Witch or Healer? Biddy Early (1798 – 1872)

Biddy Early. (stairnaheireann.net)

By Rosemary Rogers, Contributor
August / September 2016

Healer, Herbalist, Clairvoyant… or Witch? Biddy Early was a true “alpha female” writes Rosemary Rogers in her latest exploration of “Wild Irish Women.”

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For as long as anyone can remember, herbal medicine offered a cure for the sick and a wellness regime for the healthy. Herbalists seek remedies in nature to create medicines from herbs, plants, seeds, berries, bark, roots, and flowers. In countries where money was scarce, doctors too inaccessible and too expensive, the sick had no choice but to turn to herbalists and healers. Nineteenth-century Ireland was the poorest country in Europe, diseases were rampant and the Irish, always open to spiritual and unconventional solutions, embraced an herbalist and healer, Biddy Early of County Clare. Biddy’s cures of humans and animals were legend as was her fame as a mystic, clairvoyant, and boisterous bawd.

They came from all of Ireland to Biddy’s house “beyond the little humpy bridge” for her cures, advice and prophesies. She was revered by W.B. Yeats as “the wisest of the wise women” and honored in his poem, “The Shadowy Waters.”

Wise Biddy Early called the wicked wood:

Seven odours, seven murmurs, seven woods

I had not eyes like those enchanted eyes…

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She was born Bridget Connors in 1798, one of the bloodiest years in Irish history as Crown forces, with savage and unprecedented brutality, ended the rebellion of the United Irishmen. While still a young teen Biddy was orphaned then immediately evicted. Homeless, she worked in a poorhouse (euphemistically called the House of Industry) and endured the Great Famine, all hardships that forged her indomitable spirit.

Throughout her life she battled landlords, police, doctors and especially, priests. A true alpha female, she took her mother’s name “Early” – her gifts, she believed, descended from the matrilineal line – rejecting the surnames of her father and husbands. And there were four husbands, one of whom was her stepson, and the final husband was 40 years younger. She outlived them all.

Biddy’s gifts were so extraordinary that an entire mythology grew around her. She was thought a descendent of the goddess Danu who, like Biddy, had a head of vibrant red hair that could be seen from far away. Danu was the mother of the Tuatha de Danann, a tribe steeped in magic and healing who ruled Ireland four thousand year ago. Over time, the Danann became the sidhe, the faerie folk or the Good People who lived in a parallel but invisible universe. The Good People taught Biddy’s mother their language and skills which she passed on to her daughter who spent seven years of her childhood “away with the faeries.” Faerie folk, explained Biddy, have a need to share their secrets and wisdom.

Biddy took her work seriously, collecting herbs before the sun rose, the best time to catch the morning dew. She believed that dew, arriving as nature transformed from dark to light, from moonlight to dawning light, held medicinal and spiritual powers. This view was shared, 400 years earlier, by Paracelsus, the alchemist called the “Father of Modern Medicine” although it was doubtful Biddy heard of the medieval physician. Her potions combined dew, herbs (specific to the particular malady), liquid from her magic well, and a dash of holy water – all mixed in her famous Blue Bottle. Her Blue Bottle also worked as her crystal ball helping her see the past, present and future. There are many versions of how Biddy attained the Blue Bottle, the most popular being that it was a gift from her dead son, Tom, who won a hurling match over the not-very-athletic faeries. He returned from the dead to give his mother his prize, the bottle.

The remains of Biddy Early’s Cottage.

The remains of Biddy Early’s cottage in Co. Clare.

Biddy was hardly a biddy – she was a drinking, smoking, card-playing, sexual woman who maintained her youthful good looks and, thanks to herbal makeup, her rosy complexion. She could still put a “glamour” on young men even as she approached her seventies. She welcomed everyone at her door, refused payment for her treatments and accepted only gifts of food and poitín, a powerful and often lethal home brew of which she was especially fond. Her cottage became the place to be in Clare, an odd but fun-filled destination for pilgrims.

When farmers saw their animals, their only hope against starvation, fall sick from evil spells cast by faeries in a huff, they turned to Biddy. Only she could liaise between the farmers and the Good People and only she could instruct the locals on how to avoid faerie forts. Only she could offer charms and incantations to save horses and livestock.

