Biddy Early was born on Faha Ridge (na Póirt in Irish) to John Thomas Connors, a poor farmer, and his wife Ellen Connors, née Early, who often used her maiden name even after she was married. Biddy was baptised Bridget Ellen Connors but later adopted the Early name.
As a child, Biddy wore clothes that her mother made by weaving fibres from the flax that was grown nearby. She spent most of her time alone and was said to "talk to the fairies". She was good humoured and showed a keen intellect but, like most people of her time, she did not learn to read or write. With her family and friends she spoke Irish, but she also had some knowledge of English. She may also have spoken Shelta, the language of Irish Travellers, but it is unknown where or how she would have learned it.
Ellen Early was well known for her exceptional herbal cures and taught her daughter many of her recipes. These recipes were regarded as family secrets, as was common for the time. When Biddy was 16 years old, her mother died of malnutrition, leaving Biddy in charge of the household. Just six months after her mother's death, Biddy's father died of typhus. Unable to pay the rent, Biddy had no choice but to leave her childhood home. Little is known about this period of her life, but for the next two years she probably wandered the county roads, working where she could along the way and experimenting with herbal cures.
When Biddy was 18, she began working for a landlord in Carheen near Limerick, but she was often taunted for her aloof behaviour. She left after a short time and went to live in the local poorhouse, where she was treated even more poorly. During this period, she would often walk into Gurteenreagh on market days, and it was there that she met her first husband, Pat Malley of Feakle. The couple faced a number of obstacles: Pat was twice Biddy's age and already had a son named John, and Biddy had no dowry to offer. However, there were advantages to the relationship as well, such as the security that Pat could offer, so they married. After their marriage, Biddy gave birth to a son and they named him Paddy. This would be Biddy's only child.
The family lived in a three-room cottage in Feakle, and this is where Biddy began to earn a reputation for her cures. Biddy never requested money for her services, but allowed her clients to decide how to compensate her. Whiskey and poitín were common trade items in those days, so her house was frequently stocked with an abundance of alcohol and eventually became known as a place where people could go to drink and play cards. This ready availability of poorly distilled alcohol may have contributed to the death of Pat Malley five years into the marriage. Biddy became a widow for the first time at age 25.
Biddie married her stepson, John Malley, shortly after Pat's death. John was closer to her age than Pat had been, and the two of them got along well. During this marriage, Biddy's fame was increasing but her family life was frequently disrupted by large numbers of people coming and going at various times of the day and night. Her son, Paddy, left home some years after her marriage to John and never returned. John died in 1840 due to a liver ailment that developed from excessive consumption of alcohol, and Biddy was a widow again at 42.
Biddy's third marriage was to a man named Tom Flannery, who was younger than she was. Tom was a labourer and native of Finley, Quin, County Clare. The couple moved into a two-room cottage on Dromore Hill in Kilbarron. It was situated over a lake, which came to be known as Biddy Early's Lake. Biddy's fame peaked during this period and her house became even busier and more crowded.
Work and fame
When people didn't get the help they wanted from the priests or doctors, or if they couldn't afford to see a doctor, they would turn to Biddy. Her cures did not only consist of applying herbs to a wound or feeding a recipe to the sick. She was insightful and intuitive, which helped her to recognise and understand people's needs and choose appropriate yet creative measures to address them. People even thought that she could tell if someone had visited a doctor before consulting her. They believed that seeing a doctor showed a lack of faith in Biddy's abilities, so she would not treat them.
Biddy was also called upon occasionally to treat animals. During her time, the death of an animal could lead to an inability to complete required tasks and cause a farm to fail. This was important because it could, in turn, lead to eviction and poverty and, in extreme cases, loss of human life. For the same reasons, farmers also asked Biddy to help with other problems related to daily life, such as restoring a spring well or fixing a problem with the farm's butter production.
At some point Biddy acquired a bottle that became as famous as she was. She would frequently look into the bottle, which contained some sort of dark liquid, when considering possible cures for her visitors. She took the bottle everywhere, and it was even with her when she died.
