New Uses of Traditional Healing in Contemporary Irish Literature

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INTRODUCTION

Historical and Cultural Research into Folk Healing

Traditional healing was once found all across the world, especially the herbal forms ("Domestic plant medicine represents the home survival kit" Hatfield 2005: 1). Remnants of these old customs can be found documented across the world, in written form, and these are possibly just a fraction of the knowledge passed down orally over the centuries. However, all is not lost. Herbalists in various Irish counties have flourishing practices. In Ireland, informal groups such as the Clare Oral History Project collect information and pass it down to others in meetings and publications; in one such meeting recently, fear was expressed by several attendees that such knowledge was being lost to our age, and that unless action is taken now it will be lost to future generations. More formal associations such as the Centre for the History of Medicine (CHOMI), based in University College Dublin, hold regular academic conferences and seminars for the same purpose. Similar research is being carried out in other countries in Europe, and books such as Evidence-Based Herbal Medicine (2002) are coming out from the United States. Some of the more enterprising works are not content with description and documentation, but attempt to construct a rationale for the value of the research, for example, Moore and McClean's Folk Healing and Health Care Practices in Britain and Ireland (2010), which seeks to link folk healing with Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Attempts are also being made to understand how some of the more esoteric practices, such as using cobwebs to heal cuts, and charms, can be effective. Some of these are clinical trials, as in the US book above. One of these fields centres around investigations of what is called, sometimes dismissively, the "placebo effect", but which a number of serious practitioners and researchers believe has more deep-rooted physical and psychological effects yet to be fully explored, for example Finniss et al 2010.

This system of healing has parallels in the ancient history of all cultures throughout the world, whether it be the efficacy of herbal remedies discovered locally, or the power and respect accorded to the medicine man or woman (Keith Thomas 1991, Rotblatt and Ziment 2002, Wildwood 1999). In Western Europe, it has largely yielded place to conventional medicine, but with pockets of older belief and custom in place; as Gabrielle Hatfield says: "... within the Celtic tradition, it is more likely that magico-religious elements of healing have played a greater part than in the rest of Britain, and the remnants of this can still be seen today ... [in the] Highlands of Scotland ... Wales ... [and] Ireland" 2005: 139). This will be echoed in Faith Healer, in that the characters in that play confine themselves to practice in Wales, Scotland and Ireland (Friel 1984: 332). However, as we see in Moore and McClean's book above, these pockets of belief and practice have expanded in the last decade.

Some aspects of the older customs may seem to be rooted in pre-Christian tradition. Christianity adapted itself to this in converting old practices into religious ones. However, vestiges of paganism remained, to lead to conflict between the establishment, particularly the organised Churches, and the healers. Timothy Corrigan Correll describes the historical situation:

   From the seventeenth century onwards, the
   leaders of the Catholic Church followed
   Tridentine directives that sought to impose
   uniformity in religious standards and practices.
   This included the enactment of synodal statutes
   aimed at routing magical and quasi-religious
   customs, including superstitious curing and
   beliefs ... (2005: 1).

Perhaps the notable of these disputes in Ireland were those of clergy with the Co. Clare wise woman, Biddy Early, paralleled in two of the literary texts considered below, the healing women in both Keegan's and Curtis' fiction. …