the fateful words 'thank you'.
Despite the variation in practice, the overall attitude to remuneration for cures and divine healing is the same. In principle, all payments are wrong. Gifts, where accepted, are taken reluctantly and in many cases are given away to charity. Those healers, such as Danny Gallagher or Finbar Nolan, who invite payment, are regarded by their patients with great suspicion.
At least a part of the explanation for all this lies with the religious attitudes which lie beneath all of the folk healing to be found in Ireland. Health comes not from the healer but from God. Both the faith healer and the person with the cure even where the cure is believed to have some obscurely understood scientific efficacy - is the instrument of God in healing the sick. To accept a payment would be to take credit for what is a gift from God. It would be, in a sense, like blasphemy.
In a sense too, this attitude derives from the paradigm within which the cure finds meaning. To practise the cure is most emphatically regarded as a neighbourly obligation. Attaching to the term 'neighbourly' in this context, are undoubtedly specifically Christian connotations embracing images such as 'Good Samaritan' and Jesus' healing ministry. Those who practise the cure, and the majority of divine healers see their practice in this context, regard offers of gifts with embarrassment. To accept gifts, or worse, to invite gifts, is to negate the spirit of charity (in the New Testament sense) which motivates their actions.
The Interaction of patient and healer.
Although the patient may be aware of many aspects of the healers' social reality, and although the healer - who inevitably himself falls sick from time to time can share in the patient s reality, there is an important sense in which their visions of reality differ.
Most immediately, the patient is concerned to find a cure for his illness. He has been told that the healer can cure him of his ailment, and he goes to him in order to be healed. If he wishes to give a reason why he thinks the cure might be effective, he perhaps falls back upon the quasi-scientific model thinking that traditional knowledge is in some undefined way superior to the modern science which high-handedly dismisses it. But more likely, he goes to the healer feeling that if he believes that the cure will work, he will get well. He feels, perhaps also, that the very act of visiting the healer, especially, as is usually the case, if he must return three times, is proof enough that he has faith. If the cure takes the form of an ointment or plaster, he uses the quasi-scientific model. If it is a prayer, he uses the model of 'faith'. Where it is neither an ointment nor a prayer, he nevertheless falls back upon the model of 'faith'.
The person who has a cure, too, if pressed, usually uses the same pattern of arguments to explain the efficiency of his practice. The man whose cure takes the form of a plaster or ointment alludes obscurely to the knowledge that people possessed in the past, asserting that 'the doctors' do not know everything. But most fall back on the model of faith. Unlike his patient, however, for whom contact with the cure and knowledge of its procedures is usually an ephemeral part of life, the healer is in contact with the cure as part of his daily round and he knows all there is to know about the procedures he uses. His difficulty is that much of that which is connected to the practice of his cure seems irrelevant and inexplicable whether he wishes to explain his cure either in quasi-scientific or religious terms. The explanation, 'I can cure the whooping cough because my husband's name is the same as my maiden name' does not make sense in scientific or theological terms or as the ordinary common sense of the Ulster population. The various categories of people - posthumous children and the like - who are said to have the cure are not categories which arise in any other context of the social life of the province. Nor may we argue with any conviction that they exist in a dialectical relationship of opposition to normal social categories. Undoubtedly these categories of people may be considered un- usual, but it is easy enough to think of other types of people, the left-handed, the blind, etc., ho are equally unusual, but who are not said to have the cure. All that can be said about these categories of people is that they are peculiar. And it is this very peculiarity, this very incomprehensibility which gives them meaning. For other aspects of tradition, from fairy thorns' to 'blinking' are equally inexplicable, and it is the fact that so many aspects of tradition are inexplicable that lends to tradition as a whole its distinctive place in the structure of Ulster thought. It may be said also that what distinguishes faith in, say, a doctor's medicine from faith in a cure, or a belief in Newton's laws from a belief in God or fairies, is precisely this element. In the one, criteria of rationality are ultimately to be demanded. But in the other, systematic reasoning is fundamentally irrelevant. In the last resort, an attitude of faith, whether in something which is religious or in something sanctified by tradition is a suspension of normal criteria of rationality and proof. The fact that the rules by which cures are acquired, and certain of their procedures can be in no way explained, even in principle, by the tenets of common sense, science or theology, adds to the mystery of the cure and establishes it more firmly as a traditional practice, giving the cure a place in the structure of contemporary attitudes to health and disease.
