Bridget Cleary (Irish: Bríd Ní Chléirigh)
In March 1895, Bridget Cleary became ill. Her husband, Michael, and a number of neighbors and relatives became convinced that she was a fairy changeling and tortured her to death. This grisly true story forms the basis of Angela Bourke’s outstanding narrative The Burning of Bridget Cleary, in which the whole context of this “crime” and its punishment is sparely and powerfully laid out. Bourke’s style, judgment, and eye for detail are superb. There are scenes in this book of appalling vividness–in particular, the chapters concerned with poor Bridget’s end. The closed room, the men yelling questions at her, trying to force her to eat herbs boiled in milk (if she could eat them, then she might be the real Bridget and not the changeling), manhandling her; “lifting her body and winding it backwards and forwards, yelling, ‘away with you; come home, Bridget, in the name of God!’ while slapping her.” On March 14, they held her over the fire to drive the spirits out, and on March 15, Bridget’s husband set fire to her nightgown, throwing lamp oil on her to make the fire burn more fiercely. “She’s not my wife,” he told the assembled people. “You’ll soon see her go up the chimney.”
This is a chilling story, one that stays with you, creepily, long after you have finished reading. Like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, it seems to open itself to a wide variety of interpretation, and Bourke’s balancing of old-world superstitious Ireland against the new rational nation about to be born is expert. These events may be a hundred years old, but they come over as frighteningly contemporary.