MARCH 2006 – NO. 4
What grows up from and over the grave?
Biddy Early was the last woman in Ireland to be tried for witchcraft. She was famous for her long red hair and her beauty, and for her eyes, which were said to be green, and sometimes red, with elliptical pupils like a cat's. She was born in County Clare, in Lower Faha, between Feakle and Gort, in 1798.
That was the year of the Croppies. 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.
Lower Faha is only a few miles from my mother's family's farm at Coolreagh, in the old Barony of Upper Tulla. 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.
From her mother, Biddy inherited the endowment of a very old botanical taxonomy, a pharmacopia of the roots and herbs and nettles, with the knowledge of which plants gave cures, and which plants caused harm. Throughout her adult life, visitors came to Biddy with little presents of butter and poteen, and they went away with cures and potions for injured cattle and for sick children, for failed crops and for broken bones. Now and then, someone would want to know where a lost lamb would be found, or how an evil spell might be taken out of a pig, and Biddy would remedy those matters as well, and now and then she would foretell events by looking into the glass of a little blue bottle.
They say there were times when a line of horse carts was strung out along the road through Kilbarron bog, below her cottage. They say even Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator, sought and won her help and later confessed that without her magic he would not have beaten Vesey Fitzgerald, by 982 votes, in the 1828 Clare elections. The priests were scandalized by it all, and there was dispute and controversy, and my Auntie Noreen once gave me a rosary that had come down to her from those days. It hangs in its place on the wall in my kitchen. My children know it as the rosary that was owned by the brother of the priest whose horse was cursed by Biddy Early.
It was in 1865 that Biddy was charged with witchcraft, under a law from 1586. The witnesses who'd pledged to testify against her changed their minds at the last moment. When her husband Tom Flannery was charged with murdering a wicked landlord, again there was a matter of reluctant witnesses. Biddy outlived Tom. She then married a widower, and outlived him. Then she married the widower's grown son, and outlived him. She married her last husband when she was 70. He was a man little more than half her age, but she outlived him too. Through all these husbands she kept her maiden name, as her mother had done before her. When she died in April, 1874, there were 27 priests at her funeral.
In the early 1980s, a plan was hatched to make something of a tourist attraction out of Biddy's cottage. It involved putting back the fallen stones and thatching the roof and having a woman in period costume sitting in a rocking chair telling stories to Americans and so on. An RTE radio broadcast about it left only dead air. There was a television documentary made about it, but when it was about to be broadcast a bolt of lightning hit the studio and television screens went blank. There was a lot of shamroguery about it and all sorts of pishogues, and events were taken as omens, and it was all very amusing. In the end, the local people ended up regarding the whole idea as just too unseemly, so the tourist scheme was abandoned, and everything on that lonely hill above Kilbarron Bog was left as it was.
Half my life ago, during a visit with my mother's family, I spent the day with my Aunt Angela, traveling with her as she made her rounds for the social services department, looking in on the old people up in the far hills, in their little stone houses, to see how they were getting along. We'd spent the day sitting for tea with this old man and with that old man, and with their dogs at their hearths, and with old couples at their kitchen tables and the bare plaster walls with pictures of the Blessed Virgin taped to them.
Driving home at the end of the day, it was windy and raining fiercely, and Angela said, there's one last old girl, up that little road. I'll wait. Just go up, and call out. The road, which was more of a path, led up a steep hill. At the top was a stone cottage, and the thatched roof had fallen in on one side. There was a broken window, and inside there was a rocking chair overturned on the floor, and I was filled with dread. I called out and no one answered. I hurried back down to the road at the bottom of the hill, but before I could explain, Angela said: Quick then, in you get. And she put the car in gear and sped away, and she was laughing uproariously. That was Biddy's, she said.
Not long ago, during a too-brief visit, my cousin Christine and I went to see what was left of Biddy's ruin. We drove back and forth along the little road below the hill, but there was no sign of a boreen up to a fallen-in cottage, and no sign of a cottage. There was nothing. It was as though it had all vanished into the sky.
