One of my favorite books to bring out on a rainy day is Lady Augusta Gregory’s “Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland” which details accounts of her travels searching for Irish folkways. My favorite chapter is on “Seers and Healers” and takes a look at the traditional Irish wise women and cunning folk. People like Biddy Early are talked about in great detail, as well as other famous healers. One of the reasons this interests me so much is because these folkways and beliefs had such a great influence upon Ozark/Appalachian folk belief. We can clearly see in the person of the Ozark Power or Yarb Doctor the ancestor that was the cunning folk. I’m including the first few paragraphs of this chapter below, and since it is a long section I’ll give a link to the rest of the work.
In talking to the people I often heard the name of Biddy Early, and I began to gather many stories of her, some calling her a healer and some a witch. Some said she had died a long time ago, and some that she was still living. I was sure after a while that she was dead, but was told that her house was still standing, and was on the other side of Slieve Echtge, between Feakie and Tulla. So one day I set out and drove Shamrock, my pony, to a shooting lodge built by my grandfather in a fold of the mountains, and where I had sometimes, when a young girl, stayed with my brothers when they were shooting the wild deer that came and sheltered in the woods. It had like other places on our estate a border name brought over from Northumberland, but though we called it Chevy Chase the people spoke of its woods and outskirts as Daire-caol, the Narrow Oak Wood, and Daroda, the Two Roads, and Druim-da-Rod, their Ridge. I stayed tile night in the low thatched house, setting out next day for Feakle “eight strong miles over the mountain.” It was a wild road, and the pony had to splash his way through two unbridged rivers, swollen with the summer rains. The red mud of the road, the purple heather and foxglove, the brown bogs were a contrast to the grey rocks and walls of Burren and Aidline, and there were many low hills, brown when near, misty blue in the distance; then the Golden Mountain, Slieve nan-Or, “where the last great battle will be fought before the end of the world.” Then I was out of Connacht into Clare, the brown turning to green pasture as I drove by Raftery’s Lough Greine.
I put up my pony at a little inn. There were portraits of John Dillon and Michael Davitt hanging in the parlour, and the landlady told me Parnell’s likeness had been with them, until the priest had told her he didn’t think well of her hanging it there. There was also on the wall, in a frame, a warrant for the arrest of one of her sons, signed by, I think, Lord Cowper, in the days of the Land War. “He got half a year in gaol the same year Parnell did. He got sick there, and though he lived for some years the doctor said when he died the illness he got in gaol had to do with his death.”
I had been told how to find Biddy Early’s house “beyond the little humpy bridge,” and I walked on till I came to it, a poor cottage enough, high up on a mass of rock by the roadside. There was only a little girl in the house, but her mother came in afterwards and told me that Biddy Early had died about twenty years before, and that after they had come to live in the house they had been “annoyed for a while” by people coming to look for her. She had sent them away, telling them Biddy Early was dead, though a friendly priest had said to her, “Why didn’t you let on you were her and make something out of them?” She told me some of the stories I give below, and showed me the shed where the healer had consulted with her invisible friends. I had already been given by an old patient of hers a “bottle” prepared for the cure, but which she had been afraid to use. It lies still unopened on a shelf in my storeroom. When I got back at night fall to the lodge in the woods I found many of the neighbours gathered there, wanting to hear news of “the Tulla Woman” and to know for certain if she was dead. I think as time goes on her fame will grow and some of the myths that always hang in the air will gather round her, for I think the first thing I was told of her was, “There used surely to be enchanters in the old time, magicians and freemasons. Old Biddy Early’s power came from the same thing.”