22 April 1874: The death of Biddy Early on this day. She was one of the last of the old style Faith Healers/Witches or Wise Women [bean feasa] that were a source of wonder and fear in Old Ireland who offered ‘cures & curses’ and advise to those who asked for it and could not afford the fee to see a Medical Man.
Much Legend surrounds her activities and while she undoubtedly had curative powers and perhaps even hypnotic ones her chief claim was to possess a small dark glass bottle that she would look into to delve the answers to her clients needs. She was born circa 1798 in the County of Clare. She was the only child of John Thomas Connors and Ellen Early. While still a teenager she was turfed out on the road due to family tragedies and ended up in the Poorhouse. She was a spirited girl though and got out and found herself a husband - a man much older than her [more common then than now] with whom she had her only surviving child - a son. Before her mother died however she had passed on her knowledge of herbal medicine to Biddy. This knowledge would prove to be the basis for Biddy Early’s fame. She was illiterate. With her family and friends she spoke Irish, but she had some knowledge of English language.
As a young girl Biddy was a bit of a loner and is said to have spent time in the presence of an sídhe aka ‘the little people’. Amongst the superstitious peasantry of the time this enhanced her standing and she became a magnet for those who needed her intercession with them over land disputes and those who wished to put a curse on their neighbours. However she did have some pretty good knowledge of traditional herbal remedies to ailments not just of humans but also of farmhouse animals. It is generally agree that she had a powerful and commanding presence and she did not like to be derided for her efforts. In an Age when barter was an acceptable method of payment she took ‘gifts’ of food and Poitín [locally distilled alcohol] to keep her ticking over. Indeed she had so much at times that her various homes became meeting places for socialising.
Her Fame attracted attention however - not all of it complimentary. It is said that the Catholic Hierarchy disapproved of her methods and that priests denounced her and tried to silence her - but that she silenced them! It must be said though that a lot of Legend has accrued to her name and without hard evidence some aspects and events must be taken with a grain of salt. Her only known brush with the Law came in 1865 when she was accused of witchcraft under the Witchcraft Act 1586 and was brought before a court in Ennis. This would have been unusual even in the 1860s. The few who agreed to testify against her later backed out. She was released for lack of sufficient evidence.
By this stage she was old and failing in health - she was religious and said her Rosary [nothing unusual at that time] and had worked her way through a few more husbands to boot - they all died before her. Her end came on 22 April 1874 and her magic bottle disappeared - some claim she instructed her neighbours to throw it in the local lake - though none have ever found it. Others claim she only had it only loan from an sídhe who then took it back...
Of course there must have been many ‘Biddy Early’s’ over the centuries going back into pre Christian centuries who could work the magic and through skill and persuasion convince people to accept their cures and improve their lot in this World anyway. But she is the most famous of them all.