Sunday, 2 August 2015

A visit to Biddy Early's - The Wise Woman of Clare

Last week I  travelled to County Clare to visit the remains of Biddy Early's cottage.
I was about to begin a new painting and as part of my research I looked for the photographs that I'd taken there nine years previously. I hunted high and low but they had gone.
Not only that but my friend, who had been with me back then, had also misplaced hers, so I left home
for a second pilgrimage to Feakle.

This time, alone, I found the over grown pathway which leads to the remains of Biddy's cottage. 
Biddy Early was a renowned herbalist and healer, using her cures to help both people and animals, skills which seem to have been handed down by her mother.
She was reputed to be in touch with the Good People and some in Clare viewed her as a descendant
of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Many of those who sought her help travelled great distances and none were turned away from her door. For this service she took no money but would accept poitín, whiskey or food in return.

Her cottage, near Feakle, hidden in a tangle of trees and surrounded 
by greenery now stands forlorn.  

Biddy was born in 1798, the year of the Rebellion and baptised Bridget Connor, but she was always 
known by her mother's maiden name, Early.
Her parents died within six months of each other, forcing Biddy to leave home aged 16 and take to the 
roads. She went on to marry four times, surviving each of her husbands and her only child, Tom, 
who died of typhus aged eight. 
Her life was extremely hard and Biddy lived through famine, evictions, disease and forced emigrations. 
Looking through the doorway into the cottage with a chair left by a previous visitor.
On entering there is stillness, silence and an atmosphere which cannot be described.

Biddy's most mysterious power was reputed to lie in her famous Blue Bottle.
Where this bottle originated is unclear, some say her mother returned from the dead to give it to
her daughter, whilst others firmly believe that it was a gift from the Otherworld.
By looking into it she was said to predict futures and divine the source of illness so accurately that people from all over the country sought her help.

It was well known that Biddy was close to the Good People throughout her life and on occasion intervened to save those marked by the Sídhe who were due to be 'taken'. It was understood that she paid a price for this ability and was beaten by supernatural fists.

Her fame as a wise woman, who helped those in poverty and need, was considered by the church
to be dangerous and disruptive. Although she was well respected within her community the parish priest denounced Biddy from the altar and admonished people for visiting her.

Offerings, including a blue bottle, are left in remembrance of Biddy on the window sill inside. 
My own, a small white quartz pebble left 9 years ago, still lies there amongst the coins, 
jewellery, stones and shells.

In 1865 Biddy Early was accused of practicing witchcraft. 
During her trial in Ennis many people who had benefitted from Biddy's skills supported her and 
by the end most of her accusers had withdrawn their testimonies. 
She was acquitted of the charge due to lack of evidence. 

Three years later, aged 70, Biddy married for the last time. Her husband, Thomas, who was 40, 
passed away after a year and widowed once more, she spent her remaining days alone. 

Despite her fame and skill Biddy continued to spend her life in poverty.

In April 1873 Biddy Early died peacefully in her two roomed cottage, aged 75.

A priest was present at her death and she is buried in the local cemetery although her grave is unmarked.  At her funeral Father Dore of  Feakle is reported to have said,
“We thought we had a demon amongst us in poor Biddy Early, but we had a saint and we did
not know it.”

On her death the famous Blue Bottle was thrown into the nearby lake, now a bog.
Although it has been searched for since, the bottle was never found and it is understood that the
Good People took it back.

Biddy's renovated cottage as seen in the RTÉ film.

In the late 1960's a local man, Dr. Bill Loughnane, reconstructed and furnished Biddy's cottage,
as can be seen in this short RTÉ film - link below. According to stories the doctor had nothing but misfortune following this venture and the building was left to fall.
CLICK HERE to visit RTÉ  and watch archive footage inside Biddy's cottage.

Such is the enduring nature of Biddy Early's legacy that 142 years later, people here are still wary
of her powers and she is named by some as a wise woman, by others a witch.

The gable end of the cottage & nook next to the fireplace where a visitor had recently rested.

Standing there alone I felt a curious atmosphere in the remains of her cottage.
After taking the photos you see above, I turned to take a shot of the hearth when my camera stopped working. I felt my presence had been tolerated for long enough so I left.

The folklorist Eddie Lenihan talked with many people whose families had personal contact with Biddy. You can listen to Eddie and local residents reflect on the Wise Woman in this video:

Eddie's book 'The Search for Biddy Early' can be found here:
'Biddy Early - The Wise Woman of Clare' by Meda Ryan is here:


  1. A fascinating post about an interesting woman, Jane! I shall look forward to seeing your painting when you've finished it. What a wealth of magical stories and people Ireland has. I'll have to come and visit again.

  2. Thanks Valleypee - yes, Ireland is a fascinating place and I wouldn't live anywhere else!

  3. Very much enjoyed viewing the films, for both were giving factual evidence about Biddy.

    Hardly surprising that the Church did not take kindly to her. I suspect that they were feeling a certain amount of guilt, for wasn't she doing the healing work that they should have been doing.

  4. What a wonderful history of Biddy. I was worried for her, but so happy to hear that she survived the trial, and what Fr. Dore said about her. Thank you so much for posting this, Jane!!

  5. Thank you Heron - I agree with you about the church! Read that one priest apparently did try to get Biddy's healing secrets fro her & locals felt that the church could have cared for people in the same way that she did.

  6. Thanks Carol & yes - it was great that she was acquitted & the church appeared to recognise her as a wise woman - but only after her death :(

  7. Thanks for sharing that Jane. I had heard of her but never her story. Beautifully written.

  8. Looks like a wonderful adventure. I just love that your original offering was still there after all this time. :)

  9. Glad you enjoyed it Ita - thanks for your comment!

  10. Many thanks for commenting Gemma - yes I was really surprised by that too :)

  11. Hi Jane
    I just wondered if you had finished your painting and if you had any copies of it to sell as would be very interestednfor a friend who used to live close to there and talks about Biddy.

  12. Hi Alix - Yes I finished her a while ago. You can see the painting in the Continuing the Old Ways section above -
    The SHOP button in the side bar will give you prices of Art Cards etc. If you have any questions you can email me from the bottom of my Home page. Many thanks!


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