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‘Before you go to bed tonight hang a scarf or a cloth outside your door’

Dr Muiris Houston: Folk cures often have some of the same methods and goals of biomedicine and must not be neglected

As well as being thankful to St Brigid for facilitating the addition of a new bank holiday to the calendar – and allowing us (hopefully) savour that rare joy of waking up on a Monday morning not having to rush to work – what other attributes does the saint offer us?

Along with other saints, Brigid is associated with a number of “folk cures”. Last week, professional mixed martial artist Conor McGregor reminded his many Instagram followers of the potential benefits of hanging a scarf or cloth outside their door on St Brigid’s Eve. The Crumlin native posted a picture of himself at a church service alongside his son Conor jnr with a message celebrating the eve of the Irish saint.

“Before you go to bed tonight hang a scarf or a cloth outside your door,” he wrote. They are known as a “Bratog” and it is said the saint will pass and bless them. “And in the morning this special garment will protect the wearer from ill-health and also has been known to cure headaches and sore throats.”

Folklorist Michael Fortune, writing on the RTÉ News website, says the tradition involves the hanging out of a cloth/rag/ribbon on your washing line, “so that when St Brigid would pass it that evening after sunset, she would bless it. The colour varied around the country, some used blue, more white and others green… This rag/cloth is also known as Brat Bríde (Brigid’s Cloak) and these would be kept up and used for cures, mostly headaches, over the coming 12 months.”

Some folk cures have a regional emphasis. The website duchas.ie has a description of a St Brigid’s well in Clondalkin, Co Dublin. The contributor says it is situated in a lane called Brideswell Lane about 200 yards from the road. “Many people have been cured of sore eyes by going to this well three times and bathing the eyes three times at each visit. When finished they hang the cloth up on the bush,” they write. Whether the cloth refers to a Brat Bríde isn’t made clear.

But the description helps emphasise a tension that can exist between modern medicine and folk (or indigenous) medicine. A doctor hearing the story of the St Brigid’s Well cure would wince at the thought of infection from conjunctivitis being readily passed from “cure” recipient to “cure” recipient by the piece of cloth hanging on the bush.

In her book, Ireland’s Hidden Medicine, Rosarie Kingston points out that ancient healing traditions are increasingly neglected due to the dominance of biomedicine as the country’s primary system of healthcare. The book explores how the core elements of any medical system are always the same: diagnosis, prognosis, treatment and prevention of ill-health. “These central elements do not change, but the medical systems which give them expression may evolve, mutate and even die, because their fortunes are tied up with the changing cultural, technological and economic paradigms of their societies,” she writes.

It is all too easy for scientifically trained health professionals to scoff at the oral method of transmitting folk medicine knowledge and the lack of randomised control trials to prove or disprove a cure’s efficacy. But if we confine our care to the voice and language of biomedicine, then we risk missing out on the emotional aspect of illness, as well as remaining unaware of important local social and environmental contexts.

The discipline of narrative-based medicine helps to overcome this. By teaching narrative competence and awareness to medical students, we emphasise the importance of the “life-world” inhabited by patients who are dealing with illness. It’s a different sphere to the “logicoscientific world” of modern medicine, with its emphasis on the hard facts offered by scans and tests.

It’s not that we want tyros to opt for one system over the other. Rather, we would like future doctors to include both spheres in their interaction with, and care of, patients.

mhouston@irishtimes.com

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