cover image The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story

The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story

Angela Bourke. Viking Books, $24.95 (279pp) ISBN 978-0-670-89270-9

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 cold--which 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 men--including Michael--and 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.)