Bridget and Michael Cleary

I have a book called The Burning of Bridget Cleary, by Angela Bourke … it’s some years since I read it. It concerns an incident that occurred in 1895 in Co. Tipperary (the case is too complicated to describe in any detail; the following are the bare facts).

Bridget Cleary, a 26-year-old woman, died when her husband, Michael – a cooper – apparently set fire to the chemise she was wearing and then threw oil on it. Various people were in the house at the time of Bridget’s death, and apparently didn’t try to stop him, or didn’t try hard enough.

The case gained great notoriety internationally at the time, as Cleary claimed that the reason for his actions was that Bridget was not in fact his wife, but that ‘the real’ Bridget had been replaced by a fairy changeling. At a time of ‘Home Rule’ agitation, this was adduced as evidence that the Irish were a backward, superstitious people, unfit to govern themselves.

The background was that Bridget Cleary was an attractive and sociable young woman, by all accounts, and fairly independent and affluent by the standards of the time and place (my grandfather came from there, and someone with my surname that Bourke mentions may have been a relation). She kept hens, sold eggs and had an income of her own. Her husband, who seems to have been mentally unbalanced, became convinced that she was having an affair, and upset at the fact that she had not given him children (as I recall).

Some interesting themes and ideas emerge from Bourke’s book. In rural Ireland at the time, two belief systems were vying for supremacy, against a backdrop of the Land War, ostracism and repression. One was the old pagan code, associated with ‘fairy’ belief; the other was the Catholic Church – not nearly as dominant in Irish life as it later became, but taking advantage of the awful demoralization and disorientation brought about by the famine of 50 years earlier.

One thing that struck me was that the Cleary case was not in fact an indictment of the parallel belief system to which many of the nominally Catholic Irish peasantry subscribed … rather, as a tragic exception, it highlighted the fact that this system generally facilitated social order quite well.

Angela Bourke writes:

Fairies belong to the margins, and so can serve as reference points and metaphors for all that is marginal in human life. Their underground existence allows them to stand for the unconscious, for the secret, or the unspeakable, and their constant eavesdropping explains the need sometimes to speak in riddles, or to avoid discussion of certain topics. Unconstrained by work and poverty, or by the demands of landlords, police, or clergy, the fairies of Irish legend inhabit a world that is sensuously colourful, musical and carefree, and as writers from Yeats to Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill have observed, legends about them richly reflect the imaginative, emotional and erotic dimensions of human life.



Filed under Ireland

43 responses to “Bridget and Michael Cleary

  1. Ike Jakson

    Hi boys and girls and guys

    You may have noticed that I took a break Sunday and yesterday doing as little as possible while everybody else was doing the opposite flooding my inboxes with email.

    I shall try and catch up. Don’t hold your breath now however because we are enjoying a fresh new previously unheard of extra bit of Indian summer right in the middle of the winter. We should be freezing but I walked around the garden in boxer shorts with no top yesterday.

    Maybe it is our reward for the World Soccer Cup inconvenience. Emails are already circulating thanking the early losing teams for not hanging around and instead getting the hell out of here when they failed to “go through” to the next rounds. Many of us are looking forward for the entire thing to come to an end so that we can return to normalcy and deal with the aftermath.

    Anybody wants trumpets? Well, you can have them; we have seen and heard and are not impressed.


    PS Brendan

    You have another good Post here. I am reading them and enjoy them too. Your previous piece on the Irish language at school was very interesting. Keep it rolling along.

  2. Brendano, you might be interested in my own piece on this story

  3. Cymbeline

    Yes, different belief systems can often rub along together quite well – but not always. Concerning the former idea, pre-Christian Romans did not have a problem with incorporating Celtic deities into their pantheon, for example. Similarly, my mother knew a Melanesian Christian woman who was highly educated in the western sense, and that woman believed that a magic axe came to her son’s aid every time he was in trouble. Perhaps it did. There are many such examples. That sort of duality can be seen in societies past and present, all over the world. Recently, an ancient temple to Mithra was dicovered in Angers of all places.

    The pressure to obey one single belief system comes from without, rather than from within, I think; and it is that that leads to the destruction or weakening of one system over another. That outside pressure can smash objects and temples and deface icons, but it can also create great inner conflict and distress, where there may have been a sort of personal syncretic harmony before. The individual can become crumbled and weakened. My father once had a brilliant colleague who came from a village which had hardly been touched by western civilization. He worked in the modern world. He died far too early, and my father is convinced that it was to do with the pressure between those two very different worlds, those two very different belief systems.

    It is also important to consider the nature of the pressure from without – certain belief sytems insist on total adherence. Historically, organized Christianity has been guilty of that. Islam is even worse, and needs to be watched.

    Concerning fairy tales in particular, have you read Bruno Bettelheim’s book ‘The Uses of Enchantment’? He speaks of how fairy tales help children to explore and understand the world of the unconscious mind from a safe distance. This ties in with some of what Angela Bourke says.

  4. Cymbeline


  5. Cymbeline

    I must add that the Irish do not own fairies.

    There are fairies all over Northern Europe.

