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The Burning of Bridget Cleary


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Angela Bourke is senior lecturer in Irish at University College, Dublin. She has been a visiting professor at Harvard University and the University of Minnesota and writes, lectures, and broadcasts on Irish oral tradition and literature.


In spring 1895 in Ireland, some men reported to their local priest that young Bridget Cleary, who was known to have been ill, had been burned to death by family members, including her husband, in a case of fairy exorcism. The priest in turn went to the police, who found Bridget's charred body and then arrested nine family members, neighbors, and friends in connection with the incident. The subsequent trial became a weapon in the hands of Tories opposed to Home Rule for Ireland. After all, how could one grant political autonomy to a people still so in the grip of superstition? Of the two new books that examine this case, Bourke's is the more readable. Bourke, a lecturer in Irish at University College Dublin who has published journal articles on the Irish fairy tradition, exhibits a more balanced grasp of the story and a greater intimacy with the culture than Hoff, an American academic who has written books on Nixon and Hoover, and coauthor Yeates, a freelance writer of family histories. Frustratingly, Hoff and Yeates take almost 100 pages even to get to Bridget. Because Bridget's murder offers a window into the changing world of Irish peasantry in the late 19th century, her tragic but fascinating story will interest many. Bourke's book would suffice for public and most academic libraries, though Hoff and Yeates's would be a useful additional title for larger Irish collections.DCharlie Cowling, SUNY at Brockport Lib. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

A wonderful example of narrative cultural history, this text examines a pivotal moment in Irish history, through folklore and language. In 1895, Bridget Cleary, of Ireland's County Tipperary, caught a bad coldÄwhich her husband interpreted as a sign that she'd been taken by a "fairie." "She's not my wife," Michael Cleary said, "she's an old deceiver sent in place of my wife." After trying to treat her with herbs, "first milk" and urine, Michael burned his wife to death. When her body was discovered in a shallow grave, the Royal Irish Constabulary, who saw her death as evidence of Ireland's backwardness (and hence justification of the British colonial presence in the region) rounded up a band of menÄincluding MichaelÄand tried them for murder. As she pieces together the details of these events, Bourke (senior lecturer in Irish at University College, Dublin) tells the history as a deeply rooted collision of cultures: the accused Irish believed that they'd justifiably snuffed out a fairy changeling; the British authorities called it murder. Fairies, Bourke argues, held an important place in 19th-century Irish culture, but fairy scares were often evidence of larger personal and social conflict. In Bridget Cleary's case, she may have been the victim of unresolved marital trouble (she was barren, opinionated and financially self-supporting). Found guilty of manslaughter and sent to prison, Michael Cleary, upon his release in 1910, emigrated to Canada, but the legend of Bridget Cleary lives on in a Tipperary children's rhyme: "Are you a witch or are you a fairy,/ Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?" This thoughtful and disturbing book gives the legend a new, more complicated cultural life. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

"A historically rich and heady tale...fascinating." --Elle"Tightly constructed and authentically dramatic...a powerful reconstruction of the crime." --The New York Times Book Review"A fascinating, complex study...Bourke uses the horrific murder as a springboard to tell a larger story about sex, religion, and politics." --USA Today

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