Delving into dark deeds in old Ireland

Journalist turned actor Joanne Ryan brings her inquisitive eye to the role of Bridgie Cleary who was killed by her husband in Tipperary in 1895 in the belief that she had been abducted by fairies with a changeling left in her place.

Delving into dark deeds in old Ireland

Ryan, who worked as a journalist in Bangkok for eight years, always had a yen for acting and after returning to Ireland, studied Irish in Connemara. She decided to audition for Ros na Rún and while she wasn’t initially successful, she was later cast as “psycho-stalker” Grace Gallagher,in the Irish language soap. The character was eventually written out of the programme when she was sectioned.

A form of madness and hysteria is also at the root of What Happened Bridgie Cleary, a chilling true story of immolation followed by a headline-grabbing trial. The play is produced by Limerick-based Bottom Dog Theatre Company. Ryan also played Bridgie, the wronged woman, in Bottom Dog’s first production of the play last autumn in a site specific venue, a Limerick snooker hall.

This Tom MacIntyre play is set in an unspecified after-life.

“The premise is that Bridgie has died,” says Ryan. “Thirty years later, her husband, Michael Cleary, who served 15 years for the crime, dies and shows up with another person in the after-life. I don’t want to say who the other person is as it would give away too much.”

Ryan says that the play is very dramatic and lyrical. “It’s like an imagined exploration of what kind of conversation Bridgie would have with her husband if she had the opportunity. Each of the characters is on their own journey, trying to come to terms with their own responsibility and regrets. The drama in the play is centred round the murderer confronting the victim. Bridgie is more than just a victim. She has her own internal conflicts and regrets. She has a sense of responsibility for things that didn’t go well in her own life.”

One of the main themes in the play is the nature of truth. “It’s about what truth is and it’s about facing up to the truth of your own choices and decisions and how difficult that can be.”

In the play, there isn’t a re-enactment of what happened to Bridgie Cleary. “It’s alluded to. The play is really about confrontation, redemption and resolution.”

Ryan remarks that the play has resonance for today. “There’s the issue of domestic violence but also, it’s about how we fear and mistreat people that we think are different.”

To understand Bridgie Cleary’s back story, Ryan has done a lot of research on the character and the mythology of fairies.

“Bridgie was said by relatives and neighbours to have been quite an odd woman. She was entrepreneurial and had a couple of domestic businesses. She was said to have looked men in the eye which wasn’t acceptable or normal at the time. She was married for eight years but had no children. I read an interview with the historian Angela Bourke, who said she was drawn to the story because she thought Bridgie’s childlessness was part of the reason why she was killed.”

The political backdrop is interesting. “Irish nationalists were trying to get home rule passed in the House of Lords. English unionists seized on the Bridgie Cleary story to discredit the Irish people, saying that they’re burning women they think are witches and fairies and that they couldn’t possibly rule themselves.”

Ryan has read the trial notes. “Certainly, there was an element of the prosecution trying to steer the trial to discredit the Catholic Church and the Irish people.”

What Happened Bridgie Cleary is at Cork’s Everyman from September 18-20.

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