Medieval and Early Modern Ireland had a long tradition of hereditary healers. These physicians would serve a community over the generations, passing on their medical knowledge from one generation to the next. One famous example of these healers was Niall Ó Glacáin. His exact birthdate is unknown, though he was likely born in the late 1500s. The MacDuinnstsleibhes, healers to the O’Donnel family, may have trained him. His later treatises on plague mention that he learned Greek and Roman healers’ techniques like Hippocrates and Galen. Throughout his life, he traveled across Europe, to countries such as Spain and what would one day be Italy. An outbreak of plague was ravaging parts of the country like Milan. Niall treated the sick and would write numerous treatises on his experience there.

Hereditary physicians made extensive use of manuscripts based on Latin and Arabic sources. They employed a range of medical techniques, ranging from amputation to bloodletting. In some cases, they also used a method called trepanning, where they drilled a hole into the skull of a patient to alleviate illnesses like epilepsy, migraines, and a variety of mental disorders.

Artist: Sara Nylund

Physicians conduction surgery on a person

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Credit: Sara Nylund and Open Past

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