Modern medicine can work miracles, but our reporter finds three Northern Ireland people who believe in other forms of healing.
The hedge witch
It wasn't unusual a few hundred years ago for country people to strip off and roll around naked in the nettles to alleviate rheumatic pains. It must have taken quite a few dock leaves to cure the stings. "When you grasp a nettle it doesn't sting but obviously they would've had to be careful," explains modern day Hedge Witch Joan Howard. "Nettles are an excellent blood purifier."
The Hedge Witch or Wise Woman of yore practiced Master Herbalism, a branch of mind/body medicine as taught by Hippocrates himself. A fully qualified Master Herbalist, Joan would have been burned at the stake in the middle ages for wort-cunning -- she is an expert on the medicinal properties of what most us would see as common weeds and is so convinced of their power, she has given up a successful career as a horticulturalist to work full time in herbalism, along with iridology, a technique used to diagnose illness by studying the eyes.
Joan is not the most witchy looking of women, with her soft open face and shining baby-blonde hair. The only giveaways to her unconventional slant are a loose Celtic-chic tunic and a new-agey pendant with a deep green crystal from a 14 million year-old meteorite.
I meet at her quaint country house down a picturesque winding road outside Newcastle. With sea in the distance, her rugged four acres have views of St John's Point and the Slieve Donard Hotel, and incorporate stables and white-washed outhouses where she holds her Herbal Harvest Workshops.
By an authentic pot-bellied stove you can learn how to identify herbs from the hedge and understand the medicinal and "magical" properties of each plant and how to use them for health benefits.
Joan will take a maximum of 12 people into her workshops but prefers to work with eight. I imagine with too many she'd get frazzled; she talks fast and packs in an awful lot of information into a short space of time, but what she says is fascinating -- particularly for hypochondriacs or anyone, like me, weary of the side-effects of their medication.
Not that she disavows conventional medicine: "I don't interfere with it; I work in partnership with it," she says with the faintest hint of a southern brogue. "I treat the person holistically. There is cynicism about herbalism but that's changing. A lot of medics work with alternative therapists. "
Originally from a farming family in North Dublin, Joan's married to electrician Paddy from Newcastle and has one son, Luke, an environmentalist who lives in Melbourne. A successful horticulturalist for 30 years, she began to notice an uptake in sales of seeds for herbs and garden vegetables in 2009 when the recession was kicking in, and decided to study herbalism. Her grandmother used herbal cures and when Luke sustained a nasty injury while playing football for Down, Joan knew that rubbing a St John's Wort tincture on his leg would help.
"It has an anti-inflammatory effect which meant he didn't need antibiotics and he was back playing the next day," he recalls. "The rest of the team was amazed."
St John's Wort is one of the indigenous herbs Joan specialises in, along with nettle, dandelion, elder, hawthorn and yarrow. She takes me to see them growing in her country garden and hedges, and is immediately more relaxed outdoors, especially when her hairy little Shetland pony Goblet wanders up to accompany us. She also has an enormous cob horse which she believes is highly sensitive and intuitive.
So we go on a tour of the rich bounty most us have unknowingly on our doorsteps. I learn that yarrow is brilliant for fevers and staunching nose bleeds, that wood betony is "great for grounding" when your head's astray, and that dandelion is an excellent cleanser for the liver and kidneys. I suddenly feel guilty for kicking the heads off them as a child.
"Dandelions are not just weeds -- they're the highest source of the nutrient beta-carotene, higher than carrots. Just make sure to pick them higher-up, were animals haven't peed on them."
I'm delighted to hear nettles are natural anti-histamine, as I've been on a course of killer anti-histamines for allergies which were so dehydrating I looked like a raisin and was parched every single morning. When I left Joan's I shredded a few nettles and threw them in with a ham sandwich -- it gave a nice tang and while I can't say for sure that it was preventative, I didn't notice any allergy symptoms for the rest of the day.
Says Joan: "Pharmaceutical anti-histamines are sometimes necessary -- I've had to take them myself -- but like all medication they often cause a wide range of side-effects. Herbs don't, when they are prescribed by a fully trained herbalist, that is."
So are nutritional supplements a waste of money? I found Valerian supplements I bought in the chemist's useless for sleeping.
"The problem with supplements is that they only use one compound of the herb. You're far better taking them raw," she argues
Joan makes tinctures by drying the leaves and crumbling them into 40% strength vodka. She also prepares soups, teas and ointments. A common complaint she comes across is constipation. "Many people are constipated and dehydrated without even knowing it, especially women. They're not eliminating properly and need cleansed. Burdock's a great cleanser, for example."
