Two bits of Irish woo

December 23, 2021 • 11:15 am

There’s a time when “blarney” becomes crazy and harmful, and we have two cases that appeared at the same time.  The first represents the New York Times‘s recent presentation of woo in extenso, with almost no critical remarks. The editors are soft on astrology, they’re soft on dowsing, they’re soft on religion, and now they’re soft on a mixture of religion and spiritual healing. Click the screenshot to read:

As the article reports, there are a number of faith healers in Ireland who have what they call “the cure”. It’s nothing new; it’s the old “laying on of hands” by believers, often accompanied by prayer, holy water, etc., to effect cures. The guy in the photo above, Joe Gallagher in Pullough, is the seventh son of a seventh son (not that rare in Catholic Ireland, but increasingly rarer), and this is supposed to give him special healing abilities. Here’s how the author, Megan Specia, describes “The Cure”:

Mr. Gallagher is just one of hundreds of men and women across Ireland who are healers, or have “the cure,” an approach to health care that interweaves home remedies with mysticism, superstition, religion and a sprinkle of magic.

It’s part of a belief in folk medicine, curing charms and faith healers that is still a way of life for many in Ireland, if a fading one.

Some who are believed to have the cure are seventh sons, like Mr. Gallagher, a birth order long thought to bestow special powers.

Others are keepers of family customs that range from rituals, prayers and charms to herbal tinctures, offered up as treatments for everything from burns and sprains to rashes and coughs.

Since his childhood, people have sought out Mr. Gallagher. “I think you must have the belief,” he said, acknowledging that the process doesn’t always work. “I wouldn’t say that I can do miracles.”


People come from miles around to see healers like Gallagher, who are reputed to cure things like:

  • burns
  • sprains
  • coughs
  • rashes
  • warts
  • shingles
  • ringworm (in dogs, too!)

An example:

Bart Gibbons, 57, who owns a grocery store in the village of Drumshanbo in County Leitrim, has a cure for warts that was passed down from his father and his father’s father before him.

It involves taking a bundle of rushes and saying a combination of prayers as they are held over the affected area. Then, he buries the reed-like plants. The belief is that when they decay, the warts are gone.

They don’t get paid, so at least that’s good, but have they done controlled trials with these shamans? I don’t think so. At least they’re cheaper than doctors, but isn’t there a form of national healthcare in Ireland? And, as you know, warts sometimes go away by themselves.

The only comments that are negative in this longish piece are these:

Attributing positive outcomes of the cure to something like a placebo effect makes sense to Ronald Moore, an associate professor of public health at University College Dublin who has spent years researching folk cures and who emphasized there is little scientific evidence for the efficacy of these practices.

Well, then, why not just give the people sugar pills? And the statement above is quickly followed by this:

But that doesn’t mean the medical community completely dismisses potential benefits, with some doctors known to send their patients for the cure, often for skin issues or other minor troubles.

“Modern practices on the one hand pooh pooh this, as scandalous and outrageous and quackery,” Dr. Moore said. “But in fact, and in reality, they utilize it.”

Those doctors are shameful. At least they don’t send patients to the Irish shamans for maladies like cancer and heart disease. (Shamans may, however, try to cure people of more serious stuff.)

Although the practice is “deeply religious”, it works on dogs, too!  Can dogs lose their ailments by “The Cure”? I thought Edward Feser maintained that dogs don’t have souls. But here’s the last picture of healing in the piece; I’ve included the paper’s caption. The picture makes me laugh out loud: a real LOL:

Mr. Keane performing the cure for ringworm on one of the dogs from a neighboring house in Cloghans.Credit…Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

Once again the New York Times is touting quackery by publicizing it and only bringing in one lone dissenter, who is immediately countered by a physician enthusiast. What is going on with this newspaper?


This article with its hilarious title is a serious piece in another Times—the Irish Times. Being a Catholic coutry and all, I suppose papers there have more article like this one. If you read the piece, you’ll see that “lay theologian” (indeed!) Brendan Butler is deeply besotted with God and baby Jesus, the “eternal Cosmic Christ.” And Jesus is said to be the “culmination of 13.8 billion years of evolution.” This implies that evolution in humans has stopped, but yet we’re still evolving and so is every other species.  Read and weep to find out why Jesus is the End of Evolution:

Okay, here’s the whole scientific explanation of why Jesus is the culmination of evolution (it’s part of a longer piece that sounds like a sermon):

How to reconcile a human and a divine nature in one person became the subject of controversy until it was resolved in 431 at the council of Ephesus by declaring Mary as ‘Theotokos’ – the mother of God.

But this led to another question: why did the eternal creator God become a mortal and fragile human creature? Various explanations were put forward, with the most common being that it was necessary for God the Son to become human and die on a cross for the sins of the human race.

However, another explanation associated with the Franciscan theologian John Dun Scotus, fits in with our post-Darwin, post-Einstein and post-Hubble world. In this view the baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem, was the culmination of 13.8 billion years of the evolutionary process.

He was born with the substance of the stars and molecules of prehistoric life present and active in his body. In this Christology the baby is not just a child of the universe but the eternal Cosmic Christ who released that primal energy which burst forth and created the universe.

Evolutionary process

This Christ remained an integral part of the evolutionary process, sustaining it and driving it forward towards greater and greater complexity until the apex of that movement emerged as homo sapiens.

It was always God’s plan that the creator Christ, already present in the universe as an invisible presence, would become fully human and be born as a human being.

I think Mr. Butler should take a course in evolution, where he’d learn that there is no evidence that evolution is teleological, and that it was going on for 3.5 billion years before Baby Jesus was born. Who sustained evolution until then?  But I’m pleased to learn that Jesus, like the rest of us, was made of billion-year-old carbon. Still, he’s got to get himself back to the garden (of Eden).

