Essay On The Burning Of Bridgette Cleary By Angela Bourke

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Ireland, Family, Crime, Murder, Culture, Women, History, Folklore

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2021/02/19

On Friday March 15, 1895, Bridget Cleary was incinerated by her husband, Michael Cleary, in the middle of a cold night n Ireland. Cleary had been such for several days, as she suffered from “nervous excitement and slight bronchitis,” which a local physician in the local community. Michael Cleary was born in Ballyvadlea, Ireland and became a young cooper. He believed that his seamstress wife Bridget, who was stricken with a malady, had been kidnapped by fairies. Thus, when he set Bridget’s body afire, he did not think that he was actually burning his wife’s body but rather that of a changeling of a fairy that had taken possession of her. Using the resources and methodologies of cultural anthropology, cultural history, and folklore studies, Angela Bourke meticulously and deftly researched the sensationalized narrative about the incineration of Bridget Cleary, a famous and spectacular event that is still poignantly remembered in the modern day as a story about shifting gender mores, domestic violence, gender dynamics and power relations, and class within the context of modernity. Such a complex methodology is deployed in order to investigate and reconstruct the events surrounding Bridget’s murder in County Tipperary, Ireland in 1895. Set in a tumultuous and rapidly changing Irish society at the end of the nineteenth century, Bourke’s narrative aims at eliciting the empathy and sympathy of the reader by making sense of such a tragic case of domestic violence. Bourke’s task was complicated and rendered arduous because of the hybridity of Irish society where two paradoxical ways of perceiving the world coexisted: one view in which the traditional cultural values persisted in which fairy beliefs were common and oral history dominated; and another in which the scientific and the modern were underscored, and history and traditions were written down. The tension between these two opposing views of the world unequivocally manifested themselves in the trial of Michael Clearly for murder his wife, as the “fairy defense” was invoked as the murder, which took place in rural island, was shockingly blamed on the peasant folk and folk traditions.
Bourke proffers a nuanced cultural construction of women in her scintillating account of Bridget Cleary’s death. Much like the view of the Irish in western discourses and within western societies such as the United States, Bourke insinuates that Bridget Cleary was murdered in such a horrific manner because she threatened the to tear the community asunder and all of its social, cultural, and labor practices. Most poignantly. Her actions and behaviors undermined the masculine ethos of the Irish government through her eccentric, fervent, savage, and wild appearance. Such a reading of the Bridget Cleary case reveals how folklore traditions and Irish nationalism all navigated how cultural symbols and the notion of ungovernability embodied by Bridget herself necessitated that modern Ireland gain control over the folkloric world. As such, the representation of female corporeality and Irish cultural practices was profoundly affected. Within Irish folktales themselves, female bodies are represented based on a commonality that inheres the dyad between nature and the female body itself. Folklore, however, functions as means of regulate female agency and desires, thereby underscoring how traditional discourses limn female bodies as unable to be controlled while also critiquing and repudiating such unwillingness to be controlled as a way to validate and assert the legitimacy of male hegemony in Irish society. The fact that this murder took place in the rural countryside suggests that peasants who lived there were far more intimate and engaged with nature than those who lived in the cities. Bourke notes that Bridget refused to eat the food that her husband had given her, which angered Michael and may have been one motive for her killing. Because food and sex are often intertwined, it can be inferred that her refusal to eat mirrored her refusal to be intimate with him as well. Such defiance on the part of Bridget also suggests that the reason why Michael and she never bore children had a lot to do with her refusal to have sex with him. Childlessness in Irish society and culture often signaled male impotence, which further may have angered him because she, as a result of her defiance, undermined his patriarchal authority, emasculated him, subverted his authority as the head of the household, and cultivated the notion that Bridget was a female aberration who must be dominated by otherworldly spirits and changelings.
This sensationalized event took place during a time period in which a litany of modern institutions including the Catholic Church, doctors, police, and Poor Law guardians, were inextricable tied and entangled with public discourses about ritual torture, fairy doctors, and abductions. Bourke underscores how there is a dearth of evidence that directly contributes to the large “gap of credibility,” which Bourke as a cultural historian tries to provide a corrective for through her creative use of unconventional and untraditional sources to construct a thick, and nuanced narrative based on the press coverage in Ireland and in England. Such an obsession that took hold of the press began from the beginning of the Bridget Cleary story in the week that preceded St. Patrick’s Day in 1895. Bridget had been reported missing from her rural home located in the pastoral lands of Tipperary. However, the details that came to light suggested that this case was not just another typical murder that stemmed from jealousy or a crime of passion. Rather, her husband, who earned a living as a cooper, had at first blamed fairies for kidnapping his wife prior to the discovery of her charred and badly burned body in a shallow grave nearby. Cleary then claimed that the who whose body was discovered and who people referred to as Bridget was not his wife but rather a changeling that had taken over her corporeality. His wife Bridge, he claimed, would soon be found riding on a white horse at a fairy ring nearby. Soon thereafter, when Bridget’s body was found, nine suspects including Michael Cleary were arrested, sent to trial, and imprisoned for the killing of Bridget. Ironically, Bourke demonstrates how the story of Bridget’s tragic death itself became a part of Irish folklore in a more modernized sense and was often referred to as the “last witch burned in Ireland.”
