When I was a child and was naughty (not really naughty but perhaps headstrong and wayward), my father would occasionally say to me, “Are you a witch or are you a fairy or are you the wife of Micheal Cleary?” You’d think this would have stuck out more, but my mother had her little rhyme as well which went, “There once was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead, and when she was good, she was very very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid.” So perhaps I grew up thinking that this type of incantation was just part of the lexicon of all children.
I wish that I’d thought to ask my father the origin of his little rhyme. He didn’t say it all that often, but enough that I remembered it as an adult. One day as I considered putting it in a poem about him, I googled the phrase. Bridget Cleary was the wife of Michael Cleary. Bridget who died at the hands of her husband in 1895. Her husband who told friends and family that his true wife had been “swept” by the Good People who’d left a changeling in her place.
A story that unfolded more at every turn. Every book and scholarly article read. Every internet search. Court documents examined. The story contains many elements that intrigue me: Irish history, domestic violence, fairy lore, colonialism, witchcraft, plant lore, land-based belief systems. It’s an incredibly sad story of the death of a young woman, not yet 30 years old. But in all that I read, I have never found Bridget’s voice – we hear from her father, her husband, her cousins, her neighbors, the newspaper pundits of the day, but Bridget’s voice is completely missing from her own story.
And so, I follow the spark of Bridget’s voice.
I’ll take you along as I unpack each element of her story.