Introduction: Milena Williamson in conversation with Joe Lines
Joe Lines: The poems in this issue of Estudios Irlandeses are a small part of a sequence you’ve written on the life of Bridget Cleary (1867-1895), a woman from County Tipperary who was tragically accused of being a witch. Can you tell us how they fit within that larger collection?
Milena Williamson: In 2018, I began writing poems in the voice of Bridget Cleary as well as in the voices of her family and community members who were involved in her life and death. The poems published here try to show the breadth of the collection, which I am tentatively calling Into the Night that Flies So Fast. The poems alternate between Bridget’s perspective and other characters’ perspectives, investigating why some identities are viewed as more dangerous than others. The text is playful, despite its serious subject matter, combining details of Bridget’s life with allusions to Shakespeare’s heroines and fairy characters. The manuscript is also deeply personal; I explore my own experiences relating to the female body, illness and sexual development, all of which reflect themes in Bridget’s life.
JL: At what point did you realise that this topic was something you wanted to write about at length/in an extended form? Did you have a plan for the collection, or did it develop organically?
MW: In the beginning, I only had a tentative plan for this project. I wanted to write twenty poems, some in Bridget’s voice and some in other characters’ voices. Twenty seemed like a large amount at the time for me, because I had never undertaken such a historical or research-focused poetry project. I am also very grateful that this project received support from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2018. After the initial phase of the project was complete, I kept writing, working on it when I could, alongside my PhD in poetry at the Seamus Heaney Centre. I looked for ways to develop the project organically, sharing the work with others who could give me feedback. I worked with Moyra Donaldson via the Words Ireland National Mentoring Programme and Jessica Traynor via the Irish Writers’ Centre mentoring scheme. I connected with Fiona Benson and Ian Duhig, both of whom have written poems relating to historical witchcraft cases. I still feel like I’m developing the collection, even though it’s around fifty pages now!
JL: Could you tell me about your research process? How did you learn more about Bridget’s life and times?
MW: My research began with Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary (1999, 2006), a foundational text. Over time, I supplemented with The Cooper’s Wife Is Missing (2000) by Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates as well as Fairy Wife: The Burning of Bridget Cleary (2016) from Wildfire Films. “My Actions are their Dreams” draws from stories about Bridget Cleary that can be found online through Dúchas, a project to digitize the National Folklore Collection. My research took on a new dimension when I finally went to the National Archives in Dublin. It was incredible to see some of the newspaper clippings of the trial of her family members, original photographs (reproduced in Bourke’s book), Michael Cleary’s prison records and more. The work came alive for me after I received the Ireland Chair of Poetry Project Award, which allowed me to travel to Tipperary. I saw Bridget Cleary’s unmarked grave in the cemetery of the Church of the Visitation in Cloneen, visited the chapel in Drangan where Michael Cleary went after her murder, and talked to local people about Bridget.
JL: I want to ask you about your attitude towards the research you’ve done. Do you feel a sense of fidelity to the facts insofar as they are known, or do you feel free to depart from them or be selective?
MW: This is such a difficult question. I think that at the beginning of the project, I was more concerned with the fidelity to the facts because I had a lot to learn about Bridget Cleary, life in rural Ireland in the nineteenth century, historical witchcraft accusations and more. After four years of writing and research, I feel I have reached some (tentative) level of comprehension, and therefore earned some flexibility for creative interpretation. And I try to remind myself that I’m writing poetry, not historical analysis, because the excellent research has already been done by Angela Bourke and others. Poetry is the realm that I’m most comfortable in, and for me it’s the best way to explore the conflicting, uncertain truths about what happened to Bridget.
JL: Are there any significant gaps in what we know about Bridget’s life? Did any of those gaps become important?