She was nothing if not forthright and her temper was as legendary as her cures. Having been evicted at a young age, Biddy hated landlords, especially her own. When he tried to rid himself of his celebrated tenant, she told him, “you’ll be leaving before I do…both in and out.” He soon died in a fire, half in and half out a window. A thieving landlord evicted and burned down the house of Mick the Moonlighter who then shot and killed the Englishman. With police and dogs on his trail, Mick went to Biddy who used her magic to help him escape to America.

It wasn’t only the poor and afflicted who sought her out. The Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell once visited her, wondering how he would fare in the upcoming Clare election of 1828. She predicted, successfully, his victory. Her client ushered in the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, which changed the course of Irish history. It was a triumph for Catholics but trouble for Biddy. The Church began exerting its new power, taking an authoritarian control over the lives of the deeply religious but illiterate peasants. Now there was a new world order that did not include a foulmouthed, whiskey-swilling, herb-touting sorceress who avoided Mass. So began Biddy’s war with the priests.

Bilious clerics denounced her from the pulpit, deeming visits to her a mortal sin. Even giving directions to her house could land a Catholic in Purgatory. They claimed she was a witch, a familiar of the devil whose four husbands died sudden and mysterious deaths, even pointing out that her young fourth husband languished in bed until he died after only months of marriage. (Truth be told, the spouse was too fond of wood alcohol.) When a priest came to her house demanding she cease and desist her practice, she spat on his horse. The nag promptly bolted, throwing off the man of the cloth mid-rant.

Nothing, it seemed, could stop her faithful from making sinful visits to her cottage. Desperate, the Church, the law, and the medical establishment resurrected a 300-year-old law to try her for witchcraft. In previous centuries this statute had executed 50,000 women for practicing the “dark arts.” A lesser woman would have been terrified but not Biddy – she knew her clientele would stand their ground against the establishment. They did, saying her work was for good, not evil. As no one would testify against her, the case was thrown out of court.

In the end, there was a truce. A dying Biddy, rosary around her neck, asked for the Last Rites. After the priest administered the sacrament, he threw her Blue Bottle in the lake. Twenty-seven priests served at her funeral mass and the parish priest asked his flock to pray for the repose of the soul of Biddy Early, whom he described as a “saint who walked in our midst.”

Most of what we know about Biddy has been passed down through the oral tradition. She was dead only 20 years when Lady Augusta Gregory began collecting stories of her powers for her book on Irish folklore. Much later a long-standing rumor about Biddy was spread and still believed: she put a curse on Clare’s hurling team that prevented them from winning the All-Ireland cup until 1995. It appeared the team wouldn’t give her a lift to the finals in 1932, some 60 years after her death.

Today Biddy is seen as a visionary, a woman truly ahead of her time. Until quite recently, the medical profession was dismissive, even suspicious, of herbalism but now herbal treatment is recommended by healthcare practitioners of every discipline for ailments ranging from dandruff to drug addiction. Herbal extracts, tinctures, capsules and tablets, essential oils and teas proliferate in drug stores, supermarkets, and the Internet.

Her former cottage, though it lies in ruin, is a popular tourist attraction. Seanchaís (storytellers) celebrate a céilí there on April 30, the Celtic festival of Bealtain, the night of the faeries. The fun is followed by a search for the Blue Bottle – a fruitless quest since everyone knows the faeries took it back when Biddy passed on to the Otherworld. Biddy has lent her name to numerous pubs, a folk group, seeds, a sports team, beer, and a plant, “Biddy Early” won second prize at the High Times Cannabis Cup in 2003 earning praise for its “unfamiliar earthy scent with a sweet candy taste which gives a surprisingly pleasant and powerful high.” ♦

19 Responses to “Witch or Healer? Biddy Early (1798 – 1872)”

  1. I would have loved to have met Biddy what a strong women to have stood up to the church,landlords etc. I hope the expression “that old Biddy’ wasn’t meant for her lol

  2. Marie says:

    Bravo for Biddy, may her spirit live on always.

    • Donna Early says:

      She has lived on! I’m an Early myself and I do the same thing she did.

      • Sara says:

        I’m an Early as well and a psychic medium and healer as are my cousins. Feel free to email me. We have just about traced our family to Biddy. We have so much Early history maybe you and I can figure it out – you are probably a long lost cousin ? my Mother has many records and Early photos. We would be happy to share information with you.