I also learn that allergies are the body's way of over-reacting. Birch pollen was out in full force that day and making my eyes stream. So when we get back to the house, Joan disappears into a cupboard near the Aga and produces a pouch of vivid burnt-orange cayenne pepper which she mixes into half a small glass of water. She tells me to only take half if it's too strong but I assure her I like hot spices and knock it back in one. It stops the streaming in its tracks and zaps the wooly head immediately.
Cayenne is indigenous to East Africa, India, Mexico and America so it's one of the exceptions in Joan's Irish herbal medicine cabinet.
"If I feel a cold coming in I take cayenne right away and it stops it, " she says. "It won't stop those terrible viruses of last winter -- I think that was a form a swine flu we all had -- but it will alleviate symptoms. Where possible I use locally grown herbs -- I think our bodies are more in tune with what is growing around us. We are connected to them. I don't use Chinese herbs, with the exception of ginseng."
Before I head off Joan takes a magnifier to look into my eyes to see what they reveal. Apparently I have sluggish kidneys and stress: this she says, she can tell by little sparks on my iris which shoot up towards my brain.
My unofficial prescription is nettle, dandelion and juice from organic carrots, celery and apple, to settle my blood enzymes. A walk in the evening to connect with nature is also recommended.
"I do believe the eyes are the windows of the soul," says Joan, seeing me to the car. "You can pick up lots. Not like fortune telling -- but you can pick up sensitivities and resistances, for example, to someone's mother.
"I am intuitive to a certain extent but we all are. We all have gut instinct -- how it arises doesn't matter. For some it's the higher self, for others it's their guardian angel. The important thing is to listen to it and keep in tune with it."
* For consultations and workshops, call 07894 246672. Further information: www.iammh.com
The Reiki master
Reiki master and holistic therapist Ruth Pringle used to be a high-flying magazine editor and PR consultant for exclusive five-star resorts and luxury cars.
"It sounds good, but there was something not quite right," says softly-spoken Ruth, a mother-of-two from Helen's Bay. "Even though I was, on the surface, enjoying a great life, there was something missing. A big chunk actually. And that something was substance or meaning."
With her dark, sculpted looks, Ruth is the epitome of a slightly mysterious spiritually-led person. Her journey away from the world of magazines and PR began with studying Reiki and crystal therapy, then intensive training in hypnotherapy and regression at The Regression Academy, England. Tenacious and committed, she is not someone to do things by halves.
Along the way she also trained in distance healing, inner child healing, trauma and phobia release and hypnotherapy. She now runs a private practice as a holistic therapist and workshop facilitator.
Reiki is a spiritual practice -- much derided by cynics -- developed in 1922 by Japanese Buddhist Mikao Usui. It uses a 'palm healing' technique that practitioners believe transfers universal energy for self-healing and a state of equilibrium.
The best Reiki experience I've had was at a yoga retreat in Portugal, when one of my legs became so energised I was ready to leap off the bed involuntarily. The worst was with a self-absorbed (and non-typical) therapist in Dublin who was trying to teach me the technique and got mad when I tossed away a cushion I was practising on, forgetting that she had decided this piece of stuffed fabric was representing her son at school.
Ruth was captivated by Reiki from the get-go.
"I was intrigued by the enigmatic feeling that it created -- I experienced tangible, uplifting and empowering sensations and afterwards I seemed to have a more balanced, more optimistic outlook on life, and I smiled more," says Ruth.
"Reiki opens up the pathway for the mind, spirit and body to heal itself through freeing and clearing the energy fields -- the chakras and the auric layers."
Reiki is said to be effective in treating a number of complaints such as sleeplessness, irritability, anxiety, stress and tension, aches, pains and headaches.
"It works in conjunction with you and at your pace, to strengthen your energy levels -- mental, emotional and physical -- and to address and re-balance any areas of tension or concern," says Ruth. "After all, a physical pain is just the body's way of telling us there's something that needs our attention."
Reiki is a non-invasive treatment that lasts for up to an hour. There's no massage or manipulation; it involves a series of specific hand positions that are placed on, or just above, the body. The energy is said to flow through the therapist's hands to you as you lie, relaxed and fully clothed, on the treatment couch.
Many have reported that Reiki gives them a comforting sense of well-being, others feel energised and some feel mellow and chilled out. At a class I attended in Dublin, various students spoke of seeing strange things in their mind's eye, from eagles to deceased grandparents to native American Indian chiefs complete with feather head-dresses.
Says Ruth: "There is no right or wrong way to feel because Reiki has the ability to give you what you need, to the specific area, in just the right amount. You may feel heat, coolness, tingling or perhaps you may even sense some colours. Our Reiki training workshops teach the specific hand positions and their corresponding physical, mental, emotional and spiritual significance."
