"“There is a country called Tír-na-n-Og, which means the Country of the Young, for age and death have not found it; neither tears nor loud laughter have gone near it… According to many stories, Tír-na-n-Og is the favourite dwelling of the fairies…”
– W. B. Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
“Mrs. Sheridan, as I call her, was wrinkled and half blind, and had gone barefoot through her lifetime… She had never been to school she told me, because her father could not pay the penny a week it would have cost. She had never travelled many miles from the parish of her birth, and I am sure had never seen pictures except the sacred ones on chapel walls…
She had never heard of the great mystic Jacob Behman, and yet when an unearthly visitor told her the country of youth is not far from the place where we live, she had come near to his root idea that ‘the world standeth in Heaven and Heaven in the World, and are in one another as day and night.'”
–Lady Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland
In Ireland the Church has raised its monasteries atop the sacred groves and springs which, in their virgin state, long served as temples for the Irish. But by most accounts, the Irish minded little. Perhaps they thought one god is as good as another–Brigid might as well be the Blessed Mary, I suppose. Or perhaps their hopes for keeping their old faith—like so many hopes in the Isle’s history—hinged on a battle that was fatefully lost.
As St. Patrick walked about the countryside, it’s told, spreading the Gospels throughout the Emerald Isle, he met mostly the gentle hospitality of the Irish peasantry, with their willing ear for lore of all kinds, their love of things bright and grand in spirit, and their warm fires of peat and twigs.
But one Druid saw that his whole order and the fate of the Irish was threatened by this new mission from Rome, and so challenged the Saint to a battle of magic and power. They met in an open field where billowing clouds traversed across the sun.
The Druid began the battle by rising into the air high above the meadow, until all who watched had to squint into the sun to see him any longer. St. Patrick ended it by uttering a few words, with which the Druid faltered, and fell from the light of the sun. His body was broken on the stones below, and his blood joined in with the clover.
Although the Church had its way with abbeys and crosses, some traditions refused to die. From the very first the Christian priests abhorred any talk of the faery—the fair people—that invisible race of sometimes helpful, sometimes wicked folk who had blessed the Irish with miracles and cursed them with tragedy since before anyone’s greatest grandmother could recall.
“Many poets, and all mystic and occult writers, in all ages and countries, have declared that behind the visible are chains on chains of conscious beings, who are not of heaven but of the earth, who have no inherent form but change according to whim, or the mind that sees them. You cannot lift your hand without influencing and being influenced by hoards. The visible world is merely their skin. In dreams we go among them, and play with them, and combat with them,” wrote Yeats of the faeries.
Although the priests told all to not believe in such pagan nonsense, they themselves were the most afraid to go about at night time where a troop of faeries might be traveling from their cave to the sea, or from their hawthorn tree to the fields below, or simply dancing to their heavenly music from twilight to dawn in a circle of moss-covered stones.
And though the priests forbade it, their words alone could not hinder the fair people from sometimes bestowing on mortals certain gifts—the sight of things far away, the power to heal and root out evil, or a music so divine that maidens would dance off their toes for the joy of it, or die slowly pining away for it.
Though the gift of flowering music wasn’t bestowed on the red-haired lass named Biddy Early, no one doubted that she had been touched with the gifts of foresight and healing. She has since earned the title of Ireland’s most famous witch.
How her power came to her no one knows. Some say her first husband (she had at least three and outlived them all) came to her after he died and told her secrets which gave her the power. Others say she was a seer from birth. Terry Glavin of Lost Magazine wrote, “When Biddy was a girl she spent a great deal of time talking to herself, in places where the blackthorn grows, places like the rath in Jack Brian’s field beside the farm at Coolreagh. It’s one of those overgrown stone circles where people used to see faint lights dancing on certain nights of the year.”
Some say that it was her son, who was coveted by the faery for his skill at the game of hurley. Yeats once wrote, “The people of faery cannot even play at hurley unless they have on either side some mortal.” The boy was an astounding player, able to leap like a deer and dodge like a rabbit.
That’s why they say when he was eight the faery took him away (which is the way of saying to their land, a place of everlasting youth, leaving the living to mourn over the lifeless body left behind like so many rags forgotten).
It is said the boy returned to Biddy in her grief and granted her a little blue bottle with which to make her living. Biddy, they say, would shake this little bottle and see inside a vision that would answer any matter brought before her. She never charged any money for her services (as is the custom the world over with shamans and healers), but would sometimes take a little bread or tea, or more often whiskey (the abundance of which they say lead to the death of all her husbands).
According to a little girl whose mother inherited Biddy’s cabin, “She was as good, and better, to the poor as to the rich. Any poor person passing the road, she’d call in and give a cup of tea or a glass of whiskey to, and bread and what they wanted.”
Little is known of Biddy’s early years. She was born to a poor farming family in County Clare in 1798. “That was the year of the Croppies,” writes Glavin. “Seamus Heaney wrote a great poem about it. The peasants filled the pockets of their greatcoats with barley, to feed themselves on the run, and they made their final stand at Vinegar Hill, shaking scythes at cannon. They fell in the thousands, and they buried us without shroud or coffin, and in August the barley grew up out of the grave.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that with a tragedy such as the failed Irish Rebellion of 1798 comes a blessing to the people, and Biddy was certainly that. She had a little shed in which she would go and consult the faeries, working miraculous cures and telling the future of any who would come and seek her help. She made many cures with little bottles of potion and prayers and holy water.
Often she would warn someone she had given a cure to that they should mind the bottle when crossing such a bridge, or that it would break by such a gate, or that they should not come to any door but their own or they should lose it. And she was always right.
