Since I first came to Ireland, I have seen about a half dozen different theaters do a version of The Tale of Brigid Cleary. Up until my recent studying, I have not known what, exactly, that particular play was, and why it was so popular. Now that I have, I am fairly sure that it is the Irish version of the U.S.A.’s Crucible.
For those of you who don’t know the plot of the Crucible, it basically goes something like this: someone gets jealous. Lots of people get accused of being witches. Lots of people die. The jealous person’s love interest ends up dying too. It’s sad. Everyone dies.
The Tale of Brigid Cleary is similar, and also based on true happenings, once upon a time (well, actually, in 1895, so for once, the U.S. version is actually older). The short version of the story is that Brigid was a very beautiful young woman (remember, the fairies like to steal beautiful women), and, when she began acting unusual, her husband came to the conclusion that she had been stolen away, and that he had to get rid of the changeling that had replaced her. He burned the changeling, then went every morning to the fairy ring, waiting for his Brigid to be returned.
Of course that never happened; in reality, he, a cousin, and a few other individuals had attempted to kill what they believed was a fairy, and instead had burned Brigid, then buried her. Her husband was convicted of manslaughter, a few of the others on other less serious charges. He never seemed to be unconvinced that she was not a fairy of some sort, and was sure that his real wife would return. Prior to her demise, it was clear that he was sure of this, as he would not listen to the doctor’s consultation, nor would he listen to family members who would have him try herbal remedies. Instead, he got in several arguments with them about fairies.
The story has quite a lot of notoriety, making it the sort of tale that American high schools love to use for their spring production–and it appears their Irish counterparts are not far behind. On top of that, colleges and independent theaters also seem to think it is a wonderful idea to put it on.
This, of course, raises the question of, why on earth do people feel compelled to do such depressing productions during the spring semester? Why all this sadness? Where are the musicals, the “I’m happy that the winter is ending and a beautiful flowery season is beginning?”
I can’t answer that one.
My secondary question, too, does not get much of an answer: Why did Brigid’s husband believe so strongly in fairies, but refused both traditional medicine and modern medicine? Why did he dislike it so much? Why was the solution fairies? In other cases, such as the death of a baby, it was not so surprising; people could deal with some of the pain by explaining away that the fairies had stolen the child, and the baby they had to bury was not really their child. That baby was off in another part of the world, and maybe, just maybe, they would find him or her again. This is also the reason why young babies and some women were buried outside of the sacred grounds everyone else was buried in–fairies should not be buried with humans.
Brigid was buried in a shallow grave, and, if it had not been for neighbors noticing her disappearance and reporting it, her story might not be as well known as it is now. Either way, she is said to be the last person who died due to fairies (although this is perhaps the last popular person who died due to a belief in fairies–one never knows who else less notable has fallen prey to those beliefs). Even so, this emphasizes the importance of knowing the folktales that go along with the folk remedies. Quite a lot of folklore is worth something (like putting thyme in things to preserve them, or using nettle to get over a cold), but an equal part of it is, well, complete bull (like splashing a person with urine and then burning them to drive out the fairy).
Which brings us back around to the moral of the story: research. Research is always good.