cover image The Cooper's Wife Is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary

The Cooper's Wife Is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary

Joan Hoff. Basic Books, $26 (458pp) ISBN 978-0-465-03087-3

One of two books this season on the legendary death in 1895 of an Irish country woman, this account illuminates more broadly ""how Ireland suffered, how she struggled and what she faced in her fight to win her freedom."" In contrast to linguist Angela Bourke's The Burning of Bridget Cleary (see below), historians Hoff (of the University of Toledo and author of Nixon Reconsidered) and Yeates (an independent scholar with a Ph.D. from Indiana University) use Cleary's death to reconstruct a primarily political history. They begin by describing the ""rebellious South Tipperary"" of 1895. Still reeling from the Great Famine and the bloody Land Wars of the 1880s, Tipperary was tightly structured, on one side, by the landlords and the British government and, on the other, by the Catholic Church and a poor, nationalistic and fairy-believing peasantry. Against this backdrop lived the cooper Michael Cleary and his wife, Bridget. A pretty and independent woman, Bridget was ""a bit queer."" She had her own income and, after almost eight years of marriage, she was childless. When she fell ill, her husband, convinced his real wife had been abducted by a fairy and that a changeling remained in her place, began a grueling ritual meant to exorcise the changeling--but which, instead, led to Bridget's death by burning. Placing the testimony from Michael Cleary's murder trial at the center of their account, Hoff and Yeates meticulously dissect the days leading up to Bridget's death--and present a subtle account of the interpersonal, economic, political and sociological tensions that surrounded it. Meanwhile, they deliver a series of wonderful profiles of ""testy"" nationalists like the archbishop of Cashel, Thomas William Croke, and the revolutionary politician Charles Stewart Parnell. (And their outstanding first chapter contains an excellent analysis of Irish history and the Catholic Church 1858-1895.) Heavily footnoted--but lively--this volume brings new clarity and perspective to an important moment in Irish history. (Sept.)