Are you a witch or are you a fairy,
Or are you the wife of Bridget Cleary?
A Tipperary Children's rhyme
village of Drangan sits north of Sliabh na mBan (Mountain of Women).
In September 2000 I journeyed there in search of the 'witch' Bridget
Cleary. Bridget had died in a miasma of flame and cursing, struck
down by her husband, Michael, in the presence of family members
in the kitchen of their Ballyvadlea cottage, on 15 March 1895. Across
the Irish Sea, Oscar Wilde was enduring his own pain. I'd joined the search, after encountering the gripping tale in
Angela Bourke's brilliant, The Burning of Bridget Cleary.
Sliabh na mBan from the Cleary kitchen
In the Cloneen cemetery, alongside an old stone wall, I found the
four rough perpendicular stones that mark the resting place of Bridget.
For fear of inflaming public sentiment the Royal Irish Constabulary
chose the cover of dark, on Wednesday 27 March, to dump the charred
remains of 26-year-old Bridget Cleary.
The Cloneen cemetery.
Another martyr watches over the soul of Bridget Cleary.
In the distance are the hills of Kylatlea, home of the
'herb man' Denis Gahan.
Nearby is buried the 'medicine man', John Dunne, and descendants
of the ‘herb man’, Denis Gahan. Both men were to become entangled
in the killing of Bridget Cleary.
|Denis Gahan's grandson? I wonder what stories he took to
Down the road, nestled in the damp earth of the Drangan graveyard,
only two hundred metres from where Michael Cleary, accompanied by
the limping Dunne, told the local priest Bridget had ‘gone missing’
are buried her relatives, the Bolands. In these quaint, bucolic
cemeteries lie the remains of neighbours and family, some at worst
complicit, others at best careless bystanders to that brutal murder
on the night of 15 March 1895.
|Ellen Dunne, nee Leary and her son, John, in Cloneen.
A century later people still talk of what really happened. Over
a pint at the pub opposite the Drangan cemetery the publican remembered
how 'the nuns made us feel it was something to be ashamed of'.
It was Tuberculosis that sent Bridget to her bed 12 days before
her death, bringing Cleary and Dunne to claim she'd been abducted
by fairies and replaced by a changeling, explained local farmer
Martin Power. On the same day Power had pointed me to the field
where Sean 'Red' Kelly, father of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly,
had resided before being transported for stealing a pig.
But why, for no apparent reason beyond her confinement did Bridget's
husband resort to force-feeding her with milk and herbs and fairy
abduction emerge as the justification for the treatment of this
poor woman? Might his wife’s growing independence and the absence
of children, after seven years of marriage have triggered this tragic
sequence of events?
Describing Bourke’s book as a 'classic' that avoids 'designer victimology',
and the ‘murder’ as a product of 'the ultimately unknowable nature,
to the outsider, of intimate relationships between a man and a woman',
Tipperary writer Michael Coady walked the political divide
exposed by Bourke's scholarship.
Where some commentators saw a husband invoking the tenets of patriarchy,
masquerading as folklore, others imagined a man and a community
cast adrift by colonialism and a loss of ‘Irish Ways’. Ironically,
neither position should preclude us from accepting that the Cleary
household was, to quote the author, 'a crucible of a larger world'
or that, contrary to the view of the jury and the author, Michael
Cleary murdered his wife.
|The cottage in Ballyvadlea in 2000.
As I peered through the window of the cottage at Ballyvadlea and
imagined how Cleary knocked his wife to the floor of their kitchen,
stripped her, doused her with paraffin oil and set her alight, I
wondered why the author was convinced this was 'not murder'. When
she says 'the book is not a work of fiction...(and) narrative has
the power to convey ideas...(and that)...everyone who tells a story
offers an interpretation' Bourke exposes the complexity of the journey
on which she embarked.
For despite the author’s brilliant scholarship and evocative attention
to historical detail, I wanted one more narrative. That narrative
might have explored the deeper lessons as to why so many murdered
women are seen, like Bridget Cleary, to have been complicit in their
own death. Stripped of the beguiling historical moment the story
can read like a metaphor for the contemporary killing of women by
the man in their life. Ultimately, it was Bridget Cleary's rebelliousness,
albeit her reluctance to swallow a piece of bread thrust into her
mouth by her husband during the final act of ‘cleansing’, that led
to her death.
And so, while Michael Cleary and his co-accused were damned for
what the New York Times labelled 'a 'barbarous episode near Fethard',
in civilised England Oscar Wilde was about to pay for his homosexuality.
The 'ignorance and superstition and mental and religious darkness'
about which Justice O'Brien thundered when he sentenced Cleary to
twenty years penal servitude was not, as Angela Bourke discreetly
reminds us exclusive to the Irish of Ballyvadlea.
It's instructive that Cleary was found guilty of manslaughter rather
than murder (5 July), and that as he left the court he protested
Whatever my reservations, this remains a wonderful book.
Hello, Mr. Cleary:
I just visited your website and found your pictures and information
on Bridget Cleary fascinating and enlightening. Also, I wholeheartedly
agree with you .... ..........
I've read Angela Bourke's book, The Burning of Bridget Cleary",
and the other book on Bridget Cleary's murder, "The Cooper's
Wife Is Missing." ..................
On the back inside flap of "The Cooper's Wife Is Missing",
there is a photo of the two authors standing beside Bridget's unmarked
grave. This is not the gravesite that you pictured on your website
during your visit to Ireland. I prefer your photo, because I would
hate to think Bridget is buried in such an ugly unmarked grave.
The authors of this book also didn't include any photos of Bridget
in their picture section, saying none could be found. But Angela
Bourke included the wedding portrait of Michael and Bridget Cleary
in her book.
I was just wondering if you had any more information on the enigmatic
Bridget Cleary? Or if you can recommend to me how I can obtain more
information about her? I've searched Google and Ask Jeeves, but
most of the sites they list are book reviews. I would greatly appreciate
any help you can give me.
Reading the two books about her cruel murder moved and upset me
so much that I cried uncontrollably while telling my friend about
it. It's a haunting tragedy that touches the heart and makes one
want to know more about Bridget Cleary, who was so young when she
was tortured and murdered by her husband, father, relatives, and