Indeed, it was a common occurrence in Ireland for crimes to be wrapped up in epochal political issues. The Irish newspapers that overtly articulate their disdain towards Irish home rule also pointed to fairies within Irish folklore. The ubiquity of fairies in newspaper accounts prompted many English and Irish loyalists whether a people whose culture still pointed to evil spirits, changelings, and fairies could be entrusted to self-rule and self-govern in an increasingly modernizing world. A large group of Irish nationalists indeed publically promoted their interests and steadfast beliefs in Irish legends and folklore, although they were cognizant of what they said because they knew that publically discussing fairies was not in their best interest.
Bourke’s work engages in questions about gender, ethnicity, and identity at the turn of the twentieth century through a critical yet sympathetic approach to the discursive framing of a captivating story that the British, Irish, and American press sensationalized. She begins her narrative when Bridget becomes ill after she trudges through the snow on a cold day in March, and she traces Bridgette’s life from the beginning of her illness to her bloody and heinous murder at the hands of her husband, to the invigorating trial and imprisonment of her murderers, and ultimately the their release from prison. Bourke turns to the Poor law guardians’ meetings in which the guardians oversaw and administered medical healthcare in order to uncover possible reasons why Michal Clearly articulated and acted upon his skepticism over the medical diagnosis that Dr. Crean came to when Bridget paid him a visit when she fell ill. Clearly accused the doctor of never being sober, which appeared to be true when the doctor was dismissed from his practice because of his perpetual drunkenness in May of 1895. Interestingly, the doctor’s drunkenness was never mentioned during the murder trial or in any of the newspaper accounts and sensationalized reporting. Rather, the press described Crean as a “highly esteemed medical man” which rendered the possibility of him being an alcoholic obsolete and untenable. Rather, dispensary physicians and government officials in Ireland retained a much lower standard for sobriety in comparison to others in nineteenth century Ireland. Indeed, Bridget’s family made several attempts to have Dr. Crean examine Bridget prior to examining her when he was drunk. This dimension of Bourke’s narrative underscores how state institutions failed to adequately performed expected tasks. As such, Bourke notes that it is no surprise that “even as the dispensary doctor was being summoned, the ‘fairy machinery’ was working.” Indeed, this work looks at the failures and inabilities of the modern state to provide the necessary medical services, which seemingly seeks to legitimate the narrative itself. The Poor Law medical healthcare and relief system in place unequivocally failed when it neglected the concerns about Bridget articulated by her family numerous times. Moreover, such failings were compounded when the Roman Catholic Church also failed in its duty as a mediator between the state and the masses. The failure of the church indeed mirrors that of the medical system in Ireland, a it failed to provide any comfort or healing narrative. The priest who had performed the last rites for Bridget paradoxically fomented a greater sense of anxiety rather than comfort or reassurance to the grieving family. To the Cleary family, along with Denis Ganey, the local “fairy-doctor” as well as neighbors, readily proffered their advice regarding Bridget’s well-being while she was ill. The advice these parties gave to Bridget’s family ironically fomented the very conditions in which Bridget was tortured by Michael Cleary in her home the night before her brutal killing as a way to force the changeling that had taken over Bridget’s body out and kill it
Bourke is at her finest when she mines a vast array of unique sources in order to provide a nuanced, lively, vivid, and meticulous description the town and contingencies during the time of Bridgette’s murder. Marshalling herbal remedies, weather reports, descriptions of certain police garb, and the price of swine, Bourke buttresses traditional social and cultural historical methods that rely primarily on sensationalized and biased newspaper accounts of the murder, the crime scene and the trial. By gleaning various insights from such a diverse range of materials, Bourke effectively presents the social and cultural milieu of Irish society at the end of the nineteenth century. Thus, Bourke widens the context of Bridget Cleary’s story by offering an insightful analysis of the social, political, and legal ramifications of the Cleary case. Indeed, Bourke believes that it directly impacted the ongoing Union crisis that befell Ireland for the last few decades of the nineteenth century. She weaves together the Bridget Cleary case, the ongoing scandal that renowned author Oscar Wilde was involved in, and john Morley’s Land Bill in order to present a narrative in which the seminal land bill was gutted as a result of the Wilde scandal and the incineration and murder of Bridget Cleary. To many, Bridget Cleary’s murder suggested to the Irish population at-large that Irish institutions and the criminal justice system could not be trusted. Although Cleary provides an original and thought-provoking monograph, she falls short in certain areas that could have drastically amplified the scholarly currency of this work. She spends a large portion of her work on the question of blame and how this issue was of paramount importance for the implications of this scandal. Because of her focus on the question of blame, Bourke leaves out important discussions regarding what the Cleary killing reveals about marriage and husband/wife relationships and how changes wrought by industrialization, modernization, and autonomy reconfigured social relationships. A transnational analysis regarding the impact of the Wilde scandal on British society at-large in comparison with the Cleary one. Moreover, a more meaningful discussion regarding the tension between modern society and Irish folklore associated with traditional life in the Irish countryside is necessary to flesh out the dyad between fairy beliefs versus the modernity imposed by the Catholic Church and British colonial rule. Fairies in Irish folklore offer an antithetical explanation and alternative to rationality and modern science.
Bourke’s work nonetheless aims at reconstructing the events that took place in the Cleary couple’s cottage in the year 1895 and how the outside world understood the series of events that the press recounted on a quotidian basis in a meticulous fashion. Conventional narratives about this episode often focus solely on the contemporary newspaper coverage and the angles each of the accounts takes. However, Bourke uses the rich source material in a unique fashion by underscoring how the folkloric elements were integral for fully understanding the implications of the scandal and its meaning within the grand narrative of Irish history. By analyzing and assessing the social and psychological dimensions of believing in fairies at the outset of the twentieth century, Bourke deftly navigates the cultural and ideological terrain at play during the time of the 1895 murder. Despite the dearth of documentary evidence regarding what transpired in the Clearly cottage, Bourke nonetheless reiterates her belief that rituals based on Irish folklore in the Gaelic tradition had indeed taken place. Moreover, Michael Cleary was not the only person involved in these rituals with regards to Bridget and the changeling they believed had inhabited her body. Bourke presents an authentic yet dramatic account of the Bridget Cleary case regarding the details. While she acknowledge the political dimensions of the Irish and British press coverage of Cleary’s murder, Bourke nonetheless remains focused on the crime itself and how folkloric beliefs and rituals in rural Ireland played a part in the narrative despite the fact that Irish society was transitioning from a traditional one steeped in oral traditions and oral histories that remained tethered to the Church and Irish folklore centered on fairies to a more modern one in which literacy in the rural countryside was valorized as well as science, rationality, and state institutions.
The brutal murder of Bridget Cleary at the hands of her husband represents one of the most shocking and sensationalized event that preoccupied the Irish and British Press for a protracted period of time. Tory newspapers used the scandalous murder to slander their political foes. Questions arose regarding whether or not the peasants living in the rural countryside could be trusted if Ireland gained independence from Britain considering they still believed in fairies and burned their wives alive. The Cleary scandal interestingly occurred at the same time as the scandal in London involving Oscar Wilde, a coincidence that signaled to the public at-large that Irish peasantry and elites were ostracized concurrently. Moreover, the scandal showcases the importance of empathy and the historical imagination, or rather, the historicity of events by placing them in the social, cultural, and political context of their time in order to see how epochal contingencies enabled such an act to materialize. Empathy and historical imagination are often conflated with one another, and they are defined as the capability of seeing and judging the past in its own values and terms by understanding the beliefs, frames of reference, intentions, actions, and the mentality of historical agents vis-à-vis a litany of documentary and other pieces of historical evidence. Empathy, although scholars have debated its exact meaning, is the skill to reconstruct the actions and thought of a historical agent such as Michael Cleary and/or the ability to perceive of the world as it was seen by Irish peasants living in the countryside at the end of the nineteenth century without imposing present values and analyzing the events through a presentist lens. As a result, empathy and historical imagination are vital in the discipline of historical in order to recreate counter narratives of actors and agents that have hitherto been derided and muted from the grand narrative. Thus, empathy makes social history a viable branch and epistemology within the discipline of history itself.


Benson, E.F. “The Recent ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel” The Nineteenth Century 37(1895): 1053-1058.
Bourke, Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story. London: Pimlico, 1999.
"Changelings, Fairies, Deities, and Saints: The Integration of Irish Christianity and Fairy Tale Belief." Transceltic. Accessed April 12, 2015.
Cleary, Joe. The Cambridge Companion to Modern Irish Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2004.
Haraway, Donna. “’Gender’ for a Marxist Dictionary: The Sexual Politics of a Word,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, 1991. 127-148.
Payton, Philip. “Bridget Cleary ad Cornish Studies: Folklore, Story-Telling, and Modernity.” Cornish Studies, 3.1(2005).

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