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claimed that the reason for his actions was that Bridget was not in fact his wife, but that ‘the real’ Bridget had been replaced by a fairy changeling.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.