I thought I came from fairly boring peasant stock until my mother’s Catholic priest came home from Ireland one summer with a book he found there, "Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare." Our last name is Early, and we are a large clan of ten (technically--there was a divorce, let’s say nine) in my immediate family, and seventeen members in my Dad’s dairy-farming family--that's fifteen kids for him and his siblings, but that has nothing to do with my story, not as far as you know. I was 16 and the only one who read this little book. Devoured it. After years of fruitless Catholic instruction, hours and years of mind-numbing masses, catechisms, rituals, I finally understood: It had to be an act of God that Father Michael brought us this heretical text.
I was a descendant of a witch from Ireland.
I was a born atheist (which I soften now by saying “nontheist”), with pagan leanings, but a logical, college-bound ‘A’ student. Paganism was cool to the extent bonfires were cool, that ancient peoples might have had ritual sex around them, that maypoles might have been fun to dance around.
Sure, my intensely Catholic mother shuddered when, at 11, I stuck a quarter in Esmerelda’s Fortune Telling Machine, in one of those crappy tchotchke shops near Fisherman's Wharf and asked, after reading my fortune card, “It says I have a predilection for the occult. What's 'occult'"? My mom didn’t answer, just blanched.
Always reading the wrong books from the library, I thrilled at 13 to learn that poltergeist events coincided with adolescent girls nearing menses--that ashtrays could fly through the air elevated primarily by girls' rising hormone levels.
I thought my extended family inexplicably weird: my aunts and uncles believed in UFOs, in the power to move things with their minds, an ability to communicate with the spirits in the nether world, telepathy and precognition. Come to think of it, this isn’t boring, peasant-stock fare, but I chalked this stuff up to a rural sensibility that had little to do with reality. What else are you to do or imagine if you live on a dairy farm in the middle of nowhere, in a town called Los Molinos, a one-grocer, two-gas station hamlet off the Sacramento River at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills?
This is how I know we are direct or indirect descendants of Biddy Early: One night my aunt Kathleen was driving her family station wagon way out on the back roads of Los Molinos when the car suddenly stopped. Right in the middle of the road. For no reason. Why she was driving her husband and all the kids out there past the ranch late at night, I do not know. There’s nothing for miles but thistle-lined ditches and rickety fence posts anchoring barbed wire, and some hundreds of horses gone feral among all the other wild things. The night sky is so big and heavy and dense with stars up there that the giant oak trees actually look like little broccoli sprouts on the horizon. My uncle wiggled everything under the hood; they cranked, pumped, cranked, and finally sat, puzzled, in their quiet isolation—even the crickets were quiet. Then, just as suddenly, the car started back up. Whoever, or whatever “it” was, released them. The implication was they were being observed, studied, and then let go.
I’ll explain the family connection in a bit, being the logical person I am.
Biddy Early, in Ireland, was a good witch, a healer, born 1798 and, outliving four husbands, ‘breathed her last’ in 1874. As a young woman, she inherited a wee blue bottle from the “little people,” the Irish spirit world, which she used for divination. Her mother had taught her every moss, leaf, bark, stem and flower useful for concocting healing tinctures, drops, and ointments which people sought from afar. The folks in Clare continued to call Biddy’s mother by her maiden name and continued this with Biddy, the Irish long predating the practice of modern professional women retaining their given names for obvious reasons.
Biddy’s telepathic moments involved seeing into the future and cautioning people from harm. “Do not take the turn, mind you, by the brook, but take your horse miles away….” And the good husband would plea, ‘But, Biddy, my wife is dying, I must get this potion to her at once.’ Trusting Biddy, he turned his horse from her cottage, healing tincture in hand, to find that at the precise moment he would have crossed said brook, lightning would strike and fell a mighty branch and he might never have gotten that healing potion home.
Nothing can explain the thrill of recognition when I read about Biddy Early stopping the horse, dead, in the middle of the road.
Being especially intolerant of witches at the turn of last century and previous, a Catholic priest stopped by to harass Biddy Early at her cottage. She was, after all, upstaging him on the healing and miracles front.
Biddy was nothing but respectful of Christianity and the Catholic church. To paraphrase Meda Ryan, who collected the locals’ current-to-this-day stories in her book, the priest parked his horse up the road and barged in:
‘Are you the woman they call Biddy Early?’
