Biddy Early – Wise-Woman of Clare
It is widely accepted nowadays that one of the great Irish fairy doctors, if not the greatest, was a rather unconventional and feisty woman by the name of Biddy Early. The term “fairy doctor” might require a brief explanation. A fairy doctor was one who had received no formal medical training, but who could diagnose and treat a range of ailments, both physical and psychological, by way of being endowed with mysteriously-acquired skills attributed to supernatural origins. Biddy is said to have been born in 1798 and to have passed away in 1874. Needless to say, owing to the fact that Biddy was a semi-literate peasant woman from a rural part of 19th century Ireland, much of what we now know of Biddy’s magical reputation was only officially recorded some twenty years after she had departed this world. This means that from a biographer’s point of view, very little is actually known about the historical Biddy. But what we do know, is fascinating in itself.
Eventually Biddy became almost a mythical figure in Ireland. According to the folklorist Jeremy Harte, the process of myth-building has been going on unabated since the latter part of the 19th century, and it’s still going on today. If you Google Biddy Early, you’ll find much information about her, and there are some interesting YouTube channels where you’ll hear glowing praise of Biddy’s healing and wise-woman skills, many by women of all age groups who are delighted to have found a folk heroine in Biddy. But it is not only women who regard Biddy as remarkable; the renowned Irish storyteller and folklorist Eddie Lenihan is also an admirer of Biddy and in the early 1980s wrote a book about her, entitled: “In Search of Biddy Early”. Today, Biddy’s fame extends far and wide, and some Irish pubs are named after her. Many of Biddy’s fans nowadays are Americans, many of Irish descent. How, then, did an obscure 19th century fairy doctor from a sleepy Irish village acquire such an admirable reputation? The answer is simple: Biddy came to the attention of certain illustrious celebrities. It was a posthumous recognition. But better late than never.
Because of the industrial and social changes that were taking place in the 19th century, a romantic view of the past was taking root. One expression of this became known as the Celtic Revival. The Irish writer William Butler Yeats played a major role in the Celtic Revival by stimulating a fresh appreciation of traditional Irish literature and Irish poetry. Another notable and culturally Irish figure who was influential in the Celtic Revival was Lady Augusta Gregory. Collecting Irish folklore and folktales was a major part of developing an appreciation of Irish culture and it was Lady Gregory’s interest in this area that led her to discover Biddy Early, the wise-woman of Clare. It had come to the notice of Lady Gregory that a rather fascinating woman from County Clare had, some years before, earned a reputation far and wide as an outstanding healer, herbalist, councillor, psychotherapist and a dispenser of sound advice. In the words of the folklorist Jeremy Harte: “This is a Biddy Early who unfailingly knows about the people who come to her for help – their homes, their troubles, even what they said on the way to her cottage; she can divine their problems with the fairies and present a cure, or tell them when no cure is possible; and for all that she was in a long dispute with the local clergy. She comes across as a kind of folk saint, dispensing understanding and healing in equal quantities”.
As pointed out earlier, Biddy was born in 1798. Her parents were very poor countryfolk who lived in a place called Faha, near Feakle in County Clare. Biddy was baptised as Bridget Ellen Connors – Connors being the surname of her father John Thomas Connors. When Biddy was sixteen, her parents both died within six months of each other; her mother first, followed by her father. Biddy, for reasons unknown, then adopted her mother’s maiden name; the surname Early. Because Biddy was now an orphan and with little or no income, she could no longer afford to the pay the rent on her late parents’ smallholding. She then went to live with relatives in the northern part of County Clare.
However, it doesn’t seem to have been a very happy arrangement, on the grounds that Biddy always seemed to be “away with the fairies”, as her relatives allegedly accused her of. This could be an important clue to understanding something of Biddy’s personality. Could Biddy have been on the autistic spectrum? That would explain a possible sign of social detachment and lack of engagement; her mind would be elsewhere, such as being preoccupied with what is now described as “special interest” – a focus on one specific subject to the exclusion of everything else. Herbalism, for example, may possibly have been an obsession of Biddy’s. We also must take into account the fact that Biddy had recently lost both her parents when she was only sixteen years of age. In Biddy’s day, however, a sixteen-year-old was no longer considered a child but a fully-developed adult who would have been expected to “woman-up and get on with it”. Nowadays, however, we know that bereavement can be long-lasting and result in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Needless to say, Biddy’s stay with her relatives was short-lived and she moved on to pastures new.
