What's it like to have the gift of 'the cure'?

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Media captionRebecca Hamilton claims to have cured thousands over the past four decades

On any given day, the phone calls start early and continue late into the night at Rebecca Hamilton's County Donegal home.

From an initial hello, the caller quickly moves to ask is she "the woman who has the cure".

The question finishes depending on their ailment - and they can be wide ranging - from shingles, ringworm to mouth ulcers.

Rebecca takes care to ask those who ring what medical help they are getting - if they say none, she tells them they should.

Once she was asked by a farmer if she could help a flock of sheep of the contagious ovine skin condition orf.

"I never knew I had a cure for that," she told BBC News NI.

"But he rang back three days later to say it had gone," she said.

Passed from healer to healer

She says she's had a gift for for more than 40 years, after being given it by an Irish man she met on holiday.

Right across Ireland, there are people like Rebecca, said to be able to cure a host of common ailments.

Image caption According to local belief, the soil from a churchyard in Boho, County Fermanagh can cure infections

This is a land where folk tradition suggests water from certain wells or even soil from specific graveyards can have healing properties.

The idea that people have a "cure" seems to predate Christianity. It sits outside the scientific rigour of modern medicine and isn't an alternative to it. And while some may view it as nothing more than superstition, there are others who continue to believe that "the cure" exists.

The secret prayers and set of actions involved have been passed discreetly from one healer to the next.

In spite of its apparent pre-Christian origins, Rebecca's methods are based in prayer and a belief in God.

At her home in St Johnston, her family joke that "she says more prayers than the Pope".

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Rebecca was once asked to pray for lambs with orf - the farmer said it quickly cleared from his flock

How she came to be in this position is a "long story", she says.

"We were on holiday in Austria, maybe about 40 years ago, and we fell in with an older couple.

"She had fallen and broken her elbow and her husband Jack couldn't help her into toilets or things like that so I did.

"We got talking, started to spend meal times with them and they told us Jack had the cure for shingles and ringworm.

"My own husband Tom would often take people to a lady close to where we lived to get the cure.

"It was something we had a belief in and knew all about.

"Jack was in his 70s then and they had no family - I said to him that he would have to pass it on before his time came.

"He came down to breakfast the next morning and said: 'Rebecca, I've been thinking over what you said and I want you to take it.'"

Image caption Rebecca was told to "get a penknife" as part of the actions to help people with shingles

Over the 40-plus years since, Rebecca says that she has seen and spoken to thousands of people seeking her help.

In days gone by, she would visit people in their homes or they would come to her.

'Do it over the phone'

All the while, she recites two secret prayers passed to her by Jack - they have been kept secret to this day.

The only thing she needs to know is the person's name.

Image caption Rebecca takes on average seven or eight calls a day from people looking for her help

In the years soon after Jack passed on his knowledge, Rebecca's fame grew so much she "didn't have the time to get around everyone".

"Mostly I do it over the phone now, it seems to work just as well," she said.

But Rebecca credits all to her faith.

"You say the prayers, mention the person's name and then it is with God."

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Shingles causes a nasty, painful rash and can lead to complications in older people

Back in 2012, David Allen from Londonderry had shingles. It can be a serious condition and should always be referred to a doctor.

His mother knew about Rebecca and her "cure" but he was sceptical.

As the unbearable itch showed no signs of waning - and to appease his mother - he gave in.

"Mum kept saying ring Rebecca, but I thought: 'What a load of rubbish,'" he says.

"But to please my mum I gave in, I made the phone call to Rebecca.

"Rebecca asked me a couple of questions and told me she would say the prayers - she said the shingles would go."

Sometimes people come back to Rebecca and tell her it has worked and say thank you but most times she hears nothing.

Image caption Like most people who believe they have the gift of "the cure", Rebecca takes no money

Rebecca knows there are sceptics - it is up to others to decide.

Those who believe they have 'the cure' take no money for their endeavours.

Often there is a comfort for people just to know they are being prayed for, says Rebecca.

"I like to be able to help people, that's all I try and do."

This story was amended 21 May 2019 to add a number of clarifications.

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