I grew up with stories of a man called ‘the Deacon’. He wasn’t a religious deacon but he did have, the story goes, the cure for skin cancer. He examined moles, cysts, freckles, skin-tags, pimples, spots and warts. He’d diagnose by examining them and treat, when necessary, with a poultice made of bread and herbs collected himself from the local countryside.
Seemingly, when my great-grandfather went to him suffering from cancer of the throat the Deacon told him that nothing could be done. My great-grandfather arrived home and a photographer was organised to take a photo for the mass-card. He didn’t clean himself up for the photo. My grandmother and a first cousin were also treated by him over the years.
In the summer of 2012 my father noticed an odd looking blackish pimply thing on his forehead. He went to the Deacon, who examined the growth and said ‘you’re in a spot of bother there alright’. Dad was handed the herbs and instructions for poulticing using batch bread.
Dad walked around that summer with what looked like a war bandage around his head. One day he got speaking to a local historian who told dad that these cures, found all over Ireland, are said to have come from monasteries and that when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the 1530s knowledge of the cures was taken and then passed down from generation to generation, often in Protestant families.
Today I landed in Duiske Abbey in Graiguenamanagh, south County Kilkenny. Duiske comes from the Irish ‘Dub Uisce’ meaning ‘black water’ which flows down into the town from Mount Brandon. The Abbey is on the original site of a huge Cistercian monastery founded in 1204. When the monasteries were dissolved in 1536 the treasures of Duiske were given ‘to the King’s treasury’, the manuscripts (filled with beautiful Celtic knotwork) were ‘scattered to the wind’ and the lead was stripped from the roof ‘for use as shot’. Presumably the knowledge of natural medicines was taken too.
When I visited around midday today, the church was decked out for a wedding with candle-lanterns at the door and tiny bouquets of fresh white flowers tied to the ends of the pews. The church was quiet except for two elderly women who were chatting as they lit candles beside a very modern looking Jesus on the wall. ‘Sharon got word yesterday’ one woman said to the other. ‘She passed the exams. I lit a candle to ask for help so I lit one now for thanks.’ The other woman says ‘in Dublin you can just press a button for the candle to come on but it’s not the same at all’.
The Abbey is huge and airy and filled with light. There are stained glass windows and an assortment of statues including one of St. Fiacre who is the patron saint of gardeners and taxi drivers. There’s no name beside one statue so I ask the older woman who says ‘oh that’s Saint Teresa of the Roses. My mother had a great devotion to Saint Teresa. I think there’s something about the eyes.’
The monks didn’t eat meat – they lived on a diet of fish and vegetables. Also, they didn’t wear linen or fur – they wore undyed wool and as a result they were sometimes called Mánig Bán (the white monks). The name Graiguenamanagh itself means ‘Valley of the Monks’.
As I was busying myself poking around looking at the statues and booklets, the voice of a female soprano doing a pre-wedding warm up filled up the aisles with Ennio Morricone’s ‘Nella Fantasia’ then ‘The Prayer’ and the ‘Songbird’.
Outside the church, a few wedding guests were starting to arrive as I went into the old graveyard filled with ancient headstones and ornate crosses including a few high crosses dating from the 9th century. Then it was up the road behind the church for about a kilometre to Silaire Woods which was originally part of the extensive lands belonging to the monastery. There’s a beautiful walkway down through the sun-speckled woods filled with deciduous trees, foxgloves in bloom, buttercups, nettles thick with seeds, butterflies, elderflower and birdsong. The path arrives to the rivers edge and a boardwalk along the river that breaks into a grassy path leading up to the colourful village where banks are lined with barges, rowing boats, small fishing boats, cruisers and kids splashing and diving in the swimming area. I spot the wedding car on the quayside with the driver killing time before collecting the new bride and groom. I head back up through the village to a little café called ‘Coffee on High’ for a cup of tea served in a hand-knitted tea-cosied teapot and delicate old china cups and saucers.
Duiske Abbey is a place that has had mixed fortunes. Three centuries of thriving followed by dissolution and destruction. During the Penal Times the locals built a little thatched ‘Mass House’ in a remote area of the Abbey grounds and eventually in 1813 a church was rebuilt on the ruins and renovated in the 1970s. With the current changes in Ireland’s religious landscape and the declining numbers of people attending churches it is likely that people involved in the upkeep of beautiful old religious buildings like these will face an increasing struggle to find funds. The water stains are already apparent in sections of Duiske Abbey from spots where I’m guessing the roof is leaking.
Oh, and my dad was cured. The little piece of blackened skin was never officially diagnosed as skin cancer because once the skin is cut for a biopsy the Deacon can’t work on it to heal it so who knows what it was exactly on my dad’s forehead but whatever it was, it’s gone. The monastery cures live on.