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The Healing Soil of Boho

In the Boho highlands of West Fermanagh Scarplands in Northern Ireland, there is a longstanding belief that the soil from the local churchyard has miraculous curative powers. It was on this churchyard, in 1815, the Reverend James McGirr, who was a faith healer, was buried. On his deathbed, Father McGirr himself had supposedly declared that “the clay that covers me will cure anything that I was able to cure when I was with you while I was alive.” Since then, a local custom developed. Whenever a parishioner got sick, he or she will kneel beside Father McGirr’s grave and scoop up a spoon-full of dirt and put it into a cotton pouch. They will then take the pouch to their home, place it under the pillow and sleep on it. By morning the ailment will already be on the retreat.

Healing Soil of Boho

A spoonful of dirt. Photo: J_R Images/Shutterstock.com

Villagers have been using Father McGirr’s soil to treat a variety of conditions such toothache, sore throats and flesh wound. Once cured, the soil is returned back to the graveyard. Failing to take back the soil is said to bring bad luck.

A legend such as this will invoke different reaction in different people—the believer will accept as fact whatever knowledge is passed on through the generations; the skeptic will dismiss it as an old wives’ tale; but only the inquisitive mind will try to unravel the mystery behind it.

Gerry Quinn, a microbiologist who grew up in the area, belonged to the latter.

“Originally I was surprised as it was a folk remedy and there seemed to be a lot of superstition around it, but in the back of my head I realised that there's always something behind these traditions or they wouldn't be going on so long,” Quinn told BBC.

In 2018, Quinn and his colleagues at the Swansea University Medical School collected soil samples from Boho’s churchyard. At the lab, they discovered that the miraculous healing touch was not God’s handiwork but that of tiny microscopic organisms one can barely see.

Healing Soil of Boho

The grave of Rev. James McGirr, where two white posts hold printed information about the “blessed clay.” Photo: Simon Watson

Healing Soil of Boho

A letter from the parish priest at the cemetery says samples of soil must be returned on the fourth day. Photo: Simon Watson

Quinn found in the soil a previously unknown strain of Streptomyces, a bacteria that is used to produce antibiotics. Streptomyces produces a unique cocktail of chemicals that inhibit or kill other bacteria. This particular strain was found to kill several disease-causing pathogens that have become resistant to conventional antibiotics.

Boho’s soil, where this unique strain was found, was deposited during the late Pleistocene period on a bedrock of limestone which gave the soil a highly alkaline character. Alkaline environments are known to be a rich source of antibiotics. With new pathogens becoming increasingly immune to drugs, microbiologists have turned to niche environments such as deserts, thermal vents, and alkaline environments in the hope that they might discover exotic varieties of bacteria that produce more powerful antibiotics.

“The reason Streptomyces produce antibiotics is that, unlike most bacteria, they’re nonmotile,” explains Paul Dyson, a molecular microbiologist. “They can’t swim away from incoming danger. Or swim toward anything that is attractive. They just sit there. They’re sedentary organisms. And to defend their microenvironment, they produce antibiotics to kill any competing organisms in the immediate vicinity.”

The soil from Boho’s graveyard contained not one but eight different strains of Streptomyces, each producing ten to twenty different antibiotics.

“So this gives us something in the region of possibly a hundred different antibiotics, and what we need to do is identify these antibiotics and then conduct clinical trials,” Dr. Quinn told BBC.

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