John Looney the Shanbally Bonesetter

In the yard of the Shanbally Church, a local farmer and noted bonesetter, John Looney, is commemorated with a large Celtic cross. The inscription reads: 

Erected in loving memory of John Looney by the people of Shanbally his native parish and other grateful friends.  During life, though a man of singular humility and simplicity, he was most naturally gifted remarkable for his skill and experience in the treatment of fractures.  He was proverbial for his kindness and attention to the poor, the object of universal esteem and respect.  He departed this life August the 6th 1882 aged 75 years.  Deplored and regretted by all.  Requiescat in pace.  Amen.‌ 

John Looney Monument Shanbally

Sean O Mahony tells us that ‘John Looney had the gift of being able to set bones and provided a speedy cure for any injured bone, muscle or ligaments’.[i]  His fame was well known and ‘it was not an uncommon sight to see as many as twenty-five or thirty horse-drawn vehicles’ in the boreen outside his house.[ii]  During his career as a bonesetter and healer, Looney became involved in numerous controversies.  While returning from the races at Killeady on St Stephen’s Day in 1864, 23-year-old Bartholomew Coughlan from Upton jumped from a ditch and sustained a compound fracture to his ankle.  On the following day, his father Daniel Coughlan and some friends took him to John Looney, the well-known healer and bonesetter at Shanbally.  

Looney proceeded to examine his leg; he said it was one of the worst cases he had ever seen; he then applied some of the contents of a bottle to the limb, and put the ankle into its own berth; he put some “flax-tow” around the ankle, some cloth around that, a piece of lath outside that, and a piece of cloth tightly around all. 

Because of the severity of the injury, Looney attempted to persuade them to go to hospital for professional medical treatment but Daniel Coughlan insisted that he would bring his son back to Shanbally.  Also, ‘the man’s friends, however, having the common prejudice against professional treatment, determined to keep their patient at home’.  They returned on the following Saturday and Looney repeated the treatment.  Because of the nature of the injury, Looney refused to see the patient again and he repeated his advice that they would have to go to hospital.  Looney declined any payment for his work but eventually he took a half-crown from the Coughlans.  

The Coughlan family and their friends could not agree about taking the injured man to hospital but they eventually brought him to the South Infirmary on 2 January 1865, when the whole lower part of the foot was at that time affected by gangrene, and the bone was completely rotten’.  At the hospital Dr William Kearns Tanner advised that immediate amputation of the lower leg was essential, as gangrene had already set in.  Again, the family could not agree, the patient deteriorated before they acceded to medical advice and the leg was amputated below the knee on 14 January.  Unfortunately, Bartholomew’s health had deteriorated and he died on 18 January 1865. 

At an inquest into the man’s death Dr Tanner expressed the belief that Looney’s treatment had contributed to the young man’s demise.  The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against Looney.[iii]  In an editorial on the subject, the Cork Examiner disagreed with the jury’s verdict and instead it blamed the young man’s father whom Looney had ‘frequently, and indeed from the very first, urged . . . to have his son taken to the hospital’.  The father’s behaviour in the case amounted to ‘stupidity and folly’.[iv]   Although the newspaper was ‘opposed to the madness of entrusting the safety of a limb to any but those who are competent to deal with such cases’ it did concede that, in this instance, ‘the case in question, fatal as was its result, ought not be visited too heavily on the reluctant Looney – the surgeon in spite of himself’.[v]  Looney’s neighbours rallied around the local bonesetter.  In the Passage, Monkstown, and Carrigaline areas a fund was established to defend Looney who ‘has, it seems, affected some cures, the people of the district in which he lives have great faith in his ability as a bonesetter.’ Within a short time over £50 was subscribed to the defence fund.[vi]  

On Friday, 1 November 1878, when Hannah Murphy was returning from the city to her home at Skahabeg with her sister-in-law, she stumbled a couple of times in her new high-heeled shoes.  When she twisted her right ankle the women decided to hire a car to take them home.  The pregnant Mrs Murphy was so uncomfortable that she insisted on going to Shanbally to meet John Looney.  It was late when they arrived at Shanbally and, with the aid of candle light, Looney inspected the injured ankle, rubbed it with a lotion and then manipulated the foot back into position.  Looney took no fee and he asked the woman to return on the following Sunday. 

Her son John Looney – from her first husband – took her back to Shanbally for her second treatment.  She was helped into the house by Looney’s wife and daughter.  On her return to Skahabeg she became unwell and had to be helped out of the car by some neighbouring women.  Her condition became worse and the unfortunate woman died a few hours later.  Mrs Murphy and her husband, Cornelius, were not very close and he threatened to punish young John by putting a ‘cawhake’ on him, because he took his injured mother to Shanbally.  

