Healer and clairvoyant – Brian Maye on Biddy Early, the ‘wise-woman of Clare’

People would call to her to have curses lifted

Biddy Early, “the wise-woman of Clare”, had a reputation as a healer and clairvoyant and was even condemned as a witch in some quarters. She died 150 years ago today (April 22nd, 1874).

Frances Clarke, who wrote the entry on her in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, maintained that “little is known about her, despite the notoriety she achieved during her lifetime and retained long after” and it’s probably true that the many stories about her are difficult to verify as they belong to an oral tradition of storytelling.

Books on her life have been written by Meda Ryan and Edmund Lenihan, based on interviews with people whose parents or grandparents either knew her or knew about her.

She was born in the townland of Faha, in Co Clare, probably in 1798, the only child of John Thomas Connors and Ellen Early, a poor farming family.


Although there are conflicting accounts, she seems to have worked as a servant girl, either in Feakle or Kilbarron (or perhaps both), for either a landlord or doctor (or perhaps both). One source (womensmuseumofireland.ie) suggests that both her parents had died by the time she was 16 and that her mother had passed on her knowledge of herbal medicine before she died, knowledge that was to prove the basis of Biddy’s fame.

It was also said that she foretold the murder of the landlord for whom she either worked or from whom she rented land and, when this came to pass, it established her reputation as a clairvoyant.

She seems to have settled in Kilbarron, where she lived for most of her life.

The rural area in which she lived would have had many superstitions, with pishogues being used to draw bad luck down upon neighbours.

People would call to her to have such curses lifted, and they’d also call to her for cures for various ailments and diseases. She used her practical-based knowledge of local herbs and plants to effect cures. It should be remembered that most people didn’t have access to doctors or hospitals during her lifetime and even if they did, they couldn’t afford such treatment. As the source quoted above observed: “Wise-women’s remedies included painkillers as well as anti-inflammatory and digestive aids, which still all hold their place in modern pharmacology.”

Another source (clarelibrary.ie) states that she had a well beside her cottage in Kilbarron, the water of which had “magical powers and if given with her consent, could cure a person of any affliction”.

Animals were hugely important in the rural Irish economy of the time; the loss of a cow or pig could mean being unable to pay the rent and subsequent eviction, and the death of a working horse could lead to destitution for a poor family.

With vets either non-existent or prohibitively expensive, people such as Biddy were frequently called upon to treat animals and either the water from her well or one of her potions often cured many animal ailments.

Folklore has it that she had six husbands. It’s difficult to be sure about this, but she does seem to have had at least three. One, probably the first, was a man called Pat O’Malley, from Kilbarron, and they are said to have had one child, a daughter. They were married only a few years when he died, and her second husband was a Tom Flannery from Carrowroe, and he sadly died when their only child, a boy, was just eight years old.

Biddy is reputed not to have taken any financial payment for her work and was paid mainly with poitín (or other alcohol) or food. It is thought that the main reason her husbands died young was because of alcohol abuse.

She was also famed for her hospitality in that she welcomed people to her cottage and fed and watered them well.

Her reputation caused her to fall foul of the ruling classes and she clashed with landlords, the police and the church.

One story has it that, following Tom Flannery’s death, her landlord tried to evict her but the night before the eviction, Tom visited her in a dream and told her that when the bailiff and police turned up the next day, she was to say to them, “stay where you are”, and they’d leave and never return.

She duly delivered those words the following day and the evictors were stuck to the spot for two hours before she released them, after which they fled in terror.

She had many clashes with the local clergy and indeed was tried for witchcraft at Ennis court in 1865, but witnesses failed to materialise to give evidence against her and the case was dismissed.

In 1869, she married (for the last time) a man called Thomas Meaney, roughly half her age but who died the following year.

She herself died in poverty at her home in 1874 and was buried in Feakle churchyard.

Her cottage at Kilbarron is an overgrown ruin.