        • Patti Grace says:

          Hello-
          If you’re so moved would it be possible to connect for some of your sage vision work? I am weary for connection with sisters in spirit.
          Blessings for our continued sacred journey trudging this earthly plain.
          _/\_
          ~ l ~
          o
          Patti Grace

  3. Would it have helped any if she was an old teen?
    50,,000 witches slain in Ireland. First I’ve heard of it. What’s your source?

    Interesting about Catholic Emancipation resulting in oppression of the people.

    Suggest you change name of Magazine to Irish American Woman as that is what it seems to be becoming.

    With such a chancy article as this no wonder you conclude with pot. I thought shamrock was our national plant. You ladies have changed that now?

    • Shane Broderick says:

      There isn’t a source, it’s garbage. You could count the amount of witch trials and executions in Ireland on half of one hand. This article is all over the place. Every time you think it’s setting itself right it plummets into nonsense.

    • Valora says:

      Hmmm … I know this is about Ireland and the Irish, but the Catholic Church didn’t exist JUST in Ireland. The 50,000 dead ‘witches’ wasn’t the number killed IN IRELAND (as you seem to assume) … it’s the number of ‘witches’ the Catholic Church had killed across their whole domain. You may want to go back and read it … author doesn’t claim these all happened in Ireland.

  4. James Mason says:

    By casting off the ‘societal yokes’ we are ALL able to do what Biddy did ..
    Our Sovereignty is our most important and powerful ‘tool’ ..
    Don’t give it away ..

  5. Dan Maher says:

    My Red haired mother from County Clare ,Early /Connor stock also had amazing clairvoyant skills… twasnt just Biddy in that gene pool

  6. Kathleen Guarino says:

    Wish I knew her! She and Meabh are my Irish heroines. I would love to visit her cottage in Clare.

  7. COACH PADDY SAVAGE says:

    This a good story that has been written. However, I believe it was my great grandfather, Patrick Loughnane, who brought Biddy Early to the RC Church for the last rites and it was himself who threw the blue bottle in the water. It was Dr. Bill Loughnane of Feakle who restored Biddy Early’s house and it is his son, Billy Loughnane, who owns the house and land. And, it was Patrick’s great grandson, Ger Loughnane, who coached the Clare Hurlers to the All Ireland Championships and broke Biddy Early’s curse. My wife, Melissa, claims that it was Biddy Early who saved us when we were in a head-on crash in 2014 that completely destroyed the 4 door car we were in.

  8. John Mc Mahon says:

    I grew up I Feakle back in the 60/70 s . Biddy would in my opinion be a famous psychic / medium in today’s world if alive .

    • This is a lovely read. Thanks Rosemaire. I was up in Feakle fishing only yesterday with my son and we have visited her cottage in its derelict state in the past. Biddy’s memory lives on and I am researching her for a Ted talk I am composing so long may that continue. She was her own woman, ahead of her time, a widow like myself and not afraid to take on any institutions. I salute her!

  9. Sara says:

    My mother’s maiden name is Early, we are quite sure we are related as our Early line was where she is from. We are still trying to find the very link, but that is difficult. I’m also a psychic medium and Reiki Master. My cousins are also healers. I’ve had 4 husbands, my daughter is named after a Irish Fae.
    I just learned about Biddy Wilson yesterday from my mother researching my psychic heritage within the years of research she has conducted. I am enchanted with learning more about Biddy as an ancestor. Her life is much like pieces of mine.

  10. Patrick (Paddy) J Savage says:

    Dear Rosemary, Biddy Early lived in a house near the end of the Old Feakle Road in Baroue before moving to the house in Kilbarron that was owned by my great grandfather Patrick Loughnane. It was in her earlier houses that she had trouble with the owners and was evicted. I believe, as do others, that Biddy Early and my great grandfather were good friends. As I said in an earlier message, it was Patrick Loughnane who brought Biddy to get the last rites at the church. He then brought her back to Kilbarron where she died that night. Biddy is buried in the graveyard in Feakle in an unmarked grave. All the best, Paddy Savage

    Also, in my earlier message I said that the head on car collision was in 2014 when it actually occurred in 2014.

  11. Tami (O’Neil) Hildebrand says:

    Hello someone just told me about Biddy. Fascinating. My 4x grandparents came to the US in the mid 1800’s. They were from county Clare. I don’t have any info beyond them showing up in the states. I can’t even find where they came in. Although we believe it was New York but not Ellis island.

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