At an inquest into Mrs Murphy’s death, John Looney accepted that he had treated Mrs Murphy for a sprained ankle.  He had been involved in bone setting for over 50 years and had learned much of his skills from his aged father, and had set thousands of injured and broken bones.  He had used some ointments to massage the swollen and injured areas of Mrs Murphy’s ankle.  Because his potions were secret and traditional he was reluctant to give any details.  Under pressure, he did reveal that it contained ‘a little hartshorn, a little of the juice of the herbs horsehound, rosemary and maiden hair’.  He explained that in their preparation ‘I put them into a mortar and pound them; pour some spring water on them; put them into an earthen vessel, and stop it down for twelve hours, and, afterwards, bottle it’.   He explained that, on the woman’s second visit, he was satisfied with her progress.  He examined the injury and adjusted the bandages but gave her no further medication. 

Looney was cross-examined by a number of physicians including Professor M. O Keeffe of QCC who exposed the limitations of the bonesetter’s knowledge of anatomy.  ‘He is’, said O Keeffe, ‘quite ignorant of anatomy or anything that would enable him to practise as a bone-setter’.  After his ignorance had been revealed to all, Looney was exonerated of any part in Mrs Murphy’s death.  The deceased woman’s husband was severely criticised for his failure to summon medical attention at the time of his wife’s illness.  At the conclusion of the inquest, the jury found that Mrs Murphy’s death resulted from a haemorrhage, which had been caused by her fall in the city.[vii]  

Despite these incidents, Looney was still held in high regard by his friends and neighbours.  Following his death, a public subscription was inaugurated with Rev. William McDonnell, CC of Ringaskiddy, acting as treasurer and William Barry as secretary.  The following collectors were appointed to gather funds: Alderman Geary of Cork, William Cogan, Poor Law Guardian of Carrigaline, DJ Riordan, Morgan Regan and Daniel Regan of Shanbally, William Lynch and Patrick Murphy of Ringaskiddy, Jeremiah Lane of Bandon, Michael Kenefick of Crosshaven, James Kearney of Monkstown, Stephen Wilson and John Hayes of Passage, Denis Kidney and William Quinn of Nohoval, William Kidney of Minane Bridge and Jeremiah McCarthy of Ballyfeard.[viii] 

Within a short time a list of contributors and their donations was published.  The list included the following:  Canon McNamara, PP of Monkstown (£1), Mr Donegan, Coolmore (£2), Daniel O Driscoll, Blarney (£1.1s.).  One pound was received from each of the following: Alderman Geary of Cork, Daniel J Riordan of Raffeen, Patrick Murphy of the Tower, Ringaskiddy, William Cogan, Carrigaline, Morgan Regan and Daniel Regan, Shanbally.  Each of the following contributed 10 shillings:  Mr Bird, Currabinny, Daniel O Driscoll, Bandon, John O Sullivan, Barnahely, Denis Murphy, Ringaskiddy, Denis Kidney, Nohoval, James Twomey, James Cogan and Denis Cogan of Carrigaline.  Five shillings was received from Edmond Walsh and Joseph Shea of Shanbally, Peter Harding of Coolmore, Edmond Lynch of Ringaskiddy, William Barry of Droumgurrihy, John Harding of Raheens, Thomas Sweeney of Barnahely, Mr O Sullivan and Mr Foley of Bandon.  George Rice of Ballygarvan contributed 2s.6d.[ix]

Words and image courtesy of Colman O Mahony. Colman has a lifetime's experience researching the local history of Cork. He has many published works to his name including, Cork's Poor Law Palace: Workhouse Life 1838-1890 and The Maritime Gateway to Cork: a History of the Outports of Passage West and Monkstown from 1754-1942.

[i] Sean O Mahony, The Sporting Shamrocks and Ringaskiddy, (Ringaskiddy, 2002), p. 82

[ii] ibid

[iii] Cork Examiner 17 January, 20 January1865; Cork Constitution 18 January 1865)

[iv] Cork Examiner  21 January1865

[v] ibid

[vi] Cork Examiner 21 February1865

[vii] Cork Examiner 7 November 1878

[viii] Cork Examiner 2 September 1882

[ix] Cork Examiner 5 September 1882

Cork City Libraries, Grand Parade, Cork, Ireland.
Contact us: Tel. +353 21 4924900 | Fax. + 353 21 4275684 | Email: