by The Rambler 24/11/2000
HISTORIANS tell us that .one of the first institutions for nursing the sick was founded in 300 BC at Navan Fort by Princess Macha, who is commemorated by a statue outside Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry. That first hospital was called Broin Bearg (House of Sorrow).
The ancient Brehon laws of Ireland were quite detailed in the specifications for hospital or place for the sick. They should be free from dirt and should have four doors - north, south, east and west, and there must be a stream of water running through the middle of the floor. Dogs, fools and female scolds must be kept away from the patient, lest he be worried!'
Not a word about the poor female patients!
During the Middle Ages responsibility for the care of the sick rested with the religious orders. In the sixth century St Benedict propounded a rule that anyone arriving at a monastery was to be given food, shelter and care.
In 883 Charlemagne decreed there should be a hospital attached to each cathedral and monastery. This may explain why many of our present day major hospitals - Armagh, Derry, Dungannon, Downpatrick, Newry etc. - are located on or near the sites of ancient monastic settlements.
Bone-setting, bleeding and surgery was practised by the early monks until 1215, when Canon Law decreed that from then on 'no sub-deacon, deacon or priest should practise any art of medicine involving cutting or burning'.
It was left to the lay brothers to do the surgery from then on!
A guild of Barber Surgeons was incorporated in Dublin in 1446, but about a century later Henry Vlll decreed that from then on barbers should confine themselves to minor operations such as blood letting and pulling teeth.
Simultaneously, surgeons were barred from barbering or shaving'
The dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 left the populace virtually without hospital serices. In areas where monastic infirmaries had been numerous, the loss was traumatic. One result was that the people had to turn to charms, folk medicine and holy wells. One of the most famous holy wells locally was at Maghenagaw (Derrymore).
There was another at Cranfield (Toome), and of course there were spa wells at Ballynahinch and other places. Within living memory one could have found a local 'cure' (charm or folk medicine) for virtually any ailment including' lip cancer, but excluding tuberculosis.
As well, every druggist had his own special bottles (prescriptions). All one needed was an empty bottle, maybe a shilling to pay for the medicine, and someone to give the druggist the symptoms. Johnston's pharmacy (later Dick Green's) was never idle. The medical service available was the dispensary doctor. To reach him (her) the patient or a relative or friend often had to make a long journey on foot - no bicycles, no telephones, and often no money, meant that a doctor was only contacted as a last resort.
If free treatment was needed, 'a line' had to be got from the local Poor Law Guardian.
Then the doctor had to set out on his horse or bicycle.
One old man, near 100 years old, recalled for me how a doctor had to come from the Ha'penny Gate 'on a big wheel the size of a cartwheel' to attend his (the old man's) mother (the Penny Farthing bicycle presumably), circa 1900; his mother lived at Aghalee.
Workhouses for the destitute poor which were set up under the Poor Law Act of 1838 had (union) infirmaries incorporated.
later it became necessary to admit other patients, but legally they had to be classified as 'paupers' or 'poor'.
it wasn't until 1898 that Poor Law Guardians were permitted to convert Union Infirmaries into district hospitals.