Biddy Early was a witch.
This is a true story. Or at least the intersection of history and historical legend.
She lived in Ireland, County Clare, in the village of Feakle, during the 19th Century, remembered by Lady Gregory, and immortalized in poem by William Butler Yeats:
Dim Inchy Wood, that hides badger and fox
And marten-cat, and borders that old wood
Wise Biddy Early called the wicked wood. . .
Catholic Emancipation advocate Daniel O’Connell even consulted her before the 1828 Clare election.
She was famed for her red hair and her magic bottle with which she could scry and cure. The bottle was blue—or was it green—or possibly black? Some accounts only call it dark. All agree it was the source of her power.
She got her bottle—and her powers—from Themselves, the fairies. As a young girl she could see the Fair Folk; as a young woman, it was said, she spent time with them. As a Wise Woman, she helped resolve disputes for people who unknowingly offended them. Because she knew the otherworld, she could advise how to placate otherworldly ‘Neighbors.’
Orphaned at 16, sent to the workhouse in Ennis, she ran afoul of landlords, doctors, and priests. She married four times—outliving her husbands—the last to a man thirty years younger than her, who she cured in exchange for matrimony.
She was respected by her neighbors, who would alternately give directions to out-of-town cure-seekers or keep mum out of fear of the priests. She charged no fees, but accepted gifts—usually food or, more often, drink. They say she invoked the Trinity with every remedy, and I’ve heard her described as a “Christian Witch.” The priests didn’t see it that way. They denounced Biddy from the pulpit. So she stopped attending Mass. Eventually excommunicated, she had to travel to Limerick to remarry.
There are three types of stories about Biddy Early: Biddy curing illnesses; Biddy resolving mortal/fairy disagreements; and Biddy in conflict with the priests.
There were a few priests who respected her gifts. More typical is the tale of Biddy cursing—then curing—a oppositional priest’s horse. She made her point.
Despite what the priests said, she was beloved by her compatriots. Most of the accounts attribute clerical disapproval to professional jealousy. Biddy cured people the church couldn’t –or wouldn’t—heal. These tellers express a dissatisfaction or bitterness with the church in insufficiently meeting the needs of the people.
Biddy Early was even charged under the 1586 Witchcraft Statute. The case was dismissed due to lack of evidence: nobody would testify.
Biddy Early died in 1874. Before her death, she threw away her bottle. Or the fairies took it back.
Today, when we no longer believe in witches—except maybe on Halloween—remember Biddy Early, the Wise Woman of Clare.
For Further Reading
Clare County Library. “Biddy Early: The Magical Lady of Clare.” Web.
Daly, Susan. “Biddy Early: Witch or woman ahead of her time?” The Irish Independent. 25 September 2010. Web.
Rainsford, John. “Feakle’s Biddy Early: a victim of ‘moral panic’?” History Ireland. Vol. 20 n. 1 (Jan./Feb. 2012). Web.
Additional Resource (try your local library)
Schmitz, Nancy. “An Irish Wise Woman: Fact and Legend.” Journal of the Folklore Institute. Vol. 14 n. 3 (1977). Web. Through JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/381407