According to Lady Wilde’s book of 1887, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, if a country person suddenly became ill or encountered misfortune, they were suspected of coming under the malign influence of fairies, and a fairy doctor had to be called in at once.
The first thing he or she had to do was to determine the cause of the problem, which could be one of three things – the fairy-stroke, the fairy-wind, or the evil eye. Someone who is fairy-struck suffers from an unknown fatigue or illness, and seem to be fading from our world, “for they are wanted in fairy-land as brides for some chief or prince, and so they pine away without visible cause till they die.” A fairy blast or fairy stroke is described as the evil power of the wind, and when the fairy strikes anyone a tumour rises, or they become paralysed. The evil eye is a malevolent look that causes injury or misfortune for the person it is directed at, and that could be caused by either fairies or witches.
Lady Wilde described the process by which the fairy doctor would determine which of these three things was the cause of the problem.
“The doctor always seems as if expecting you, and had full knowledge of your coming. He bids you be seated, and after looking fixedly on your face for some moments, his proceedings begin. He takes three rods of witch hazel, each three inches long, and marks them separately, ‘For the Stroke,’ ‘For the Wind,’ ‘For the Evil Eye.’
He then takes off his coat, shoes, and stockings; rolls up his shirt sleeves, and stands with his face to the sun in earnest prayer. After prayer he takes a dish of pure water and sets it by the fire, then kneeling down, he puts the three hazel reds he had marked into the fire, and leaves them there till they are burned black as charcoal. All the time his prayers are unceasing; and when the sticks are burned, he rises, and again faces the sun in silent prayer, standing with his eyes uplifted and hands crossed After this he draws a circle on the floor with the end of one of the burned sticks, within which circle he stands, the dish of pure water beside him. Into this he flings the three hazel rods, and watches the result earnestly. The moment one sinks he addresses a prayer to the sun, and taking the rod out of the water he declares by what agency the patient is afflicted. Then he grinds the rod to powder, puts it in a bottle which he fills up with water from the dish, and utters an incantation or prayer over it, in a low voice, with clasped hands held over the bottle…The potion is then given to be carried home, and drunk that night at midnight in silence and alone. Great care must be taken that the bottle never touches the ground and the person carrying it must speak no word, and never look round till home is reached. The other two sticks he buries in the earth in some place unseen and unknown.”
When things went wrong, or relationships with the fairies broke down completely, it was necessary to call in an expert: the wise woman, cunning man or fairy doctor. These were people with special gifts, who were often said to have gained their knowledge from the fairies themselves. Evidence of the continuity of these beliefs in Europe, and accounts of many such practitioners, is readily traceable from the Dark Ages onwards, through till the 1960s and beyond.
Though some were male, fairy doctors were generally old women who specialised in curing those ills afflicting humans and animals caused by fairy tricks and curses. Each fairy doctor would have his or her own remedies, which were usually kept secret. They might include the use of incantations, certain herbal salves and potions or spells involving iron, silver or the bible. One fairy doctor would tear pages from the bible and roll them into pellets to feed to the victim; another would make them drink water from a silver platter.
The secret knowledge of a fairy doctor would be passed from generation to generation. Some thought that the fairies themselves imparted the knowledge. Though the term ‘fairy doctor’ is peculiar to Ireland, similar figures are found all over the world in the guise of witches, wise women, shamans and cunning men.