Daniel Curtin told Lady Gregory a story of both her healing and foresight, “There’s not a man in this countryside over forty year old that hasn’t been with her some time or other. There’s a man living in that house over there was sick one time, and he went to her, and she cured him, but says she, ‘You’ll have to lose something, and don’t fret after it.’ So he had a grey mare and she was going to foal, and one morning when he went out he saw that the foal was born, and was lying dead by the side of the wall. So he remembered what she said to him and he didn’t fret.”
As the Tarot deck includes cards of ill-fate, so Biddy’s tidings were not always happy, and the will of the faery is not always kind to the earthly folk. “There was a woman, Mrs. Leary,” Mrs. Sheridan told Lady Gregory, “had something wrong with her, and she went to Biddy Early. And nothing would do her but to bring my son along with her, and I was vexed… When Biddy Early saw him she said, ‘You’ll travel far, but wherever you go you’ll not escape them.’
The woman he went up with died about six months after, but he went to America, and he wasn’t long there when what was said came true, and he died. They followed him as far as he went.” The faeries, that is.
Now, the priests loathed Biddy and often brought fire and brimstone down on anyone seeking her help. A blacksmith told Lady Gregory, “The priests were against her and used to be taking the cloaks and the baskets from the country people to keep them back from going to her.” They even once attempted to put her on trial for witchcraft (she was the last in all of Ireland to be accused in court), but at the last minute all of the witnesses refused to testify.
Many stories are told of how she hexed a priest’s horse as her rode past her house (he had been whipping those on the road to see her) by having it run into the middle of the nearby river and refuse to go either backward or forward.
She got out of another stitch with the authorities when an eviction notice was served. The night of its execution, she was told by the faery (some say it was her dead husband) to tell the sheriffs, “Stay where you are,” when they came a-knocking. She did just that, and all four were stuck to their spot in the road as if their feet were encased in stone. After two hours she said, “Be away then!” and the enchantment was released. They never again brought ill will to the stout woman’s door.
Besides curing all manner of sick folk and cattle (a lost foul or a sour milking cow could mean destitution for a family), she would also trace the source of harmful magic and give the ailing a cure. Sometimes it was a thornbush planted in a faery road which was causing cattle to fall sick. Sometimes it was a curse of jealousy or ill-will wrought in the mind of someone who may not even know they had the power to do harm. This is a common theme in the Evil Eye lore. A certain Mrs. Crone, interviewed by Lady Gregory relates a tale about her healing by Biddy:
“I was myself digging potatoes out in that field beyond, and a woman passed by the road, but I heard her say nothing, but a pain came on my head and I fell down, and I had to go to my bed for three weeks. My mother went then to Biddy Early. Did you ever hear of her? And she looked in the blue bottle she had, and she said my name. And she saw me standing before her, and knew all about me and said, ‘Your daughter was digging potatoes with her husband in the field, and a woman passed by and she said, ‘It is as good herself is with a spade as the man,’’ for I was a young woman at the time. She gave my mother a bottle for me, and I took three drinks of it in the bed, and then I got up as well as I was before.”
A popular form of evil spell in Ireland was the use of a dead man’s hand (the infamous Hand of Glory, used the world over for all types of theft and deceit) to steal the butter right from the churn, or milk right from the cow. Biddy would find the culprit and stop the theft. (A popular way of doing this was for the inflicted family to put red hot coals beneath their churn, at which point the thieving conjurer would run up to the cottage in a terrible ruckus, screaming that they were being burned alive.)
This practice is further evidence of Biddy’s shamanic nature, as in most ancient cultures there are two types of magic workers—the good and the evil. The evil always work for their own benefit, seeking wealth and glory at the cost of others. Envy is their heart’s affliction, and that void is never filled.
The favorite trick of a greedy shaman is to bewitch unsuspecting folk with sickness to cause them to seek the enchanter’s help, at which point they would simply remove their own curse and collect the bounty. This is one reason that good shamans never accept money for their services, and are obliged to be generous with what they have and humble with what they don’t. Otherwise they might be accused of seeking wealth at the expense of others’ suffering.
It’s a shame that the Church failed to recognize this distinction, and early on put the black mark of witch on all those wise men and women who used the herbs of the mountains and valleys, as well as the prayers and visions through which the spirits guided them, to cure the ill and attempt to bring a heavenly grace into the earthly realm—a task which we all may hope is still not in vain. Lady Gregory recorded the words of a Mr. McCabe: “The priests were against her, but they were wrong. How could that be evil doing that was all charity and kindness and healing?”
Biddy’s old cottage is in ruins now, the stone walls broken and the thatched roof caved in. But when Terry Glavin visited its remains not so long ago, he found that not everyone had forgotten this miraculous woman. “Someone had draped a pretty red kerchief over a hole in a stone wall where a window had been. On the sill, in the nettles and the moss, there were offerings of the sort that people used to leave at saints’ wells. There was a pen, a little bottle, some coins, a package of stamps, and a ribbon.” Such tokens are important in humble folk traditions.
A few simple pins in a bottle were thought to keep evil spirits away. A coin thrown into a sacred spring brought good fortune, and even today a hopeful seeker might cast a penny into a wishing well. Biddy herself worked untold miracles with nothing but a little blue bottle (and their help, of course).
The emblems of this healthy and humble faery faith are not of golden rings and grand cathedrals, but of butter and bread, thimbles and tea. “Lay not up your treasures,” as they say. That’s something to keep in mind as both the pomp of the picking of the Pope (say that three times fast) and the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day cross our path this spring.