Thursday 22 August 2019

Rebellion witnesses offer infectious insights into pox and pain of being a patient in 1641

Files dating back nearly 400 years reveal how scurvy, smallpox and measles spread through Ireland, writes Lynne Kelleher

THE 1641 DEPOSITIONS: An engraving of supposed atrocities committed by Irish Catholics in the war of 1641
THE 1641 DEPOSITIONS: An engraving of supposed atrocities committed by Irish Catholics in the war of 1641

Lynne Kelleher

Handwritten files dating back nearly 400 years have given a remarkable insight into the rampant disease and illnesses suffered by the Irish population in the 17th century.

Scurvy, smallpox and measles were identified as infectious diseases which spread through the country in a new book on the medical environment in the 1600s.

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The 1641 Depositions - around 8,000 witness statements to the Irish rebellion of 1641 - are used to gain first-hand accounts from the population on their health. While the statements, almost exclusively from Protestants, detail alleged crimes by Irish rebels, they also offer an insight into 17th century Ireland.

In a new book, historian Dr John Cunningham, from Queen's University Belfast, combs through the 31 handwritten volumes of testimony to assess sickness, disease and medical practitioners of four centuries ago. More than 100 depositions mentioning individuals who practised medicine give a snapshot into the haphazard health system.

Dr Cunningham, author of Early Modern Ireland and the World of Medicine, says that the medics tended to be there because of war and politics as opposed to their medical credentials.

"The evidence they contain is sufficient to allow us brief but valuable glimpses into the lives of a number of practitioners located across the island", he said.

There are 16 depositions from medical practitioners including four doctors of physic, one man who described himself as a 'Professor of Physicke', seven surgeons, one surgeon's mate, one barber-surgeon, one barber and one midwife.

The depositions throw light on medical practices related to violence and physical assaults, lengthy sieges, forced dislocation of people, theft of clothing, exposure to bad weather and shortages of food and water.

Clergyman Richard Morse, from Co Fermanagh, blames the "lamness and sickness" of his wife and children on "the Cruell dealing of the Irish" in stripping them and forcing them out of their home.

There are reports of sickness lasting "two months" or "16 weeks" in another case.

William Dethick, who was among Protestants besieged in two castles at Tralee in Co Kerry for seven months in 1642, said they lost relatively few men in fights but reported that about 140 men, women and children died from scurvy.

After the rebellion, it was noted that refugees crowded into Dublin, bringing contagious diseases. In February 1642 Philip Bysse reported that many had died, especially the poor and the very young, from measles and "poxe", meaning smallpox.

Diseases known as the looseness, bloody flux or the country disease referred to diarrhoea. Claims about "Irish ague", "flux" and "months spent sick in bed" were also made in the deposition.

The book, published by Manchester University Press, also examines how the violence in the rebellion traumatised some of the population

John Sims of Co Wexford testified that his wife "by frights taken by the cruelties of the Rebells" had become weak in body and mind.

In Tuam, Co Galway, a rape victim named Mary wrote she lay sick for three or four days and thought she would never be in "her right mind again".

In Co Tyrone, another woman was reportedly "fallen into an extreme frenzy" following robbery and stripping.

Frequently mention is made of cuts, stab wounds and gunshot wounds. At Cashel in Co Tipperary, Ellice Meagher sustained "11 wounds" and her captors ripped off her plasters so she wouldn't be cured.

The depositions found many died from their wounds due to lack of surgical care.

A Protestant soldier claimed to owe his life to surgeon Myles Jenkinson in Queen's County after he took two bullets in the back and a pike wound in his right arm.

If treatments were available they were expensive. Samuel Felgate spent at least ten pounds in Dublin on treatment for two gunshot wounds and "seven grievous wounds" suffered by his maid servant.

The deposition lists medical doctors caught up in the rebellion. Depositions from prisoners captured at Clongowes Wood Castle, Co Kildare, also offer rare evidence of female surgeons. They revealed they had been seeking treatment from a Mary Barnewall.

Sunday Independent

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