MW: There are several significant gaps that interest me, yes. First, Bridget was literate, yet no written word of hers exists. She attended a new school started by a group of Mercy sisters. According to Bourke, she would have been taught “reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as a considerable amount of Catholic doctrine, principles of hygiene, and ‘good’, meaning middle-class, manners” (2006: 41). I felt a great ethical responsibility, knowing that Bridget would have been able to read what I was writing about her. I think another compelling gap is the question of Bridget’s mother. Bridget is buried beside her mother, who also has an unmarked grave, and died some time before the events that led to Bridget’s death. There are suggestions that Bridget’s mother might have been associated with fairies too. According to Mary Kennedy’s testimony, Bridget says, “[h]e [Michael] thought to burn me about three months ago, but if I had my mother I would not be this way” (Bourke 2006: 66). That final phrase is so poignant and it’s one I preserve in my poem “Honey Breath”. Perhaps Bridget’s mother understood her in a way others could not: perhaps she could have saved her life.
JL: Could you discuss the role or importance of theatre/theatricality in the poems?
MW: Although the manuscript has gone through many revisions, I have never strayed from the idea that this project is a hybrid poetry-script. The poems are organized into various acts and occasionally, the fourth wall is broken, such as in the untitled poems formatted as stage directions. The theatricality of my poems derives from the theatricality of Bridget’s story. Justice William O’Brien, the judge at the trial of Bridget’s family says, “[w]e are not here acting a play, but to inquire into matters of fact”. Later, however, O’Brien refers to a passage from Macbeth: “Pleading like angels, trumpet-tongued/ Against the deep damnation of [her] taking off” (Bourke 2006: 184). These lines are spoken by Macbeth as he considers King Duncan’s virtues and decides not to murder him, a decision he later reverses. O’Brien changes the pronouns in the original lines in order to refer to Bridget Cleary, and the tragedy of her murder, despite his earlier insistence that “we are not here acting a play” (Bourke 2006: 181). I think the theatricality in my poems was a way for me to explore the performative aspects of identity – how we see ourselves, how others see us and how our behaviours can be (mis)interpreted.
JL: Reading these poems, we can’t help but think of the many innocent women who were criminalised during the long history of witch trials in Ireland, Britain and America. But by the time Bridget was alive, witchcraft belief was no longer taken seriously by the authorities, and the old Witchcraft Act (used against women accused of being witches) had been repealed in 1821. Could you discuss the importance of crime and the legal system in the sequence? To what extent are these poems about official or institutional responses to Bridget and her death?
MW: Part of the reason Bridget Cleary’s story survives is that her family was put on trial for her murder. This causes all kinds of questions of criminality, documentation, text and truth. In The Allure of the Archives, Arlette Farge describes the judicial archives: “Whether they were victims, accusers, suspects, or delinquents, none of these individuals ever imagined that they would be in the situation of having to explain, file a complaint, or justify themselves in front of the unsympathetic police […]. People spoke of things that would have remained unsaid if a destabilizing social event had not occurred. In this sense, their words reveal things that ordinarily went unspoken” (2013: 6). In this way, perhaps poetry is a little bit like judicial archives, revealing things that ordinarily go unspoken, albeit through a different process. One of the frustrating things is that Bridget’s death is so heavily documented, whereas her life remains a mystery. Quoting Catherine MacKinnon, Jacqueline Rose writes in On Violence and on Violence Against Women, “‘What I most want to know about women in the past’ is not, therefore, as legal theorist and feminist Catherine MacKinnon put it in an article of 2006, ‘how did she die?’ My question is rather: ‘how did she live?’” (Rose 2021: 171)I would love to know how Bridget lived, but my understanding is limited by the criminal and legal documentation, which tries to answer “how did she die?”
JL: The law is connected to the idea of “rationality” – the view that those who believe in witchcraft are superstitious. Of course, in Ireland, this became wrapped up in class-based and sectarian condescension towards the poor. I wonder if you came across this discourse of rational scepticism when you were doing your research? If so, what is your perspective on it, seeing as belief in witchcraft did actually have very tragic consequences for Bridget?
