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.

1 comment:

  1. Last witch killed in Ireland was in Tipperary, near Fethard, Bridget Clery. "are you a witch, or are you a fairy, or are you the wife of Michael Clery.