Martina Evans reviews a new book about Bridget Cleary who was burned as a witch just over a century ago
In 1895 Bridget Cleary was tortured and burnt to death in her own fireplace in County Tipperary while her relatives stood by and watched.Michael Cleary believed that his 26-year old wife was a changeling, and he burnt her in the belief that his real wife would emerge the following night from Kylenagranagh, a local ring fort believed by some locals to be inhabited by fairies. When the details of this story were revealed to the general public, nationalist newspapers struggled to play the story down. "Strange Death Near Clonmel", said the embarrassed Freeman's Journal while Unionist newspapers like the Dublin Evening Mail, on the other side of the Home Rule divide, seized the opportunity to argue that Ireland was not fit to govern herself.
At the trial of Michael Cleary, Coroner John J Shee said in his address to the jury "it was one of the most fearful things which happened in the country for years. Amongst Hottentots one would not expect to hear of such an occurrence."
This was the age of progress, railroads and newspapers. Ireland had been increasingly peaceful of late. Various land acts had been passed allowing tenants to own their own land for the first time. The 'civilised' world of the town recoiled with horror to think that such barbaric acts could still take place.
The miracle of storytelling that Bourke performs in this tightly-packed, meticulously researched book is that she allows us to see the main players of this tragedy up close and in detail. This book reads like a novel. A novel where the reader knows the ending yet cannot put down the book because the manner of its execution is so compelling. The striped petticoat Bridget wore the night of her death; the blue handkerchief that was a present for her husband; Bridget's pet cat Dotey who liked to sit on her shoulders; these precise and touching details provide us with a link to a vanished world and a people who were half in thrall to a world of ancient beliefs. Yet Bourke reveals that these people were far from the simple labourers they were portrayed in the newspapers.
While members of Bridget's family born before the famine were illiterate, Bridget herself was educated and articulate. She was a successful milliner and her husband Michael, also literate, was a cooper by trade. They lived in a fine cottage and were making good money. Bridget dressed better than other women of her station. Could it have been jealousy? Could Michael Cleary been riled and driven mad by her family? Bourke gently probes the surface of the documents and asks many interesting questions, some which can never be answered. Why were the Clearys friendly with William Simpson, who gave evidence at the trial? William Simpson was one of the hated 'emergency men' who took the place of evicted tenants and were usually boycotted (the term 'boycott' was coined by a priest in County Mayo during the Land War of 1879-1892). One of the most chilling characters in the book, William Simpson may or may not have been Bridget's lover. He witnessed her torture the night before she died and went on to made money from guided tours of the Clearys' cottage less than two months after her death.
Bourke tells Bridget's story against a fascinating backdrop of history; Oscar Wilde's libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry opened the week before Bridget's death, while Ireland seemed to be on the threshold of achieving Home Rule. Bourke's scholarly, passionate elucidation of the oral culture that lay behind the belief in fairies shows that it wasn't as simple as might be perceived from the outside.
A reliance on the idea of 'ignorance and superstition' to explain why Bridget Cleary died suggests that knowledge is the key: that people who know more facts are safer, but this book's argument is that the key is power
Changeling belief was often the rationalisation for the burning and killing of children with disabilities but equally it could provide safety for weaker members of the community. In this case, Michael Cleary may have been goaded into killing by his wife's family and neighbours who found themselves isolated in this new world where someone like Bridget Cleary "had accumulated power, both economic and sexual, it seems, far in excess of what was due to a woman of her age and class and when the balance tipped all the anger flowed towards her."