“…Something for poor Biddy, Her Clothes are torn, Her shoes are worn, Something for poor Biddy, Here is Brigit dressed in white, Give a penny for her tonight, She is deaf, she is dumb, She cannot talk without a tongue, For God’s sake, give her some…”
– Traditional verse recited by Biddy Boys in Fermanagh
The Biddy is honoured every year in the Mid-Kerry region with Biddy groups visiting rural and public houses. The Biddies carry a Brídeóg (an effigy of the young Brigid) with them to ensure evil spirits are kept away from humans and animals alike for the coming year. A visit from the Biddy guaranteed good luck, fertility, prosperity and to not receive a visit was considered a terrible slight.
The Biddies on entering the house would put on a performance which usually consisted of a song, a brush dance and a half set. Of course these skills differed depending on the skill set of the Biddies themselves. The lady of the house would offer a financial donation or if they were unable, an offering of food and drink was accepted. The money collected that night was used some days later to host a Biddy Ball where the Biddies could enjoy the fruits of their work. Some of the bigger groups could afford a band along with their healthy provisions of drink. Today the Biddy Ball is a thing of the past and the collected money is given to local charities or organisations to help maintain schemes and schools in the various townlands.
Today the Biddy tradition only survives in Mid Kerry but it was once common throughout County Kerry, Cork, Fermanagh and Antrim. Mid Kerry has been fortunate to hold on to a number of ancient traditions. Killorglin town is home to Ireland’s oldest festival the famous Puck Fair. For the last four hundred plus years a male goat (a puck) has been crowned King of Ireland and raised aloft a 30ft stand in the town centre for three days of raucous celebrations. There surely isn’t another town in Ireland that can boast two coronation days in their calendar as on Biddy’s Day a ‘King of the Biddies’ is also crowned there.
The modern Biddy troop can consist of any amount of male or female members but in the past the Biddies usually consisted solely of males. The men often dressed in women’s clothes as part of their guise. A troop must have a leader and someone to carry the Brídeog. The Brídeog is usually purpose built so is constructed on a cross frame that provides a handle for the Biddy. In the past the head was often carved from a turnip and a face draw on with soot. Hair was saved from when female members of the household had a haircut and this was used to create hair for the Brídeog. This was often reused year on year and some groups could boast hair from a great grandmother atop their effigy. The troop would also carry a broom for bush dancing and if entering a competition a sign with their troops name is needed. Biddy groups will wear coloured ribbons or sashes to designate their allegiance. For example in Mid Kerry the Ceannauvoree troop wear Green and Gold, Kilgobnet wear green & red and the Callinafercy Biddy a Blue & Yellow ribbon crisscrossed over the chest. They will have traditional Irish music instruments such as a fiddle, bodhran and tin whistle.
The most important aspect of the Biddies costume is their straw hat. The hats are usually made by a designated hat maker but this skill set is dwindling and must be protected. the hat maker prefers to use oaten straw for its length and mailability. It is important that the straw has not been threshed. It is dried indoors and cleaned before use. Their are a number of hats styles. Larger more intricate designs are usually worn by the senior members while children and new recruits will have a smaller less decorated hats.
For many years the Kilgobnet Biddy from Beaufort, Co. Kerry was the most prominent Biddy group in Ireland. This is due to a number of factors. Firstly their hat maker Mike Coffey has a real passion for his craft and produces the best quality hats in Ireland. Secondly the Kilgobnet primary school teaches the Biddy skill set; brush dancing, the half set and singing in the school (A practice I believe all schools in the region should adopt). They also have a rich tradition and history to help inspire new members to join their ranks. As such, Kilgobnet are the only townland to have both a junior and senior Biddy group and it has not been unheard to have three generations of the one family going on the Biddy together. Unfortunately the tradition had not survived as well outside of Kilgobnet.
As of 2016 there was only two active Biddy groups left in Mid Kerry (And all Ireland). The Biddy tradition was in serious decline as many traditional groups had hung up their hats in the previous twenty years. Thankfully due to a group of volunteers this trend was reversed and the tradition re-energised in Mid Kerry.
While I was not raised going on the Biddy I had always been intrigued by this ancient tradition. By 2016 I had many years of experience volunteering with a successful arts festival and this gave me the skill set and confidence that I could maybe help revive the Biddy tradition. I formed a committee and we decided that the best way to revive the tradition was to create a stage for them to show off their skills and tradition. To this end we invited all the old groups to participate in a fire torch parade followed by a ‘King of the Biddies’ competition. Thankfully most groups had held onto their hats. By the time that first parade took place over one hundred Biddies marched through Killorglin town. Mike Coffey the Kilgobnet hat maker was crowned king and the tradition was well on its way once more.
By 2018 Mid Kerry could boast eleven active traditional groups and a further two were in the process of reforming. Each year classes were held on Biddy’s Day to teach traditional skill sets such as hat making, Brigid Cross Making, Brídeog making and set dancing in the hope that the younger generation would be inspired to create new groups. Historical lectures were also held to introduce people to the various traditions around Brigid’s day and Imbolc. My personal proudest achievement was when the Mid Kerry Biddy was enshrined on the Irish states new intangible cultural list along with thirty other traditions such as Hurling and Harping. This took many years of me calling random UNESCO offices in both France and Dublin but it was worth it as the tradition has a protected status and must be preserved.
Just this week I received a message from a fellow folklorist who lives in Cork who had joined us for our first parade. He had returned home to Bandon inspired by what he saw and created his own group The Bandon Biddy Boys.
Conor Browne is a writer and folklorist from County Kerry with a love for old traditions and is the Chairperson of the Biddy’s Day festival, The Biddy’s Day Festival. The Biddy’s Day Committee consists of a group of passionate volunteers; Conor Browne, Thomás ‘Totty’ O’Sullivan, Josie O’Donnell, Michael Houlihan, Declan Evans, Joe Brennan, Jacinta Browne, Ruth McCarthy with help from our specialist Biddy consultants Mike Coffey, Johnny and Batty Cahillane.