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HEALING HANDS, a rub of a relic and a flat 7Up

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They come from far and wide to be blessed and they believe. It’s not witchcraft, and nothing to do with the fairies. They are believers and there are non-believers.

It’s not a cure for a Saint Patrick’s Day hangover, or a potion brought back from a trip to Medjugorje. It’s faith healers and their believers and all the cures there are for every ill there ever was.

It’s spoken of as “the cure” and part of a strong belief in folk medicine and said to originate from ancient tribes of Ireland, and still alive especially in many rural areas.

In these parts, faith healers conjure charms, and cast spells and mix ancient remedies.

And the seventh son.

The healing power of the seventh son, known colloquially as “the gift”, derives from belief in the birth order of the seventh child who is born as the seventh son (or daughter), and sometimes from a father or mother who themself are a seventh child. It isn’t associated with any particular religion and in Ireland it is practiced by those that believe in it. The seventh son it is said is to have been passed powers to heal from God.

To be touched by the seventh son is to be given hope, even to be cured, by forces neither the healer nor the believer has any understanding of.

Photo by Daragh Moller

Miracles are the business of the seventh child. The cure is commonly sought to treat conditions such as ringworm, eczema, warts, and croup in newborns. The cure uses a combination of religious symbolism and pagan ritual. For example, a crucifix may be used to bless the believer and parts of the cross will touch on the body of the faithful.

Juliet Marillier , Australian author of Daughter of the Forest, a tale of the seventh child, explains: “Many of the traditional Irish stories of the oral tradition, with their pagan deities and earth-based rituals, were picked up by the early Celtic monks and given a religious gloss, then used as Christian teaching material. As a result the divide between pagan and Christian origins became well and truly blurred.”

Swing a cat in County Sligo and you’ll find someone who’ll tell you about “the cure”. One local Sligo seventh son, who wishes to be unnamed, says: “I’ve cured hundreds and hundreds of people, but it doesn’t work if you don’t believe. People who come to me believe and it works. It’s simple.”

Secrecy is a feature of the aura that surround healers but something of an open secret. It is said that cures were more common years ago when people didn’t have money.

“Yes, everyone knows about it but I don’t advertise. No, I don’t take money for it. It could be inconvenient if too many people came,” he says.

A child with whooping cough is placed three times under a mare-donkey. A child with an infected “bad smelling mouth” is breathed on by an old woman. These are examples of the old wives’ cures, common to the region.

Photo by Daragh Moller

In her book, CURES OF IRELAND, Sligo-born Cecily Gilligan says belief in the seventh son is a way of life in County Sligo. She explains. A circle is drawn in some soil and a worm dropped into its centre. The worm will be unable to wriggle outside of the circle, such is the power of the healer. It is said the person suffering from ringworm will then be free of it. When a butterfly knot of red silk is tied above a baby suffering from croup and then pulled open and released, the croup is said to depart from the child, her breathing free from constriction.

Conceived as miracles as much as magic, the cures have little in the way of rigorous scientific backing.

“I think I have more electricity in my right hand than most people,”the seventh son reports. “It gets hot afterwards.”

Old traditions die hard in Ireland, be it a rub of a relic and a flat 7Up. Part superstition, part placebo effect, the cure of the seventh son is still very popular.

From the RTE Archives, a mother of one seventh son explains how she understands it.  Another link the “miraculous cures” to her son being the seventh son of a seventh son, said to possess an even more powerful gift that invokes the healing power in one so born.

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