‘Well, they call me that anyway, Father.'
‘You wrath of a devil…If you don’t lave this and stop that, I’ll put you into the lake below in a ball of fire.'
‘Ye’re great men, wonderful great men,’ says Biddy.
He went all round the room with his whip, cracking the lash around the room to knock the fright out of Biddy. ‘If I come back again to see you, you’ll remember me.’
'You’ll remember me too,’ says she, ‘before you’re gone very far.’
About a quarter mile from her house, Biddy put a hex on the priest’s horse. It stopped in the middle of the road, for no reason at all, as far as the priest knew. When he couldn’t raise his hand to strike the whip, nor move his foot from the stirrup, he begged a local for help. He confessed a sudden respect for Biddy Early.
That local went straight to her cottage. ‘Let the poor man go, Biddy. Leave him go this time.’
She said, ‘Ah, he was a great bully here a few minutes ago, a great bully….'
Nonetheless, Biddy prompted the local to pull “three thraneens”— whatever that is—from her white-thorn bush. She said, ‘Here now, give them to him, and tell him to strike his horse on the right shoulder, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. And tell that priest when he’s at home, to mind his own business, and not to mind me.’
Our family’s car was stopped in the middle of the road. Apparently, according to family lore, for no reason other than being studied.
Meda Ryan wrote, in her introduction, after interviewing one Mr. Walsh, who’d spent a night ‘with a few of the lads’ talking about Biddy’: ‘When they went out, the car wouldn’t start. A new car, and it wouldn’t start. We had to drive them home. Next day there was nothing wrong with the car. Strange!’
My immediate Irish ancestor, a Dennis Early, was a stowaway on a cargo ship, a nine-year-old escapee of the potato famine. His own great-great-grandson, my Grandpa Early, whose father would have a dairy farm in Ferndale, California, would mysteriously whisper, on his own dairy farm in Los Molinos, about “the gentlemen,” and “the little people”: and my aunts and uncles would develop their own unique penchant for the supernatural. My mother, from ultraboring German stock, married into this family; need I say who divorced whom?
In the absence of wee ones, the “little people” that haunt and instruct the traditional Irish, my father’s modern family reached past the abundant Northern Californian stars to the wheely whiriling vehicles travelling amongst them, and they settled for UFOs and aliens. They didn’t know directly about Biddy Early. They didn’t read books. You didn’t need ‘book-learnin’ in my family.
At the time, I inwardly mocked my relatives and went on to college and grad school, about the only one so launched in my family, and made a living writing in technical fields.But I collected young dandelion sprouts from my yard and made a soup, knowing in my bones, without fact-checking, that dandelion held more beta carotene than carrots and would be good for my young family. Worse, I longed to make a cream soup from nettles the first time I accidently encountered them and they bit my fingers. Where did this knowledge come from?
Even worse, when my children got mosquito bites, I melted aspirin with warm water into a poultice (aspirin, I knew, was salicyclic acid extracted from the willow tree, an ancient homeopathic), which I mounded onto the bite and affixed with a band-aid. My kids never scratched. The bites healed fast.
That day before my Catholic priest came home, I'd only known of Salem witches. I’m guessing, now, that Father Michael comes from a long line of fine Catholic priests who have learned their lesson and are continuing to do good by those of us who are instinctive healers.
In 2007, I made a pigrammage to Biddy Early’s cottage, County Clare, Ireland, my personal mecca for genetic weirdness. For this blogpost, we’ll end this here, before we get to the bridge and the lightning, because henceforth the stories get really weird…but I WILL let you know, from Biddy Early's cottage, where the locals advised me: "ye can go there, it's down the road a wee past the lake, round the corner past the bridge, a little break in the hedge you'll find it, but...dun no' touch the stones! what'ever y'do, lass, dunno' touch the stones." And where plants and trees spring from the decaying stone foundations, from her dirt floor straight through the thatch ceiling that has long since rotted away, where folks are wary of touching stones let alone her entire property, I collected moss, roots, flowers, and stems, and whatnot from her untouched property. And, until now, nothing bad has ever happened to me.
Causes Gayle Early Supports
Environmental protections, human rights, marriage equality