Biddy's cures are the main reason she became well-known, but her strong personality was also an important factor. According to one biographer, "In many ways, what Biddy is purported to have done is what an oppressed peasantry would themselves wish to have done if they had dared", because she was independent and refused to be "browbeaten by [the priests' and landlord's] authoritarian ways".
<< Is it permissible to add a family lore story here? Biddy was my 1st cousin 5x removed. The story is she met a cousin ("The Dasher", an O'Shaughnessy of local fame as well) on the road and told them to run home as their father was sick. She had no way to know this in the communications of the day. She was in fact, right, and "The Dashers" father passed away but only after he was able to see him. There seems to be truth about her clairvoyance. >>
Although the Catholic Church, which had a strong influence in the lives of many peasants, did not approve of Biddy's activities, she encouraged people to listen to the priests. The priests openly disapproved of Biddy and discouraged people from visiting her, yet some of them secretly visited her. In one story, a priest disguised himself and called on Biddy in hope of learning some of her secret cures. She, however, knew what he wanted and dismissed him immediately.
The peasantry believed that Biddy was good, and some believed that the real reason the priests didn't like her was that they "thought if Biddy wasn't [practicing medicine] the people'd be going with five shillings an' ten shillings to themselves". This notion is repeated frequently in interviews with those who had personal knowledge of Biddy. Another contributing factor must have been the peasant-class folklore and mysticism that surrounded her. While Biddy was from a class of small tenant farmers, the priests were usually from more comfortable backgrounds and placed emphasis on education, so they were "only too anxious to leave behind them the half-lit world of peasant lore and herbal medicine".
In 1865 Biddy was accused of witchcraft under a 1586 statute and was brought before a court in Ennis. This would have been unusual in the 1860s. The few who agreed to testify against her later backed out, and she was released due to lack of sufficient evidence. Most of the peasant population supported her.
Old age and death
In 1868, Tom Flannery died, leaving Biddy widowed for the third time at 70. In 1869, she was married for the fourth and final time to Thomas Meaney, a man in his 30s, in exchange for a cure. They lived together in her cottage in Kilbarron until he died, within a year of their marriage, from over-consumption of alcohol.
Biddy died in poverty in April 1874. A priest was present at her death, and her friend and neighbour, Pat Loughnane, arranged for her burial in Feakle Graveyard in County Clare. At her funeral a local priest remarked, "We thought we had a demon amongst us in poor Biddy Early, but we had a saint, and we did not know it". Her funeral was poorly attended because most people at this time were still afraid that their presence at her funeral would be misunderstood. Even many years after her death, people in County Clare rarely spoke of her. There is no marker on her grave so the exact location is not known, although some local people claim to know where it is.
The last generation of people who had personal contact with Biddy ended in the 1950s. The stories that persist today originated in the strong oral tradition on the west coast of Ireland. Later, Lady Gregory compiled a valuable collection of stories 20 years after Biddy's death, and Meda Ryan and Edmund Lenihan wrote books that they based on interviews with many people whose parents or grandparents had personal contact with Biddy.
Biddy accomplished a great deal of success in the face of oppression and hardship, during a time when her religion and heritage were the subject of discrimination by the rulers of Ireland. The best evidence of her success is the fact that she is the only individual Irish healer from previous centuries who is remembered today despite Ireland's long history of folk medicine. The cottage where she lived has been restored and is now a minor tourist attraction in the area.
- Moll Anthony
- Cunning folk in Britain
- Curse of Biddy Early, afflicting Clare GAA and Galway GAA.
- The Fisherwife of Palermo
- Karin Svensdotter
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (February 2009)|
- Lenihan, Edmund. In Search of Biddy Early. The Mercier Press. Cork. 1987.
- Biddy Early's death is reported in the newspaper "Irish American Weekly" as having occurred on 1 June 1872. Ref: "Irish American Weekly" Published NYC, NY on 29 June 1872, page 3
- Augusta, Lady Gregory. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. Putnam's Sons, New York; 1920.
- Ryan, Meda. Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare. Mercier Press, Dublin; 1978.
- Yeats, William Butler. Witches and Wizards and Irish Folk-Lore. Printed in Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, collected and arranged by Lady Gregory (1920; rpt. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970).