A chilling tale resides in an 1895 issue of the journal Folklore, in which a woman in Ireland, Bridget Cleary, was tortured and burnt to death by her husband trying to drive out the fairy he believed had replaced her.
Michael Cleary, his wife Bridget and her father Patrick Boland, moved into a house built near what was commonly believed to be the site of a Fairy ring fort, in Clonmell, Co. Tipperary. In the March of 1895 local townsfolk noticed the absence of Bridget, who was believed to be unwell. Her husband Michael claimed she had been taken by fairies.
A short time after the authorities were notified, Bridget’s badly burned body was found in a shallow grave. At the trial, which attracted a great deal of interest both in Ireland and Britain, Michael, and his eight co-defendants, including her father Patrick and John Dunne, believed that Bridget had been spirited away by the fairies in the local ring-fort, and she had been replaced by a changeling.
Bridget was alternately force-fed and burned, and repeatedly asked:
In the name of God, are you Bridget Cleary?
believing this process would drive out the fairy, allowing the ‘true’ Bridget Cleary to return. Despite her answers to the affirmative, Bridget was doused in lamp-oil and burned to death on the living room floor, as viewed by witnesses. After her death, Patrick was found to be holding vigil for her in the belief that now the changeling had gone, Bridget would ride back from the fairies on a grey horse and all would then be well.
This tale is just one of many such stories collected by the Folklore Society in their journal, Folklore, which has been recording folkloric traditions and ethnography since 1878. The story of Bridget Cleary was also later explored in great depth in a book, The Burning of Bridget Cleary: a true story, in which the author, Angela Bourke, considers the wider historical and cultural contexts of the events that befell poor Bridget.
At first glance, folklore may seem an unexpected subject to find in a history of medicine library, but Henry Wellcome had a strong interest in folk medicine, and was himself a member of the Folklore Society.
Delving further into the Wellcome Library collections, it becomes clear that this tale is less unusual than it might seem. In 1851, Dr William Pickells recorded several examples of children from Ireland who were believed to have been spirited away by the magical beings, and replaced by a changeling that resembled the child. These changelings, he notes, were identified by their sickly nature, or, in one particularly harrowing case, by their high intelligence, with many of the children concerned suffering from tuberculosis or epilepsy.
‘Treatment’ was administered by the use of Digitalis purpurea, or foxglove, which was believed to be lethal to fairy folk. The plant was boiled and used along with other ‘treatments’ such as drowning and burning, as a ‘kill or cure’: if the child survived, he/she had been released by the fairies. If the child was killed however, it was the changeling that had actually died, and the ‘real’ child would then surely return.
Dr Pickells article suggests that people sometimes sought supernatural explanations for some of the seemingly random and cruel afflictions that struck their loved ones, especially if they were children. The sad tale of Bridget Cleary and the children mentioned by Dr Pickells seem inexplicable to modern eyes, but when the medicine of the day failed to provide hope, the power of superstition may have offered people a (desperate) alternative to just doing nothing for a sick loved one.
Author: Scott Nolan is a Support Services Assistant at the Wellcome Library.
- The Witch burning in Clonmel. Folklore 1895; vol. 6 (December): 373-384
- Pickells, W. Deleterious practice of some of the Irish peasantry connected with the belief in fairies. Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal 1851; vol. 76: 57-63
- Kiberd, D. Astride a white horse [book review]. London Review of Books 2000; vol. 22 no.1