Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story (1999) chronicles the far from ordinary murder case of Bridget Cleary in rural County Tipperary, Ireland in March 1895. Gruesomely murdered by immolation on her own hearth by her husband, Michael Cleary, who, along with many of Bridget’s relatives and friends were present when she was murdered, believed that the woman before them was in fact a changeling and the real Bridget Cleary had been abducted by the fairies. While much of the world was on the cusp of the twentieth century and had long abandoned superstitious beliefs, the mindset of the people living in Bridget’s rural townland of Ballyvadlea was still firmly rooted in the beliefs and folklore of earlier centuries. Bridget’s relatives, including her own father, Patrick Boland, supported this theory and did little to save her when Michael Cleary, wracked from the stress of his wife’s illness and the unsettling idea that in reality she was with the fairies, dosed Bridget with kerosene and set her alight. As Bourke reveals, Bridget’s murder at the hands of her family was not an isolated incident, but rather one of many incidences of Irish peasants murdering their own friends and family on the pretense that the being before them was not real. However, as Bourke points out, given that this murder occurred in a period when most of the western world had given up their belief in folklore, the murder generated extensive press coverage throughout the United Kingdom where readers were shocked at the barbaric nature of the rural Irish.
Born to Patrick Boland and his wife Bridget Keating around 1869 in the Townland of Ballyvadlea, County Tipperary, Bridget Boland lived in a world almost entirely removed from modernity. The nineteenth century had seen some advancements and Victorian organization come to this rural area of Ireland, such as a newly formed police network to keep order and a hierarchy of educated Catholic clergy to minister to their mostly illiterate parishioners, but for the older generations, the old ways, traditions, and beliefs of rural Ireland were alive and well. A skilled dressmaker who owned her own sewing machine, Bridget made a fine bride for Michael Cleary, whom she married in 1887. Coupled with their childless marriage, with both being skilled in their respective trades, the Clearys achieved a financial position out of reach from their neighbours and relatives. Indeed, Michael and Bridget were lucky enough to inhabit one of the newly built stone cottages built by the local Cashel Poor Law Guardians, while many of their contemporaries continued to live in windowless dwellings made of mud. Therefore, as Bourke deftly illuminates throughout the book, it is of little surprise that while modernity was slowly permeating into this part of Ireland, the inhabitants of Ballyvadlea retained their belief in folklore and superstitions.
A prominent theme that Bourke successfully illuminates throughout this work is the role folklore played, not just in the murder of Bridget Cleary, but within Ireland as a whole during this period and how the two worldviews of modernity and superstition came to a head in an era of intense political and cultural change. Indeed, as Bourke relates, “A whole world of wakes, herbal cures, stories of kings and heroes, and legends of the fairies – the culture of those who had not learned to read and write – became increasingly marginal” (10). Folklorists such as Lady Augusta Gregory and W. B. Yeats travelled around Ireland, collecting folk stories and oral history from the slowly dwindling number of the Irish peasantry who still fully subscribed to the old worldview. Authors catered to a readership ravenous for stories of fairies and other legends. For the modern reader it is almost unbelievable that a woman could be brutally murdered at the hands of her own husband and family because they all believed her to be a fairy, but Bourke provides the background needed to fully appreciate and understand what folklore still carried for some Irish at the end of the nineteenth century.
While the facts of Bridget Cleary’s murder are remarkable on their own, Bourke succinctly highlights that this was not just a turn of the century murder case that scandalized readers across Britain and Ireland, but highlights the impact the case had on the political maelstrom that was Anglo-Irish politics at the end of the nineteenth century. Set during the long and contentious debate over Home Rule in Ireland, Bridget Cleary’s murder simply confirmed the fears of the British government that the Irish peasantry are a savage race unsuited for self-governance. By situating Bridget’s murder within the wider context of Irish history, both in terms of turn of the century politics and ancient fairy belief, Bourke is able to demonstrate the far-reaching effects that the murder had both in Ballyvadlea and beyond. By grounding the murder to such an extent in the wider political world of the 1890s gives more insight into the world of Bridget Cleary and her contemporaries, thereby successfully untangling the complex web of Irish politics for benefit of the modern reader. Interestingly, in the chapters of her work that analyze the trial that followed the Cleary murder, Bourke makes parallels between not just the politics of 1895, but another dramatic trial happening at the same time: that of the writer Oscar Wilde against the Marquess of Queensbury for criminal libel. This aspect of the book was well-done and provided a contemporary example of a high-status trial from the opposite end of society from Bridget Cleary. It also juxtaposed the consequences of both worldviews of the time: the old worldview held by the rural Irish that led to Bridget’s murder, and the modern worldview of the legal system that led to the criminal conviction of Oscar Wilde for homosexuality.
Not only does Bourke tell the story of Bridget Cleary’s dramatic murder and the subsequent trial with the detail and precision of a trained historian, she does so in a way that is entirely unbiased. Given that Bourke details how the case was judged and seen by Ireland’s two worldviews, the modern court system and the neighbours of Ballyvadlea who still held to the old ways, this impartially and the absence of a judgement on the part of the author is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the book. Bourke has compassion for all involved and when writing this book was acutely aware that the memory of Bridget Cleary and those involved in her murder lives on in rural Ireland over a century later. Like many famous murders, especially those that occur in rural areas where memories of the past linger longer in the minds of the living, many rumours and false information have developed in regard to Bridget Cleary, but true to her calling as an historian, Bourke has given a well-substantiated account of Bridget Cleary’s life and murder, grounding her work entirely within the historical record.
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Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History and is currently in the final months of a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Victorian Britain and its global empire. His MA thesis focuses on Queen Victoria’s interest and impact on music during her reign. Outside of academia, Connor enjoys genealogy, rug-hooking, and thrifting.