Irish Medical Doctors

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Portion of a Bell-shrine found in the River Bann

Portion of a Bell-shrine found in the River Bann (From Miss Stokes’s Christian Inscriptions)



SECTION 1. Medical Doctors.

Letter M
EDICINE and surgery were carefully studied in Ireland from the very earliest times. There was a distinct professional class of physicians who underwent a regular course of education and practical training, and whose qualifications and privileges were universally recognised. Those intended for the profession were usually educated by being apprenticed to a physician of standing, in whose house they lived during their pupilage, and by whom they were instructed. This profession, like others in ancient Ireland, became in great measure hereditary in certain families.

The Irish, like the Greeks and other ancient nations, had their great mythical physicians, of whom the most distinguished was the Dedannan leech-god Diancecht [Dianket]. His name signifies 'vehement power,' and marvellous stories are related of his healing skill; similar to those of some old Greek physicians. He is mentioned in certain Irish Glosses and Incantations for health, written in the eighth century: so that at that early time he was regarded as a god, belonging to a period looked back to, even then, as the dim twilight of antiquity.

He had a son Midach and a daughter Airmeda, both of whom in some respects excelled himself; and in one of the old tales we are told that he grew at last so jealous of Midach that he killed him. And after a time there grew up from the young physician's grave 865 herbs from the 865 joints and sinews and members of his body, each herb with mighty virtue to cure diseases of the part it grew from. His sister Airmeda plucked up the herbs, and carefully sorting them, wrapped them up in her mantle. But the jealous old Diancecht came and mixed them all up, so that now no leech has complete knowledge of their distinctive qualities "unless"—adds the story—"the Holy Spirit should teach him."

Medical doctors figure conspicuously in the Tales of the Red Branch Knights. A whole medical corps, under one head physician, accompanied each army during the war of the Tain. Each leech of the company carried, slung from his waist, a bag—called a lés [lace]—full of medicaments; and at the end of the day's fighting, whether between numbers or individuals, they came forward and applied their salves.

Though the profession continued uninterruptedly from the most distant ages, the first notice of an individual physician we find in the annals of Christian times occurs under A.D. 860, where the death is recorded of Maelodar O'Tinnri, "the best physician in Ireland": but from that period downwards the annals record a succession of eminent physicians, whose reputation, like that of the Irish scholars of other professions, reached the Continent. In the beginning of the seventeenth century, when medicine had been successfully studied in Ireland for more than a thousand years, Van Helmont of Brussels, a distinguished physician and writer on medical subjects, gave a brief but very correct account of the Irish physicians of his time, their books, and their remedies, and praised them for their skill. He says:—

"The Irish nobility have in every family a domestic physician, who has a tract of land free for his remuneration, and who is appointed, not on account of the amount of learning he brings away in his head from colleges, but because he can cure disorders. These doctors obtain their medical knowledge chiefly from books belonging to particular families left them by their ancestors, in which are laid down the symptoms of the several diseases, with the remedies annexed; which remedies are the productions of their own country. Accordingly the Irish are better managed in sickness than the Italians, who have a physician in every village."

From the earliest times reached by our records the kings and great Irish families had physicians attached to their households, whose office was, as in other professions, hereditary. The O'Callanans were physicians to the Mac Carthys of Desmond; the O'Cassidys, of whom individuals of eminence are recorded, to the Maguires of Fermanagh; the O'Lees, to the O'Flahertys of Connaught; and the O'Hickeys, to the O'Briens of Thomond, to the O'Kennedys of Ormond, and to the Macnamaras of Clare.

The O'Shiels were physicians to the MacMahons of Oriel, and to the MacCoghlans of Delvin, in the present King's County: and their hereditary estate, which is near the village of Ferbane, is still called Ballyshiel, 'O'Shiel's town.' Colgan states that in his time—seventeenth century—the O'Shiels were widely spread through Ireland, and were celebrated for their skill in natural science and medicine. Only quite recently—in 1889—Dr. Shiel, an eminent physician of Ballyshannon, left by his will a large fortune to found a hospital for the poor in that town. So that even still the hereditary genius of the family continues to exercise its benign influence.

The amount of remuneration of a family leech depended on his own eminence and on the status of the king or chief in whose household he lived. The stipend usually consisted of a tract of land and a residence in the neighbourhood, held free of all rent and tribute, together with certain allowances and perquisites: and the physician might practise for fee outside his patron's household. Five hundred acres of land was a usual allowance: and some of these estates—now ordinary townlands—retain the family names to this day. The household physician to a king—who should always be an ollave-leech, that is, one who had attained the highest rank in the profession (p. 185, supra)—held a very dignified position, and indeed lived like a prince, with a household and dependents of his own. He was always among the king's immediate retinue, and was entitled to a distinguished place at table.

Speaking generally, the best physicians were those attached to noble households. Those unattached lived by their fees; the amounts for the several operations or attendances being defined by the Brehon Laws. A qualified physician—as we have said—kept pupils or graduates who lived in his house and accompanied him in his visitations to learn his methods. We have already seen (p. 88) that a man who inflicted a wound had, on conviction, to pay a certain eric-fine to the wounded person. A leech who, through carelessness, or neglect, or gross want of skill, failed to cure a wound, had to pay the same fine to the patient as if he had inflicted the wound with his own hand; and if he had received his fee, he should return it.

It is worthy of remark that in our legendary history female physicians are often mentioned: and so we see that in ancient Ireland the idea was abroad which is so extensively coming into practice in our own day.

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