The death of Bridget Cleary, killed for being a changeling, brought together many different strands of politics, folklore and literature. It made literal the folk culture that Revivalists like Yeats and Lady Gregory were studying, but in a horrifyingly realistic way – a woman burned and beaten to death because of the “fairy-faith”. Or was it a perversion, as Yeats and others argued?
The politics of the time led to widespread interest in the case, with Ulster Unionists and British Conservatives seeing the case as evidence that Home Rule for Ireland (essentially, government like Canada’s) was a mistake, since the Irish were a backward, superstitious people incapable of self-rule.
But the wider context, and indeed the argument over fairy-lore, ignore the horrifying reality of a feverish woman being tortured to death by her husband and neighbours. The story, and the many questions it raises, has inspired at least two books, and a play. Of the two books, I have read Angela Bourke‘s, and can strongly recommend it. It stays close to the actual events and considers why it was easy for someone to believe such a thing about Bridget Cleary.
The other book, by Joan Hoff and Marion Yates, widens it focus to the larger issues and has been well reviewed, should you wish to read further.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the news reports of the time referred to Bridget Cleary as a “witch” and her death as the last witch-burning in Ireland, while Michael Cleary, his neighbours and the “fairy-doctor” he consulted all referred to her as a “changeling” who had been switched by the fairies. (If you type “last witch burned in Ireland” into Google, all your results will be about Bridget Cleary.)
History of the Events:
The politics of her death:
The Fairy Defense (links the notorious case to the Home Rule question and the fashion for folklore (pdf).)
The Trial of Oscar Wilde (seems a reach but some linked the two as proof of Irish degeneracy)
How the British saw the Irish (the bigoted ones, anyway)
The Celtic Revival
The Celtic Revival: a Nineteenth-Century Debate
The Wife of Michael Cleary (review) on folklore and folk practices and how they break down
Connection to Fairy Lore
Dark HIstories Podcast
Swapping Babies: The Disturbing Faerie Changeling Phenomenon
Exploring Irish Mythology: Changelings
Fairy Faith and Changelings (JSTOR: paywall)Fa
Fairy Forts: Why These ‘Sacred Places’ Deserve Our Respect
They named a band for her!
And she’s a character in Lore, although they put her in the wrong century
The Burning of Bridget Cleary: a True Story, Angela Bourke, Random House, 2006. (Indigo, Amazon)
The Cooper’s Wife is Missing: the Trials of Bridget Cleary, Joan Hoff and Marion Yates, Basic Books, 2001. (Indigo, Amazon)
The image at the top is of a fairy fort at Cloomung, picture by . Wikimedia.