Biddy Early (1798–1874)

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. Nonetheless,
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 goodlooking
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
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 whatever
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 meantempered
landlord who set about to evict her and others
from their homes. Biddy agreed to go, but told the landlord
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 possessions
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
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
22 bewitchment
After healing, people also sought out Biddy for fortunetelling
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 purpose,
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 services,
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
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 husband—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

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