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Pagan Pioneers: Founders, Elders, Leaders and Others
Biddy Early (1798 – 1874)
Written and compiled by George Knowles
Biddy Early was a famous Irish seer and healer, a cunning woman of the nineteenth century, often identified as Biddy ‘The Healer’, ‘The Wise Woman’ or ‘The Witch’. Much of what is known about her has been passed down from oral tradition and blended into myth and folklore, as such, there is much “poetic licence” used to recount her life. However, in real life she does seem to have had some genuine powers of healing and clairvoyance, for she was widely consulted for her cures and council. Many believed she was of the sidhe (fairies).
Born Bridget Ellen Connors in lower Faha near Kilanena in 1798, Biddy was the daughter of a small land farmer, John Thomas Connors and his wife Ellen Early. Biddy is described as being small in statue and pretty, a woman who kept her good looks throughout her life. While married four times, she always used her mother’s maiden name, believing that her gifts were inherited through the female line. Her mother taught her all about herbs and how to make potions, just as her own mother had taught her.
At the age of 16 when her parents died, Biddy was evicted from their home and forced to work as a serving girl in the nearby towns of Feakle and Ennis. In 1817 she met and married widower Pat Mally, a middle-aged man from Gurteenreagh, who died a short time later. After the death of her first husband, she married his son, her “stepson”, John Mally with whom she had a son called Paddy. Her son Paddy died of the fever (typhus) when he was just 8 years old, a common sickness in those times. After which Biddy started to use her healing powers, giving out herbal cures tied-up in small sachets, and liquid potions in small bottles with strict instructions for how they should be used.
Biddy’s powers of clairvoyance are credited to a mysterious dark bottle. How this “magic” bottle came into her possession, has since become part of her myth and legend. Some believe her late husband Pat Mally gave it to her before he died, or her son before he died; others believe it came to her from the “sidhe” (fairies). There are some stories that say she was away with the sidhe, and went to live among them for a time as a child. As a little girl it was said she could see and talk to the sidhe in their own language, which was different from Gaelic and that they taught her how to use her gifts.
She was instructed that by looking into the bottle with one eye and keeping the other eye open, she would be able to see what ailed people and view the future. In exchange for this ability, she was never to charge money for her services, or she would lose the power. She could accept gifts, but was to give away whatever was left over from her own needs. She must never allow others to look into the bottle, or else they would either die or go mad. By using the bottle, Biddy always knew when a person was about to visit her, and whether they had gone to a doctor or a priest first. If they had, then she usually refused to treat them unless she was in a good mood.
In 1840, her second husband died of a liver ailment, most likely due to an excess consumption of alcohol. Biddy quickly married again, her third husband was Tom Flannery from Carrowroe in County Clare. She and Tom moved into a cottage on Dromore Hill in Kilbarron, overlooking Kilbarron Lake that locally became known as Biddy Early’s Lake. By this time Biddy’s reputation as a healer and seer had spread, for it was here that she created her most powerful cures, and hundreds of people came to seek her out. It is said the road to her house was always full of those traveling to see her.
Biddy also brought relief to animals, and treated them with great care. In her time, the death of an animal could bring particular hardship to people living in a mainly rural farming community. Animals were relyed upon for everyday living, and to lose one could lead to eviction if farming chores were not compelted. Many of the stories about Biddy include tales of her healing a family’s most important horse or cow. She also helped many people restore their wells, often the only source of clean water, to solve problems for women she ran into while churning butter. Water and butter were also vital to a peasant’s everyday life.
During the nineteenth century, superstitious belief in fairies and all things apparently supernatural was very strong, and when something happened that appeared to be miraculous, without the aid of the Church, it was commonly and easily attributed to Witchcraft and the Devil. As such the local Church viewed Biddy with suspicion, and all the local clergy were totally opposed to her. As her fame spread they even tried to warn off people who went to visit her. One story of the churches opposition occurred in 1865. While visiting friends in Ennis, Biddy was charged with Witchcraft under the 1586 statute, however the case was dismissed due to a lack of sufficient evidence. Many of the local people stood their ground against the clergy, maintaining she did nothing but good works.
In 1868, her third husband Tom died, but Biddy now seventy years old, still only looked fifty, and a year later married her fourth husband Thomas Meaney. However he too got sick and died within the year. Many believed her husbands all died from alcohol abuse, as there was so much whiskey and other strong liquors brought to her in payment. Her husbands did not need to work as she herself provided everything through her healing work. After her last husband died, Biddy’s own health slowly deteriorated, she died in April 1874 with a rosary around her neck and her mysterious dark bottle wrapped in a red shawl beside her.
Before her death and despite their differences, Biddy had befriended one of the local priests and asked him not to let her bottle fall into the wrong hands when she died. According to her wishes, the priest took the bottle and hurled it into Kilbarron Lake. Since then, such was the belief in Biddy’s legend, many attempts to trawl the lake in search of the bottle have been made, but to this day it has never been found.
