For two hours on Sunday mornings, they come to the pub with all that ails them. A small boy with a rash. A farmer with ringworm. A man with a throat infection. They are here to see Joe Gallagher, who owns this canary-yellow pub, nestled alongside a canal in the tiny village of Pullough, in Co Offaly.
They believe that as the seventh son of his family, he holds a cure. “I’m at this all my life,” the 75-year-old says as he takes a deep drag on his cigarette. As he explains how he does the cure – by laying his hands on the affected area, making the sign of the cross and reciting some prayers – he breathes out ribbons of smoke that swirled around his face.
You have to put your heart and soul into it, and you’re asking God to help you with this thing
Gallagher is just one of hundreds of men and women across Ireland who are healers, or have “the cure”, an approach to healthcare that interweaves home remedies with mysticism, superstition, religion and a sprinkle of magic. It is part of a belief in folk medicine, curing charms and faith healers that is still a way of life for many in Ireland, if a fading one.
Some who are believed to have the cure are seventh sons, like Gallagher, a birth order long thought to bestow special powers. Others are keepers of family customs that range from rituals, prayers and charms to herbal tinctures, offered up as treatments for everything from burns and sprains to rashes and coughs.
Since his childhood, people have sought out Gallagher. “I think you must have the belief,” he says, acknowledging that the process doesn’t always work. “I wouldn’t say that I can do miracles.” For Gallagher, a former monk who says his religious order had been accepting of the cure, the practice is a deeply religious one. “You have to put your heart and soul into it, and you’re asking God to help you with this thing,” he says.
For others, the cures depend less on a deep Christian faith and more on secrets handed down through centuries of oral tradition.
Bart Gibbons, who is 57 and owns a grocery store in the village of Drumshanbo in Co Leitrim, has a cure for warts that was passed down from his father and his father’s father before him. It involves taking a bundle of rushes and saying a combination of prayers as they are held over the affected area. Then he buries the reed-like plants.
The belief is that when they decay, the warts are gone. Gibbons didn’t plan to carry on with the treatment after his father’s death, but then a woman showed up at his door asking for the cure to clear her warts before her wedding day. He said he would try. It worked, he says, and people have been coming ever since, some from hundreds of kilometres away.
He says it would be wrong to receive payment for a cure, and the idea that payment is taboo is something experts say is ingrained in the tradition. Gibbons describes being a “vessel” of his cure. “I’m not holy,” he says. “And I don’t pretend to be.”
In Gibbons’s view, the cure is about belief rather than religion. “If people believe strongly enough that this has happened, I think your body makes it happen,” he says.
Attributing positive outcomes of the cure to something like a placebo effect makes sense to Ronald Moore, an associate professor of public health at University College Dublin who has spent years researching folk cures and who emphasises that there is little scientific evidence for the efficacy of these practices.
But that doesn’t mean the medical community completely dismisses potential benefits, with some doctors known to send their patients for the cure, often for skin issues or other minor troubles.
“Modern practices on the one hand pooh-pooh this, as scandalous and outrageous and quackery,” Moore says. “But in fact, and in reality, they utilise it.”
I’d feel bad if I stopped. I feel like I was given this gift. And why would I not use it?
While many cures have been infused with a religious element in a country with an overwhelming Catholic majority, the tradition – variations of which still exist in many cultures across the world – is ancient. “Cures and charms go way beyond the established church. It predates Christianity,” Moore says. “It is essentially a pagan system.”
But there are cases of priests who have cures and others who send people for them, though the Catholic Church is “more than ambivalent to this,” Moore says. The cures and charms themselves are often shrouded in secrecy, but the community knowledge of who has the cure is widely known, and in modern Ireland, a global technology hub, it is not hard to find someone when you need someone. Even in Dublin, a cure is never more than a phone call or text away.
“It’s the whole community-based element of folk medicine that is so important,” says Bairbre Ní Fhloinn, an associate professor of Irish folklore at University College Dublin. “The whole interconnectedness of our physical health and our mental health and our emotional health and our spiritual health – this is something that’s kind of built into so many folk medicinal cures,” Ní Fhloinn says, “which modern medicine again, for all its miracles, can miss out on.”
Most healers Ní Fhloinn has met see their cures as a system that runs alongside conventional medicine, not in opposition to it, and she says she knows of sceptics who have turned to the cure. “That we don’t believe in miracles doesn’t mean we don’t hope for them,” she says. Still, there have been instances of people preying on the vulnerability of the sick, charging steep prices for miracle cures. “Folk medicine can attract charlatans and chancers of all kinds,” Ní Fhloinn says.
Sometimes, there are multiple cures under one roof. Patricia and Peter Quinn, who own a small farm in Co Offaly, both have cures with their own rituals.
Peter Quinn has a cure for warts, passed down from his father. To treat shingles, Patricia Quinn dips cotton in holy water and daubs it on the affected area while saying the prayer her grandmother taught her. After the third treatment, she throws the cotton and the water into a fire. On a recent morning, a woman Patricia Quinn had treated for shingles stopped by with a plate of cupcakes. “Everybody appreciates you doing it,” she says.
As Irish families have gotten smaller, seventh sons have become much rarer. But Andrew Keane, a 37-year-old who lives in Co Mayo, is one. When he was a baby, his parents were told by another seventh son that theirs had the cure for ringworm, and he showed the boy the ritual. His mother still has vivid memories of Andrew as a young boy reaching out tiny hands and saying the curing prayers.
In their farming community, where ringworm is common in cattle and easily passes to people, it was a popular cure. Now, with two children of his own, doing the cure is just part of his everyday routine, and he has never really second-guessed it.
“I’d feel bad if I stopped,” says Keane, who treats people in the evenings after work as a builder. “I feel like I was given this gift. And why would I not use it?” Keane also treats animals. On this particular night, he goes to visit his neighbours Áine McLoughlin, who is 54, and her husband, Chris McLoughlin, who is 55, whose two dogs had ringworm.
“I thought it was worth a shot because the dogs weren’t improving,” Chris McLoughlin says, adding they had already visited the vet. Keane strokes the floor three times, makes the sign of the cross and places his hands on the West Highland terriers’ backs while saying the Hail Mary.
As she watches him perform, Áine McLoughlin says she has grown up with beliefs in cures. But she worries t