Few of those who have the cure feel any pressing need to explain either the rules by which they acquired the cure or the procedures which they use. Few indeed express any great commitment to the practice of healing at all, and many are sceptical of the effectiveness of their cure. The general run of people in Ulster, particularly when they are not distressed by their own illness or that of an acquaintance, have an ambiguous attitude towards cures varying from credulity to outright disbelief. It is one thing to turn to a healer in the extremities of pain, rationalising one's decision by a loose assertion of the power of faith, but quite another to entertain the idea that a piece of bread and jam can cure jaundice when one has no special need. Those who have the cure are part of this general run of people. They have no claim to extraordinary religious belief, still less to extraordinary virtue. They may not have any particular interest in healing. And such healers are no more likely to believe in magic than anyone else in Ulster. If they share in the province's religious ambience, they share too in its common sense, its belief in science and its scepticism.
A man may acquire a cure from a person who thinks himself to be dying, and he will accept it as much to be kind to the old person as out of any desire to heal. He may accept it as a harmless piece of nonsense, or out of a desire to participate in a quaint but dying tradition. He may alternatively acquire it wholly inadvertently through an accident of birth or marriage. There can be few women who marry a man with the same surname as themselves specifically in order to gain a cure, and seventh sons and daughters and posthumous children have no choice in the matter.
When someone has thus acquired a cure, this fact rapidly becomes known to his relatives and neighbours. He soon finds that patients seek him out. This process is most spectacular for women who have married someone of the same name. Such women told me how they began to heal. A few weeks after their marriage, there would be someone at the door saying 'I hear you have the cure for whooping cough.' In several cases, the women did not know what to do. Some asked their relatives and one was given instruction by her patient in the proper procedure. In the case of the seventh daughter and the posthumous child, their ability to heal was recognised from an early age and neither of them can remember the first patients they were called upon to heal, for they were both babies at the time. The posthumous son does not know how he got involved in healing, but the mother of the seventh daughter told me that the doctor present at the birth had said that she might have healing powers. Then an old lady of her acquaintance repeated the suggestion and instructed the mother how to proceed. More generally, all of those who have the cure are known to have the cure by their immediate community. After two or three patients have been treated, a network of information is established and a steady flow of patients comes from miles around.
Confronted by patients in distress who hope to find some relief from him, the healer is faced with two simple alternatives. Either he goes through the appropriate motions or he turns the patients away. There are two closely related sanctions which tend to compel such a person to perform his cure. The first is an obligation to show kindness and neighbourliness. All over Ulster, except perhaps in the wealthier suburbs, there is a generalised obligation to help people in distress if they express a need.6 In the context of healing, there is the additional sanction of religion. Caring for the sick is almost an archetype for biblical injunctions to be a 'good neighbour'. Whether or not he believes in the effectiveness of his cure, the healer feels that he should do what he can to help the sick person. At the very least, the cures which are administered are harmless (the cancer plaster may here be considered an exception) and since it is well known that 'faith can make you whole', the cure might actually work. Since to refuse to help will be considered unkind and unneighbourly, the healer therefore performs his cure.
For the healer, none of this need cause him any great soul-searching. He performs his cure not because he thinks it works but because patients want him to. It is quite possible for a healer to practise his cure while totally disbelieving that it has any effect. This is particularly likely where there is neither an explicit religious element in the form of a prayer, or a quasi-scientific element in the form of a herbal ointment. Nevertheless ownership of a cure which is neither clearly 'scientific' nor 'religious' can cause intellectual difficulties. Most typically these arise in the cases of women with the same married and maiden names, who have the cure of jaundice or whooping cough, or of their children who may have in- stead a cure of erysipelas. None of these conditions is particularly pleasant, and indeed they can all occasionally be fatal. In the face of genuine suffering, such people feel a need to do something constructive for the patients who come to them seeking help. The appropriate treatment, to give a piece of bread or a biscuit, or to wash the erysipelas with water, often appears to the healer to be rather absurdly trivial compared to the seriousness of the problem and a number of healers express unease that they can not be more helpful.