Facts and Fiction
That Biddy Early was a real person is beyond doubt, but living in an age and area when education was minimal (except of the genteel and priestly classes), most of the folk that knew her were illiterate, so no reliable record of her life was written down. However, such was her reputation, stories about her life were passed on by local oral tradition. Some 20 years after her death, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory (see William Butler Yeats) was the first to seek out people who had known her and record their stories in her study of folklore: Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920).
Selected extracts from Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920).
Seers and Healers
There was one Dillane in Kinvara, Sir William knew him well, and he went to her one time for a cure. And Father Andrew came to the house and was mad with him for going, and says he, “You take the cure out of the hands of God”. And Mrs. Dillane said, “Your Reverence, none of us can do that”. “Well”, says Father Andrew, “then I'll see what the devil can do and I'll send my horse tomorrow that has a sore in his leg this long time, and try will she be able to cure him”.
So next day he sent a man with his horse, and when he got to Biddy Early's house she came out, and she told him every word that Father Andrew had said, and she cured the sore. So after that, he left the people alone; but before it, he'd be dressed in a frieze coat and a riding whip in his hand driving away the people from going to her.
Biddy Early? Not far from this she lived, above at Feakle. I got cured by her myself one time. Look at this thumb, I got it hurt one time, and I went out into the field after and was ploughing all the day, I was that greedy for work. And when I went in I had to lie on the bed with the pain of it, and it swelled and the arm with it, to the size of a horse's thigh. I stopped two or three days in the bed with the pain of it, and then my wife went to see Biddy Early and told her about it, and she came home and the next day it burst, and you never seen anything like all the stuff that came away from it. A good bit after I went to her myself, where it wasn't quite healed, and she said, “You'd have lost it altogether if your wife hadn't been so quick to come”. She brought me into a small room, and said holy words and sprinkled holy water and told me to believe. The priests were against her, but they were wrong. How could that be evil doing that was all charity and kindness and healing?
She was a decent looking woman, no different from any other woman of the country. The boy she was married to at the time was lying drunk in the bed. There were side-cars and common cars and gentry and country people at the door, just like Gort market, and dinner for all that came, and everyone would bring her something, but she didn't care what it was. Rich farmers would bring her the whole side of a pig. Myself, I brought a bottle of whiskey and a shilling's worth of bread, and a quarter of sugar and a quarter pound of tea. She was very rich, for there wasn't a farmer but would give her the grass for a couple of bullocks or a filly. She had the full of a field of fillies if they'd all been gathered together. She left no children, and there's no doubt at all that the reason of her being able to do cures was that she was away seven years. She didn't tell me about it but she spoke of it to others.
When I was coming away I met a party of country people on a cart from Limerick, and they asked where was her house, and I told them: “Go on to the cross, and turn to the left, and follow the straight road till you come to the little humpy bridge, and soon after that you'll come to the house”. But the priests would be mad if they knew that I told anyone the way. She died about twelve year ago; I didn't go to the wake my-self, or the funeral, but I heard that her death was natural.
No, she wasn't away herself. It is said it was from a son of her own she got the knowledge, a little chap that was astray. And one day when he was lying sick in the bed he said: “There's such and such a woman has a hen down in the pot, and if I had the soup of the hen, I think it would cure me”. So the mother went to the house, and when she got there, sure enough, there was a hen in the pot on the fire. But she was ashamed to tell what she came for, and she let on to have only come for a visit, and so she sat down. But presently in the heat of the talking she told what the little chap had said. “Well”, says the woman, “take the soup and welcome, and the hen too if it will do him any good”. So she brought them with her, and when the boy saw the soup, “It can t cure me”, says he, “for no earthly thing can do that. But since I see how kind and how willing you are, and did your best for me, I'll leave you a way of living”. And so he did, and taught her all she knew. That's what's said at any rate.
There was a neighbour of my own, Andrew Dennehy. I was knocked up by him one night to go to the house, because he said they were calling to him. But when they got there, there was nothing to be found. But some see these things, and some can't. It's against our creed to believe in them. And the priests won't let on that they believe in them themselves, but they are more in dread of going about at night than any of us. They were against Biddy Early too. There was a man I knew living near the sea, and he set out to go to her one time.
On his way he went into his brother-in-law's house, and the priest came in there, and bid him not to go on. “Well, Father”, says he, “cure me yourself if you won't let me go to her to be cured”. And when the priest wouldn't do that (for the priests can do many cures if they like to), he went on to her. And the minute he came in, “Well”, says she, “you made a great fight for me on the way”. For though it's against our creed to believe it, she could hear any earthly thing that was said in every part, miles off. But she had two red eyes, and some used to say, “If she can cure so much, why can't she cure her own eyes”?