We got out and paced along the road, and then we got back into the car and drove some distance away to get a better view of things. But there was no sign of anything. There was an awkward quiet between us, as though we had shared an old family story that had grown rather more elaborate than the real world would permit, like the priest's hole from the days of the penal laws that was supposed to be underneath the farmhouse. It was a story everyone always told about the house. It was even mentioned in an old book about the houses of the district. There was supposed to be a tunnel leading from the hole to one of the fields, but no one had ever actually seen the priest's hole, and no one had ever found the grown-over opening of a tunnel in any of the fields.
It had become a story that haunts the house, like the ghost my grandmother said she saw sitting at the foot of her bed, just before she died. She had prayed her rosary for the ghost, and it went away.
But the day Christine and I went to see what had become of Biddy's ruin, nothing else in the countryside around had vanished. Everything was in its proper place. The dead were in the ground, and the living were above it. That morning we'd walked together in the northern quarter of Coolreaghbeg, and Christine remembered coming there with the whole family, with a pony and cart, to cut turf for the fireplace. It was in that quarter that an army of Anglo-Normans had been lured into a bog by the local Dalcassian tribesmen who had united under Conor O'Brien, in 1259. They were Gradys, McInerneys, and McNamaras, and O'Hynes from Gort, and they surrounded the foreigners, and the foreigners died thrashing under the weight of their own armor. At the end of the day, 700 of their corpses were sinking into the mire, becoming part of the land, becoming part of its stories.
It was the best tea she ever had, Christine remembered, with the bog water for the brewing of it, and the lovely bottomland is still full of bulrushes and bog cotton where Christine rode her horse when she was a girl, and all around us the turf had just been footed. Footing is what they call it, the work of piling the turf in stacks to dry. There was wax furze and fiddlehead, purple thistles and morning glory and blackberry, and nothing was out of place, everything was where it had been when the Dalcassians crept, following the Norman survivors to their entrenchments at Kilconnell. Stone slabs still cover the Norman graves there, at Cladh na nGall, the Ditch of the Foreigner. But there was no sign of Biddy's ruin, from only a century or so before, or even the path up to it.
We came upon an old woman standing on the road up near Feakle, and when we asked directions to Biddy's, she answered this way: Well, I've been here 81 years and I've never heard a bad word against her, and I was born in that house right there and I hope to die in that house too. And good for you as well, Christine said, or something like that, and then the old woman directed us back to the very spot on the road where we'd been, where Christine was certain the path should have been. It's just beyond the little bridge, the old woman said, but it's all overgrown, and you can barely see it. So we went back again.
We found something like a path, hidden in briars, and in we went, and it was like walking uphill in a green tunnel of nettles and sorrel. In the dim light at the end of it, when we could stand up straight again, we found ourselves inside what remained of Biddy's house. It had become like a stone arbor, in a grove of blackthorn, and there were bees playing in a beam of sunlight that had found its way inside it, through the brambles and the creepers.
In the world outside, commuters from Limerick were making their way into the hills. The narrow roads had been widened for their cars, and people weren't walking the roads they way they used to, or riding their bicycles, and a horse on a road was a rare thing. There were golfing holidays and honeymoons in Authentic Irish Cottages, and mini-tours to Spiritual Sites of the Divine Feminine. There were even "famine cottage" and "famine village" attractions. The creamery in Scarriff was gone because of European Union rules about subsidies, so the farmers weren't coming into the town in the morning anymore to deliver their milk and to gather and gab. The land had gone to cow-calf affairs and hobby-farms. Saint Cronan's Church in Tuamgraney had become the East Clare Heritage Centre. For four Euros you could sit in the pews and watch an "audio-visual presentation." It's a kind of slide show.
But people were keeping their own quiet vigil with Biddy's ruin anyway. 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, like barley growing up out of the grave.
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