Saturday, October 2, 2010

Witch or woman ahead of her time?

My Twitter handle is 'Biddy Early' - I chose it because I wasn't sure what exactly Twitter was when I joined and wanted to depersonalise my account. And I've always thought Biddy Early - a local 'witch' whose name was often invoked to send children scurrying to their beds when I was growing up in Munster - might have been more misunderstood than 'evil'.
Here's a little piece I put together for the Irish Independent on the myth of Biddy Early... and a stab at the truth behind the legend.

Harry Potter and his merry magic-makers have given witchcraft and wizardry a positive makeover. A few short centuries ago, being called a witch was far from desirable. In fact it could sign your death warrant. At least 50,000 Europeans, mostly women, were killed in a period between the 15th and 18th centuries on suspicion of practising “the dark arts”.

Historians now understand that religious mania, repressive social mores and other factors conspired to send these women to the hangman or the bonfire. Some were condemned on the accusing word of a jealous neighbour or, cruelly, because they may have had a mental or physical disability.

All in all, it didn’t do to be different. Women who stood out in society were to be feared. Such was the fate of the Co Clare woman Biddy Early, known to some as a talented herbalist and healer – and to others, Ireland’s most famous witch.

Even though she died over 130 years ago, the name Biddy Early still sends a frisson through certain of the older generations who grew up with tales of her spells and hexes. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only child in Munster to have scuttled off to bed with the threat of Biddy Early, rather than the bogeyman, coming to snatch any child found staying up too late.

Historian Meda Ryan writes in her biography, Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare: “During my period of research for this book, I constantly came up against wide-eyed amazement: ‘Do you think you should? Do you think it’s alright? How well you’re not afraid!’ were some of the reactions.”

Legend would have it that Biddy was an entity worth fearing. She had four husbands
and outlived them all. She was said to converse with the fairy folk. She had a magic glass bottle that she used to foretell deaths and disasters. Her fury could freeze a horse in its tracks; in a good mood, she could save you or your prized livestock from death’s door.

Most notoriously of all, to her fellow county folk anyway, she allegedly put a curse on the Clare hurling team that stopped them winning the All-Ireland for over 80 years.

Perhaps it’s time for Biddy Early to get a makeover of her own. She was a flesh and blood person, born in Faha, near Feakle in east Clare, in 1798 to poor smallholders Tom and Ellen Connors. Ellen’s maiden name was Early, which Biddy apparently inherited – along with her mother’s talent for concocting herbal remedies for common ailments.

Folklorists collecting oral histories in the area from the late 1800s onwards were told that even as a young child, Biddy was marked out by her bright red hair. There were various superstitions about foxy-headded ladies. It was bad luck to meet a red-haired woman in the morning; the unannounced arrival of one in your dairy could stop your butter from churning properly. (The prejudice is thought to have come from the fact that red hair was introduced to the Irish gene pool by invading Vikings).

Biddy was also said to be in regular conversation with the fairy folk. Whether the little people were Biddy’s imaginary friends or not, at this time rural Ireland was awash in superstition and fear generated by turbulent social and political conditions.

Biddy had been born into the year when British Crown forces violently quashed a rebellion of the United Irishmen, killing up to 30,000 Irish people. Like most tenants existing on a small patch of land, the Connors made an insecure living and feared being evicted by their landlord. When Ellen died at 16 – legend later had it that Biddy asked her mother one day if she was not feeling well, and Ellen fell critically ill that very night – and Tom died six months later, Biddy was alone in a very inhospitable world for a young, uneducated Catholic girl.

She could no longer pay the rent and went to relatives in north Clare. That didn’t work out as apparently they didn’t take too kindly to Biddy’s reputation of being “away with the fairies”. The teenage Biddy ended up on the roads, turning up at one point as a domestic servant on the Clare estate of a Limerick landlord called Sheehy. At another time, her name went on the books in the workhouse in Ennis known euphemistically as the House of Industry. If Biddy later garnered a reputation for being a tough cookie, it’s not entirely surprising given the harsh nature of her early life.