At some point, Biddy most likely spent some time in the workhouse; her name is recorded in one establishment known as the House of Industry, which sounds deceptively glamorous, but must have been a hell-hole instead. For a brief time, too, Biddy earned a pittance as a domestic servant, working for a landlord by the name of Sheehy on his estate near Limerick. However, there were problems there as well. During the winter of 1816, when Biddy was eighteen years of age, she joined forces with a number of other tenants who were furious that Landlord Sheehy was raising the rent. As a consequence of such insubordination, Biddy was evicted. The same night Landlord Sheehy was found dead and three tenants were later arrested for his murder. As to whether Biddy was involved is considered unlikely, as her name does not crop up in the trial court records at Limerick. But most likely, tongues would have been wagging in the local community.
About this same time, Biddy married her first husband. His name was Pat Malley and he also came from Feakle. Pat Malley was twice Biddy’s age, which means he was around 36 years old; verging on old age by the standards of the day. Pat Malley was possibly a widower, because he already had a son whose name was John. However, Biddy soon gave birth to her own son, known as Paddy. The married couple lived in a small cottage in Feakle, and from then on, Biddy began to acquire a serious reputation as a herbalist and fairy doctor. It is on record that Biddy never accepted money for her services; her clients tended to compensate her in other ways, such as with whisky and poteen. This system of exchange would be similar to the way that tobacco and drugs are the standard currency in prisons today. Biddy’s cottage in Feakle began to acquire its own reputation: it was the go-to place for drunken parties and card-playing get-togethers.
When Biddy was 25, tragedy struck again. Her husband died and Biddy then married her stepson John. As to whether this marriage arrangement was unacceptable to Biddy’s natural-born son Paddy remains uncertain, but at that point Paddy left home and never returned. However, tragedy struck once again; in 1840 John Malley died, allegedly of a liver complaint – what nowadays would be recognised most likely as an alcohol-related disease. Biddy was again a widower at 42. Biddy’s next husband was called Tom Flannery, who was many years younger than Biddy. He was a labourer and came from Finley, also in County Clare. The couple moved to a two-roomed cottage on Dromore Hill in Kilbarron. The cottage overlooked a lake, which eventually became known as “Biddy Early’s Lake”. From her new home, Biddy continued with her herbalism and magical cures, and at some point, acquired a bottle, said to be blue and filled with some kind of dark liquid. Biddy took the bottle everywhere she went.
Needless to say, Biddy was also well-known to the priesthood of the Catholic Church. The priests took every opportunity to denounce Biddy and discourage her clients from consulting her. However, the general consensus of opinion was that Biddy was providing a valuable service to people who otherwise could not afford medical care. Opposition from the Church was probably relentless, because in 1865 Biddy was arrested under the Witchcraft Act of 1586 and brought for trial at Ennis. However, for some strange reason, those who had agreed to testify against Biddy backed down and Biddy was then released for lack of evidence. It could be argued that supporters of Biddy leaned on the accusers. In addition to that, perhaps many good Catholics in the neighbourhood didn’t think all that highly of the priesthood; the priests tended to have their own vices. In 1868, her husband Tom Flannery died. By this time, Biddy was 70 years old. However, the following year, Biddy married yet again; this time to Thomas Meaney, who was nearly 40 years younger than she was. It is said that he agreed to marry Biddy in exchange for a cure. Clearly, Biddy’s latest husband was not in very good health at all, because he died within a year of the marriage.
In her lifetime, Biddy had married four times and all four husbands had “died on her”, as the saying goes. Consequently, it has been suggested in some suspicious quarters that Biddy’s expert knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants had seen off all four husbands, and even possibly her own father when Biddy was only sixteen. After all, say the cynics, she immediately renounced his name and adopted her mother’s maiden name instead. All that is nothing more than speculation. But when one becomes a mythological figure, then one is fair game to all and sundry. We will never know the real Biddy Early, any more than one can know the real King Arthur or Robin Hood. By 1874 Biddy was on her deathbed. It is said that her local parish priest Father Connellan gave her the last rites. But equally importantly, he was also responsible for taking Biddy’s magic bottle away and – so it is said – throwing the "offensive" container into the nearby lake, which is now known as Biddy Early’s Lake.
It is said that a fellow by the name of Pat Loughnane, a neighbour of Biddy’s at the time of her passing, arranged for her to be buried in Feakle Graveyard, County Clare. Other sources insist that the burial site of Biddy is unknown. Biddy’s cottage can be seen today, but is currently in ruins. In 2011, the owner put it up for sale but it seems there were no takers. Nowadays, a trail leading to the ruined cottage through woodland is a popular route taken by New Age and witchy pilgrims. Biddy Early lives on and has captured the imagination of a new generation of admirers.