In 1895, in rural County Tipperary, Ireland, a young woman named Bridget Cleary was burned alive by her own family, who accused her of being a fairy changeling. In the one-hour drama limited series CROWN’S WITNESS, we follow the aftermath of Bridget’s tragic death through the eyes of the key witness in the resulting trial: her cousin Hanney Burke.
The series is part procedural drama, part psychological thriller, with echoes of THE CRUCIBLE and ALIAS GRACE and a dark, mysterious, ‘who-can-we-trust’ tone. The heart of CROWN’S WITNESS is one woman’s struggle to find her voice and step out from under the controlling shadow of her family for the first time in her life.
That woman is our protagonist Hanney: a married mother of five living in a rough mud-walled, single-room cottage in the lush countryside of southern Ireland. She is poor, illiterate, and bullied by her overbearing family members. With very little social mobility and a closed, conservative society, Hanney feels stifled by the few options in her life. While she was shaped by an abusive mother and distant husband, the center of her world is the love/hate relationship she has with her smarter, prettier, more independent cousin, Bridget. They lived in each other’s pockets growing up, but economic and class differences in adulthood have driven them apart. Hanney desperately wants Bridget’s approval and love, but hates herself for needing it.
When the pilot opens, Hanney and Bridget are young teens exploring a local fairy fort – a raised earthen mound ringed by trees and said to be the home of fairies. Hanney is reluctant and nervous but insists she doesn’t believe in fairies. Bridget revels in the magical and forbidden nature of the place, wishing they could go away with the fairies and experience feasts and splendor, and the safety of escaping what faces them in their world.
Fifteen years later, Bridget is missing. Hanney is bullied by her mother into walking to Bridget’s house to do chores for the more well-to-do Cleary couple. While on the way, she runs into a distraught Michael Cleary outside the local chapel. He’s weeping and wailing when the priest comes out to hear him claim that his wife Bridget has “gone away.” The priest, of course, goes immediately to the local barracks of the Royal Irish Constabulary to report Bridget Cleary as missing. The District Inspector Alfred Wansbrough – a stiff British detective desperate to prove himself after an earlier career mistake – immediately sets out to the Cleary home.
When he arrives to ask where Bridget is, Hanney is expected to toe the family line and tell the detective that she saw Bridget walk out of the house into the wilds the night before. The family repeat the same story: Bridget fell ill. She went mad. She wasn’t herself.
By the midpoint of the pilot, the men of the family – led by an increasingly erratic Michael – are holding vigil at the nearby fairy fort, calling out Bridget’s name. We see the clash of traditional beliefs and modern practices as DI Wansbrough calls for an official search. He starts canvassing the local countryside trying to learn what happened to Bridget, and hears fantastical stories of fairy theft, herbal medicine, and long-held superstitions.
Meanwhile, Hanney seeks solace in the chapel, where she tells the priest she thinks fairies stole her baby a few years before, replacing her healthy child with a sick one who then died. Her grief is only helped by imagining her baby thriving in the Otherworld.
When the burned body of Bridget is found in a low ditch, the lies the family have told about her disappearance fall apart. They are all arrested for murder. While in prison, DI Wansbrough approaches Hanney with an offer. She’ll be free, to return to her children and be immune from prosecution, and all she has to do is betray her entire family and become the Crown’s witness.
The remaining episodes will jump between the quickly moving investigation and trial, and flashbacks of the series of events that led to Bridget’s death, from the moment she fell ill passing by a fairy fort to the night her own husband poured oil over her and set her on fire. The series will raise issues of faith and superstition, of love and abuse, of the lies we tell to protect our abusers, of the courage and crippling isolation that comes from breaking that cycle.
It is also an exploration of a turning point in Irish society, when the organized collection of folklore helped to shape the cultural spirit of a rising nation, and when accusations of superstition and witch-burning could drastically harm the chances of Ireland gaining independence from the colonizing British Empire.
The well-known story of Bridget Cleary – and her lesser-known cousin Hanney Burke – has much to teach us about the strength of women and the traditions that can shape our lives.