Research is pretty routine in the life of a writer. Even one that writes about made-up worlds and invented magical systems. In support of my current project I’ve been doing a bit of research about changelings, humans (often children) who are stolen away, faerie replacements or an enchanted piece of wood, left in their place. The folktales vary widely as to who is doing the taking, with fairies, trolls and elves typically taking the blunt of the blame.
In doing my research I’ve stumbled upon some pretty interesting tidbits, one of which is the story of Bridget Cleary.
Children’s nursery rhymes often have gruesome histories, and the Irish nursery rhyme ‘Are you a witch or are you a fairy? Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’ is one such. On a cold winters day in March of 1895 Bridget Cleary, a 26 year old seamstress married to the cooper Michael Cleary, fell gravely ill. The pair were liked and respected in the village they called home, but they were a bit peculiar. They’d been married for eight years, but they had no children (an oddity at the time). And Bridget was an independent sort – always wandering around town delivering eggs to her customers and stopping for a spell near the old “fairy forts” outside of Clonmel.
Michael summoned a doctor when his wife fell ill, but the man was slow in coming. It took him over a week to get there, and in the meantime, Michael became increasingly convinced his wife had been taken by fairies, the sickly thing left behind a creature of magic and deceit – a changeling.
A visit from Bridget’s aunt and uncle found the house full of villagers chanting and performing rituals to try to banish the fairy, while Michael, Bridget’s brother, and a handful of villages forced herbs boiled in milk down her throat, threw urine on her, and held her over a hearth fire in an effort to cast out the evil forces they believe possessed her.
A few days after St. Patrick’s Day Bridget was reported as missing. Folks said she had been taken by the fairies. Others said she’d sought out the fairies in their fairy forts. But a short time later her body was found, badly charred and mutilated, in a shallow grave nearby. Michael denied having killed his wife. Claimed he’d only “driven out the fairy”, and that he would soon meet his real wife at a local fairy ring, she’d ride out on a white horse to meet him there.
This story and nursery rhyme have really stuck with me. It’s not unique, certainly. Humans are a violent sort, and easily mislead by belief in supernatural forces – whether in the form of faerie or the more modern devil. History is littered with the bones and dust of those killed in the name of some ‘purity’ ideal. It’s that nursery rhyme. ‘Are you a witch or are you a fairy? Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’ The idea of this being chanted by laughing children as they dance about those very same ‘fairy rings’, clueless about grisly nature of the rhyme, ignorant of the agony and heartbreak Bridget must have felt in those last days and hours as her husband, brother, and everyone she knew brutalized her in the name of ‘driving out the demon’ of her illness. It’s as if they summon that darkness in the breaths between their laughter when chanting such things.
Interesting plot bunny – laughing, innocent children summoning darkness into the spaces between their words as they chant nursery rhymes, breathing it out as they laugh into the bright sunny air. I’ll leave that for another day. For today, Bridget Cleary will find a place in my current novel. As will her rhyme.
Are you a witch, are you a fairy? Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?
If you want to learn a bit more:
*This one may be a trigger warning for some.*