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Literature and Medicine 21.2 (2002) 317-319
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The Burning of Bridget Cleary:
A True Story
Angela Bourke. The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story. London: Pimlico, 1999. 208 pp. Paperback (reissue), $14.50.
On the night of Friday, March 15, 1895, Bridget Cleary was burned to death by her husband Michael. Bridget had been suffering for some days from "nervous excitement and slight bronchitis," according to the local doctor (p. 65). Michael Cleary, a young cooper from Ballyvadlea, in Tipperary, Ireland, was convinced that his ill wife, a seamstress, had been abducted by the fairies, and that the body he was burning was not that of Bridget, but rather a fairy changeling. Angela Bourke's meticulously researched account of the sensational and still-remembered burning of Bridget Cleary situates itself at precisely the point at which the institutions of the modern state—Poor Law guardians, doctors, police, and the Church—become inextricably entangled with local discourses of fairy doctors, abductions, and ritual torture. Between these two poles there is a "huge gap of credibility" (p. 129), which Bourke describes and tries to account for.
The Burning of Bridget Cleary brings a welcome sympathetic yet critical eye to a story that captured the imagination of the Irish, British, and American press at the turn of the last century. Bourke's account of the incident begins with Bridget's falling ill after walking through snow on a cold March day, and follows her illness and killing, the trial and incarceration of her killers, and their eventual release and fates. The particular strength of this book is the array of sources that Bourke marshals in order to give a thick and vivid description of Ballyvadlea at the time of Bridget's killing. From weather reports to pig prices, descriptions of police uniforms to herbal remedies, Bourke complements conventional social-historical sources—principally contemporary newspaper accounts of the killing and trial—with a range of materials that give a highly complex insight into the fabric of society and beliefs in late nineteenth-century Ireland.
The minutes of the Poor Law guardians' meetings—the guardians administered the medical relief system, such as it was—provide some sense of why Michael Cleary may have been skeptical of the diagnosis offered by Dr. Crean when he saw Bridget. Cleary claimed that Crean was "never sober" (p. 70); indeed, he was dismissed from office for drunkenness on May 2, 1895. Although no mention of his drunkenness was made in the courts or in the newspaper reports (he was described in one paper as a "highly esteemed medical man" [p. 70]), the possibility of his being an alcoholic must not have been remote, for a local government officer wrote to a royal commission that, among many [End Page 317] dispensary doctors, "the standard of sobriety is below what it ought to be" (p. 70). Bridget's family made three attempts to have the doctor see Bridget before he finally arrived, drunk. In the face of this failure of the institutions of the state to perform their task, it is little wonder that "even as the dispensary doctor was being summoned, the 'fairy machinery' was working" (p. 64).
In large measure, this is a story of the failure of the modern state to provide adequate services, and, perhaps consequently, to construct a narrative of legitimization for itself. The failure of the Poor Law medical relief system to take seriously the concerns of Bridget Cleary's family is compounded by a similar failure of a crucial mediator between the rural population and the state—the Roman Catholic Church—to offer any narrative of healing or comfort to the family. The appearance of the priest, who administered the last rites, gave more anxiety than reassurance to the family. By contrast, the Clearys' family, neighbors, and the local fairy-doctor, Denis Ganey, were near at hand and always ready to offer advice. It was this advice, in part, that led to Bridget being tortured in her house the night before her murder in an effort to drive out the...