MW: The idea of rationality, I think, is entwined with power: those in a privileged position decide what is rational and what the punishment is for being irrational. In the days leading up to Bridget’s murder, her family tried a myriad of cures. They consulted a doctor, a priest, a ploughman, and a so-called fairy-doctor. Bridget was given herbs and new milk and doused with urine. All of these actions demonstrate a folkloric logic at work, rather than an Enlightenment rationality. Unfortunately, Bridget’s murder was used to perpetuate anti-Irish prejudice; some newspapers condescendingly used her murder to argue that Irish people were lawless, and Ireland should not be self-governing (a new Land Law Bill for Ireland had been introduced only weeks before Bridget’s death). Bridget’s death is a tragedy. Her family members, particularly her husband and the other men in the family who held power, bear responsibility for her murder. In addition to the concept of “rationality” there were other ideological systems at work, such as misogyny and ableism. Bridget was childless, financially independent, educated. At the end of her life, she was also ill. The cumulative effect of these so-called societal transgressions marked her as Other and a threat to patriarchal society.
JL: Bridget Cleary is popularly known as Ireland’s “last witch”, and we think of violence against supposed witches as something belonging to an earlier period. In this sense, these poems reminded me of the Gothic view of history as haunting the present. Do you think of Bridget as a woman who was out of her time?
MW: Funnily enough, while I was in and around Tipperary, one person I talked to about Bridget described her as “ahead of her time”. I found that phrase extremely arresting: how does one become “ahead” or “out of” time? Would Bridget identify as a witch today if she had been born just over a hundred years later? Is it a feeling Bridget experienced in the moment or can it only be judged in retrospect, by analysing the behaviours of those around her, which led to her death. I started working on these poems in 2018, not long after #MeToo went viral; the story of strong, wilful women being silenced by men was all too familiar. If the Gothic view is that history haunts the present, then what is the word for what women experience every day? So many women are haunted by the past and the future, by the violence we have experienced or fear we (or the next generations) will experience. Time itself feels haunted when we are so inundated by violence against women.
[The lecturer says stage directions must reveal character:
a quick impression that will be instantly visible to the audience.
In the audience of the class, I want to interrupt and ask her
how it’s possible to say so much with so little. Rural Ireland,
1895. Birdsong, wind and a stream flowing in the background.
Flowers strewn haphazardly and the smell of woodsmoke.
Ruthless economy, the lecturer repeats with a smile.
The text between the brackets is snug as a house.
Enter BRIDGET CLEARY, dressed in a gauzy white nightgown.
She wrings her hands and looks at someone offstage.
Stage directions reflect what people see when the lights go up.
BRIDGET stops, illuminated, and gazes at us intensely.
She throws her head back and laughs. She dances wildly.]
[Enter MARY KENNEDY, Bridget’s aunt, who cares for Bridget during her illness]
Who is this? My niece, that flies away so fast!
From bed to door to window, she drifts
speaking of planets aligned to strike her down.
For her mother’s sake, I will not part with her.
I kill a chicken, pluck it clean and boil fat
with milk to bring her back. To bring her back,
some medicine, moonshine in the water—
if she had her mother, she would not be this way.
I wind the clock and stir the cinders.
She opens a coffee tin, her coffer
and offers twenty pounds for any trouble.
Men breathe honey at the foot of her bed.
If I do dream, all her wealth would wake me
and if she’s dreaming, I would follow her
into the night that flies so fast.
Beyond my Practice
[Enter DENIS GANEY, the fairy-doctor]
Away over the mountain, there’s a rumor
she is troubled with thick coming fancies.
Eyes closed, I crawl through the garden
searching for a green that knows itself,
a leaf to light her eyes and then some—
a little something to soften her nights.
The peelers drag me over my threshold,
saying I am an accessory before the fact
and I never set foot in her house.
Did any man see me? Did he say I assisted
in doing away with the sickly woman?
Her disease was beyond my practice.
I have never needed to heal a woman twice.
Imprisoned, I grow thinner until
I escape my cell through the keyhole.
My Actions are their Dreams
I was thin as a wisp
or I rode a white horse.
I held dances in my house
or I was bedridden for years.
I had an affair with the egg-man
or the neighbour or both.
I had a miscarriage
or I had pneumonia.
I was away with the fairies
or my mother was.
I was buried in a glen,
in a ditch or in a boreen,
in a dyke overgrown with briars
or in a swamp under sally trees.