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Biddy Early: Witch or woman ahead of her time?

Even though she died more than 130 years ago, the name Biddy Early still sends a frisson through certain of the older generations. I'm sure I wasn't the only child in Munster to have scuttled to bed with the threat of Biddy Early, rather than the bogeyman, snatching 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 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 more than 80 years.

Biddy Early was born in Faha, near Feakle in east Clare, in 1798, the year when British Crown forces violently quashed a rebellion of the United Irishmen, killing up to 30,000 Irish people, 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 Biddy was marked out by her bright red hair.

The Connors made an insecure living and feared being evicted by their landlord. When Ellen died -- legend later had it that 16-year-old 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, but they didn't take too kindly to Biddy's reputation of being "away with the fairies". The teenager 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 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.

Biddy would have worked long hours at menial tasks, but it was here that she was taught to read and write by another worker. She also became known locally for her herbal cures, receiving visitors to her cottage who were looking for remedies for their ailments.

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The winter of 1816 brought more hardship for the then 18-year-old Biddy. After joining with other tenants of Sheehy to petition him to stop raising the rent, she was evicted. That night, three of the other evicted tenants murdered Sheehy. Although she was not mentioned in the subsequent murder trial 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 married a much older widower called Pat Malley. She built up a solid reputation as a herbalist and also gave birth to a 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 also marked her out. John, too, was 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.

Meda Ryan points out that there was probably a very banal connection between the deaths. John died of a "liver ailment", and both father and son were fond of the drink that Biddy's wellwishers brought as presents.

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, homemade 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 it seems it was the age gap between them and Biddy that caused consternation.

The 'Limerick Chronicle' 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? "I always think of Biddy as a very intelligent woman," says Jane O'Brien, who recounts the tale of Biddy Early on her 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. There are Irish-themed pubs named after Biddy in far-flung cities, 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 around a famed blue bottle that she carried with her and which the fairies were supposed to have 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 visited her in 1828 to ask her advice on seeking election in Clare. The bottle was thrown by a priest into Kilbarron lake behind Biddy's cottage on her death.

With or without her bottle, her powers of healing 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.

Yet she never really courted personal fame in the way the clergy suggested. When two 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 references her in his 'Celtic Twilight' poem first published in 1893, 19 years after she died of natural causes.

The Catholic Church, too, had realigned themselves with Biddy, 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.

An Ennis man called Bill Loughnane wrote this letter defending her to a newspaper after Clare 'broke' Biddy's 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 www.mercier.com

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