Two women told me independently how these intellectual difficulties led them to alter their procedures. Each of them has a cure for whooping cough. Neither could see how it is possible for a small child to have sufficient faith to allow them to be cured by the administration of an item of food. Knowing that they were abandoning the traditional practice, they added a prayer of their own composition to the prescribed procedure. Judging by the widespread dissatisfaction among healers of this particular type with the procedures laid down by tradition, 1 believe that other people in fact do this, but because of the reticence which often surrounds cures, and because private prayer is seldom discussed with strangers, they choose not to make this fact public.
By no means all healers whose procedures are unamenable to quasi-scientific or religious explanations try to invest ad hoc explanations or alter their procedures. Particularly where the illness in question is not very serious, and here cures for warts provide the best example, healers sometimes rather revel in the mysteriousness of the fact that their cure is unbelievable, but that nevertheless it seems to work. And this applies to many of those who have the cure, even for relatively serious illnesses.
It may be said that a generalised and ill-defined scepticism about the treatment which is offered characterises the attitudes of many people with the cure. Particularly when there is no apparent 'scientific' content and no overt religious content, but more generally with all of the cures which are not explicable in rational, scientific terms, healers tend to disclaim any power either for themselves or for their procedures. It is the faith of the patient -which works the cure, not the healer or the procedures.
It may well be that their own lack of faith in the effectiveness of their procedures provides an extra impulse to the healers' refusal to accept payment. If some see the act of healing as the work of God, many see the process of healing as the result of the patients' faith, and they feel that they have themselves done very little to effect a cure. The healer has given little in terms of time, money or effort to the individual patient and he does not regard his own action as particularly valuable, so it seems a little unfair to accept payment_ If patients feel that he, the healer, has effected a cure, the healer himself is often rather more doubtful.
It will be seen that the cure approaches in many respects the practice of divine healing. There are however important differences between the cure and divine healing which should not be overlooked. The formal rule which determines how a person acquired a cure gives to him a reputation which allows patients to seek him out. The healer thus passively responds to the demands of the patients who visit him, and he has no need to make a personal commitment to a sort of belief in the efficacy of his cure. Where he does try to rationalise it, or where the cure is even elaborated to make it more likely to work, this is an act which is subsequent to his beginning to use the cure and arises out of intellectual curiosity of a sense of responsibility towards the people who seek his aid.
The divine healer is in a very different position. He does not start healing as a result of popular demand and his status is not in any sense ascribed. Whether his call comes directly from God or whether he has been advised by acquaintances to try it out, it is the divine healer and not his patients who first decides that he has the power to heal. Whereas the person with the cure is known by his immediate community to have healing powers, almost irrespective of his own views on the subject, the divine healer first chooses to become a healer and then he must inform the public about his powers.
There was quite a sharp contrast between the discussions which I had with people with the cure and those with divine healers. When the subject did not arise in the course of normal conversation, I made a point of asking healers if they thought their cure worked. Among people who had the cure there were occasional individuals who were adamant that their cure was effective, but these were a minority. Most people with the cure were smilingly evasive and unwilling to commit themselves to a clear reply. They would say vaguely, 'People do sometimes write to say that they got better,' or 'They do say it seems to work, but I don't know.' Most had indeed heard reports that there had been successful cures, for it is by hearing reports of successful cures that patients learn about the healers in the first place. But most people who had the cure seemed unwilling to claim any spectacular successes or to try to convince the sceptical.
In contrast, divine healers usually keep a register of their patients and of their successes, and they are usually willing to talk at great length about their successful cures. Occasionally, in conversation with a divine healer, I found it very difficult to persuade him to talk about anything other than his successes.