It’s just tripe, of course, but why would the Irish times give a millimeter of space to stuff like this?

Below: the author with the paper’s caption; Butler is apparently Jesus’s ghostwriter:

Brendan Butler is a lay theologian and author of My Story by Jesus of Nazareth

h/t: Kieran, Alexandra

25 thoughts on “Two bits of Irish woo

  1. All of this is poppycock, of course, but are dogs susceptible to the Placebo Effect? And how does one “heal” a burn? Does it disappear right away without a scar? Or can they remove the scar once the burn has healed?

    This reminds me a little of Dr. Robert Fludd and the Weapon Salve. Fludd, who lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, believe he had discovered a salve that, when applied to the blade that caused a wound, heal the wound. It retrospect, scholars have argued that any differential between that treatment and common treatments of the day probably stems from the elimination of dirty bandages and questionable ointments. Just leaving it to breath probably worked any benefit.

    1. My understanding is that there is no “Placebo Effect” but a wide variety of placebo effects. Some of these relate to regression to the mean or problems that heal themselves post hoc. That can apply to animals, of course.

      More to the point, though, is that hopeful humans assess their pet’s health and often see what they expect to see. “His limp is better” (maybe) or “he’s not vomiting quite as much” (wanna bet?)

  2. My first name, AND my middle name (Irish), AND my last name, all have seven letters EACH. Am I able to get in on this scam ?

    1. If you can write your own PR (Public Relations or Press Release – you decide!) then you can certainly get in on this scam^H^H^H^H opportunity at the ground floor.

  3. In the last two decades there has been a huge move in Ireland away from following standard Roman Catholic practices. This is due to many reasons but the decade long systematic abuse of children and disadvantaged citizens by the church which has become apparent of late is certainly one of them.

    I think this tendency to go for the woo might be part of substituting something for organised ritual.

    As for doctors sending them – why not? Most doctors surgeries are swamped in rural Ireland (where most of this happens) as surgeries get shut down when doctors retire. If the cure for the condition is – “do nothing, it will get better on its own” they may as well rub rushes on it or whatever so long as it gets them out of the surgery so a person you can help can get a place.

    There are quite a lot of Irish people (not me!) who believe it though – my wife was ill during the summer when we were there and I got recommended amber, crystals, copper bracelets and a healer.

  4. I enjoy reading myths, legends, fairytales and folklore. Many are beautiful powerful stories that cast light on the human experience. It is the framing of the NYT story that is creepy. Both the public health and the folklore professors the writer chose to include claim efficacy for these “healing” techniques, which slides the discussion out of scholarship into nonsense. Apparently they can’t have respect for their field of study without becoming a true believer to some degree. No one would expect a classics professor to have a shrine to Zeus or Athena in their home. Yet these scholars studying folklore of existing cultures feel the need to personally embrace the beliefs in direct conflict with science. Very disturbing.

  5. … Joe Gallagher in Pullough, is the seventh son of a seventh son …

    Well, hell, in that case here’s some Willie Dixon for Mr. Pullough:

  6. After reading that NASA is hiring a priest to help people cope with the idea of extraterrestrial life, things like this this actually seem quite mild.

  7. It’s just another one of those ‘ways of knowing’ and it should be a part of all medical courses. My last name is as Irish as it gets and I feel threatened by this topic and the responses to it. /sarcasm

  8. OK then – matauranga Airihi!! Only a racist would question it.

    (For those non-NZers puzzled by that last word, there is no ess or sh sound in Maori language and, as with other Polynesian languages, words always end with a vowel.)

  9. There seems to have been a bit of a seismic shift in Irish culture in the past few years. Membership of the RCC is tanking, hostility to the traditional dominance of the church is growing, and demands are increasing across the board for recompense for past injustices. The sort of stuff in those articles is part of the rearguard action to try to stave off the inevitable.

  10. It is doubly sad when woo is resorted to in countries that have UNIVERSAL MEDICAL CARE! Where seeing a real doctor and getting real medication costs the patient nothing.
    Here’s an experiment I’ve done a lot: Ask a tourist visiting the US what the meaning of “Medical bankruptcy” is. Chances are they’ll have no idea. Medical bk, btw, is the most common reason for bk filing in the US.
    Then… after you’ve explained it to your new foreign friend…. share with them some of the health care costs we pay here.

  11. Getting rid of warts with rushes reminds me of another traditional cure: using a bean.

    “You take and split the bean, and cut the wart so as to get some blood, and then you put the blood on one piece of the bean and take and dig a hole and bury it ’bout midnight at the crossroads in the dark of the moon, and then you burn the rest of the bean. You see the piece that has the blood will keep drawing and drawing, trying to fetch the other piece to it, and so it helps the blood to draw the wart, and pretty soon off she comes.”–Mark Twain. The Adventures of Tom sawyer

    Perhaps the Times will discuss this cure in a future article.

    1. Perhaps someone with a transmissible wart-producing skin virus (?) would like to visit the Times’ office while they are preparing this future article – so they’ve got plenty of material for a trial.
      (I’ve definitely seen cases of warts spreading by tissue contact – possibly some blood ; it was between people climbing on the same route, with nice gritty hand-jam holds. But other warts don’t seem to be (obviously) transmissible. I guess there are a lot of causes for “a wart”, and it needs a dermatologist to tell the difference.)

  12. People come from miles around to see healers like Gallagher, who are reputed to cure things like:

    And there follows a list of diseases and injuries with one common factor – most often they will resolve themselves with out treatment (or with symptomatic treatment, e.g. tea and honey for a cold).
    Someone pointed out that amputation isn’t on the list. Or appendicitis. Or … (thinking of a medical condition that does not begin with “A”) psoriasis (notoriously hard to treat in many cases).

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