The Fighting Herb Doctors of Church Street and Parnell Street, 1852

From the Freeman’s Journal, 4 May 1852:

“John McDonnell, of Church-Street, ‘herb doctor’ and ‘professor,’ appeared to sustain a complaint against Michael Gafney, ‘herb doctor and universal practitioner,’ for an alleged violent assault.

The complainant professing in this instance to have been assaulted was a low-sized dark visaged young man, rather decently attired, but his mode of stating his complaint at once evinced his contempt of the generally received system of education.

Both complainant and defendant were provided with agents to plead the cause of each. 

The complainant stated that on the Tuesday previous he had occasion to visit a patient residing in the neighbourhood of Britain-Street.  He brought a man with him for protection, as he was afraid of the defendant (Gafney), who had frequently before offered him violence.  After visiting his patient he directed his man to post up some of his bills, whilst he (the professor) went into a bacon shop to purchase a couple of pounds of bacon.  On his coming out his man informed him that the defendant (Gafney) and his son had come and torn down the bills.  Complainant saw them at the corner of Stafford-Street.  When they saw complainant both father and son rushed at him and violently assaulted him, the son giving him some severe blows.

Defendant’s agent cross-examined the complainant – You say you are a professor?

Complainant – Yes, I am a professor, for a lived with a man that followed the doctorin’ business, and I larned all his cures.

Agent – So, you are a professor – professor of what?

Complainant – I’m a professor of the Peruvian Pills (loud laughter).

The bark of the Cinchona, Peru’s national tree, from which Mr McDonnell’s pills were probably made. Still used in herbalism today!

The defendant’s agent here exhibited a handbill bearing the device of a mortar and pestle, inscribed with a legend stating that ‘Dr McDonnell’ professed all diseases, and inviting the afflicted to try the ‘Peruvian pills.’

Complainant said that was one of his handbills, similar to those which the defendant had torn down.

The defendant, who was evidently under the influence of some potent elixir, said that the complainant, who called himself a professor, had been once in his employment, and not content with setting up for himself, had come poaching on his (the defendant’s) neighbourhood, and on the day in question had absolutely come and posted up his bills in his (defendant’s) hall, in Stafford-Street.

Complainant – Pooh, you’re only a herb-man – a whack doctor; your worship can see what a beast he makes of himself at this hour of the morning.

Defendant – Why you caput mortuum of all creation – 

Magistrate – I dismiss this case.  Constable, let those parties be sent out of the office by different doors.

An illustration of how a written contract of apprenticeship containing a restraint of trade clause can prevent unseemly disputes between master and former student!  The ‘Peruvian Pills’ Mr McDonnell was offering to the public may have contained those extracts from the bark of the Cinchona tree known as ‘Jesuits’ Powder,’ used in Victorian times to treat malaria and many other conditions.   If so, they were almost certainly less harmful to patients than many of the official medical ‘treatments’ on offer at the time.  Given the location of Mr McDonnell’s business on Church Street beside the Four Courts, I have no doubt that some of his customers were barristers!

Little Britain Street, looking down into Capel Street, with Stafford Street out of sight on the far side. Possibly regarded by Mr Gafney as the boundary of his ‘manor’!

The offending bills were posted on ‘Britain Street,’ which may have been Little Britain Street on the west side of Capel Street or more probably Great Britain Street (now Parnell Street) on the opposite side.   The above photograph taken from Little Britain Street looking down into Capel Street shows this area c. 1900.  The exact location of the fight seems to have been at Stafford Street, out of sight behind the line of buildings in the far distance – now known as Wolfe Tone Street, its southern corner is marked with a red dot on the map below.

Click here to go for a stroll around the area as it is today. Hopefully any homeopaths currently resident there keep on better terms than Messrs McDonnell and Gafney! 

Image Credit: (top) (top middle) (bottom middle

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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