ONE OF the most sensational murder trials in late 19th century Ireland was that of Bridget Cleary in 1895, who was burned alive by her husband and cousins, who sincerely believed she was a ‘changeling’.
In March that year, Bridget, who lived with her husband in County Tipperary, took ill. The exact nature of her illness was never confirmed but her husband Michael sincerely believed she had been taken possession of by a deviant spirit known as a changeling. The belief took on extra resonance since the couple’s house was near a fairy fort, which was locally believed to be haunted.
As Bridget’s illness continued, the family became convinced that the only way to drive the spirit out was to burn her - an echo of ancient superstitions in Ireland and Britain - convinced the changeling would evaporate up the chimney and that Bridget would be restored to full health. Instead Bridget died by immolation and her husband served 15 years in prison for manslaughter.
This extraordinary event is the inspiration for Patrick Galvin’s play The Last Burning, which will be staged in Galway in August by new Galway theatre company Thereisbear!
A theatrical life
Thereisbear! was founded in December by Hanna O’Reilly, Samuel Ferry, Emmet Byrne, and Ciara Moyna, all students in NUI Galway and who came into contact with each other through the university’s Drama Soc. The core of the company was completed by Darragh O’Brien (treasurer ), Martin Kenny, and secretary Laura Hicks.
Thereisbear!’s first production was The Last Burning in NUIG and the reaction from students and staff was so positive it encouraged the young company to take it on the road. Come August, the play will be performed in Galway, Tuam, Ballinasloe, Cork, Listowel, and Dublin.
As well as Drama Soc, many of those involved in Thereisbear! have experience of the stage through work with Mephisto, Fregoli, and Waterdonkey. Hanna herself comes from a family steeped in amateur dramatics in her home town of Ballinasloe.
“I was in The Wiz when it was staged by Ballinasloe Musical Society and that’s where I decided I wanted to do theatre,” Hanna tells me during our Monday afternoon interview. “Emma, my sister, played Dorothy; my sister Kate was in the chorus; my dad was in it; I was doing the prompting; and my mum was involved in making the costumes. Locally it was known as ‘Project O’Reilly’!
“Mum had the house turned into a dress making factory. I will never forget the foam that was everywhere to make the crow’s feet and that every bit of the kitchen floor was covered in material. The Von Trapps was another name for us!”
The Last Burning also had a family connection too good for Hanna to ignore when the chance came up to direct the play.
“I put my name down to direct this play before I even saw or read it,” she says, “as my dad actually put on a production of The Last Burning about 23 years ago, before I was born. All I had heard about it was that there was witches in it, a guy who talks to goats, and a girl who gets burned alive. I am petrified of horror films yet I love dark stories in theatre as it looks at it in a more realistic, more psychological, way, than film.”
In Hanna’s word’s, The Last Burning is “super, super dark” and it takes a classic horror story stance - how much of the supernatural terror is real and how much is in the protagonists’ head?
“The way the play is written, the characters of the four witches run in parallel with the story of Bridget and Michael, and only a couple of times do they overlap,” she says. “It means you can look at Michael’s psychology as well as the supernatural and the audience can decide for themselves which it is.”
Although Bridget is the victim in The Last Burning, much of the drama focuses on Michael. Is he a violent, unthinking, villain? Or a decent man, concerned for his wife’s well-being, but an example of how superstition can corrode and distort the mind?
“The witches could be in his mind or they could be real,” says Hanna. “The audience can make up their own mind on that and it is that gap that makes Michael terrifying.
“Among the frightening things were that family members were involved in holding Bridget over the fire and that at his trial, when Michael was asked why he did it, he said ‘I did not burn my wife, I burned a changeling’.
“For Michael it gets to a stage where it no longer matters whether he is wrong or right, he has got so deeply into it and everyone else as well, that he has to prove to himself and to everyone that he is right. He cannot afford to lose face and fail
“That is where his mind and his beliefs have taken him. He is also seen as simple but it is more a case that he is inarticulate and it is that frustration of not being able to express himself properly.”
Thereisbear!’s production of The Last Burning will take place in The Nuns Island Theatre, Galway city, on Saturday August 4, Sunday 5, and Monday 6 at 8pm (for tickets contact 565886 ); in Canavan’s bar, Tuam, on Monday 13 at 8pm; and in Hayden’s Hotel, Ballinasloe, on Tuesday 14 and Wednesday 15, at 8pm. See www.facebook.com/thereisbeartheatre