BackStory: Five More Questions with Marie Gethins
Author of The Wife of Michael Cleary
What inspired you to write ‘The Wife of Michael Cleary’?
Many years ago, I walked past a school yard in Killarney, County Kerry where a group of girls were playing skipping rope, chanting the lines: ‘Are you a witch, or are you a fairy; Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’ followed by ‘How many slaps?’ with the speed of the rope increasing and the girls counting how many successful jumps were completed. Naturally, my curiosity piqued, I began researching the origin of this children’s rhyme.
Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?
Quite a few! I find it horrifying nine members of Bridget Cleary’s family witnessed and participated in her torture and immolation. She also endured a number of ‘tests’ supposedly to drive out the changeling’s confession before being dosed in paraffin oil and set alight by her husband.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I read articles that review the court proceedings (many involved were sentenced to penal servitude, her husband convicted of manslaughter), found a few traditional songs that recount the story, as well as several gossipy accounts. While I followed the basic facts of the case in my plot, I also included a smattering of the gossip-based stories (her husband’s descent into alcoholism, fields left to ruin) and fictionalised the extent of her fairy connections with moonlight dancing and singing. The community support and belief in the possibility of someone being a changeling in the close to the turn of the twentieth century surprised me.
Do you have any advice for people new to writing historical flash?
If you love research, there’s nothing better than historical flash as there are so many possibilities to explore and discover interesting people — particularly those in the margins. However, it can be tempting to continue reading and never manage to get anything written. Self-control! My other suggestion is to find the ‘voice’; if possible try to read material from the time period, not just modern historical books. Of course, this is relatively easy from the 17th century onwards and perhaps a bit tricky for earlier.
When you write, do you approach historical flash differently than other flash? Or historical fiction differently from other fiction?
For historical pieces of any length, I spend a lot of time checking facts, cuisine, dress, when words came into usage, etc. Even if most of it isn’t on the page, I like to have a clear sense of what the characters might have experienced, what was commonplace for them and what would be shocking. While contemporary settings need less ‘set-up’ since the audience probably has a generally similar sense of the world, for historical you need to succinctly immerse the reader in whatever era your story is taking place.
Marie Gethins’ work featured in NFFD Anthologies, NANO, Banshee, The London Magazine, Australian Book Review, Reed, The Lonely Crowd, and others. Selected for Best Microfictions 2021, BIFFY50 2020, Marie is a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, British Screenwriters Award nominee and she is an editor for Splonk. She tweets @MarieGethins.
Photograph of Bridget and Michael Cleary from from the National Archives of Ireland via Stair na hÉireann / History of Ireland website.