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The Fairy Doctor

fairy doctor

One of the greatest gifts that the fairy folk can give you is that of the skill of the healer. Throughout the history of folklore it has been handed down from mother to son and along with the gift of healing came the knowledge of herbs.  In Ireland we call these people ‘Fairy Doctors’. One of the most famous of these was Biddy Early and we shall hear more of her later on.

Those who initially became fairy doctors or wise women often gained their gift through an illness that caused them to make the journey to the otherworld.  This would be called a ‘Near death experience’, today. Their soul or spirit energy would leave their body to wander the spirit world and upon their return to health they found that they had gained supernatural knowledge and they would be changed forever.

The fairy doctor or wise woman never used any invasive treatment such as surgery. Charms, herbs, chants, healing stones and crystals were their tools of the trade.  Their knowledge of herbs and where to find them was incredible and some of those who had travelled to the spirit world also returned with the gift of clairvoyance. They were however forbidden from passing on the secrets of their gift until they were dying and then only to their oldest child.

It was said that if a child suddenly began to wither or fail in health for no apparent reason then that child was struck by the fairies and a fairy doctor must be called upon straight away. These unfortunate children were said to be “wanted by the fairies” and they would soon fade away and die unless treated.  Of course there were other reasons for this threat to life, it may have been caused by the Evil Eye or the Fairy Wind and the fairy doctor would be able to tell which of these malign influences the cause of the problem was.

A person who sought the services of the fairy doctor must pay no money.  However, payment in kind can and must be made, by gifts of food or drink or in some other way that the person seeking advice and help could afford.

biddy earlyBiddy Early (1798-1874).

Biddy Early was a famous Irish seer and healer, a wise woman of the nineteenth century often identified as ‘Biddy the Healer’. ‘The Wise Woman’ or ‘the Witch’.  Much of what we know of her has been passed down in the oral tradition and has now become part of Irish Myth and Folklore. However, because of this there has been a certain amount of ‘poetic licence’ taken when describing her life. It seems certain though that Biddy Early did have at least some genuine powers of healing and clairvoyance as she was widely consulted for her knowledge of cures and her council. It was also believed that she was one of the Sidhe (Fairies).

Born Bridget Ellen Connors in Lower Faha near Kilanena, County Clare in 1798.  Biddy was the daughter of a small land farmer, John Thomas Connors and his wife Ellen Early.  Biddy was described as small in stature and pretty, a woman who kept her good looks throughout her life. Although she married four times, Biddy always used her mother’s maiden name, believing that her gifts were inherited through the female line.  Her mother taught her all about herbs and how to make potions, just as her mother before her had taught her.

At the age of 16 when her parents died, Biddy was evicted from their home and forced to take work as a serving girl in the nearby towns of Feakle and Ennis. At another time, her name went on the books in the workhouse in Ennis known as the House of Industry. If Biddy later gained a reputation for being a hard woman, it's not really surprising given the harsh nature of her early life.  Biddy would have worked long hours at menial tasks, but it was here that she was taught to read and write by another worker.

In 1817 she met and married widower Pat Mally, a middle-aged man from Gurteenreagh, who died a short time later. After the death of her first husband, she married his son (her stepson), John Mally with whom she had a son called Paddy. Unfortunately her son Paddy died when he was just eight years old of the fever (Typhus), a common illness in those times.  It was after this tragedy that Biddy began to use her healing powers. She began to hand out herbal cures tied up in small sachets, and liquid potions in small bottles with strict instructions to how they should be used.

Biddy’s powers of clairvoyance are credited to a mysterious dark bottle, and it was reported that the politician Daniel O Connell visited her in 1828 to ask her advice on seeking election in Clare.  How this ‘magic’ bottle came into her possession has become part of her myth and legend.  Some believe that her late husband Pat Mally before he died or it may have been given to her by her son John before he died; others believe that it was given to her by the Sidhe (fairies).  There are some stories that suggest that she lived among the fairies for a time when she was a child.  It was also said that Biddy could see and talk to the Sidhe in their language and it was then that they taught her how to use her gifts.

