Biddy Early (1798-1 874) Irish seer and healer, often described as a witch. Most of what is known about Biddy Early has been collected from oral tradition, and many of the stories about her have numerous variations. None- theless, Biddy seemed to have possessed real powers, and many people from all over Ireland and even England came to her for cures. She was widely believed to be “of the Fairies.”
She was born Biddy O’Connor. Her birthplace is accepted as Faha, but Carrowroe is also given. She was of a farming family, small in stature and described as good- looking throughout her life. When she was 16 or 17 years of age, Biddy left her home to work as a serving girl in either Feakle or Ayle. She entered into her first marriage in 1817 to Pat Malley, who later died. She married Tom Flannery in the 1840s, and they had one son, also named Tom.
Biddy’s powers were credited to a mysterious dark bottle that had been given to her either by husband Tom after his death or by the fairies, via her son prior to his own death. She was instructed that by looking into the bottle with one eye and keeping the other eye open, she would be able to see what ailed people and view the future. In exchange for this ability, she was never to charge money for her services, or she would lose the powers. She could accept gifts, however, but was to give away what- ever was left over from her own needs. She was not to allow others to look into the bottle, or else they would either die or go mad.
One of the first stories about Biddy concerns a mean- tempered landlord who set about to evict her and others from their homes. Biddy agreed to go, but told the land- lord he would never leave his home. A fire subsequently broke out in the landlord’s home and he perished in it.
After the landlord disaster, Biddy moved to Kilbarron. At this point in her life, she already was in possession of the mysterious bottle. A man offered to move her pos- sessions in exchange for a look inside the bottle. Biddy agreed. He did, and went mad. Biddy lived the rest of her life in Kilbarron. Her various husbands were tenant farmers; some allegedly died of drink. She spooked people who came to visit her by announcing their names, the purpose of their visit, and their specific ailment or problem before they ever said a word.
She was sought out for three primary reasons: to cure human ailments, to cure animal ailments (farm animals often meant the difference between starvation and comfort for a family) and to relieve fairy molestations. In terms of the last reason, people would be made ill or otherwise troubled by the fairies for inadvertently disturbing their invisible forts, paths or nighttime play areas. Biddy could see these and prescribe remedial action. Sometimes, she said, she would receive a terrible “gruelling” from the fairies for her help to humans.
Biddy could also know when someone had been made ill by an unhappy ghost or evil spirit or by another witch.
After healing, people also sought out Biddy for fortune- telling or the answers to mysteries, such as who committed a crime and where something was lost.
She often made up potions for people from her own well water. These were given with complex instructions which had to be followed precisely in order for a cure to happen. Medicines could not be used for any other pur- pose, or disaster would strike. Some of her cures resemble the miraculous healings of Jesus and saints of various religions, such as instantly curing cripples.
Biddy accepted mostly food and whiskey for her ser- vices, although some reports tell of her asking for a “shilling for the bottle.” Otherwise, she had no set fees of any sort. Sometimes she would ask for whatever a person had a surplus of, such as butter or bacon.
Sometimes she required penance of people in order to be healed, or a Demonstration of their sincere desire for healing. Occasionally, she sent people away without help. In these cases, their problems were beyond her powers, or they had angered the fairies too much for reprieve, she said.
Biddy did not keep a CAT, but did have a dog (named either Spot or Fedel) that acted as a familiar. She would tie messages in a sock around the dog’s neck and send him out to people, reputedly controlling him via her bottle.
The Catholic clergy felt threatened by a peasant woman who was credited with having greater powers than they. Although village priests scorned her and told people not to pay her any heed, most people — either out of awe or fear — respected her and valued her over more traditional doctors. She was counted on by her neighbors as a “good Christian” who always shared whatever she had and who did not misuse her powers. Nonetheless, the church labeled her a wicked witch whose powers came from the Devil. Although they denounced her from their pulpits, they were not above dressing up as ordinary people and consulting her themselves when in need. She apparently didn’t hold grudges against them, even curing one priest of cancer.
In 1865, she was charged with witchcraft and appeared in court in Ennis. Apparently she was not convicted, for there is no record of her being jailed.
Biddy was married four times. The last was in 1869, when she was more than 70 years of age. A young man named either O’Brien or Meaney from Limerick came to her to be cured. She asked him if he would marry her if he did. He agreed, she did and they wed.
In April of 1874, Biddy became seriously ill and asked a friend to see to it that she received the rites of the church and was properly buried. She apparently was living alone — it is not known what happened to her fourth hus- band — and was too poor to pay for her own burial. The friend, Pat Loughnane, agreed. She died during the night of April 21/22. Lore has it that a mysterious ball of fire went out the front door of the house at her passing. She was buried in Feakle churchyard in an unmarked grave.
As for her bottle, Biddy reportedly gave it to the priest who administered last rites, telling him he would now possess the same powers. He threw it into Kilbarron Lake. People went diving in an effort to recover it, but found scores of bottles and could not determine which one had been hers. See WITCH BOTTLE.
- Lenihan, Edmund. In Search of Biddy Early. Dublin: Mercier Press, 1987.