Angela Bourke, |
The Burning of Bridget Cleary
(Penguin Putnam, 2000)
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?
Twenty-six-year-old Bridget Cleary was a bright and bubbly lady, well liked by all who met her. It was not only her own class, the laborers -- even the richest people in her area knew her to be a polite, friendly woman who carried herself well in public and was always a lady.
In March 1895, Bridget became ill. The winter had been the coldest one recorded in that area of Ireland and it had been exceptionally hard on its people. But Briget's husband, Michael Cleary, became convinced she was "fairy stricken." He believed that a fairy had snatched Bridget and left a sickly changeling in her place. He was determined to drive out the changeling and get his wife back.
On March 13, Michael Kennedy and his mother, Mary Kennedy, went to visit her sick niece. They walked to Bridget's home, arriving to find the house filled with people and witnessing a horrible scene. Bridget was being held down by several men, including her husband, father and her brothers-in-law. They tried to force a concoction of herbs boiled in milk down her throat. They held her over the hearth fire and demanded to know who she was. They shouted about witches and fairies.
Thirty-six hours later, Bridget had "disappeared." The story began to circulate that she was abducted by (or had gone willingly with) the fairies inhabiting the medieval ringforts surrounding Kylenagranagh. Michael Cleary himself supported the story.
Author Angela Bourke pulls you into the action at the very beginning and holds your attention to the end of the book. The plot follows smoothly and consistently, building to the climax and bringing the story to a satisfying close. The imagery is fantastic and the writing a strong, tight narrative. The author exposes the multiple layers of these characters with accomplished ease.
The Burning of Bridget Cleary examines the folklore and the lifestyle of the people of Ireland at the turn of the century. It follows the investigation, legal battle and public reaction surrounding this case. Anyone with an interest in Irish history or folklore should definitely read this book. I found it fascinating.