Well, that's what's believed, that it's from her son Biddy Early got it. After his death always lamenting for him she was, till he came back, and gave her the gift of curing. She had no red eyes, but was a fresh clean-looking woman, sure any one might have red eyes when they'd got a cold. She wouldn't refuse even a person that would come from the very bottom of the black North.
I was with Biddy Early myself one time, and got a cure from her for my little girl that was sick. A bottle of whiskey I brought her, and the first thing she did was to open it and to give me a glass out of it. “For”, says she, “you'll maybe want it my poor man”. “But I had plenty of courage in those days”. The priests were against her; often Father Boyle would speak of her in his sermons. They can all do those cures themselves, but that's a thing it's not right to be talking about.
The Little Girl now living in Biddy
The people do be full of stories of all the cures she did. Once after we came to live here a carload of people came, and asked was Biddy Early here, and my mother said she was dead. When she told the priest he said she had a right to shake a bottle and say she was her, and get something from them. It was by the bottle she did all, to shake it, and she'd see everything when she looked in it. Sometimes she'd give a bottle of some cure to people that came, but if she'd say to them, “You'll never bring it home”, break it they should on the way home, with all the care they'd take of it.
She was as good, and better to the poor as to the rich. Any poor person passing the road, she'd call in and give a cup of tea or a glass of whiskey to, and bread and what they wanted. She had a big chest within in that room, and it full of pounds of tea and bottles of wine and of whiskey and of claret, and all things in the world. One time she called in a man that was passing and gave him a glass of whiskey, and then she said to him, “The road you were going home by, don't go by it”. So he asked why not, and she took the bottle - a long shaped bottle it was - and looked into it, holding it up, and then she bid him look through it, and he'd see what would happen him. But her husband said, “Don't show it to him, it might give him a fright he wouldn't get over”. So she only said, “Well, go home by another road”. And so he did and got home safe, for in the bottle she had seen a party of men that wouldn't have let him pass alive.
The Blacksmith I met near Tulla:
I know you to be a respectable lady and an honourable one because I know your brothers, meeting them as I do at the fair of Scariff. No fair it would be if they weren't there. I knew Biddy Early well, a nice fresh-looking woman she was. It's to her the people used to be flocking, to the door and even to the window, and if they'd come late in the day, they'd have no chance of getting to her, they'd have to take lodgings for the night in the town.
She was a great woman. If any of the men that came into the house had a drop too much drink taken, she'd turn them out if they said an unruly word. And if any of them were fighting or disputing or going to law, she'd say, “Be at one, and ye can rule the world”. The priests were against her and used to be taking the cloaks and the baskets from the country people to keep them back from going to her. I never went to her myself - for you should know that no ill or harm ever comes to a blacksmith.
An Old Midwife:
Tell me now is there anything wrong about you or your son that you went to that house? I went there but once myself, when my little girl that was married was bad, after her second baby being born. I went to the house and told her about it, and she took the bottle and shook it and looked in it, and then she turned and said something to himself (her husband) that I didn't hear - and she just waved her hand to me like that, and bid me go home, for she would take nothing from me. But himself came out and told that what she was after seeing in the bottle was my little girl, and the coffin standing beside her. So I went home, and sure enough on the tenth day after, she was dead.
I was with Biddy Early one time for my brother. She was out away in Ennis when we got to the house, and her husband that she called Tommy. And the kitchen was full of people waiting for her to come in. So then she came, and the day was rainy, and she was wet, and she went over to the fire, and began to take off her clothes, and to dry them, and then she said to her husband: “Tommy, get the bottle and give them all a drop”.
So he got the bottle and gave a drink to everyone. But my brother was in behind the door, and he missed him and when he came back to the fire she said: “You have missed out the man that has the best heart of them all, and there he is behind the door”. And when my brother came out she said, “Give us a verse of a song”, and he said, “I'm no songster”, but she said, “I know well that you are, and a good dancer as well”. She cured him and his wife after.
I was myself digging potatoes out in that field beyond, and a woman passed by the road, but I heard her say nothing, but a pain came on my head and I fell down, and I had to go to my bed for three weeks. My mother went then to Biddy Early. Did you ever hear of her? And she looked in the blue bottle she had, and she said my name. And she saw me standing before her, and knew all about me and said, “Your daughter was digging potatoes with her husband in the field, and a woman passed by and she said, ‘It is as good herself is with a spade as the man’”, for I was a young woman at the time. She gave my mother a bottle for me, and I took three drinks of it in the bed, and then I got up as well as I was before.
Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory
I think as time goes on Biddy’s fame will grow and some of the myths that always hang in the air will gather round her, for I think the first thing I was told of her was “There used surely to be enchanters in the old time, magicians and freemasons. Old Biddy Early's power came from the same thing”.
Sources to be posted later.
First published on the 04th March 2007, 18:22 © George Knowles
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