Biddy Early was known to be a bean feasa, meaning a ‘wise woman’ or ‘woman of knowledge’. Depending upon who was referring to her, she was either “the wise woman of Clare” or “the witch of Clare”. W.B. Yeats called this notorious red-head, “the wisest of wise women”. Priests spoke out against her from the pulpit, but rarely dared confront her face to face… some even quietly approached her for help. I first discovered Biddy Early a couple of years ago, when I stumbled upon a little paperback biography written by Meda Ryan called, Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare, in an obscure small town book shop in either Clare or Kerry, where we stopped for lunch while en route to Dublin from the West. After purchasing the book I showed it to my husband who surprised me by saying that he had heard of her. He didn’t know all the details but he recognized her name and associated it with folklore.

Biddy Early lived her life in County Clare from 1798 until her death in 1874. She was born into a poor farming family and baptized Bridget Ellen Connors, later adopting her mother’s maiden name of ‘Early’. There are records of her existence and even her 1865 arrest for accusations of witchcraft when she was brought to court in Ennis. These charges were promptly dropped when the people, which were expected to testify against her, dropped out, most likely due to a belief that Biddy had the power to inflict curses upon anyone who crossed her. But mostly the legend of Biddy Early’s power, comes to us through stories told by those whose parents and grandparents came into contact with her. Many such stories were collected by W.B. Yeats’ contemporary, Lady Gregory and can be found in her book, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. From what I’ve read about Biddy, she was probably a healer who provided herbs and ‘potions’ meant to aid the sick. Stories tell of her gift of ‘second-sight’ that allowed her to see future events, provided information to her about things happening in the village that she would otherwise have not known and even allowed her to know in advance when a person in need was coming to see her so that she would often meet them along the road. Biddy was consulted for anything from restoring the butter production of a farm, to healing the sick. A large part of her ‘practice’ involved restoring health to ailing farm animals, a thing of vast importance to the poor farmers of her day. Many believed that she talked to the fairies and may have even gotten her powers from the fairies. A central theme of her story revolves around the use of a ‘magic’ blue bottle which she is said to have looked into in order to see her visions and find cures. One of  several theories of how she acquired the bottle is that it was given to her by her son, a locally acclaimed hurler, who obtained it from the fairies as a thank-you gift when he obliged them by filling a spot in one of their hurling matches. This verse, which was composed during her lifetime, tells the story:

In ’41 when her first born son

Played a fairy game of hurley

I tell you true that the Bottle o’ Blue

Was given to Biddy Early.

Immediately after she died, the bottle disappeared. Some believed the fairies took it back. There is also a story that has the local priest pitching it into nearby Kilbarron Lake upon her death.

Biddy normally did not accept monetary fees for her services, but would accept items such as butter, bread, chickens… and most often, whiskey or poitín (Irish moonshine). The abundance of alcohol that crossed her threshold may account for the deaths of her husbands, who are all said to have died of alcohol related illnesses. This includes her last husband, a man in his 30s, whom she married when she was in her 70s, who also preceded her in death due to alcohol consumption. The consensus is that she had a total of four husbands, though some sources assert only three.

Biddy Early's Cottage, Feakle Parish - from Clare County Library

It is my guess that much of the legend of the powers of Biddy Early derive from her being a very intelligent, outspoken woman who had a good knowledge of medicinal herbs and perhaps a bit of psychic ability and sensitivity to what was going on around her. She was also a woman unafraid to go head-to-head with the local priests at a time when priests were very much deferred to. All in all, this would be a very powerful combination of characteristics in a woman of her time and that alone, fairies or no fairies, makes her an interesting character. Feakle Parish in County Clare is the place where Biddy Early spent a good portion of her life and where the ruin of her two-roomed, thatched cottage is situated. People still visit the cottage and some say there is an aura of magical energy lingering about the place. Also, I have read that Biddy still appreciates a small gift from those who cross her threshold, so people often leave tokens, though I doubt there are many bottles full of whiskey lying about! It is my intention to locate and pay a visit to the cottage during my next trip to County Clare in March, that is, if my sons are not afraid to come along!

Advertisements