The Australian fiction author, Hannah Kent, whose debut historical novel, “Burial Rites“, was published to critical acclaim in 2013 is currently promoting her newest work, “The Good People“. While the first book recounted the story of a condemned woman awaiting execution for the murder of two men in northern Iceland during 1829, the second takes place some four years earlier in the south-west of Ireland. In a brief interview with the Guardian Kent points to an early 19th century newspaper article as the inspiration for the tale:
“The clipping, from 1826, noted that an Irish woman had been acquitted of a serious crime because she claimed she had been trying to banish a fairy.
Kent returned to the case a few years later and immersed herself in Irish folklore and folk medicine. The result is her second novel, The Good People, which grapples with morality, grief and the nature of faith in a remote southwestern Irish village in the 1820s. Central to its plot is Nóra Leahy, a woman grieving for the husband and daughter she has lost, both in the same year. Taxed with the care of her young grandson, who can neither talk nor walk, Nóra seeks help from a healer, Nance Roche, who the villagers believe can consort with fairies.
“Women like Nance did exist,” says Kent. She mentions the 19th century herbalist Bridget Ellen “Biddy” Early, who was seen as an “intermediary between the ordinary world and world of fairies. People said she had foresight, that she could heal people of inexplicable ills.”
Fairy lore was an integral part of the fabric of rural Irish culture at the time, says Kent. Children who looked unusual or behaved aberrantly were accused of being “swept” away by the fairies and of a changeling, or fairy child, replacing them. Such beliefs often had serious consequences: an infamous case involved a 25-year-old woman, Bridget Cleary, who was tortured and murdered by her husband and relatives. They believed her to be a changeling and maintained they had killed the fairy replacement rather than Bridget herself.”
The reference to Bridget Cleary is an interesting one. Her tragic death in 1895 has been the subject of considerable speculation and misrepresentation over the last century. Numerous articles and pseudo-academic tracts have been published naming her as a “witch“, including the sensationalist headline that she was “…the last witch burned in Ireland“. However contemporary accounts from the trial of her killers, including her husband Michael Cleary, make it clear that they saw the victim as a “changeling” or supernatural impostor and not the Bridget they knew (the book’s title refers to the post-Medieval Irish tradition of referring to the mythological and folkloric Otherworld race in a circumspect manner, including the common term na Daoine Maithe “the Good People”) .
While some writers have taken this defence at face value a more rigorous examination of the killing points to marital trouble between the couple, exacerbated by the young woman’s childlessness, independent income and eventual poor health. That is not to discount the influence of existing folk-beliefs in the events leading up to the murder and immolation. However there is little doubt that Bridget Cleary’s death can be attributed more to male violence in a patriarchal rural society than to irrational fairy-lore among ignorant peasants.
Sadly, the media sensation caused by the trial of Michael Cleary in 1895 was of far greater significance than the killing itself, albeit for largely political reasons. The “primitive” and “savage” nature of the Irish conjured up by the national and international press arrived at the worse possible time for those seeking to ameliorate the brutal conditions of Britain’s colonial rule in the country. Exaggerated reports of the case confirmed ancient British notions of racial superiority and contributed to another failure in the campaign to achieve “home rule” for Ireland. Lisa Spangenberg has an interesting take on the case in her short essay, “Bridget Cleary: Fairy Intrusion in Nineteenth Century Ireland“, that is worth a read.
Just a final thought. Australia was the location of the recent speech by the controversial writer and British-apologist, Lionel Shriver, on the contentious issue of “cultural appropriation“. Unsurprisingly the American-born author defended the artistic practice. However, I am very much in two minds about it, especially in a colonial setting. Since the Creidheamh Sí is still important to people in Ireland, including my atheistic self, I wonder how ASF readers feel about the appropriateness of an “outsider” adapting it for a work of fiction, however tangentially?