  6. Cymbeline

    As for the Cleary case itself – it reminds me of the way male anger against women can seek all sorts of excuses. In this case, fire and oil were involved in the punishment. In other more modern cases, battery acid to the face is involved. Petrol and cigarette lighters too. And sometimes women are put into black cages of stiff cloth, and told that this is an expression of religious freedom. And sometimes the clitoris is sliced off with a razor blade. Other bits too, and then they are nicely sewn up.

    Nothing to do with fairies, and hardly an exception, in the grand scheme of things.

  7. Thanks for that, Ike. I’ve been enjoying much of what I’ve seen of the World Cup, though not the vuvuzelas. 🙂 After last night, I fancy Brazil to win it yet again. I hope they do.

  8. Thanks for drawing my attention to that, Ana. I’ve read your piece and left a comment.

  9. Cymbeline, thanks for your comments … your 3 in particular is very interesting. Everything you say is correct, as far as I’m concerned.

    Carl Jung was very interested in the kind features of ‘primitive’ societies you mention, and referred to their idea of ‘loss of soul’ … the kind of thing that killed your father’s colleague. I agree with you on the inner conflict and distress, and I feel sure that Jung would have too. Old belief systems evolved in a way that was psychologically beneficial to their adherents … they reflected human needs in a way that, as you mention, modern religions may not.

    I read parts of Bettelheim’s book many years ago (as I tended to do when I worked in libraries) … a very interesting topic. I must read it properly.

    You are right, of course, to say that the Irish do not own fairies. Some beliefs persisted more here because we didn’t have the Romans, I suppose. They extirpated the druids elsewhere … not here.

    As I mentioned to Ana, Iceland to this day has similar ‘fairy’ beliefs to the old Irish ones, partly because of old connections between the two countries, I think.

    I agree with you completely about male anger against women. There are deep and sinister misogynistic currents. I see the Cleary case more in terms of this template than the ‘superstition’ one … some pretext can always be found for violence against women. I think you’re right to point to Islam in this regard too. Vigilance is certainly necessary, and some things should not be tolerated.

  10. Cymbeline

    Go raibh maith agat.

    Diolch yn fawr iawn.

  11. A neighbour of mine, the playwright Tom McIntyre, wrote a very surreal and impressionistic take on the Cleary case, which was performed at the Ramor Theatre in Virginia. I don’t think it’s been performed anywhere else.

    Cymbeline, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, mentioned by Angela Bourke, is the childhood friend of my sister whom I mentioned in the context of Irish-language snobbery. Her father removed my tonsils and appendix (with permission, of course).

    Ana mentions a children’s rhyme – ‘Are you a witch or are you a fairy/Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’ This shows the persistence of Elizabethan pronunciation of words like ‘sea’ (as ‘say’) in Ireland, which is still current to some extent. It’s also noticeable in poems by Swift. There are other survivals from that time in Irish speech, which died out in England.

    Anthony Burgess said that if one could somehow hear Shakespeare talk, one would think he was Irish.

  12. Cymbeline

    Fascinating snippets. Thank you.

    As you know, I do not agree with you about what you see as Irish-language snobbery though!

  13. Sorry, Cymbeline, I should have put that in quotation marks. 🙂

    You won me over with your argument on the subject.

  14. There was a blackbird in my office when I came in this morning … I wonder if it’s an omen?

    It crapped on my Concise OED.

  15. Cymbeline

    Brendano. Do you remember the sculptured wooden bowl I once photographed and posted on MyT? It is a bird on one side, and a fish when the bowl is turned upside down.

    The man who died too early made that for me, when I was a girl.

  16. Yes, I do remember, Cymbeline.

    How wonderful to have something like that … it must mean a lot to you.

  17. Cymbeline

    I do not care very much about possessions, but I care very much about that bowl, yes.

  18. The Irish are not peasantry, but were reduced to humble circumstances. As to fairies they are all over Europe in different forms. Either Cleary was mad or else it is a screenplay for the “Twilight Zone”. You had a bird crap on your dictionary? I narrowly missed the kamikaze seagulls of Belfast.

  19. I think Cleary was mad, RB. It’s strange to look at the photos taken of him and Patrick Kennedy when they were taken into custody … for nineteenth-century people, there is something eerily ‘modern’ and ordinary about them. They could be neighbours of mine.

    There’s also one of Cleary on his release in 1910 … he looks like an educated and urbane man, which he wasn’t.

  20. helpmaboab

    There’s also one of Cleary on his release in 1910 … he looks like an educated and urbane man, which he wasn’t.

    It has its dangers, trying to ‘read’ people.

  21. I don’t see much of a parallel, hmb. Cleary never aired his opinions on a website.

    I’ve never had anything against you personally, and nothing personal is intended in any criticism of what you say on MyT, but you may take it that way if you wish.

    As far as I’m concerned, you spout some pretty wild and woolly far-right stuff, which makes your fanatical identification with the Israeli state a tad ironic in historical terms.

    Of the two of us, I’m the one that doesn’t believe in the concept of untermenschen, and I do tend to speak out against it when I think it appropriate to do so.

