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Medieval science

The Grave That Heals: Irish Folktale Proven True as Soil from Priest’s Grave Shows Key to Fighting Drug-Resistant Bacteria


Traditionally ancient folk remedies are not treated seriously by medical researchers and professionals. However, some scientists are taking a new look at these remedies because some are believed to hold the key to fighting deadly diseases and infections. In Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, there are real hopes that an ancient folk remedy may help in the battle against drug-resistant bacterium and viruses.

The discovery was made in Boho (County of Fermanagh), a sleepy village near the border with the Irish Republic. In the old churchyard there is the grave of the ‘’Reverend James McGirr, the parish priest in 1803’’  reports the BBC. He was a respected figure in the community and on his deathbed he claimed that the earth from his grave had healing powers. There is a long-standing belief in the locality and beyond that the earth from Father McGirr’s grave can heal and is very effective against infections.

The graveyard at the Sacred Heart Church at Boho where the grave of Reverend James McGirr contains ‘healing soil’ (public domain)

The graveyard at the Sacred Heart Church at Boho where the grave of Reverend James McGirr contains ‘healing soil’ (public domain)

The Grave That Heals?

The origin of the belief in the healing earth may pre-date the 19th century. Boho is located in an archaeologically rich area and it has been settled since at least the Iron Age. It is probable that the church was located on or near an ancient site such as a Celtic shrine or sanctuary. Some have speculated that the folk remedy ‘’can be traced back to the Druids who once occupied the land’’ reports the Mothernaturenetwork.

The cure involves taking some soil from the grave and bringing it to the home of a sick person.  The BBC quotes Frank McHugh, a local historian as stating that ‘’people would lie with the soil placed under a pillow wrapped in cloth’’. Then they would say a prayer and the soil would eventually be returned to the grave of the parish priest.  There have been numerous claims that the soil has healed many down the centuries, even though it is not been approved by the Catholic Church.

Not Just ‘Hocus Pocus’

The testing of the ‘healing soil’ from the graveyard was carried out by Dr Gerry Quinn, a senior microbiologist and a member of an international team of researchers, looking for new antibiotics to treat the growing problem of drug-resistant bacteria.  He became interested in the folk remedy and he decided to take a sample of the healing earth.  Dr Quinn wanted to test the earth to see if there was a scientific basis to the claims that it could cure illnesses. He suspected that there was a scientific reason for the widespread belief in the folk cure. What he discovered in his laboratory amazed him and the wider research community.

Dr Gerry Quinn at the grave of Reverend James McGirr (Credit: BBC)

Dr Gerry Quinn at the grave of Reverend James McGirr (Credit: BBC)

In the sample, Dr Quinn found a previously unknown species of streptomyces bacteria. This new bacteria was then tested, and it was found to contain new antibodies.  These are used by the body’s immune system to fight pathogens that cause disease. The microbiologist found that three particularly dangerous pathogens could be killed by the antibodies.  These pathogens have been deemed to be a major threat to public health around the globe by the World Health Organization.

A Medical Breakthrough

It is hoped by Dr Quinn that up to twenty antibiotics can be produced from the newly discovered bacteria. However, these will need to be tested in exhaustive clinical trials, that could take years.  Nevertheless, the new antibiotics could prove to be crucial in the fight against drug resistant pathogens.

There are fears that because of the overuse of antibiotics that even relatively treatable conditions and infections could become resistant to treatment. If people use too many antibiotics they can become less effective over time and this is expected to be one of the major public health problems in the coming decades. Quite simply if there are no new antibiotics found, patients could die from what should be highly treatable infections. This is why the bacteria found in the soil of the grave of the Irish priest, is of immense importance.  Dr Quinn believes that the bacteria was responsible for the popularity of the folk cure and even explains why the location has been of great religious importance for centuries.

Top image: Medieval science (cosma / Adobe Stock)

By Ed Whelan



Scientists would do well to take Old Wives’ Tales seriously. If they have been passed down the ages they have been tried and tested, which why they have survived for generations. It’s scientific really.

I recall for example that when I was young, fish was said to be good for the brain, but this was dismissed as an Old Wives’ Tale. We now discover that the Old Wives were quite right.

The Santuario de Chimayo has its own "miraculous" dirt (likewise not endorsed by the Church but a matter of belief on the part of ordinary folk) which long predates the good father's grave although how he could have announced the sanctity of his own burial place is a wee bit confusing. Certainly the whole area surrounding Chimayo is unlike Ireland but altogether beautiful.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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