Nor is this accidental. It is only by first of all announcing to the world that he believes that he has healing powers and then by informing people that he has been successful that a person can become a divine healer at all. Whereas the person with the cure is almost compelled, if not always unwillingly, by patients' demand to practise healing, the divine healer is driven by an internal commitment to heal. The modesty and half-formulated scepticism and rationalisations so typical of the people who have the cure are no part of the divine healer's outlook. The divine healer has thought out his position. He knows how healing has a place in his religious faith and he is willing, even anxious, to tell others of his success. While those with the cure feel that healing has been thrust upon them and that they must go through the motions of their cure in order to be helpful to those who ask for their services, divine healers are motivated by a desire to become healers and they are keen to prove that their claims are justified.
The almost boastful attitudes associated with divine healing are not an especially common feature of the general population of Ulster. If most people in Ulster have a religious faith, it is usually a matter of adherence to a congregation and a commitment to certain beliefs, moral codes and attitudes. Even in those denominations which encourage their members to expect a personal revelation of God's grace there are few who regard divine healing powers as typical signs of this grace and few individuals expect to be called to take part in this aspect of His work.
There are moreover strong pressures in most communities which would dissuade people from becoming divine healers. Harris has pointed to the term 'modesty' which is used to define a retiring, self-effacing mode of behaviour most approved of in Ballybeg.7 This term may not be used all over Ulster, but the attitudes which it defines are very prevalent. The man who lays claim to have a specially high status on whatever grounds, who strives to make known his social worth, is often regarded as foolish or offensive. He who pushes himself forward or seeks to invite approval risks public scorn. Commonly, the people who are willing to risk disapproval by flaunting signs of high status are farmers and business men who sacrifice the prestige attached to 'modesty' in order to obtain that attached to money. Rare indeed is the person who would risk gossip and social ostracism on the basis of a personal conviction that he has divine powers. He knows that the individual who makes such claims can be derided as a charlatan. In a land where the dominant value is 'modesty', the divine healer must be anything but 'modest'. In consequence divine healers are few in number.
The short supply of divine healers and of other forms of fringe medicine may be held to account for the continuing popularity of the cure. If it is difficult for an individual to embark upon a mission of divine healing, there is nevertheless a demand to be satisfied. The content of any individual cure may or may not be religious, but, except for the occasional 'scientific' cure, patients and healers are usually able to interpret the cure within the context of religious belief. Because the person with the cure has no need to claim a divine revelation, or to advertise his services, or to boast of his successes, and because he is given the status of healer by the community, he is available to fulfil the patients' needs. He may do this with a proper show of modesty, while gaining the local reputation of being kindly, helpful and a 'good neighbour'.
In Ulster, there is a widespread acceptance that divine healing in some form is possible, that through faith one may be healed of one's illness, and there is a scepticism about orthodox medicine which encourages patients to look for an alternative to it. Because of this recognition that divine healing is possible, there are occasional and somewhat unusual individuals who are willing to come forward to take on its practice, but the obstacles to becoming a divine healer are great and such individuals are few. The cure fills this gap. Its forms are archaic and often incomprehensible both to healers and patients, but they may usually be interpreted according to a model applicable to divine healing. To a degree the exotic content of the cure, its very irrationality, lends to it a validity derived from tradition which, like religious faith itself, is independent of the scientific values of orthodox medicine. In a society where the sick look for those who perform miracles, and where few are willing to claim that they have miraculous powers, the archaic forms of the cure provide the means whereby miracle workers are hesitantly called into existence.
Notes & References
1. This paper is based on one read to a seminar of the Department of Anthropology, Queen's University of Belfast. It has benefited greatly from the criticism of its members.
2. The terms 'patient' and 'healer' are here used somewhat loosely. They are not widely used as vernacular terms. 'Patients' are usually 'somebody with a sprained ankle', or 'somebody with jaundice'; while 'healers' are variously 'a man who has got the cure of the sprain', or 'a faith-healer', or someone who is 'good with backs', and so on.
3. Leyton, Elliott, 'Opposition and Integration in Ulster', Man, New Series, 9 (1974), 185-198, passim
4. Harris, Rosemary, Prejudice and Tolerance in Ulster (Manchester, 1972), 149, ff.
5. Buckley, Anthony D., A Gentle People (awaiting publication).
6. Buckley, A. D., ibid.
7. Harris, R., ibid., 124 c.
8. Buckley, A. D., op. cit.