Bridget Cleary and a poetic journey

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I first met Bridget Cleary when I was 23 and she was 26, the oldest she would ever have been. She was born in Ballyvadlea, Co Tipperary, around 1869, and was murdered late on the night of March 15, 1895. I was born less than a hundred years after her death; his story seemed both near and far.

I met Bridget in a poem. In Manteo, Medbh McGuckian cites Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary as a source. McGuckian writes: “Word for word I count / days blocked by sickness / as in a village-village / on two rivers without a bridge”. The speaker is – or looks like – Bridget, who was sick in bed for 11 days before her death. The chapel-village refers to Cloneen, which my companion and I visited last September, thanks to the support of the Ireland Chair of Poetry Trust. In our hybrid rental car, we were equipped for the future while we were driving in the past.

Cloneen, Co Tipperary, is a rural village, its quiet main road is bordered by a GAA club and church. There is no memorial to celebrate or teach us about Bridget’s life and death. Even his tomb in the cemetery of the Church of the Visitation is unmarked. You have to know Bridget to understand what Wallace Stevens calls “the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is”. In time, his story might be lost to history.

The trip to Cloneen was the culmination of three years of researching and writing about Bridget Cleary. In addition to my reading, I watched documentaries, studied historical maps, visited the National Archives, took a course on the history of witchcraft, etc. At the same time, I was writing poems in Bridget’s voice and in the voices of those who killed her. I was also approaching Bridget’s age when she died.

Bridget was burned to death by her family due to their belief that she was a shapeshifting fairy or witch. They believed the real Bridget had been kidnapped and replaced by a fairy. According to Angela Bourke, Bridget is sometimes known as “Ireland’s last burnt witch”. It’s a way of telling his story. Here’s another: Bridget had been married to her husband for seven years, but they had no children. And another: Bridget made her own money sewing and raising chickens. And yet another: According to the Cork Examiner, people who knew Bridget said she was “a bit queer” and “not all women of the same social background.”

In all these accounts, Bridget was seen as Other and therefore as a threat to patriarchal society. She was childless, financially independent and seemingly unusual. At the end of her life she was also ill, possibly with pneumonia or tuberculosis. The cumulative effect of these so-called societal transgressions led to Bridget’s murder.

There are so many ways to tell Bridget Cleary’s story, and all of them are flawed. We can construct conflicting accounts from the testimonies of Bridget’s family members, who were tried and ultimately convicted of her murder. However, the missing voice in the center is Bridget’s. Bridget was literate, but no surviving written words exist.

Bridget’s story intersects with that of William Butler Yeats, one of the most influential Irish writers of all time. In Roy Foster’s WB Yeats: A Life, Yeats and Mary Battle, his uncle’s governess, discuss Bridget’s murder, also known as the “Tipperary atrocity”. Battle rejects the accusation made by some newspapers that linked Bridget’s death to Yeats’ extensive work on Irish folklore. According to Battle, “normal practice would simply have been to threaten fairies”. In Yeats’ Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry he writes, “Many things can be done to discover a changeling in a child, but there is one infallible thing – setting it on fire.” Yeats suggests the possibility of other folk remedies, but ultimately defers to the “infallible” method of fire.

In the days leading up to Bridget’s murder, her family tried a myriad of remedies. They consulted a doctor, a priest, a plowman and a so-called doctor-fairy. Bridget was given herbs and new milk and sprayed with urine. When her identity was questioned, she claimed she was Bridget Cleary.

In the cemetery of the Church of the Visitation, I stood beside Bridget’s unmarked grave. She is buried next to a wall, a border between sacred land and profane land. A few young men and policemen lifted her body into the cemetery from the other side. She is buried next to her mother, also in an unmarked grave. Looking at Bridget, I felt a surge of emotions: angry at her suffering, sad for all she could have been through, grateful to have had the chance to know more about her. Knowing that nothing can change his life and death, I did the only thought I could think of: I read my poems to him.

Milena Williamson in the graveyard of the Church of the Visitation in Cloneen, Co Tipperary, where Bridget Cleary is buried.

Milena Williamson in the graveyard of the Church of the Visitation in Cloneen, Co Tipperary, where Bridget Cleary is buried.

I chose a poem that imagines his life in all its ordinary glory: “I wake up with the rain and throw potato skins at the dog. / The cat sneaks up on my shoulder. / The hens lay eggs , pearly punctuation of dawn.” I wanted this poem to capture a bit of her life in rural Ireland and show her fondness for the animals she cared for. I read her a poem that imagines her death and freedom from pain: “So I am for the air. I return / to the corner of the moon distilled by sleight of hand / where no name matches my nature but mine. In this passage, I pasted the voice of Bridget from lines spoken by Hecate in Macbeth and Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. In this way, Bridget speaks both as a powerful goddess and as a woman suffering at the hands of men.

Many of my poems allude to Shakespeare’s plays because of the fascinating connection between the trial of Bridget’s family members and theatre. The judge, Judge William O’Brien, said: “I will not allow a question about where the fairies are supposed to be. Maybe they’re supposed to be in this courthouse. We are not performing a play here, but to investigate facts. And yet he quoted Macbeth to describe Bridget’s untimely death, changing the pronouns, when he said, “Pleading like angels, trumpeting / Against the deep damnation of her flight.” In other words, Bridget’s life and death exist in the space between fact and fiction.

My poetry-play hybrid manuscript, tentatively titled Into the Night that Flies So Fast, is a work of feminist literature, reveling in the imaginative potential of how Bridget might have described her own life. My poems stem from a combination of extensive research and poetic license; my project amplifies the story of a persecuted woman while acknowledging that I, as an author, can never speak for her. In my work, where identities are constructed and where fairy belief intersects with factual evidence, we are playing a play here. My poems embrace the places fairies might be, in rural Ireland as well as in people’s minds, reminding us to protect – rather than condemn – those whom society sees as different.
Milena Williamson has written a pamphlet of poems based on her research, Into the Night that Flies So Fast, which has been supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Ireland Chair of Poetry Trust. It is currently under consideration in several presses.

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