Sheehy was a hard taskmaster and Biddy would have worked long hours at menial tasks but it was here that she was taught to read and write by another worker whose father had been a hedge school teacher. She also began to become known locally for her herbal cures, receiving visitors to her cottage who were looking for cures for various ailments.

The winter of 1916 brought more hardship for the then 18-year-old Biddy. After joining with other hard-pressed tenants of Sheehy to petition him to stop raising the rent to unsustainable levels, she was evicted for her insolence. That night, three of the other evicted tenants murdered Sheehy and burned his body. Although she was not mentioned in the subsequent trial for Sheehy’s murder at Limerick court, it became part of her growing notoriety that Biddy Early had warned Sheehy of his impending doom as he threw her out of her cottage.

The next time Biddy pops up in official records is in her early 20s when she marries a much older widower called Pat Malley, a farmer from near her native Feakle. Settled at last, she built up a solid reputation as a herbalist among her neighbours and also gave birth to at least one son, Paddy. Malley died when she was 25 and she went on to marry his son – her stepson – John.

The issue of Biddy’s husbands is one of those that marked her out as outside the pale of ‘normal’ society. John was also to die at a young age, and Biddy married twice more. Scandalously the last of these was a man in his 30s, while Biddy was 71. All four died while married to Biddy, something that obviously aroused suspicion in certain parts.

Biddy’s biographer Meda Ryan points out that there was probably a very banal and understandable connection between the deaths of John Malley and his father Pat. It was certified that John died of a “liver ailment”, and both father and son been known to be fond of the drink that Biddy’s wellwishers brought as presents. Healers traditionally didn’t accept money as payment for their remedies, believing that to charge for their talents would lead to their healing powers being taken away from them.

While Margaret Murphy, a woman whose father was a regular caller to Biddy Early’s house, told folklorists that “people were always bringing items like batches of bread, flour, home-made butter, as well as the drink”, the alcohol was generally low-grade whiskey and lethal poteen.

“Unfortunately, he drank more than was good for him,” writes Ryan of Pat, “because the house was never without bottles of poteen which people brought as gifts for cures.”

Biddy’s subsequent husbands, Tom Flannery and Thomas Meaney, also died after short illnesses but in their cases, it seems it was the age gap between them and the much older Biddy that caused consternation.

The Limerick Chronicle newspaper carried a fairly salacious report about her final marriage on July 29, 1869: “We understand that a marriage of an extraordinary kind was celebrated this week in Limerick by one of the parish priests, that of an old woman known as ‘Biddy Early’ who resides near Tulla, and who, among the peasantry, has the reputation of a witch or sorceress, who could cure all kinds of diseases, and such was her fascinating power over a fine young man… that she succeeded in inducing him to become her fourth husband.”

An openly sexual woman and Ireland’s first ‘cougar’ at that? She was clearly in league with the devil.

“I always think of Biddy as a very intelligent woman,” says Jane O’Brien, who recounts the tale of Biddy Early on her historical walking tours of Ennis. “She apparently made a very good living out of what she did.

“The police didn’t like her and the church didn’t like her – I always think she was a bit of a rebel. For a woman at that time especially, she went her own way. She used to drink and smoke and had four husbands so clearly she was a bit of a character.”

The connections with drink and general ‘high’ spirits continues today. There are Irish-themed pubs named after Biddy Early in far-flung cities from New York to Stuttgart and an, ahem, herbal plant called ‘Biddy Early’ won second prize at the High Times Cannabis Cup in 2003.

Far from being a devil-worshipper, Biddy was said to be quite spiritual and many believe she was psychic. Legend grew up around a famed blue bottle that she carried with her and which the fairies were supposed to given her son Paddy after he won a hurling match for them. She apparently used the bottle as a sort of crystal ball to predict future events – politician Daniel O’Connell famously visited her in 1828 to ask her advice on seeking election in Clare that year.

