Professional medicine in late medieval Ireland of the time was the preserve of a number of learned families who exercised their occupation on a hereditary basis. Medical practitioners were known as the Liaig. The hereditary principle was a distinctive organisational feature of the Gaelic learned orders in general, being adhered to also by poets, lawyers, historians and musicians. Among the most eminent medical kindreds in each province were:
Munster: Ó Callanáin (Callanan), Ó hÍceadha (Hickey), Ó Leighin (Lane), Ó Nialláin (Nealon), and Ó Troighthigh (Troy).
Leinster: Mac Caisín (Cashin), Ó Bolgaidhe (Bolger), Ó Conchubhair (O’Connor), and Ó Cuileamhain (Culhoun, Cullen)
Connacht: Mac an Leagha (Mac Kinley), Mac Beatha (Mac Veigh), Ó Ceandubháin (Canavan), Ó Cearnaigh (Kearney), Ó Fearghusa (Fergus), and Ó (or Mac) Maoil Tuile (Tully, or Flood).
Ulster: Mac (or Ó) Duinnshléibhe (Donleavy), Ó Caiside (Cassidy), and Ó Siadhail (Shields).
The profession of the Liaig was destroyed with the success of the English colonization. Many of those in the upper echelons of the Liaig profession went abroad with the rest of the Irish aristocracy and were stripped of their lands at home. One example of their new social situation may be seen in the career of Owen O’Shiel of the famous O’Shiel medical family. He went to Paris in 1604, three years after the battle of Kinsale. He studied medicine there but considered it “somewhat lax at and favourable in the conferring of graduation”.
He went to Louvain where he stayed for three years and from there to Padua where he received the degree of Doctor. He returned to Flanders and was appointed chirurgeon doctor to the army of Albert and Isabella, joint sovereigns of the Low Countries. He became chief of the medical faculty in the Royal Hospital of Malines and he worked there until 1620. In that year he returned to Ireland and settled in Dublin. He achieved fame as a Doctor and was surgeon in chief of the Leinster forces under Preston. By 1646 he had transferred his services to Owen Roe O’Neill and was found among the slain between Letterkenny and Schearsaullis (Maloney, 1919). This career is very different to that of his forebears in Ballyshiel who would have had a separate seat assigned to them at the royal banqueting table as well as having equal rank with the Aireach Ard (landowner). This would have entitled him to 20 retainers, 10 of whom paid him tribute. The Liaig enjoyed high legal status – being one of the Gaelic learned orders- in society, and were supported by the hereditary tenure of lands that were granted to them by the Chieftains in exchange for medical services.
This was to ensure that they “…might be preserved from being disturbed by the cares and anxieties of life, and enabled to devote himself to the study and work of his profession” (cited by Burroghs Wellcome, 1909)
Other émigré who fared better were Niall O Clacán (died1655) from Donegal who trained in medicine in the old Gaelic tradition. He became Professor of Medicine at Toulouse and Bologna. He was also physician to Louis XIII of France and published a 13 volume medical work called Cursus Medicus. The University of Bologna, where he taught, holds several Irish manuscripts (Berresford Ellis, 1999). King Jan Sobieski was king of Poland and patronised Dr. Bernard Connor in the 1690s. Connor trained as a physician in Co. Kerry and died 1698. William O’Meara became physician to Napoleon (Sheehan, A. Personal communication, 2009).
Medical writing in Irish, 1400-1700 by Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha
An overview of the Irish Herbal Tradition © The Thread that could not be Broken By Rosari Kingston