How The Ancient Irish Physicians Were Skilled In Medicine

Among most nations of old times there were great leeches or physicians,

who were considered so skilful that the people believed they could cure

wounds and ailments as if by magic. In some countries they became gods, as

among the Greeks.

The ancient Irish people, too, had their mighty leech, a Dedannan named

Dianket, who, as they believed, could heal all wounds and cure all

diseases; so that he became the
rish God of Medicine. He had a son,

Midac, and a daughter, Airmeda, who were both as good as himself; and at

last Midac became so skilful that his father killed him in a fit of

jealousy. And after a time there grew up from the young physician's grave

365 herbs from the 365 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 these herbs, and carefully sorting them, wrapped

them up in her mantle. But the jealous old Dianket came and mixed them all

up, so that no one could distinguish them: and but for this--according to

the legend--every physician would now be able to cure all diseases without

delay, by selecting and applying the proper herbs.

Leaving these shadowy old-world stories, let us come down to later times,

when we shall, as it were, tread on solid ground. We find in some

authorities a tradition that in the second century before the Christian

era, Josina, the ninth king of Scotland, was educated in Ireland by the

Irish physicians, and that he afterwards wrote a treatise on the virtues

and powers of herbs. Though we may not quite believe this tradition, it

shows that the Irish medical doctors had a reputation abroad for great

skill at a very early period.

Surgeons and doctors figure conspicuously in the old tales of the Red

Branch Knights, and indeed in very many others, whether historical or

romantic and fictitious: as well as in the strictly historical writings. A

medical staff always accompanied armies, each man having, slung from his

shoulder, a bag full of herbs, ointments, bandages, and such other medical

appliances as were used at the time. They followed in the rear of the

army--each company under one head doctor; and at the end of each day's

fighting--or during the fighting when possible--they came forward and

applied their salves.

We are all now familiar with the humane practice of giving medical aid to

the wounded after the battle, without distinction of friend or foe. The

same practice was common in Ireland two thousand years ago. We read in one

of the Tales, that when Kehern, a famous Ulster hero, returned from

fighting, all covered with wounds, the Ulstermen sent a request to the

Connaught camp--i.e., the camp of the enemy--for physicians, as it

happened that none of the Ulster leeches were just then at hand: and

physicians were promptly despatched with the messenger.

A king or a great chief had always a physician as part of his household,

to attend to the health of his family. The usual remuneration of these men

was a residence and a tract of land in the neighbourhood, free of all rent

and taxes, together with certain allowances: and the medical man might, if

he chose, practise for fee outside the household. Some of those in the

service of great kings had castles, and lived in state like princes. Those

not so attached lived on their fees, like many doctors of the present day:

and the fees for the various operations or attendances were laid down in

the Brehon Law.

Though medical doctors were looked up to with great respect, they had to

be very careful in exercising their profession. A leech who through

carelessness, or wilful neglect, or gross want of skill, failed to cure a

wound, might be brought before a brehon or judge, and if the case was

proved home against him, he had to pay the same fine to the patient as if

he had inflicted the wound with his own hand, besides forfeiting his fee.

Medicine, as a profession, like Law, History, etc., often ran in families

in Ireland, descending regularly from father to son; and several Irish

families were distinguished leeches for generations, such as the O'Shiels,

the O'Cassidys, the O'Hickeys, and the O'Lees.

Each medical family kept a book, which was handed down reverently from

father to son, and in which was written, in Irish or Latin, all the

medical knowledge derived either from other books or from the actual

experience of the various members of the family; and many of these old

volumes, all in beautiful handwriting, are still preserved in Dublin and

elsewhere. As showing the admirable spirit in which those good men studied

and practised their profession, and how much they loved it, it is worth

while to give a translation of the opening statement, a sort of preface,

in the Irish language, written at the beginning of one of these books,

nearly six hundred years ago:--

"May the good God have mercy on us all. I have here collected practical

rules of medicine from several works, for the honour of God, for the

benefit of the Irish people, for the instruction of my pupils, and for the

love of my friends and of my kindred. I have translated many of them into

Gaelic from Latin books, containing the lore of the great leeches of

Greece and Rome. These are sweet and profitable things which have been

often tested by us and by our instructors.

"I pray God to bless those doctors who will use this book; and I lay it as

an injunction on their souls, that they extract knowledge from it not by

any means sparingly, and that they do not neglect the practical rules

herein contained. More especially I charge them that they do their duty

devotedly in cases where they receive no payment on account of the poverty

of their patients.

"Let every physician, before he begins his treatment, offer up a secret

prayer for the sick person, and implore the heavenly Father, the Physician

and Balm-giver of all mankind, to prosper the work he is entering upon,

and to save himself and his patient from failure."

There is good reason to believe that the noble and kindly sentiments here

expressed were generally those of the physicians of the time; from which

we may see that the old Irish medical doctors were quite as devoted to

their profession, as eager for knowledge, and as anxious about their

patients as those of the present day.

The fame of the Irish physicians reached the Continent. Even at a

comparatively late time, about three hundred years ago, when medicine had

been successfully studied and practised in Ireland for more than a

thousand years, Van Helmont, a well-known and distinguished physician of

Brussels, in a book written by him in Latin on medical subjects, praises

the Irish doctors, and describes them correctly as follows:--

"In the household of every great lord in Ireland there is a physician who

has a tract of land for his support, and who is appointed to his post, not

on account of the great amount of learning he brings away in his head from

colleges, but because he is able to cure diseases. His knowledge of the

healing art is derived from books left him by his forefathers, which

describe very exactly the marks and signs by which the various diseases

are known, and lay down the proper remedies for each. These remedies

[which are mostly herbs], are all produced in that country. Accordingly,

the Irish people are much better managed in sickness than the Italians,

who have a physician in every village."

The Irish physicians carefully studied all the diseases known in their

time, and had names for them--names belonging to the Irish language, and

not borrowed from other countries or other languages. They investigated

and noted down the qualities and effects of all curative herbs (which had

Gaelic, as well as Latin, names); and they were accordingly well known

throughout Europe for their knowledge and skill in medicinal botany.

There were Hospitals all over the country, some in connexion with

monasteries, and managed by monks, some under the lay authorities; and one

or more doctors with skilled nurses attended each hospital, whether lay or

monastic. The Brehon Law laid down regulations for the lay hospitals:--for

instance, that they should be kept clean, and should have four open doors

for ventilation, that a stream of clear water should run across the house

through the middle of the floor, that the patients should not be put into

beds forbidden by the physician, that noisy talkative persons should be

kept away from them; and many other such like. There were no such

regulations for the monastic hospitals, as being unnecessary. The

provision about the open doors and the stream of water may be said to have

anticipated by more than a thousand years the present open-air treatment

of consumption. Those who had means were expected to pay for food,

medicine, physician, and attendance: but the poor were received and

treated free.

If a person wounded or injured another unlawfully, he was obliged to pay

for "sick maintenance," i.e., the cost of maintaining the wounded person

in a hospital till recovery or death; which payment included the fees of

the physician and of one or more nurses.

It is pleasant to know that the Irish physicians of our time, who, it is

generally agreed, are equal to those of any other country in the world,

can look back with respect, and not without some feeling of pride, to

their Irish predecessors of the times of old.