September 02, 2010

Review: The Burning of Bridget Cleary

In 1895, in a cottage in rural Tipperary, a young woman named Bridget Cleary was burned to death by her husband and some of her neighbours and relatives. This shocking event became one of the cause celebres of the day. Tory newspapers used the scandal to cast aspersions on their nationalist foes: could the Irish peasantry be trusted with independence if they burnt their wives? The fact that the scandal happened at the same time as the Oscar Wilde case in London meant that, for some, the Irish elite and peasantry had been impeached at the same time. So what did the Cleary scandal mean? Angela Bourke's book about it is supposed to educate us as to the meanings of this event on Friday 15 March 1895: why did it happen, who was to blame, what did it mean?

Lets start from the facts, as Bourke establishes them following court and media inquiries at the time. Bridget Cleary was a young attractive woman who had her own business selling eggs from her hens. Her husband Michael Cleary was a Copper, literate and educated (in the context of his time). On Monday 4 March 1895, Bridget walked to nearby Kylenagranagh to sell some eggs, she caught a cold and on the Tuesday was confined to her bed at her house in Ballyvadlea. Her father set off to the local doctor, Dr. William Crean, on Saturday 9 March and asked him to visit his daughter. The doctor visited on the 13th and suggested that she take some medicine but by that point Michael Cleary was so irritated with him that Bridget did not take the medicine. The local priest Father Ryan administered the last rites on the 13th. On 14th March Michael Cleary called in the assistance of a herb doctor and forced his wife to swallow some herbs boiled in milk. On the 15th Bridget felt well enough to come downstairs and dress: she met neighbours and relatives down in the kitchen. There was an argument about whether she was a changling rather than the real Bridget and Michael knocked her down to the floor, he then poured parrafin over her and set light to her. The body was buried and Michael told the local village that she had been taken by fairies: he performed a vigil out by Kylengranagh where he said he believed his wife would ride by in a fairy procession. On 21st March he and the others in the house were arrested for murder, on 23rd a coroner's inquest confirmed a death by burning, on 5 July Cleary was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years penal servitude with other lesser sentences being handed out. That is the substance of the case.

That's the substance of the case but it doesn't really explain anything. What happened in the kitchen of Michael and Bridget Cleary's house was not an ordinary murder, but something far stranger. It drew on myths from the Irish past and discontents from the Ballyvaldea present. We need to understand, as Bourke argues, both in order to understand what happened. What Bourke is good at is bringing out the nature of the Irish beliefs about fairies at this time. She takes material from Yeats and Lady Gregory and others and demonstrates that rural Ireland sat at a crossroads in the 1890s. A pre-literate culture, for which fairies were a useful way of passing on wisdom and warning through stories about common 'dangers', confronted the 'modern' world of the nineteenth century with its roads, railways and doctors. Bridget Cleary both faced a doctor and a fairy doctor during her final illness. Secondly she makes sure that we understand the particular dimensions of the situation inside that hut: Michael Cleary was challenged, his father died during Bridget's final illness and on the Friday Bridget may have implied that his mother was away with the fairies when she was a child. There is no doubt, having read Bourke's book, that Michael Cleary was under significant stress that night and that helped cause his actions.

However, Bourke turns towards the end of her book towards the question of blame- a question that she is interested in but I am not. She concludes that noone was completely to blame: ultimately this is sophistry. Bridget Cleary ended up being burnt to death, without Michael Cleary's involvement this would not have happened. However stressed Michael was, I am sure that many Irish husbands were so stressed but few Irish wives in 1895 ended up being burnt alive! But lets leave blame: the problem with blame is that its a moral judgement which each of us are entitled to make but for which we need facts. Bourke gets preoccupied with blame and therefore neglects the more interesting questions that surround the case, the relationship between husband and wife etc. She does capture some of the more interesting facets of the world in which Bridget and Michael lived: Bridget comes across as a self confident, pretty young woman who had her own business for example. But ultimately Bourke spends too much time pontificating about how we should not blame Cleary and about how fairies are a competing explanation to modern science for phenomenon and whether they are as 'useful'.

Where Bourke's wider context is more interesting is the ramifications of the Cleary case. It may have had an effect upon the crisis of Union as it spread across the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It happened with John Morley's Land Bill and at the same time as the scandal involving Oscar Wilde. Bourke tries to draw together the three events, suggesting that the scandal at the top of Irish society (Wilde) and at the bottom (the Cleary burning) destroyed the land bill. In part the Cleary case must have contributed to a sense that the Irish could not be trusted with voting: but the idea that it stopped the Morley bill I find less convincing. The Morley bill was a contentious bill coming from a weak and dying government: it was likely to fail despite any merits. Her point though about the event as an imperial event must be correct. Just like Suti in India or the primitive behaviour of British tribes under Rome, every barbaric act formed part of the metropole's justification for continued colonisation. If Bourke gets some points wrong, that point is definitely right.