The bottle was thrown by a local priest into Kilbarron lake behind Biddy’s cottage on her death (although ‘authentic’ blue Biddy Early bottles pop up for sale on the eBay auction website from time to time).

With or without her bottle, her powers of healing - or at least the following and fame she had attracted because of her reputation as such - alarmed the Catholic Church. She was denounced from the pulpit and, understandably, stopped attending Mass. A Limerick doctor questioned her methods and in 1865, she was brought before a court in Ennis charged under the 1586 Witchcraft Statute. The case was dismissed “due to lack of sufficient evidence against the accused” because the prosecution couldn’t find a witness to speak out against her.

The interesting thing about the woman is that although she lived an extraordinary life in context of her social status and gender, she never really courted personal fame in the way the clergy suggested she did. When two separate men named racehorses after her for luck, she apparently visited them to ask that they not do so. Of course, the legend has it that when they refused, the horses came to a terrible end.

The Anglo-Irish folklore enthusiast Lady Gregory also had a hand in stirring up the legend by travelling to Feakle just 20 years after Biddy died to collect locals’ tales about her exploits. WB Yeats was said to be obsessed by her legend, and he references her in his Celtic Twilight poem first published in 1893, nineteen years after she died of natural, age-related, causes. The Catholic Church, too, had realigned themselves with her, her local parish priest Fr Andrew Connellan anointing her on the death bed. Fr Connellan was the man who supposedly chucked the ‘magic’ bottle away too – clearly, they were taking no chances.

The ruins of the cottage in which Biddy died are still standing in a field outside Feakle but they are overgrown and untended, somewhat like the real facts of her life. Evil sorceress or a New Age healer pilloried for her unconventional lifestyle?

A good reputation is not easily restored although some have tried. An Ennis man
called Bill Loughnane wrote this letter defending her honour to a newspaper after Clare ‘broke’ her curse on them by winning the 1995 All-Ireland hurling championship.

“Biddy Early is fondly remembered in Co Clare as an extraordinary woman who devoted her time to comforting and healing the sick. She is not known ever to have cursed anyone. She experienced some difficulty with one local clergyman of the day who, for reasons of his own, would have her labelled a ‘witch’… Biddy Early died in 1875 before the foundation of the GAA and long before there was any inter-county competition!”

• Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare by Meda Ryan is available at

Witches or wise women?
BRIDGET CLEARY: Bridget was a young farmer’s wife outside Clonmel, Co Tipperary, apparently considered uppity by her neighbours for her independent spirit – she designed her own clothes and wore an ostrich in her hat when other local women would be clad in their traditional black shawls. She and her husband Michael were childless after eight years of marriage and in 1895, believing her to be inhabited by an evil spirit, he tortured and burned her death in the hearth of their home with the aid of family and neighbours. Michael Cleary alleged she had disappeared “with the fairies” but was charged with her murder. He was found guilty of manslaughter and jailed for 15 years.

ANNE BOYLEN: Although officially executed for adultery against the English King Henry VIII, at that time a treasonable offence, in 1536, the whispering campaign against her had included accusations that she was a witch. It was alleged that she had supernaturally made Henry go impotent, had charmed her brother into committing incest with her and had miscarried a “monstrous” foetus.

THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS: The infamous witch hunts in Salem, Massachussetts, America in 1692 led to the deaths of over 30 people and the imprisonment of 150. Now seen as a cautionary tale against religious extremism and mass hysteria, the evidence against the supposed ‘witches’ at the time rested on the rather incredible testimony of two young cousins, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. Arthur Miller revived the awful events in his play The Crucible, using it as an allegory for the metaphorical witchhunts for Communists of 1950s McCarthyism.

