Edmund Lenihan,
In Search of Biddy Early
(Mercier Press, 1987)

Edmund Lenihan's In Search of Biddy Early is no fanciful recreation of the reputed Irish witch's life. Nor is it a dry recounting of what few facts are known about the historical figure from 19th-century County Clare. Instead, Lenihan preserves the oral tradition surrounding the famed healer, wisewoman and prognosticator, recording tales passed down by those who knew her to their surviving children and grandchildren.

Whether or not you choose to believe the stories about Biddy and the "magic" bottle which provided her with insight into the future and mysterious cures for a wide variety of ailments, you'll likely enjoy the plain, blunt speech of the people telling their tales in a rough country dialect faithfully transcribed by Lenihan.

There are conflicts and contradictions in the narratives, particularly concerning the events leading to Biddy's receiving the bottle from the Good Folk of Ireland. But the spirit holds true throughout -- that Biddy Early used her powers selflessly, for the good of those around her. And, while many of these tales may be little more than rural legends customized to specific families and towns loosely connected to Biddy's history, it's obvious the storytellers feel a certain pride at being tied in some way to the enigmatic figure.

The book could have benefitted from a bit more historical data -- certain details of Biddy's life are apparently known to be true, particularly those related to her birth, death and marriages. However, Lenihan stated early in the text his intention not to duplicate other biographical efforts, a pledge which makes sense to some degree. Still, a brief synopsis of Biddy's historical life would have been useful.

The similarity between tales gets tedious at times, but Biddy Early is still a quick, enjoyable read about a popular Irish folk hero and legend from fairly recent times. I recommend it to anyone interested in Irish lore or the folkways of Clare in the 19th century. Lenihan presents an interesting slice of life along with his narration.

[ by Tom Knapp ]