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#PodcastingHistory 2: A Changeling or His Wife? The Brutal Murder of Bridget Cleary

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Welcome to Guest Post 2 of #PodcastingHistory where historians take turns sharing their experiences creating a specific episode of their podcast. Today I have the pleasure of handing the blog over to Averill Earls, Producer of Dig: A History Podcast. Please read on to learn the process behind researching, writing, and recording "A Changeling or His Wife? The Brutal Murder of Bridget Cleary"- a story plucked from 1890s Ireland and served to you through Dig:

At Dig: A History Podcast, we do four-episode “series,” loosely connected by a theme. We are on for four straight weeks, one episode per week, and then we take a week off. Other than the broad theme--Sex, War, Environment, Law, etcetera--the topics we pick are really generated by whatever interests us, or what we’re teaching in our courses at that moment, or some random article or footnote we stumble across that piques our interest. On January 14, 2018, we released one of my favorite episodes: “A Changeling or His Wife? The Brutal Murder of Bridget Cleary.” This was the first in our True Crime series--we had to do a true crime series eventually, because Marissa is obsessed--and it’s one creepy f#@%&!g story.

It’s also one that is near and dear to my heart. I’m an Irish historian by trade, though I only occasionally do episodes on Irish history. Some may recall an episode on Roger Casement with horrible sound quality--Marissa and I recorded it in the parking lot of an Outback Steakhouse--or my episode on queer Irish-Americans and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in NYC.

When I teach Irish history, I always talk about Bridget Cleary. Bridget Cleary was brutally murdered by her husband, with the help and witness of various members of her family. She was accused by those around her of being a fairy or a witch; they threw urine on her, forced a disgusting-tasting concoction down her throat, and ultimately set her on fire. It’s grisly and awful and unthinkable. Why? Why was Bridget murdered? Why did not one stop her husband for pouring lamp oil on her prone body and setting her alight? Bridget had her own business, was a 26-year-old childfree married woman in rural Ireland. She challenged the gender and sexuality regime of her world; she rose above those around her. And she paid the ultimate price for it.

I started my research with Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary. I’ve read it many times before, but needed a refresher for the details of the case, so I ordered that from the library. I also collected newer literature on Bridget’s murder, and a few books and articles on fairy lore, fairy murders, and violence against women in 19th century Ireland. I also went to the Irish Newspaper Archive and pulled a bunch of stories about fairy changeling children, wife murder, and domestic violence. I pulled some statistics using that database about the commonness of the horrific “wife murder” crime that seemed to riddle Ireland in this period.

Already knowing a fair bit about the case, I knew the angle I wanted to take with this episode. With other episodes I’ve written, where I have only some tangential knowledge about the subject, I have to read more and longer to get my feet under me. I probably read for about a week leading up to the day I’m planning to write an episode, 3-8 hours in total in prep, depending on my prior depth of knowledge.

I always write as I read. With this episode, I worked on the violence against women parts first, discussing the lack of options for abused women in this period. Divorce was technically legal in Ireland, but it was difficult to obtain, because it required individuals to petition parliament. I discussed the widespread violence against women, and the lack of recourse for them to escape the cycles of domestic abuse. As I wrote I noted where I wanted the core elements of the case to go. I do that sometimes -- sketch out notes, and then go back to make them a narrative later. Ultimately what I write, though, is 10-12 single-spaced pages of scripted narration. This script was 12 pages, and included footnotes, which is not something I usually do, but I included a ton of primary source quotes, so wanted to attribute those.

On a writing day, it usually takes me between 6-8 hours to write an episode. I can usually do it all in one sitting. That’s what comprehensive exams train you for! Sometimes I leave notes and come back to fill in narration later. If I’ve done the writing early enough, I will take a couple of days off and come back to proofread it. Some weeks that’s not possible. I do also have a full-time job, not to mention a couple of side-hustles!

Then I let my team know that it’s posted to our shared drive. Sarah was reading that one with me, so she looked it over. We do this to catch any major issues, though we’ve never really encountered any. We’ve been writing lectures and public talks for some 8+ years now, after all!

Then it’s recording day. While I was writing my episode, the other women of Dig were doing the same thing - putting in 15+ hours of research and writing on their own True Crime episodes. We met early on a Sunday morning, starting at 9am, and recorded all four. While Sarah and I recorded, Marissa was sitting on a futon in the room. Elizabeth came about halfway through recording, and the two of them chimed in with comments, or asked for clarification if something we said while recording didn’t 100% make sense.

We’re usually a little rough when recording the first episode, with stumbles and mess ups. We did my episode first that day. Sarah and I were a little gruffer than usual; she had the start of a cold, and I had woken up like 20 minutes before we started recording (LOL). But I’d rather go first than last; by the time we get to the last episode, we’re all a little squirrelly. We’re usually in the “studio” from 9am-3pm, depending on how long it takes us to record each of the episodes. Sometimes we record nearly 2 hours of material; those episodes will be whittled down to 1.5 hours in the editing. Our standard, though, is to record 1.25-1.5 hours, and cut that down to 45-60 minutes.

After I wave them all home, all that’s left is the time-consuming work of editing and promoting the episodes. Marissa and I split the editing duties. It usually takes me a little over 2 hours to edit 1.5 hours of material. Sarah and Elizabeth create the blog posts with our Show Notes and transcripts, including images and search engine optimization. Sarah schedules tweets and Facebook posts, and Elizabeth manages our Instagram and Pinterest accounts.

Marissa and I post edited drafts in our shared Google Drive folder for the rest of the team to get ears on. We make comments with specific timestamps so Marissa and I can go in quickly to make final changes. Then we export it, upload it to our hosting software -- now that we are part of the Recorded History Podcast Network, that’s Megaphone, which is AWESOME -- and embed the player in the blog post.

And then boom. It’s delivered to iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher. Directly to the phones and players of all of our subscribers.

That’s our process. We’re spending probably 15-25 hours on any given episode. It’s a labor of love, for sure. But we also get to teach history to hundreds, maybe thousands of people all over the world, something we won’t ever come close to achieving in our work as teachers and professors. So it’s a ton of work, but we’re in it for the long haul.

We’re four women historians, with a world of history to unearth. Can you Dig it?

To listen, read the transcript, or get the Show Notes and Further Reading, visit:

Averill Earls, PhD, is an historian of modern Ireland and sexuality, an Assistant Professor of History at Mercyhurst University in Erie, PA, and the Executive Producer of Dig: A History Podcast. She writes about same-sex desiring men, policing, and Dublin’s queer urban spaces. In addition to making a podcast with the women of Dig, she is the Assistant Layout Editor at Nursing Clio. She’s published a range of pieces on teaching, literature, and the history of gender and sexuality with collaborative history blogs like Notches and Nursing Clio. She received her doctoral degree in History from the University at Buffalo in 2016, a Master’s in History from the University of Vermont in 2010, and a Bachelor’s in Political Science and History from the University of Vermont in 2008. When she’s not teaching, podcasting, or moonlighting as a member of the Cabot Creamery Co-operative social media team, she enjoys board games, baking, and hotel beds.


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