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Burning A Changeling, Bridget Cleary And The Good People

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?

8 comments on “Burning A Changeling, Bridget Cleary And The Good People

  1. Lord of Mirkwood

    On the issue of cultural appropriation: living in the U.S., it is scarcely possible to go a month without some controversy or another flaring up. It could be Native American mascots (which I find inane). It could be an Aladdin or samurai costume (which I think is fine if it doesn’t, like, include racial slurs against Arabs or Japanese).

    To apply it to an Irish context, I’d say dressing up as James Connolly is fine, but dressing up as an obviously caricatured, goofy leprechaun, making drunkenness jokes? Maybe leave that one at home.

    The one thing that does need to be taken out of this debate is the equation of someone wearing a sombrero with a Confederate-flag-waver.


    • Yeah, it is a very tricky subject. I tend to err on the side of an open mind. As long as it is not deliberately offensive, then let it go. Though there are times…


  2. Feñch Gallig

    Or perhaps, if people think it made/makes the Irish less civilised to believe that, it would be good to remind people that at the same period the English and French believed in goblins and faeries too, and that many still believe in ghosts. It’s actually a normal and fairly widespread set of beliefs, even it was/is particularly strong and complex in Celtic-speaking countries. So a counter-article/conference about English folk beliefs and practices at the same period would balance things. 🙂
    As for Americans, they are the last people on Earth who could allow themselves to judge the beliefs of others.
    Óch, níl sé furasta a bheith ag leantainn ár mbeatha le na daoine seo as Sasann, an Fhrainc is Meiriceá ag déanamh iarracht muid-ne athrú. B’fhéidir go mbíonn siad ag iarraidh síofra a chur in ár n-áit. 😛


  3. I’ve just finished reading Eddie Lenihan’s wonderful Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Living Ireland, a collection of stories collected from people in the west of Ireland as recently as the early noughties in some cases. There’s still a strong residue of belief in na sídhe, and it’s a very complex and nuanced phenomenon. You won’t find many people in Clare willing to bulldoze a “fairy fort”, for example. If an “outsider” can do the topic justice in fiction without falling into pat cliche or kooky condescension then let them at it, says I. If the end result is the literary equivalent of Tom Cruise’s accent in Far and Away, then we should ignore the work and move on. I think the healthiest thing is to have confidence enough in one’s culture and heritage not to be precious about it and pulling out the old “I’m deeply offended” line every time someone who is not an approved cultural mullah tries to join in.


    • I tend to agree. Where I might draw the line is where actual, living religious beliefs are involved. Then again, what would the world be without “The Life of Brian” or a host of Fantasy novels and movies using vaguely Christian or Hebraic myths. So maybe nothing should be off limits?


  4. Dara O Rourke

    I loved the stories of Patricia Lynch when I was a lad. I think she was American? Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O Shea is wonderful too. It is a tricky genre to get right.I’m not at all sure someone who is not sympatico with the subject matter will succeed.


    • True. It requires a deft hand and a real understanding of the subject matter to craft a good tale from the raw ingredients. Unfortunately when it goes wrong we end up with…


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