ONE OF the most notorious crimes in Irish history was the burning to death of Bridget Cleary in 1895 in Tipperary, by her husband Michael.
At his trial Michael claimed his wife had been taken by the fairies leaving a changeling in her place and that it was the changeling he had put to death. The case generated huge interest at the time and was even covered by The New York Times. The facts surrounding the case have continued to prompt much speculation in the years since and the story is powerfully revisited in Tom McIntyre’s What Happened Bridgie Cleary which comes to the Black Box Theatre this Tuesday (September 23 ) at 8pm.
First staged by the Abbey in 2005, this new production comes from Limerick’s Bottom Dog Theatre Company and is directed by John Anthony Murphy. Ahead of its Galway visit, Murphy tells me what first drew him to the play.
“I was immediately taken by the language which is incredibly poetic and musical,” he begins. “I also thought McIntyre’s handling of the story was beautiful and one of the things we set out to do was to examine the original story quite deeply.
“I think it’s a very humane piece and ultimately it’s a plea for love, tolerance and understanding. In its own way it is quite a positive piece. The original story is terribly cruel but the play looks for understanding and that’s one of the themes I really clung on to.”
Murphy expands on the play’s content and its treatment of the story.
“The history emphasises the fairy angle of the story but in one sense it’s never been fully understood what exactly happened,” he observes. “I think Bridgie was a very independent woman for the time, especially that ‘squinting windows’ rural Ireland milieu. There were probably personal jealousies there, a marriage that wasn’t working very happily, an inward-looking society that was deeply mired in a strange mixture of religion and ancient superstition. It was like a perfect storm of things that came into play and people lost the run of themselves.
“The amazing thing was there was a lot of information about the crime after the event from the court case. Tom McIntyre uses some of Michael Cleary’s testimony verbatim. But the lead-up to the killing is vague, they reckon there was about a two week period beforehand of her being treated badly. On the night itself there were witnesses, people from the local village came in and were part of it to a degree. People were there for hours yet nobody stopped it happening. Michael Cleary ended up going to jail for a number of years and after his release went to Canada.”
As well as Bridgie and Michael Cleary, the play also features William Simpson, a neighbour who McIntyre speculates was having an affair with Bridgie.
“Bridgie is very poetic, McIntyre brings her almost into the realm of fairy and magic at times and others, and her language reflects that,” Murphy notes. “One of the things we found with the production was that you have to be very cautious with the language, it can take an audience time to get into the rhythm of that kind of language and the danger is if you don’t root the characterisation in real people it becomes just poetry.
“One of the huge challenges, which I think we were quite successful with, was reminding ourselves that the play is not about the poetry or the lyricism, it has to be absolutely rooted in the real people. We did quite a bit of research and talking about the actual characters and finding the root of that in the language.
“McIntyre says the play is ultimately about love, and there is a love story there. With Michael Cleary, bad as his behaviour was, the play looks at things from his point of view as well. He’s a man disappointed in his marriage and the play examines his hurts and losses.
“It is very much about all three characters and there is none of them without fault, Bridgie included. I think one of the strengths of the play is that Bridgie isn’t made into some Joan of Arc type hero figure. Yes, what was done to her was wrong, and it would be easy for it to have been a polemic about the evils of men and suffering of women, and while that’s a part of it, there’s much more there as well. The play asks us to look at all points of view.”
Bridgie Cleary is played by Ros na Rún’s Joanne Ryan with Myles Breen as Michael Cleary and Pius McGrath as William Simpson.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie