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The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story
Angela Bourke
279 pp.

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Celtic Darkness
Angela Bourke's The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story

In 1895, an Irish cooper burnt his wife to death because, he said, she had been kidnapped by fairies who had left a changeling in her place. Angela Bourke's groundbreaking new study of the case shows precisely what was really at stake.

On March 14, 1895, relatives and neighbors gave Bridget Cleary, an ailing twenty-six-year-old woman who lived with her husband in an Irish laborer's cottage, a cure that we today would consider decidedly odd, if not downright criminal: they forced her to swallow herbs that had been boiled in "new" milk (the first milk a cow produces after calving) and, while holding her over the kitchen fire, demanded that she confirm she was indeed Bridget Cleary. But as strange as it seems today, Angela Bourke writes in her fascinating new account, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, the ritual wasn't all that peculiar in the rural Ireland of the nineteenth century: "According to the kind of stories often told at firesides and wakes, certain illnesses were supposed to be the work of the fairies, who could abduct a healthy young person and leave a sickly changeling instead: herbal medicines and ordeals by fire were both said to be ways of banishing such a changeling." What happened the next night, though, is unique in the Irish historical record.

At first, it was a simple missing-person case. According to one witness, Bridget Cleary simply walked out of the cottage that second night and didn't return. Many people, Bourke writes, said "plainly that the fairies had taken her away." Then Michael Cleary, Bridget's husband, claimed he could get his wife back from the fairies if he ventured out to a fairy gathering place on a particular night and cut the cords tying his wife to a gray horse there. It's a common image in rural Irish legends, but it didn't work for Cleary. Instead, on March 22, the police found his wife's badly burned body buried eighteen inches under the ground in a swampy field a quarter of a mile from the Cleary cottage.

As it turned out, Bridget had recovered sufficiently the night after that initial herbal treatment to dress and sit in the kitchen and talk with a large group of relatives and neighbors. But her husband wasn't satisfied, and he again demanded that she identify herself as his wife. After she refused to eat a bit of food he'd offered her as a test (she'd eaten two bits but refused the third), he flew into a rage and set fire to his wife as the final cure for her 'abduction.' She burnt to death there in the kitchen while several of her relatives cowered in a bedroom. As one eyewitness later testified,


My mother and brothers and myself wanted to leave the house when he flung her on the floor, but Michael Cleary held the key of the door in his pocket, and said the door would not be opened until he got his wife back. My brothers and I threatened to break down the door and call the Peelers, but he said that no one would leave the house till he got his wife back. When he held the stick near her mouth, he wanted her to answer her name three times. He said he would burn her if she did not answer. She answered him, but the answer did not satisfy him, and he got an oil lamp and threw it over her. In a few minutes I saw her in a blaze.


Remarkably, the Irish historical record documents a number of people being burnt to death in the process of being tested as potential changelings. Oscar Wilde's father, Sir William Wilde (an avid folklorist as well as a physician), documented a case, for example, in which "a man in the county of Kerry roasted his child to death, under the impression that it was a fairy." And just eleven years before Bridget Cleary's burning (and less than fifteen miles from her cottage) two women were arrested for "cruelly illtreating a child three years old" after they forced the boy—whom they believed to be a changeling—to sit naked on a hot shovel (in the hopes that the fairies would return the kidnapped child).

Most of the people accused in such attacks were elderly women, Bourke observes, "and the children killed or injured were usually severely disabled." But, as Bourke writes, "Among the documented cases of changeling-burning in Ireland in the nineteenth century, Bridget Cleary's is the only one that involves an adult victim." Bridget's death, Bourke argues, was first and foremost an instance of domestic violence, sparked by a complex mix of jealousy (because she was attractive and dressed better than her neighbors), power struggles (Bridget was independent-minded in a male-dominated society, and the Clearys were childless, a 'shameful' condition that reflected poorly on both husband and wife) and superstition (Bridget's independence seemed eccentric and therefore suspicious to the homogeneous, fairy-versed families around her). And just as the victim's age set her death apart from other changeling murders, so did the court's response to it. While charges were often not even brought against the perpetrators in other changeling cases, eleven people were arrested and nine of them convicted in the burning of Bridget Cleary.

In the extended passages where Bourke establishes the principal characters and reconstructs the moments surrounding Bridget's murder and burial, The Burning of Bridget Cleary reads like a well-paced suspense thriller. But Bourke is clearly up to something much more profound and complicated. She's an expert on the Irish oral tradition (she originally intended the Bridget Cleary case to be a chapter "in a projected academic work on Irish fairy legend"), and she does brilliant work deciphering the minutiae about fairy belief that are vital to understanding the Bridget Cleary case. But she doesn't stint the political elements of the trial either (the British saw the case as an excellent chance to demonstrate the 'savage' nature of the Irish just as the issue of Home Rule was reaching a critical moment). The motivations that led to Bridget Cleary's murder and to the conviction of the perpetrators were remarkably complicated on several disparate levels, and Bourke has done groundbreaking work in revealing these complexities and explaining them at length.

It's hard to imagine a reader, frankly, who wouldn't find The Burning of Bridget Cleary fascinating, no matter what their general interests might be, and Bourke has immensely enriched the historical record about a turbulent time in British and Irish history.

—Review by Daphne Frostchild

Posted November 1, 2000



About the Author

Photo Credit: Frank Miller

Angela Bourke is senior lecturer in Irish at University College Dublin, National University of Ireland. She has been a visiting professor at Harvard University and the University of Minnesota, and she writes, lectures and broadcasts regularly on Irish oral tradition and literature. In addition to her recent The Burning of Bridget Cleary, she is the author of a short story collection, By Salt Water.



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