I attended an excellent lecture by Dr. Thomas Waters this week entitled Fairies, Curses and Witches: The Uses and Abuses of Magic in Modern Ireland and Britain. Dr. Waters gave a fantastic overview of these subjects but I was caught off-guard when he mentioned some particular findings from his recent research.
He spoke about the awful tragedy of Bridget Clery, an Irish woman who was burnt to death by her husband who accused her of being a fairy changeling. Although there are many documented cases of horrendous tests that were supposed to determine whether a person was a fairy or not, including dunking in water, poisoning, being scalded and branded, for example, Bridget's fate has been immortalised because of the widespread media coverage at the time, as well as the many books about her since her death. There is even a famous nursery rhyme which goes, "Are you a witch or are you fairy? No. I'm the wife of Michael Cleary."
So, with this in mind, what struck me during Dr. Waters' lecture was how he has uncovered many more burnings and killings of Irish people who were believed to be fairy changelings, though whose fate has remained largely forgotten. The whole subject of changelings is arguably the most controversial aspect of fairy research today, I would contend. We have explanations from both the Victorian and modern era which over-rationalise the phenomena, as well as ignoring the folklore.
Even the term 'changeling' today has been used by some to self-identify, and while this is often (always?) done with good intent, it definitely tangles the actual lore and beliefs even more. The end results of many changeling cases are the tragic outcomes for those accused of being of the fairy realm. If a person was lucky, they may have been believed to have returned from the Otherwold, and although always looked upon with suspicion, may still live a normal life. This case from Co. Wicklow is a good example of that outcome. However, often a person would endure terrible torture, and what is even more unfortunate is that is was usually children who were thought to have been taken by the fairies. It is harrowing to imagine what they felt as they were taken from their parents and subjected to agonising tests of their human nature.
It has often been said that because Irish fairy belief was so widespread it reduced the amount of witchcraft accusations, and, as such, torture and burnings. Dr. Waters' new findings may make us reassess this thinking, though. It is no consolation whether a person was killed because they were believed to be a fairy or a witch if they were still killed for the same type of magical connection. Ultimately, it is often the lack of voice, or repressed, powerless, societal position of the victim which enables the accuser to bring such charges in the first place. (C.) David Halpin. Image by Brooke Shaden