Burning Bridget Cleary:
fiddling witchery

Bridget Cleary is sometimes called the last witch burned in Ireland -- a dubious distinction at best.

An independent young dressmaker, she married a cooper when she was 17, but continued to work and live with her parents in Ballyvadlea, County Tipperary, while her husband Michael toiled in nearby Clonmel.

Less than eight years later, she was dead -- murdered and burned by her husband for being, not a witch, but a fairy changeling.

The wee folk had stolen his wife away, the frantic barrel-maker claimed, and left a soulless copy in her place. A tried and true folk remedy -- pouring urine on her and sitting her by the fire -- failed to drive out the fairy, apparently, so immolation was his only recourse.

The legal system disagreed, and Michael Cleary spent 15 years in prison. No fairies were charged.

If that's not a great back story for a band, what is?

Burning Bridget Cleary, a Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley area band with two fiddles and two female vocalists in the forefront of its sound, will perform this weekend at the 15th annual Celtic Fling and Highland Games at Mount Hope Estate.

Rose Baldino -- singer, fiddler and a co-founder of the 7-year-old band -- said she chose the name after finding the tale online.

"It was such an interesting story -- a major piece of Irish folklore," she says.

"We wanted to see Bridget's story come to light a bit," she adds. "She was a strong female character in Irish history."

In fact, Baldino tracked down the Cleary cottage on a visit to the Emerald Isle. No one was home and the house was listed for sale, she says, so she peeked through the windows, tucked a Burning Bridget Cleary CD by the door and traveled onward.

She was surprised later to hear from the young Irish couple that bought the house. They invited Baldino back for a tour, which she gladly took advantage of. "Definitely one of my goals is to live there, at least for a few months or a year," she says.

"I know it rains there a lot. It can be kind of cold and miserable. But I love it," she adds. "It's so relaxed over there. You live on Irish time. And everyone is so welcoming and kind."

She reserves judgment, though, on the veracity of Cleary's claim that his wife was a changeling.

"You never know, right? Some of the people over there, especially the older people, are still very superstitious. But, as far as the changeling, I'm not so sure.

"But it's interesting to read about."

As for Baldino, she came into Irish music as a teenager. She was 13 or so, she says, when she found herself growing bored with classical violin.

Her mother, unwilling to let her daughter just quit, contacted a young fiddle instructor in the area and started Baldino on Irish music lessons. It stuck. "I became kind of obsessed with it," she says.

Her teacher, Deirdre Lockman, is now a member of the band, although not a founding member. Baldino says forming a band was kind of an accident.

"It wasn't on purpose. It wasn't a deliberate decision to start a band," she says.

She and pal Genevieve Gillespie, also a fiddler, were offered a gig opportunity by Gillespie's parents. The event, a house party, was a success to the starry-eyed teens.

"We were like 15 and 16," Baldino says. "When you can make like $100 in a day, it's a huge deal at that age. So we started this band and tried to get gigs."

Baldino's father, Lou, signed on as their guitarist. Later, they added Peter Trezzi on djembe, and Lockman took over for Gillespie.

"Irish music is just so energetic and uplifting," Baldino says. "It's positive and exciting. It draws people together."

People often come up to the stage after a show to talk about their Irish ancestors, she says.

A fiddler at heart, Baldino is toying with the tenor banjo -- not a traditional Irish instrument, but one that's growing in popularity.

Irish music is evolving, she notes, and new instruments can be adopted into the style. Both the guitar and bouzouki, for instance, were late 20th-century additions to the tradition. "The banjo is not one of the original Irish instruments, but the tenor banjo, the 4-string, is now a huge part of it," Baldino says. "I think it's going to be a big thing."

She also dabbles in bluegrass and teaches violin lessons, which takes her back to her classical roots.

Baldino earned a degree in communications and is pondering a degree in counseling. "But music is always going to be a part of my life," she says. "I'm always going to play, whether it's in this band or another band, or even a solo thing. I'll always be performing."

[ visit the artist's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

13 July 2013

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