A life of hardship

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

Bridget (Biddy) Early was born in 1798 in the townland of Lower Faha, Co. Clare, the only child of John Thomas Connors and Ellen Early, at a time of bloody revolution. Her family lived in poverty, with her mother making clothes spun from flax grown in the fields nearby. The threat of eviction was ever-present. Ellen Early passed down to her daughter her secret knowledge of herbal cures, for which she herself had earned a minor reputation. This may have led Biddy to keep her mother’s maiden name. Biddy may also have been illiterate, but some sources have suggested that she knew the secret language of the gypsies, called ‘Shelta’, as well as Irish and English. She is said to have had red hair and thus, according to Biblical tradition (the traitor Judas was said to have had the same colouring), was a source of fear and bad luck. When she was sixteen years old both her parents died, her mother of malnutrition and her father, soon after, of typhus. She was forced to leave her home, and when she became estranged from relatives living in Slieveanore she took to the roads. According to some accounts she eventually entered the ‘house of industry’ (workhouse) in Ennis (established in 1776), which catered for ‘sturdy beggars and vagabonds’. She had seen the pitiful impact of evictions carried out by ‘crowbar gangs’ as a child and it is said that such experiences shaped her hostility towards authority figures thereafter. She met her first husband, Pat Malley, in 1817 and married soon after, settling in Gurteenreagh, Feakle. She subsequently went on to have three further husbands: John Malley, her stepson; Tom Flannery, who built the cottage near Kilbarron Lake; and a final relationship with Limerick man Thomas Meaney. She married the latter in St Mary’s Church, Limerick, in July 1869, when she was in her seventies. Although her partner was a fit young man in his thirties, incredibly she outlived him also. The Limerick Chronicle of 29 July 1869, which covered the unusual wedding, described Biddy as a ‘witch or sorceress’ living near Tulla.


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