Northern Ireland

Ancient Fermanagh cure gets modern makeover

Sacred Heart Church, Boho
Image caption Can the soil from this churchyard fight bacteria?

An ancient folk remedy from County Fermanagh could help scientists in the fight against drug-resistant bacteria.

According to local belief, the soil from a churchyard in Boho can cure infections.

A microbiologist who took samples to see if there was any scientific basis for the cure has made an astonishing discovery.

Dr Gerry Quinn found a unique strain of streptomyces, a microorganism used to produce antibiotics.

It was found to kill the top three pathogens (organisms that cause disease) identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a major threat to human health.

"When we brought the soil back to the laboratory we found a new species of streptomyces that had never been discovered before and it contained many antibiotics and some of these antibiotics actually killed some multi-resistant pathogens," he told BBC News NI.

Image caption Soil samples taken from Boho churchyard in County Fermanagh

"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."

Dr Quinn is part of an international team of researchers trying to find new antibiotics and the discovery in Boho has been published in Frontiers of Microbiology.

The WHO has warned that people could die from simple infections that have been treatable for decades because the more antibiotics are used, the less effective they become.

Image caption Local historian Frank McHugh said people come from "far and wide to take the soil home"

Local historian Frank McHugh, a member of the Boho Heritage Group, said little has been written about the Boho cure, but the tradition dates back to the Reverend James McGirr, the parish priest on Boho in 1803.

"He must obviously have had the facility to cure people and people must have thought very highly of him.

"What he said was, 'after I die, the clay that covers me will cure anything that I cured when I was with you'.

"So then that started a tradition that still continues to this day, where people visit from far and wide to take the soil home."

People would lie with the soil placed under a pillow wrapped in cloth.

Frank McHugh said that although not officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church, part of the cure involves saying prayers and the soil has to be returned.

"You will still get today people who absolutely swear by it, it's kind of part of that folk tradition, and you often hear of those passing down amongst family members and people really would swear by it.

"I suppose I'm a little bit sceptical and that's why I think Gerry's work is really interesting because it really does show the antibiotic properties of limestone clay and clearly it works but how it works I'm not sure."

Sacred Heart Church stands on a site that has been used for Christian worship for more than 1,500 years.

In a nearby field are 4,000 year old Neolithic stone carvings.

Image caption Dr Gerry Quinn said the next step was to to identify the antibiotics in the soil

Dr Quinn believes the spiritual significance of the Boho area relates to the cure in the soil.

"I have no doubt the cure must have been used back then.

"I equate spiritual significance with health, which was very important in the days when they didn't have any medicinal cures," he said.

Dr Quinn said that the next stage is to identify more bacteria and the antibiotics in the soil cure.

"This particular organism doesn't just produce one antibiotic, it actually produces 10, 20 antibiotics in one organism.

"And we haven't just found one organism, we found something like 10 organisms.

"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."

Image caption Professor Banat is hopeful the secrets of the soil could help combat the threat of drug resistant bacteria

Professor Ibrahim Banat, from Ulster University's School of Biomedical Sciences, said the discovery gave hope of producing "something new to be available in the arsenal we can muster against microorganisms for the future".

"The WHO has been warning us to be vigilant, to be careful in the dispensation of antibiotics, and also warning of a situation where we are facing the abyss, which is being unable to treat simple diseases or infections with antibiotics because none are effective any more," he said.

Professor Banat said while this discovery was just "a minor small step" in the research he was hopeful that the ancient secrets of the Boho soil could help to combat the threat of drug-resistant bacteria.

"All indications are historically and anecdotally that there is something, so maybe we can highlight that and it's one of the areas that we're going to continue looking into," he continued.