Medicine in Early Ireland

Illness and disease were unavoidable in early Ireland. Daily fears of injury and childbirth were punctuated by bouts of leprosy, fever, and bubonic plague, among others. In Gaelic Ireland, ruling clans supported specific families of physicians. These families passed positions down in inherited roles to their most promising children. Doctors, or "leeches," approached medicine as both a spiritual and physical sickness. They combined treatments and surgeries with the prayers of the clergy to bring balance to the body.

Besides what has survived through the brehon laws, knowledge of medicine in prehistoric Ireland is known only through scraps of legend and folklore. In the Táin Bó Cúailnge, medics armed with medicinal herbs tend to wounded soldiers during a battle.[1] They practiced mutual aid, assisting soldiers on the other side when they had no doctors of their own.[2] The first hospital of Ireland, the House of Sorrow, was opened by Macha, a 4th-century-BCE queen of Irish myth.[3]

Irish Saints and Monastic Hospitals

The Christian monasteries of medieval Ireland considered it their duty to treat the sick. Most contained a hospital or smaller infirmary. Well acquainted with the latest writings from Europe, they emphasized sanitation and ventilation in their rooms. The brehon laws also called for a secular hospital in every túath. While most of these hospitals were meant to cure general complaints, others served as leper houses.[4]

Irish saints in particular concerned themselves with the health and fertility of noble patrons. This arrangement was not entirely altruistic. By linking disease to sin and healing to the church, Irish monasteries cemented their position in local communities.[5]

During this time, Irish doctors and scholars transcribed medical texts from around the globe into Irish. Famous medical families wrote down their own knowledge in leech-books, such as the Book of the O'Hickeys or the Book of the O'Lees. Their collection of medical works in a single language remained the largest in the world until 1800.[3]

Modern Irish Medicine

Today, the Republic of Ireland offers healthcare to its citizens through both public and private hospitals. The average lifespan in Ireland is currently rising, with men living to an average of 78.3 years old and women 82.7.[6]


  1. Elizabeth Malcom, "Medicine" in Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia, eds. Seán Duffy, Ailbhe MacShamhráin, and James Moynes (New York: Routledge, 2005), 255.

  2. Patrick W. Joyce, A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland (London, NY, and Bombay: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1906), 22-32.

  3. Peter Berresford Ellis, A Brief History of the Celts (London: Constable & Robinson, 2003).

  4. Joyce, 273-275.

  5. Lisa M. Bitel, Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Early Ireland (Cork: Cork University Press, 1993), 224-230.

  6. Nicky Ryan, "Life Expectancy: Good News for Irish Women (and Not-Too-Bad News for Irish Men)," The Journal , July 08, 2015, Journal Media, accessed April 04, 2017.

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