Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 115-117
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The Burning of Bridget Cleary
The Cooper's Wife Is Missing:
The Trials of Bridget Cleary
The Burning of Bridget Cleary. By Angela Bourke (New York, Viking Penguin, 2000) 279 pp. $24.95
The Cooper's Wife Is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary. By Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates (New York, Basic Books, 2000) 458 pp. $26.00 cloth $16 paper
Bridget Cleary's murder in County Tipperary in 1895 was an international sensation on a scale that greatly embarrassed the rising Catholic middle class of the time. She was tortured by her husband and by nine members of her own family who fed her narcotic herbs and subjected [End Page 115] her to priestly interrogations and examinations by drunken physicians. She was finally burned to death by her husband who dosed her with petroleum distillate and set her on fire. All to drive out the fairy spirits that her tormentors were convinced inhabited her body.
Her life must have been torment enough even without the good offices of her husband and her family. Caught in rural Ireland in an era when the social freedom provided to anyone (let alone a woman) was minimal; childless after eight years of marriage in a world that equated marriage with reproduction; left bereft in the year before her torture by the death of her mother (who was not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground, most likely because she was a suicide); overtaken by her own psychotic episodes that revolved around visits to a fairy mound; and suffering from pneumonia or tuberculosis, Bridget Cleary became the only known case of an Irish adult being killed because she supposedly had become a "changeling"—that is, had become the physical container for a fairy spirit.
Both of the books under review are worth reading. That said, their contrasting characteristics are almost stereotypical of the situation in, say, the 1960s, when Americans wrote industriously researched but embarrassingly naive books about Ireland, and the Irish wrote elegant, knowing, nuanced, and lazily researched volumes. At least, that was the stereotype, and it is accurate in this instance.
Hoff and Yeates are idiosyncratically self-taught about Ireland. Hoff is a historian of Herbert Hoover and of Richard Nixon, and Yeates is a writer of histories commissioned by families. Their book is grossly padded—about half of it is their own homework on Irish history—and they have an uncanny ability to choose the wrong word. This book must have been a copyeditor's nightmare. Still, they have done admirable work in reassembling local sources, especially the fugitive local newspapers of the era. This is hard work in the best of circumstances in Ireland, but in this case was even more daunting. The material on the Cleary case was cut out of most surviving copies. Despite the local desire to silence the topic of their study, their research is considerably broader than is that of their competitor, Bourke (to whose work they had access before their own went to press).
A serious problem with Hoff and Yeates is that they listen with "Yank" ears to people who speak a different language. Thus, they constantly get things wrong, particularly social connotations. Sometimes they are unintentionally amusing. It is a treat to have them explain that the laborer's cottage to which the Clearys moved in 1888 had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. (A list of houses in rural Ireland that did would not take up more than a single sheet of paper—and they would be Big Houses).
Less enjoyable is a prejudiced tone that is aimed at fitting the preconceptions of an American audience about how rural Ireland worked. Most things that the authors do not like are labelled "English" or "British." Thus, the Kilkenny writer Hubert Butler (easily one of the twentieth [End Page 116] century's most distinguished Irish essayists) becomes the "British writer Hubert Butler." Michael Cleary and his in-laws (the Kennedys) are presented...