A riveting account of a horrific murder in 19th-century Ireland that is also a scholarly analysis of culture, politics, religion, and mythology.
Bridget Cleary, a young housewife in rural Tipperary, was burned to death by her husband Michael in the presence of relatives and neighbors on a spring day in 1895. Bourke (Irish/University College, Dublin) sorts through conflicting court records and journalists’ accounts to discern exactly what happened. To explain why it happened, she explores the rich, imaginative oral tradition still alive in Victorian Ireland. English was replacing Irish, and literacy, uniformity, and central authority were gaining sway. But many people, particularly Ireland’s numerous illiterates, continued to believe in fairies—powerful entities who could spirit away a wife and leave a deceitful changeling in her place. This creature, folklore maintained, could be banished by burning, and the true wife’s return could be secured through certain rituals. In such a world, Michael Cleary’s act becomes understandable—but, on the other hand, the crime can be also seen as a frustrated, angry husband’s act of domestic violence against a too-independent, possibly too-flirtatious wife. Bourke places the story of Bridget’s burning in historical context, showing how the event was seized by those in England opposed to Irish Home Rule as evidence that the Irish were too savage to govern themselves. Further background to the times is provided by her account of another scandalous affair involving an Irishman that same year: Oscar Wilde’s libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury and his own subsequent trial, conviction, and imprisonment. Bourke’s knowledge of English and Irish political history, her sympathetic understanding of Irish folklore, her meticulous descriptions of the life and ways of the landless poor, the authority of the Catholic church, the court’s procedures, and the workings of the prison system all make for an extraordinary look at the Ireland of a century ago.
Impressive scholarship applied to a fascinating episode.