Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Workday Wednesday / Folk Doctors in the Family

     When my 3rd great grandmother Anne Donahoe McGarr died in Ballyraggan, Kildare in the fall of 1866 there was no doctor attending her.  Her death certificate states she died of phthisis so someone must have made the diagnosis, did she diagnose herself?  Phthisis is an archaic medical term that could refer to any wasting disease, but it usually meant tuberculosis.  When her husband Daniel died of old age 9 years later, his death certificate says he too was without medical attention.

     Ireland had health services at the time of both their deaths.  In 1851 the Medical Charities Act was passed, establishing over 700 dispensaries throughout Ireland.  Each one had a doctor who was paid a salary.  If a person could not afford a doctor, he had simply to contact a Poor Law guardian to acquire a ticket to see one.   You would think an elderly man and a woman dying a slow death would have had a physician; unless of course… someone in the family was treating them.

     As told to me by a Kinsella cousin, there is a family tradition that the McGarrs were folk doctors or traditional healers.  The story went that the McGarrs had a cure for skin cancer that was passed down from mother to daughter.  Healing was commonly a hereditary profession, with charms and recipes being handed down through the generations.  That was the case with one of the best known healers of the 19th century, Biddy Early, the wise woman of Clare.  Her mother Ellen Early O’Connor was a healer, known for her herbal cures and she taught Biddy how to concoct these potions.  Believing that the gift of healing was inherited through the female line, Biddy, who was born Biddy O'Connor,  took her mother’s maiden name of Early for her surname.  Read more about Biddy here: Biddy Early

     The McGarr tradition too was that the youngest daughter was the one who would receive the knowledge from her mother.  That would have been Sarah McGarr who was born in 1836.  Is it a coincidence that Sarah was the only daughter who remained with her parents?  Was it because as the youngest she was expected to care for them, or could it have been something more?  Even after her marriage to Thomas Hughes in 1872, at the age of 36, she and Thomas remained with the widowed Daniel.  In fact it was Thomas who reported Daniel’s death to the registrars in 1875.

    It’s only conjecture, but I have to wonder if Sarah was caring for her parents and saw no reason to involve an outside doctor?  In the very early 19th century when her mother Anne would have been learning her healing craft, many rural Irish still believed that illnesses could be brought on by disrespecting the fairies and put much more faith in traditional healers than in modern medicine.  Perhaps Sarah did too.

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