On the afternoon of 22nd April, 1874 a woman called Biddy Early died in her small, two-roomed, mud-walled cottage. Her life story was first published in 1903 and since that time her reputation has grown, embellished also with dark tales of witchcraft.
Healer, Herbalist, Clairvoyant… or Witch?
In countries where money was scarce and doctors were too inaccessible and too expensive, the sick had no choice but to turn to herbalists and healers. In fact herbal medicine offered a cure for the sick and a wellness regime for the healthy, and still today herbalists seek remedies in nature to create medicines from herbs, plants, seeds, berries, bark, roots, and flowers.
We are in Ireland, the poorest country of the nineteenth-century Europe. Here diseases were rampant and locals were always open to spiritual and unconventional solutions, embraced an herbalist and healer, Biddy Early of County Clare.
Her cures of humans and animals were legendary like her fame, so people came from all of Ireland to Biddy’s house “beyond the little humpy bridge” for her services, advice and prophesies. Most of what we know about Biddy has been passed down through the oral tradition.
Biddy was born 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 young, she was orphaned then immediately evicted. Homeless, she worked in a poorhouse ironically called the House of Industry, and endured the Great Famine.
Throughout her life she battled landlords, police, doctors and especially, priests. She was a true alpha female and she took her mother’s name “Early”, rejecting the surnames of her father and husbands. There were four husbands, one of whom was her stepson, and the final husband was 40 years younger!
Biddy’s skills 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 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.
According to the popular folklore, over time the Danann became the sidhe, 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!
Over the years, 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. 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.
This view was shared, 400 years earlier by Paracelsus, the alchemist called the “Father of Modern Medicine”. Despite this, it was doubtful Biddy heard of the medieval physician!
Biddy’s potions combined dew, specific herbs to the particular malady, liquid from her magic well, and a dash of holy water all mixed in her famous Blue Bottle.
The same Blue Bottle also worked as her crystal ball helping her see the past, present and future.
There are many versions about this object, and 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. So, he returned from the dead to give his mother his prize: the bottle.
Biddy was a drinking, smoking, card-playing, charming woman who maintained her youthful good looks, and welcomed everyone at her door, refusing payment for her treatments and accepting only gifts of food and poitín, a strong home brew which she especially loved, and her cottage became a fun-filled destination for pilgrims.
When farmers saw their animals fall sick in a period in which they were their only hope against starvation, they turned to Biddy.
Having been evicted at a young age, she hated landlords, especially her own. When he tried to rid himself of his 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!
It wasn’t only the poor and afflicted who sought her out: also 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, in fact he ushered in the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, which changed the course of Irish history.
The Church began taking an authoritarian control over the lives of the deeply religious but illiterate peasants, and now there was a new world order that did not include a whiskey-drinking, herb-touting witch who avoided Mass, and so began Biddy’s war with the priests.
Clerics denounced her and even giving directions to her house could put a Catholic in Purgatory: they claimed she was a witch, however nothing could stop her faithful from making sinful visits to her cottage.
Desperate, the Church resurrected a 300-year-old law to try her for witchcraft, a statute which had executed 50,000 women for practicing the dark arts.
However, no one testified against her, and the case was thrown out of court.
Only in the end, there was a truce, when a dying Biddy, rosary around her neck, 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 twenty-seven priests attended her funeral 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.”
Today Biddy is seen as a visionary, a woman truly ahead of her time. Also recently, the medical profession was suspicious about herbalism but now herbal treatment is recommended by healthcare practitioners in different disciplines.
Her former cottage, now 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, an event followed by a fruitless search for the Blue Bottle. Fruitless because everyone knows the faeries took it back when Biddy passed on to the Otherworld!