The medical jury is still out on Reiki and other forms of energy healing, as there's no hard evidence for their effectiveness beyond the power of suggestion. But Reiki is undeniably relaxing and safe, unless you start avoiding clinically proven treatments for serious conditions in favour of unproven alternative medicines. Clinical trials have not reported any significant adverse effects from the use of Reiki but responsible Reiki practitioners like Ruth encourage their clients to consult a doctor for serious conditions, stating that Reiki can be used to complement conventional medicine.
Says Ruth: "Reiki energy works in harmony with all other forms of healing, including drugs, surgery, psychological care or any other method of alternative care, and may improve the results. It has a positive effect on all forms of illness and negative conditions. While some have experienced miracles, they cannot be guaranteed. Stress reduction with some improvement in one's physical and psychological condition are what most experience."
Ruth's fees range from £10 for group therapies to £90 for one-on-one sessions.
"I believe that we all have the power to heal ourselves and the key to optimum health and contentment lies within," says Ruth. "I work with empowering healing systems and I'm delighted to share them with others."
* For holistic therapies and an upcoming crystal workshop, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or tel: 07545 474878
It must take a huge leap of faith to give up a well-established career, in the middle of a recession, for something that often earns nothing. Patrick Eamon Carberry did exactly that to become a full-time shaman, an energy healer who doesn't charge anyone that can't afford it, and leaves any payment up to the client's discretion.
From Downpatrick, Patrick hung up his chef's whites a year ago to spend his days doing shamanic healing and house-clearances -- or ghost-busting, for want of a better term.
His wife's still getting used to the idea.
"Rosemary's a complete non-believer and a real sceptic, but she's becoming a bit more open-minded because there are things with me she just can't explain away," he shrugs with a smile. "I get scepticism a lot; it doesn't bother me at all. I just give help to people whenever I can."
A member of the International Holistic Practitioners Association, Patrick has wide, dark eyes and a quiet air about him that goes well with this mysterious shamanic business, loosely defined as range of ancient beliefs and spiritual practices that honour Mother Earth. Traditionally associated with medicine men in tribal cultures and often linked with hippies, shamanism has had a revival of interest all over the world in recent years.
All sorts of people these days are getting into shamanism -- I know a hotel owner, a castle owner, an adventure course owner, a fashion journalist and a PR consultant who have done courses in it recently.
None of them looks the part as well as Patrick. When he stares you feel he's seeing more than what's written on your face, which in my case is barely disguised wonderment. I'm not sure if animals feel the same way about him, but Patrick says he can communicate with them.
Not least of all with his dog, Demon.
"I talk to him telepathically," says Patrick. "When we're out and he's running ahead of me, I'll call him in my head and he'll turn immediately and come back."
Don't dogs pick up on visual and various other clues as to what their masters want?
"Well, if I'm in the living room and he's in the kitchen, I can call him the same way and he'll come bounding in. I can converse with animals in sort of patois -- they transmit the main words to express what they're felling. Like, I was going to the shop one day and this wee dog was whimpering outside it, and I said to him 'What's wrong with you?', and he said 'Don't wanna sit ...'
"You see, we're all part of nature -- us, animals, plants. Animals respond to energy healing in the same way humans do. I'm working with a wee dog at the minute that couldn't walk and he's getting up and about now, doing great."
Unfortunately he can't give a demonstration as his amusingly named pet is not there when we meet at his friend and colleague Sharon Neill's house in Glengormley. Mild-mannered and laid-back, the shaman is lounging barefoot on a sofa, dangling a moonstone pendulum that oscillates oddly and gives me prickles under my skin when he holds it above my right palm, apparently sparking off the energy field we all have around us.
Patrick didn't realise he was a "natural shamanic healer" until he went to a Pagan meeting in 2010 and met like-minded people, but he feels his energy-healing abilities came into force years ago after his daughter Arlene was diagnosed at 11 with the devastating Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome, a chronic neurological disorder that confined her to a wheelchair.
"She took this terrible pain in her knees and hips and the doctors said if she still had the condition at 16 she'd be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life," he recalls. "It took them a year to diagnose her and it wasn't looking good, but I kept working with her and bringing her to the pool for hydrotherapy.
"She eventually got out of the wheelchair and onto crutches, then onto a walking stick, and by 16 she was walking normally again, against all medical expectations. She's been able to do without any medication since then."
Arlene went on to follow in her father's footsteps as a driving instructor, then as a chef. Patrick is as proud as punch.
"The most important thing in life isn't money. It's helping others. That's what we're here to do and that's what I'm doing as much as I can now. I could never really do that as chef. What I'm doing now is a vocation and it's amazing to work with people and animals and to help them."
* For Patrick Eamon Carberry's workshops, Shamanic oils and training, see silentoak.com Tel. 079 123 68100