Dismiss wail of the banshee at your peril, says latest academic research
12th September 2021
New research has detailed the powerful impact supernatural beliefs have had on Irish culture for many generations.
Stories about fairies, banshees and curses are often dismissed and ridiculed. However, a London-based historian, who has completed an in-depth study of the subject, said his findings highlight the influence such stories have had on Irish life — sometimes with horrific consequences.
Bridget Cleary was a 26-year-old Tipperary woman who was burned to death by her husband in 1895 because he believed she had been possessed by a fairy.
Michael Cleary claimed at the time that, during a period of sickness, his wife’s body had been taken over by an evil spirit.
Dr Thomas Waters, a lecturer at Imperial College London, has been researching the history of magic and the supernatural in Irish folklore.
He said he had uncovered many cases in which people suffered fates similar to Bridget Cleary’s.
“These kind of events were more frequent in Irish history than you would imagine,” Dr Waters said.
The academic has been studying folklore traditions throughout the world for nearly 20 years and has published his research in an essay, Irish Cursing and the Art of Magic, 1750 to 2018.
He conducted much of his research at the National Folklore Archive, housed at University College Dublin.
Dr Waters said the horrific tale of Bridget Cleary was an extreme example of the grip such beliefs had on people throughout Ireland.
According to a court report from the Irish Times at the time of her death, Michael Cleary believed his wife had been possessed by a changeling during a period of sickness.
Folklore passed down through generations claimed a fairy changeling was an evil spirit put in the place of a real person — often a woman or child — after they had been abducted by fairies.
According to the court report, Michael Cleary set his wife on fire in the belief that once the changeling had been removed, his wife would return.
“It is not Bridget I am burning,” he is reported to have said. “You will soon see her go up the chimney.”
Cleary was convicted of manslaughter and jailed for 20 years. Seven other people, including Bridget’s father, were also jailed for their part in her death.
Dr Waters said: “There are quite a few of these cases where someone ends up getting really ill, and the family — in a last desperate attempt to save them — make themselves believe they are a changeling and throw them in a river or leave them on a dung heap or do something dreadful, similar to what happened Bridget Cleary.”
As well as cursing, his research also explored stories of ghosts, banshees and witchcraft throughout Ireland.
Among the most famous curses is the one said to have been placed on the Mayo GAA team in 1951 as they returned from winning the All-Ireland football title.
Legend has it that a priest became incensed when they passed a funeral without showing due respect. The priest supposedly put a curse on Mayo, that they would not win another title until all of the team had died.
While dismissed by many, Dr Waters said his research had found such tales had, and continue to have, a big influence on Irish culture.
“I started this topic being very sceptical and being quite dismissive, along the lines of ‘How can anyone take this stuff seriously?’,” he said.
“I am not a believer, but the more and more I look at this, the more and more these tales creep up on you, and I have got a lot more respect for these ways of thinking and talking.”