ANNA GOLDI: The Swiss woman was the last person convicted and executed in Europe under witchcraft legislation. She was beheaded with a sword in 1782, 90 years after Salem. She was a live-in maid for rich Swiss families all her life and when she accused one employer of making sexual advances on her, he retaliated by saying she had cursed his daughter, causing her to become ill and spit up 100 needles.

See us, not the DS

Olympians, political activists and TV reporters -- people with Down Syndrome are living their dreams
The condition was recently highlighted when journalist Brendan O'Connor wrote so movingly about his new baby daughter Mary. Here Susan Daly talks to those who have grown up with it, but refuse to be defined by it.
From Irish Independent, Wednesday September 22 2010

When Declan Murphy moved away from his home in Waterford to go to Trinity College in Dublin, he knew his mum was worried about him. Declan (33) has Down Syndrome, but that may not have been the entire root of mum's concern.

"Well, I am the youngest of the family," says Declan. "I think she missed me."

Declan is part of an independent-minded, articulate generation of Irish people who have grown up with Down Syndrome but are refusing to be defined by it.

"Big into politics," he is one of a group of young adults with Down Syndrome who have been lobbying politicians as part of their 'My Opinion, My Vote' campaign to reform national policies that would help people with DS to attain their work, life and educational goals.

"I asked them for easy-to-read information in simple language and large fonts so we can learn about our rights," says Declan. "We are Irish citizens, yet we aren't able to get the same rights as everyone else."

May Gannon, counsellor and drama-therapist with Down Syndrome Ireland, says that when Declan and other members of the group put their views to politicians from every party in Dublin last March, the legislators were "blown away" by their presentation.

"What they had were people with Down Syndrome telling them that when they opened the door to politicians canvassing, the politicians would say 'Is your mum and dad in?' rather than looking for their vote."

Orla Hannon, a 23-year-old woman with Down Syndrome from Sixmilebridge in Co Clare, says she felt "strong and confident" when she gave the same presentation in Budapest and in Rome.

"We want to empower people with disability to participate in the political process," she says. "We want the right to get proper education, and get jobs."

Orla is devoted to books -- she reads every night -- and would like to work in a library. Her international political canvassing has given her a taste for travel. "I wouldn't mind going to Denmark," she says.

In essence, these are adults with dreams, ambitions and opinions. May Gannon's son Michael, for example, says that although his outgoing personality means he feels people see beyond his Down Syndrome, that equality must become the norm.

"People need to look at the person, not the disability," he says.

When journalist and broadcaster Brendan O'Connor wrote movingly about the birth of his new baby daughter Mary -- who has Down Syndrome -- in the Sunday Independent more than a week ago, he made special note of a piece of advice given to himself and his wife Sarah to "remember always that Mary is our baby, one half of each of us, and not a member of some tribe of Down's people, a membership that sets her apart from us".

This is absolutely vital for everyone to understand -- not just those close to someone with DS, says May.

"People with Down Syndrome are as different from each other as the families they come from," she says. "As to their ability level -- they sometimes live up or down to the expectations of people around them."

Pat Dorgan has more than lived up to the expectations of his family. The 46-year-old from Cork won two medals for Ireland in table tennis at the 2007 Special Olympics World Games in China and subsequently featured in a national poster campaign for the sport. His brother, the poet Theo Dorgan, composed a poem called My Brother for a pre-Games gala.

His sister Angela calls Pat "the glue that holds the family together". Pat and those high-achieving adults like him are changing the perception of what a person with Down Syndrome can do. It's a welcome progression, says Angela, from the condescension of old.

"A phrase that used to drive us mad as kids was, 'Ah sure, God help us'," she recalls. "People would ask us if he took sugar in his tea. We'd say: 'Why don't you ask him?'"

Similarly, 19-year-old Roisin de Burca from Connemara attracted positive attention last year when she became one of the few people with Down Syndrome to complete a full Leaving Certificate -- and she did all her subjects through Irish. She then completed a FETAC course in Business Administration at Galway IT.

