The Wise Woman of Clare
On the afternoon of 22nd April 1874 a lady called Biddy Early died in her small, two-roomed, mud-walled cottage that overlooked Lake Kilbarron, in Feakle, County Clare. Outside of Ireland she remains a virtual unknown, but in Ireland she was famous in her own lifetime, especially since her life story was first published in 1903. Since that time her reputation has grown, embellished with dark tales of witchcraft that continue to be associated with her. Such was the woman’s fame that in the 1970s attempts were made to secure funding for a newly renovated cottage on the site. These efforts, however, failed because no government agency would undertake its financial upkeep. Unfortunately, the old cottage fell into a state of ruin, in which it remains, while its former owner was buried in an unmarked grave.
Biddy’s fame for cures made the woman a household name throughout her long-life and, at some point in that long-life, she acquired a bottle made with dark glass, which contained an even darker, healing liquid. There are numerous tales from a wide variety of sources that attempt to tell the story of how she came into possession of that ‘magic bottle. They all agree, however, that its origin was with the ‘Good People’, for it was frequently used for the purposes of divining future events (Scrying). At the same time Biddy was famed for her mixing of herbal cures in this and other bottles that appeared to cure illness in animals as well as in people.
She would gather herbs and plants before sunrise, with the morning dew still shining upon them. It was widely believed by such curing women that the dew was a secretin of the light of dawn, which was a key element in the idea of eternal life. As she progressed through her later years it is claimed that Biddy became a cranky and absent-minded old woman. This attitude and the success of her potions led many to believe that she was practicing witchcraft from her small cottage. In fact, Biddy was a relatively generous woman who rarely accepted payment for her services, unless it was a gift of food. She did not, however, accept those who scorned her craft and did not believe in the ‘Good People.’
Biddy’s home became known as a place of great merriment and neighbours would frequently come to the house for a drink, in the knowledge that she always had a plentiful supply of donated poteen and other spirits. But these merry social gatherings also fell foul of the local quality folk, including the Catholic clergy, the medical profession, landlords, the police and the judiciary. They were already annoyed by the fact that Feakle already had a reputation for being the most superstitious places in Ireland, which was being strengthened every day by Biddy’s presence. At this time too, ‘Pishogues’ (Sorcerers) of various types were often employed to bring bad luck to a rival or enemy, and even today the practice still exists in parts of this island. In fact, ‘wise-women’ (Spéirbhean) such as Biddy, were often sought to help lift curses and bad-luck from the poor. These women would also be employed as special mediators to act in any disagreements that may arise with the fairies over the violation of their ancient land rights. It was a task for which Biddy was well qualified for it was said that she had spent some of her youth living among the fairies, or good people (Sidhe). In fact, there were some neighbours who insisted that Biddy, her brother and her only son, Paddy, were actually ‘Changelings’ or ‘Away with the Fairies.’
Biddy and her practices also came into conflict with the Catholic Church and the members of the medical profession. The powerful Catholic Church in Ireland was totally and vehemently opposed to many of the traditional arts because they believed them to be dangerous remnants of a pagan Ireland. The ability of the Church to oppose wise women like Biddy Early were severely restricted during the Penal times. But, after the introduction of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the church slowly began to re-emerge as a political power in the land. In many of the folktales that surround the person of Biddy Early there are many examples of confrontations with various clergymen. One story tells of a fiery young curate from County Tipperary who made his way to Biddy’s cottage to chastise her, only to find himself frozen in his saddle near Annasala Bridge. Only after he had taken back all the oaths that he had sworn to her and apologised the curate was released by using three blades of dry grass to strike the right shoulder of the curate’s horse with the trinitarian blessing – “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” In fact, it was said that Biddy always invoked the ‘Holy Trinity’ before handing over her remedies to the sick people. Furthermore, despite her difficulties with the clergy, she always advised those who visited her to listen to the advice of the priests and clergy.
