Diseases in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XIV....continued

3. Diseases.

All the chief diseases and epidemics we are now acquainted with were known and studied by the Irish physicians, and called by Irish names. In early times great plagues were of frequent occurrence all over the world; and Ireland was not exempt. The victims of a plague were commonly buried in one spot, which was fenced round and preserved as in a manner sacred. In Cormac's Glossary it is stated that the place of such wholesale interment was called tamhlacht, i.e. 'plague-grave,' from tamh, a plague, and lacht, a monument or memorial over the dead. Tamhlacht, which is still a living word, has given name to the village of Tallaght near Dublin, where the Parthalonian colony, who all died of a plague in one week, were interred. On the side of Tallaght hill are to be seen to this day a number of pagan graves and burial mounds. Within historic times, the most remarkable and destructive of all the ancient plagues was the Blefed, or Buide-Connaill [boy-connell] or yellow plague, which swept through Ireland twice, in the sixth and seventh centuries, and which, we know from outer sources, desolated all Europe about the same time. The Irish records abound in notices of its ravages.

The idea that a plague could not travel over sea farther than nine waves was very general, both in pagan and Christian times. During the prevalence of the yellow plague, St. Colman of Cloyne, with his terrified companions, fled to an island somewhere near Cork, so as to put a distance of nine waves between them and the mainland.

Some cutaneous disease, very virulent and infectious, known by names—such as lobor, clam, and trosc—that indicate a belief that it was leprosy, existed in Ireland from a very early date: but experts of our day doubt if it was true leprosy. Whatever it was, it would seem to have been a well-recognised disease in the fifth century; and after that time our literature, especially the Lives of the Saints, abounds with notices of the disease.

The annals record several outbreaks of smallpox and many individual deaths from it. It was known by two names, both still in use in different parts of the country:—bolgach or 'pustule disease' (bolg, 'a bag or pustule'), and galar-brecc, the 'speckled disease.'

Consumption was but too well known, then as now: a usual name for it was serg, i.e. 'withering' or 'decaying.' In Cormac's Glossary a person in consumption is called by an Irish name signifying 'without fat.'

'Gout in the hand,' is explained in Irish by crupan na lám, 'cramp or spasm of the hands': and ophthalmia is galar súla, 'disease of the eye.' This word crupán [cruppaun], 'a spasm or seizure,' is still used in parts of Ireland to denote a paralytic affection in cattle: it was also applied to convulsions. In the Tripartite Life and other old documents, colic is designated by tregat, which is still a spoken word. One of the early kings of Ireland was called Aed Uaridnech (A.D. 603 to 611), or 'Aed of the shivering disease,' no doubt ague. Palsy was known by the descriptive name crith-lám [crih-lauv], 'trembling of the hands,' from crith, 'shaking,' and lám or lámh, 'a hand.'

St. Camin of Inis-Caltra died in 653 of teine-buirr, 'fire of swelling'—St. Antony's fire or erysipelas—which withered away all his body. In one of Zeuss's eighth-century glosses, cancer is designated by two Irish words, tuthle and ailse, the latter of which is still in use in the same sense: and elsewhere in the same glosses another native word for the same disease occurs, úrphasiu. Diarrhoea was called in Irish buinnech, i.e. 'flux,' from buinne, 'a wave or stream.' These are only a few examples of Irish names of diseases.

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