Biddy 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 it would result in her losing her power.  She could accept gifts, but was to give away whatever was left over from her own needs.  She must never allow others to look into the bottle, or else they would go mad or die.  By using the bottle, Biddy always knew when a person was about to visit her, and whether they had gone to a doctor or a priest first.  If they had, then she usually refused to treat them unless she was in a very good mood.

In 1840, her second husband died of a liver ailment, most likely due to an excess consumption of alcohol.  Biddy quickly married again, her third husband was Tom Flannery from Carrowroe in County Clare.  They moved into a cottage on Dromore Hill in Kilbarron, overlooking Kilbarron Lake and it soon became known locally as Biddy Early’s Lake.  By this time Biddy’s reputation as a healer and seer had spread, for it was here on Dromore Hill that she created many of her most powerful cures. Hundreds of people came to seek her out and it was said that the road to her cottage was always full of those travelling to see her.

However, it wasn’t just humans that Biddy helped, for she also brought relief to animals and treated them with great care. In the time of Biddy Early, the death of an animal could bring particular hardship to people living in a mainly rural farming community.  Animals were relied upon for everyday living, and to lose one could lead to eviction if farm work could not be completed.  Many of the stories about Biddy include tales of her healing a family’s most important horse or cow.  She also helped many people restore their wells, often the only source of clean drinking water or to solve problems that women ran into while churning their butter.  Water and butter were also vital to a peasant’s everyday life.

During the nineteenth century, superstitious belief in fairies and all things apparently supernatural was very strong and when something happened that appeared to be miraculous, without the aid of the church, it was commonly and easily attributed to witchcraft and the devil.  As such the local church viewed Biddy with suspicion, and all the local clergy were totally opposed to her.  As her fame spread they even tried to warn people off who went to visit her. One such story concerning the churches opposition to her occurred in 1865.  While visiting friends in Ennis, Biddy was charged with witchcraft under the 1586 statute; however, the case was dismissed due to a lack of sufficient evidence. Many of the local people stood their ground against the clergy, maintaining that Biddy did nothing but good works.

In 1868, her third husband died, by this time Biddy was seventy years old, although she still looked fifty, and a year later she married her fourth husband Thomas Meaney.  However, he too got sick and died within the year (aged in his 30s).  Many believed that he too died from alcohol abuse, as there was much whiskey and other strong drink (poteen) brought to Biddy as payment.  Her husband’s never needed to work as Biddy provided them with everything through her healing work.  After her last husband died, Biddy’s own health started to deteriorate, she died in April 1874 with a rosary around her neck and her mysterious dark bottle wrapped in a red shawl beside her.

Before her death and despite their many differences, Biddy was befriended by one of the local priests, Fr Andrew Connellan who anointed her on her death bed.  She asked him not to let her bottle fall into the wrong hands when she died, according to her last wishes; the priest took her bottle and hurled it into Kilbarron Lake.  Since that time, such was the strong belief in Biddy’s legend, many attempts have been made to trawl the lake in search of the bottle but to this day it has never been found.

fairy fairies

Is this fact or fiction?

That Biddy Early was a real person is beyond doubt, but living in an age when education was minimal (except for the genteel and priestly class); most of the folk that knew Biddy were illiterate so no reliable record of her life was written down.  However, such was her reputation; stories about her life were passed down through the local oral tradition.  Twenty years after her death, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory (friend of W.B. Yeats), was said to be the first person to seek people out who had known Biddy and she recorded their stories in her study of Irish Folklore: 

Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920).

A modern story presumably started by poor losers concerns Clare hurling team. It was suggested that the reason the team kept losing out in the final was due to a curse put on the Clare team by Biddy Early.  The curse was supposed to be responsible for stopping them from winning the All-Ireland for more that eighty years.  It took a letter to the Irish Times, written by an Ennis man called Bill Loughnane, to finally put this rubbish to rest.

It was after Clare ‘broke’ the curse by winning the 1995 championship. He wrote, “Biddy Early is fondly remembered in Co Clare as an extraordinary woman who devoted her time to comforting and healing the sick. She is not known ever to have cursed anyone. She experienced some difficulty with one local clergyman of the day who, for reasons of his own, would have her labelled a 'witch' ... Biddy Early died in 1875 before the foundation of the GAA and long before there was any inter-county competition!"

irish abroad
© 2013 Tony Locke.
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