One famous visitor to Biddy’s cottage was the ‘Great Emancipator’, Daniel O’Connell, who was the Member of Parliament for Clare. But, despite her popularity among the people, she found herself in conflict with medical people, which formed the basis for several stories associated with Biddy Early. It was said, for example, that she rented a cottage from a certain Doctor Murphy from Limerick, who wanted to evict her for non-payment of rent though it seems more likely that professional jealousy was the real reason. The policemen and Sheriff that were sent to evict her from the small cottage near Kilbarron Lake, were ordered by her to ‘Stay where you are.’ Rumour had it that the words were given to her in an apparition by her dead husband Pat. The men were rooted to the spot and it was two hours before she released them. But another version of the same story says that Biddy warned the men sent to evict her with the words, “Whoever is the first to put a bar to this house, he will remember it.” When one of the men put a crowbar between two stones in the wall he fell awkwardly and broke his thigh. Taking hold of their wounded colleague the men ran off in terror.
Doctor Murphy, however, would not be denied and he ensured that Biddy was forced into the Ennis Workhouse. Soon after this, Murphy’s own house in Limerick mysteriously caught fire and only a charred foot was recovered from the ruins in which the Doctor himself was trapped. It is said that Biddy warned him beforehand what his fate would be, and he refused to listen. But this was not Biddy’s last encounter with the medical profession. There was a Doctor Folan from Ennis who came to argue with Biddy but found that he could not find his way home although he knew that road well. Yet, in fairness to Biddy Early, she did not seek conflict and neither did she guarantee anyone a cure. In fact, it was not unknown for Biddy to refuse to see some patients if she felt that they were destined to die. In some cases, Biddy would give a potion to calm an anxious relative that, it is said, would break if death was inevitable. The whole idea of looking into the future was an integral part of the legend surrounding Biddy, and it wasn’t unknown for her to advise the local farmers about those stealing their or sheep and resolving family disputes.
From the historical record we know that the nineteenth century was a period of bitter agrarian violence in the County Clare. It was a time when gangs of desperate men roamed the land under the names of ‘White Boys’, ‘Ribbonmen’ and ‘Moonlighters’, seeking brutal revenge against the landlords for the large number of evictions that were happening. In 1816, Biddy was in service on the Carheen Estate, which belonged to a landlord called Sheehy. It appears that she was a participant in the raising of a petition against the raising of rents and she was given a court order to prepare for eviction from her home. In response, Biddy warned Sheehy that his bones would never lie in hallowed ground. Later, three of Sheehy’s tenants led by a man called Touhy killed the landlord and burned his house to the ground. Biddy, however, was able to advise the men that a potential witness for the Crown, a woman called Nell Canny, should not be harmed, as she might prove herself useful to them. Subsequently, Nell, who was a maid on the estate, spoke in court and told them it was her and not the accused men who had dropped hot coals on the grass the cottage. Later, in a case that involved the shooting to death of Alderman William Sheehy, brother of the same man killed by the Touhy gang, Biddy was able to advise the assassin to take a suitable escape route to America through Liscannor and Kilrush, which would avoid the ‘Peelers’ (Police). Biddy’s current husband at the time, Tom Flannery, was before the courts in 1860 for conspiracy in the same murder and lodged in Ennis gaol. The local press of the day named him and described him as being the husband of ‘The Witch’, Biddy Early. Because the chief culprits in the case had vanished the case against Tom Flannery was dropped.
There are rumours that in 1865 Biddy was tried for witchcraft, under an old law enacted in 1586. But this story has never been proved and Betty was certainly not convicted of any offence. Another surprise that she would play upon her neighbours was that before she died, in April 1874, she asked a neighbour man, Patrick Loughnane, to fetch a priest to her bedside who would give her the last rites. It is said that she asked the priest who attended her, Father Andrew Connellan, to throw her ‘magic bottle’ into a body of water that would later become known as ‘Biddy’s lake’.
Rumour has it that when this larger-than-life character died, twenty-seven priests attended her funeral. Furthermore, the next Sunday, the parish priest asked that all his parishioners should pray for the happy repose of the soul of Biddy Early and described her as a saintly woman. We wonder just what Biddy would have said if she had heard such a tribute.
For Further information you could consult the following:
- E. Lenihan, “In search of Biddy Early”; Cork, 1987.
- M. Ryan, “Biddy Early—wise woman of Clare”; Cork, 1978.
- D. Stewart, “Biddy Early—famous ‘witch’ of Clare”, Parts I & II; Limerick Chronicle, 3rd and 10th October 1953.