    But it’s been another Tuesday night of wall-building and wine-drinking, and I’m somewhat tired.

  22. Cymbeline

    I do not believe in the concept of untermenschen either.

    The wild-eyed, fanatical support of Israeli government crime visible on MyT is both nauseating and frightening.

  23. Cymbeline

    Mr Broxted. I was careful in my choice of words. The fairy in various forms is all over the place, but the sort of fairy we are speaking about is especially present in Northern Europe. Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Brittany, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Germany.

    Celtic, Norse, Teutonic.

  24. Cymbeline

    I believe that this sort of fairy was once photographed near Bradford.

  25. claire2

    When I was a little girl I wanted to be a fairy when I grew up!

  26. Cymbeline

    Hello Claire. When I was a little girl, a German woman would sometimes come to the house. Friend of my parents. She would have been in her twenties. She used to tell me to look at the dust suspended in the sunlight. She said that all those little bits of dust were fairies. She would then tell me stories about them.

    I loved those stories, but I cannot remember any of them. I always think of her, and fairies when I see dust dancing and turning in rays of sunlight.

  27. Now you can see what I mean. I will continue to read your posts but I think it best if I offer no more comments. I have no patience with wretched, mean-spirited people.

  28. Cymbeline

    Your self-advertisement all over the internet is an embarrassment. You even speak of yourself in the third person.


  29. Thanks for all the comments.

    There’s a film called Photographing Fairies which I once saw in the cinema … I enjoyed it a lot. There was a craze at one time for ‘proving’ the existence of such beings, along with other aspects of the ‘paranormal’ … Arthur Conan Doyle was an enthusiast. But the people involved were charlatans … the real fairies were no doubt sniggering. 🙂

    A man named Thomas Crofton Croker published a book of fairy lore in Ireland in the early nineteenth century, while making it clear that he was above such things. He gave an irrational debunking involving a drunk man and a field of mushrooms. When class-conscious respectability came in, fairies went out.

    The accounts of fairies sometimes remind me of ‘allies’ in the books of Carlos Castaneda. Personally I think that we have lost the ability to apprehend various aspects of the world as we have become more civilized. We have become cut off.

  30. helpmaboab

    To have uncovered this “concept of untermenschen,” thing required quite a bit of ‘reading’. Unless you have a link?

    But I know you don’t have a link, because I don’t do the concept of untermenschen. You may offer ‘what Brendano thinks hmb thinks’ instead. I usually don’t bother to defend myself against baseless ad hominem because I prefer to let accusers expose themselves. Like your poisoning the wells attempt the other day. I really prefer to stick to the issues. It is much more interesting.

    (btw, I hope my third person reference didn’t offend.)

  31. I do not poison wells, hmb … that is your perception, born out of wanting to have your cake and eat it.

    The thing is, you don’t ‘stick to the issues’. You sometimes expose the strong feelings that underlie your views on ‘the issues’. These feelings may relate to Arabs, Irish, Palestinians as peoples. I have sometimes been taken aback by them.

    The word untermenschen is chosen advisedly.

  32. helpmaboab

    “The word untermenschen is chosen advisedly.”

    Yet…. still and all, without a link it remains tantalisingly difficult to justify. Like I said, just ‘what Brendano thinks about hmb’s feelings’. Give it over, Brendano, you’re no good at this.

  33. hmb, you are starting to bore me. I don’t believe I have anything to justify. I am not about to go trawling through your archive to make a case, as that might bore me terminally, and I am busy.

    I have seen plenty in your comments over the years to convince me that I did not imagine the untermenschen thing … it is all too real, and you would do better to face up to it honestly rather than trying to shoot the messenger. But I don’t suppose you’ll do that.

    Cognitive dissonance is a bastard, isn’t it?

  34. helpmaboab

    “Cognitive dissonance”? I thought you had got over that.

    Me, I’m into my ‘projection’ phase.

  35. “Me, I’m into my ‘projection’ phase.”

    Finally we agree.

  36. Two points. First Cymbeline you can call me Ron – that photo in Bradford was proven to be a fake recently, odd given as Kodaks top expert said it was real (!) Now to Bob & the wider MyT issue of Arabs/Jews. Nobody should mind support for Israel (or Palestine) but some of the rig’lars are a bit de trop – usually the Muslim hating ones. I find Bob OK even if we are on dfferent sides here (in Belfast, liberally festooned with bird poo).

  37. Cymbeline

    Oh Mr Broxted, you make me blush. I would not like to seem forward with a gentleman.

    I do not mind support for Israel, but I draw the line at letting states get away with murder. I have a similar approach to Bloody Sunday.

  38. claire2

    Hello Cymbers; missed your comment last night, but what a lovely idea…
    when we go to France in summer, since we are in the middle of nowhere, you can actually see the stars and glowworms; for someone who has never seen the milkyway through anything but a pink haze, it is quite overwhelming.
    Whoops; rambling again 😉

  39. claire2

    Ana, I clicked on that link to your post on fairies, but it didn’t seem to be working…

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