Essay on the Burning of Bridget Cleary

1 January 2017

Cleary or more popularly described as “the last witch burned in Ireland”, though not actually accused of witchcraft, was murdered and burned by her husband in 1895, whose motive was his belief that she had been abducted by fairies and in her place the fairies had left only a changeling; he claimed to have killed the changeling and not his actual wife. Bridget was burned – immolated which either caused her death or was done post mortum which prompted extensive press coverage during a time when Ireland’s quest for self-government was being hotly debated.

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During this time it is clear that many changes were occurring in Ireland, a land that was once dominated by tradition was now becoming a modernized country. Where then does tradition stand in the course of change and on what grounds can it be upheld? The case of Bridget Cleary illustrates the relationship between tradition and change in rural Ireland through knowledge. As it is first by knowledge that one is able to gain an understanding of beliefs as tradition or superstition, further that knowledge gives a person or a group of people grounds for power, and finally knowledge joins hands with reason and together affect change.

Tradition is seen as an inherited or established belief relating to the past that is accepted though not verifiable, and generally this belief has been passed down through generations commonly by storytelling or word of mouth. It is through knowledge that this idea that a tradition as a common belief can be understood as historical in context but fails to be accurately historical by nature. The traditions surrounding  Bridget Cleary are those of a deep fondness even loyalty to the rich folklore that is synonymous with Ireland and celebrated as such, “the fairy legends of oral tradition marked Kylenagranagh as important. (Bourke, 20. )

 Living so close to geographic landmarks of centuries passed whose purposes had been long forgotten and thereby had been subject to the basis of  fairy legends, ultimately means that tradition ran thick in the blood of Tipperary natives and was not taken lightly. However, to say that tradition was the sole cause of her murder is not quite accurate as there is a line that divides tradition from superstition, that line being knowledge.

Unlike tradition, where there is a clear understanding of a specific belief and its’ lack of validity, superstition contains a clear lack of knowledge altogether or perhaps even a dismissal of evidence against an idea, belief or practice that is irrational; most often based on the supernatural. What Michael Cleary did to his wife can be seen as a result of superstition brought on by tradition; the idea that his wife went off with the fairies and that a changeling was in place of her would only be derived from oral tradition of the community and his family.

However, it is the lack of knowledge, being the superstitions, in regards to these traditions that lends itself to acting upon them in an irrational manner. At one point Bridget asks her husband as he is questioning her, if he thinks that she went away with the fairies because his Mother did; indicating a history of superstitions regarding fairies. He then goes on to commit the horrendous act, and though one wants to attribute the cause of murder to superstitious acts based on the oral tradition of fairy legends, ” superstition just labels it, it does not explain it. (Bourke, 153. )

The understanding of fairy folklore is necessary when looking at the motive of Michael Cleary. Fairy legends run abundantly throughout Irish Oral tradition and seem to serve two main purposes: the first being to protect children from harmful things. It is said that entrances to fairy realms are found in areas where the earth gives way such as caves and rocky streams and that if one isn’t careful a fairy could snatch them up or enter their body. Generally speaking, these stories are presented to ‘young males who lack caution’ (Bourke, 121.

Second and most importantly these stories serve as an explanation for things not understood. For instance, Changeling belief was often the rationalization for the burning and killing of children with disabilities thus it afforded the people the ease of mind in living with the acts that were committed. (Bourke, 39. ) In the case of Michael Cleary it provided him safety from members of his community as they also were angered and confused by the power that Bridget had accumulated economically and sexualy, through her gains in knowledge as a successful seamstress and was well read and fully literate.

This safety or alliance with other members in his community can be seen as there were eleven other people who stood by as Bridget was burned and not one of them offered to help. Though there was a common tradition of fairy legend, it is hard to believe that the irrational logic behind what was done to Bridget Cleary derived from superstition ran equally deep enough through all eleven people for not one to think there might be something wrong with what was being executed. Curious is it also that “among the documented cases of changeling- burning in Ireland in he nineteenth century- Bridget Cleary’s is the only one which involves an adult. ” (Bourke, 38. )

Superstitions maybe have just been a curtain to stand behind for a community who felt isolated in the changing nation that they, though distantly, were apart of. Bridget Cleary had clearly embraced the modernizing ways of the new Ireland as she found independence through dress making and hen raising. She earned money from these two occupations and perhaps was resented because of it not only by the community who was not accustomed to women being independent economically but also by her husband.

This change in social statuses of women gives way for the door to open to other interpretations concerning motive of Bridget’s death. The reliance on the idea of ignorance or superstition as cause of her death ” suggests that knowledge is the key: that people who know more facts are safer, but this books’ argument is that the key is power. ” (Bourke, 155. ) Bridget Cleary was an intelligent women who used her time and resources wisely and effectively contributed to a modest income for herself and her husband.

In an area where modernization was not seen as a good change but rather perhaps a change that people feared, Bridget as the embodiment of change would thus be feared. The people of Tipperary challenged this change by exerting their communal power against her by reverting back to tradition and superstition. This power over tradition that the community held proved to be very difficult for Ireland’s courts. The Burning of Bridget Cleary is a case that put not only humans on trial, but also the entire political and social system of Ireland, trying the belief system of the people as much as anything else.

It asked the question: “Does a firm belief in fairies and the supernatural legally establish insanity? ” How does the legal system separate centuries of beliefs and traditions from the “standard norm” for society? There may not be an easy answer or an answer at all, but it is necessary to take a step back and look at the importance of a society’s values of tradition and how a change from such beliefs will affect such a society. It is said best as, ” when all the creatures of imagination become practical agents in daily life, it is time to pause” (160).

Old tradition may die hard but when a woman is killed on the grounds of “tradition” it is no longer tradition but rather superstition and thereby is nullified as it is ignorance or carelessness to recognize knowledge. Whether the Clomnel judge presiding over the Cleary case found reason in that this rural community needed to understand the consequences of murdering based on superstition or whether his focus was mainly concerned with the Irish Home Rule and how this case if dismissed based on the belief in fairy tradition may hinder Ireland’s self- governance; he found Michael Cleary guilty of manslaughter.

Though the community of Tipperary asserted their power of tradition and superstitions over Bridget Cleary, the judge overruled their power by asserting his knowledge and thereby effecting change; amending Bourke’s argument that power is power. Michael Cleary served fifteen years for murdering his wife, then proceeded to move to Montreal, perhaps escaping the traditions accustomed to fairy folklore.

Knowledge played a key role in the bridge between tradition and change for rural Ireland as it always plays a role in the reason behind change not just concerning Ireland but internationally as well. Knowledge gives understanding, knowledge gives power and knowledge effects change. Bridget Cleary’s story has become an important part of Ireland’s history as it has become a part of Irish folklore itself in that folklore should remain tradition and not a curtain of superstition for those lacking knowledge to stand behind.

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