Print the legend

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2012), Volume 20

Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory—her Visions and beliefs in the west of Ireland (1920) helped to create the legend of Biddy Early. (National Library of Ireland)

Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory—her Visions and beliefs in the west of Ireland (1920) helped to create the legend of Biddy Early. (National Library of Ireland)

In 1864 a horse called ‘Biddy Early’ in a race at Scariff refused a jump, unseating its rider. This was typical of the type of story recorded by Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory when she visited Feakle some twenty years after Biddy’s death. Her book Visions and beliefs in the west of Ireland was published in 1920. The legend that it helped to create was, however, moulded largely by those élites whose revenues and support she threatened. In the 1970s Limerick film-maker Eamon O’Connor was involved in a helicopter crash near Vincent O’Brien’s racecourse a week or two after filming a documentary about her life. Graciously, O’Connor is said to have paid tribute to Biddy Early for saving his own life in what was a serious accident. In parallel with earlier ‘panics’ surrounding her, however, there were some who saw the event as yet another example of ‘misfortune’ associated with her name. Talk of the ‘curse of Biddy Early’ extended at various times to the inability of Clare hurlers to win an All-Ireland (until 1995), interruptions to radio and TV signals, getting lost near her home, non-starting car engines, and the failure (on several occasions) by the national broadcaster, RTÉ, to screen documentaries on the topic of her life. In reality, it was Biddy’s misfortune to be born in the wrong age and at the wrong time. Indeed, her epitaph might be borrowed from one press magnate, who advised that whenever legend and reality conflicted, ‘always print the legend’.

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