Friday, June 02, 2006

Be careful of fairies!

The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke, is the story of a violent crime that took place in rural Ireland (Co. Tipperary) in 1895. Even more, this is the fascinating story of an isolated culture losing ground in a time of political and social change. The tensions between the poor, largely illiterate rural Irish culture and more "modern", "educated" ways, are clearly at work during the crime itself, and the aftermath. I came across this title in the bibliography of a children's book, and was immediately intrigued.

You can read further details about the actual murder here. In short, Bridget Cleary, a 26 year-old married dressmaker from tiny Ballyvadlea, came down with something resembling bronchitis and "nervous excitement" in March of 1895.

During the course of nursing her, her husband Michael, became increasingly suspicious that his wife had been taken away by fairies, and replaced by a changeling. He abandoned the course of medicine prescribed by the local doctor, instead choosing to force feed her (with the help of, like, 7 other men holding her down) a mixture of herbs in new milk and holding her in front of the fire, all the while commanding her to admit that she was Bridget Cleary, "in the name of God." The final night of Bridget Cleary's life, her husband, enraged by the fact that she refused a third bit of bread, held a burning stick from the fire to her. Her clothing caught fire and she began to burn. Michael Cleary then doused her with paraffin, setting her further aflame. This story is made even more chilling by the fact that the house was pretty much filled to the brim with eyewitnesses, most of whom were members of Bridget's own family. Afterwards, Michael Cleary buried the body, all the while insisting that it was a changeling, and that his true wife would re-appear three nights later at the "fairy fort" at nearby Kylenagranagh. Not surprisingly, this was not the case, and eventually Michael Cleary and eight others were arrested for Bridget Cleary's murder, including her father, aunt and a number of cousins.

The story of the crime and resulting trial are fascinating reading, but I found Bouke's examination of the cultural, political and religious climate of the day even more interesting. This trial was a media sensation, and was used as an example of the backwardness and "savagery" of the Irish, and an argument against Home Rule. The author discusses Irish fairy folklore at length. Rather than saying that all these uneducated Irish peasants believed unequivocally in the existence of fairies, she argues that fairy legend can be read as a code which governed social mores and explained the unexplainable. Often, physical disabilities and infertility, among other things, were explained as the result of being "touched by the fairies." Those engaging in anti-social or unusual behavior, were actually changelings left by the fairies, and by engaging in certain rituals, a person could get their loved one back. Is it a surprise that some of these rituals were pretty violent? Perhaps it was a way of keeping people in line. That certainly seemed to be the case with Bridget Cleary, who was characterized as an independent young woman with a strong personality, whose trade and education differentiated her from her largely illiterate, farm laborer cousins, none of whom came to her aid during her ordeal. Why would a relatively minor illness have set her husband off so? The author suggests that he was symbolically establishing his dominance over his strong minded wife, using the language of fairies. It's all very weird and totally fascinating.

This book is classified as true crime, but if you are looking for a straightforward crime narrative, you might be disappointed by all of the social history. It can also read very academically in bits (I haven't seen phrases like "symbolic capital" or "culture of stigma and control" since college). But if you are interested in folklore, Irish history, or if like me, you are interested in seeing how belief in the supernatural has impacted different cultures over the years, I would highly recommend this book.