"I felt proud of myself, something I can accomplish in life, something that belongs to me alone instead of the family," Roisin said last June after she won Bank of Scotland student of the year.

"We have moved from a time when people considered that a person with Down Syndrome was ineducable," says May.

"Research tells us that there is nothing that can be delivered in a special school that can't be considered in a mainstream school, given the proper supports."

Getting access to this support -- special-needs assistants, access to visual learning materials, speech therapy etc -- is a cause of worry, however.

Just this month, Andrew Boyle, whose daughter Zoe (7) has Down Syndrome, challenged Education Minister Mary Coughlan on the withdrawal of Zoe's special-needs assistance hours from 25 to five a week.

Pat Clarke, CEO of Down Syndrome Ireland, says that most of the charity's monies comes from fundraising initiatives like next month's Honey Days.

As better medical care ensures that the average life expectancy of a person with Down Syndrome has increased dramatically, it has thrown up new long-term challenges in relation to accommodation, employment and living.

"Our expectations and the expectations of our children have moved on," says Pat, whose son David (29) has Down Syndrome. "David's out there in the community, he's an excellent swimmer and has won a couple of medals for Ireland, he's at Dundalk IT three days a week and works at Tesco. He has a blue belt in Taekwondo. He could live independently. We're in the process of organising a housing association in our local area in Drogheda to do it."

The fact that the one in every 600 babies born in Ireland with Down Syndrome can now expect an average life expectancy of anything between 55 to 65/70 years can be cheering and sobering at the same time.

Peter Gaw, founder of the Down Syndrome Centre, says: "You get the initial shock of the diagnosis and within hours you're already thinking, 'What's going to happen when I'm not there?'"

Peter's two youngest children, daughter Tara (11) and son Harrison (9), were both born with Down Syndrome. It is important, he thinks, that parents of children with Down Syndrome are given hope and told that "it's not all doom and gloom".

"You try to get back to as normal a life as you can," says Peter. "My older two children are really good with the two young ones. We wouldn't change our family."

The Down Syndrome Centre now funds the country's first Down Syndrome liaison nurse, who works out of the National Children's Hospital in Tallaght. She reassures and informs parents when their baby is born with the condition, helping them get through what Sheila Campbell, Chief Executive of the centre, calls the "miasma" of confusion and hurt.

Beyond that, integration into mainstream schools is crucial, says May Gannon: "We might never have known a person with Down Syndrome growing up, whereas now the younger generation will tell you about Mary or Joe 'who is in my class in school and loves A, B and C'."

Down Syndrome Ireland ( has 24 branches across the country. Their Boyne Valley Honey Days Campaign for October has pots of honey for sale for €2. is a wonderful resource for people with DS and their families. They have also launched the first online charity dress shop with

OUR STORY: Michael Gannon (30) has been a reporter for RTE's Afternoon Show and is a member of pantomime and drama groups in his home town of Newbridge, Co Kildare, but there was a time when his mother May feared he wouldn't learn to speak at all.

"I never thought I would see the day when I would say 'Would you for God's sake shut up!'" she laughs. "Which happened. In the early days, you can't imagine that happening. You can't really picture your own child as an adult."

As reading is a huge tool in the development of language for people with Down Syndrome, May introduced Michael to reading very early. "And I labelled doors, chairs, ordinary, everyday things," she says.

"My other children would say that if you stood still long enough in our house, you were labelled!"

It paid off for Michael. An articulate interview on Ireland AM on TV3 got him spotted by a producer in RTE. He went on to interview the likes of Kilkenny hurling manager Brian Cody and rugby stars Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell.

"I wasn't nervous," says Michael. "I am very natural with people and used to talking to them. In the school I went to in Newbridge I was always treated as an equal -- they saw the person I am."

Michael continues to astound his family.

"We couldn't have imagined he'd be sitting in a television studio as calm as he does," says May.

"Michael gives people hope that there is a future."