Astride a White Horse

Declan Kiberd

  • The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story by Angela Bourke
    Pimlico, 240 pp, £10.00, August 1999, ISBN 0 7126 6590 0

In the spring of 1998 a Dutch TV crew arrived in the parish of Moyvane, Co. Kerry. They were making a documentary about poetry and landscape, and interviewed a farmer about a fairy-mound in one of his fields near the village. He explained that for many local people it was a forbidden place, and that he had never dared to plough it over because of the distress it would cause. As he was saying this, his mobile phone rang. The TV crew carried on filming as he transacted his business. ‘Tell us, sir,’ the interviewer said when he’d finished, ‘a modern man like you surely does not believe in the little people.’ ‘Of course I don’t,’ he chortled. ‘But I’m very frightened of ’em.’

Angela Bourke, a colleague of mine at University College Dublin, is one of the foremost commentators on Irish folk traditions. Her early work appeared mostly in Irish, but in recent years she has published a number of English-language papers on the ‘virtual world’ of fairy legend. These legends are, for her, both striking narratives and a way for vulnerable people to negotiate a difficult environment. A sinister hand that emerges from the sea near a certain rock and drags fishermen from their boats is, for example, a persuasive way of representing the dangers of a treacherous stretch of water.

The interpretative tradition in which Bourke works is at least two centuries old. In Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) the narrator Thady Quirk advises his master Sir Condy against digging up a fairy-mound. The warning is rejected and the master ‘had no luck afterwards’. Like many country people, Thady sees no contradiction between the claims of rational analysis and those of folk belief, while Edgeworth enacts the contradiction in the formal division between her text and the scholarly notes she attaches to it. They order and survey, and what they survey is the speaker of the main text. But they also suggest that Thady’s may be the better method – the fairy lore, it turns out, has a shrewdly pragmatic set of functions hidden within its rituals. Edgeworth remarks in one note that fairy-mounds often had riches of one kind or another concealed in them and the stories forbidding farmers to destroy them meant that they were more secure than banks. In a similar fashion, the waking of the dead could be seen both as a way of offering company to the recently deceased and as an unofficial coroner’s inquest. The Act of Union, passed in the year Castle Rackrent was published, implied that the voice of scientific realism should override the voice of magic – but it didn’t happen.

Even after the establishment of an independent Irish republic, many Irish people continued to subscribe, however sceptically, to fairy belief. When electrification reached the remoter parts of Co. Kerry in the late Forties, the old, familiar problem presented itself. Local workers were reluctant to lay poles across a mound and an enraged engineer refused to reposition his cables by going around it. Eventually, a gang of Protestant workers was bussed in from Co. Wexford and paid time-and-a-half – otherwise known as danger money – to complete the job. On the way home their bus crashed into a tree. Nobody was badly hurt but the striking Kerry workers had been vindicated.

These kinds of belief weren’t confined to rural communities. The first major manufacturer of potato crisps was a firm called Tayto. It opened in Coolock, a suburb on the north side of Dublin, not far from Roddy Doyle’s stamping-ground, in the decade after World War Two. The factory is set back from the highway which runs past it and a grassy knoll – rather pretty, in factacts as a buffer between the industrial plant and the outside world. The knoll is a fairy-mound and the Murphy family who owned Tayto sensibly left it intact (land on the outskirts of Dublin was anyway dirt cheap). They soon became millionaires and their business went international.

The ease with which people have integrated fairy lore into more conventional systems of belief is striking. When J.M. Synge first visited the Aran Islands in 1898, he was astonished to learn that the islanders had a story that allowed them to assimilate the fairy faith to their Roman Catholicism: the vain Lucifer, seeing himself in a mirror, declared war on God and was thrown out of heaven, along with the bad angels. As they fell towards Earth, an archangel interceded, asking mercy for some, ‘and those that were falling are in the air still, and have power to wreck ships, and to work evil in the world’. The islanders made no distinction between the scientific and the magical: anything they could not understand was held to be the work of spirits or fairies. When Synge quickened a fire by holding a newspaper against the mouth of the chimney, a young woman called him a sorcerer: ‘It’s to hell you’ll be going by and by.’

When the De Profundis was recommended to Synge to ward off evil spirits it was clear to him that the traffic also flowed in the opposite direction. Or in every direction: the spirit of Dracula, too, was present on the Aran Islands, to the extent that a child taken by fairies was replaced by one with ‘a wound on its neck’. The islanders were well aware that their lore seemed ridiculous to outsiders. Protestants gave no credence to such things, they informed Synge, ‘and do be making fun of us’. But they insisted that the child had been taken away, body and soul, and that a replacement, which died some days later, had been left in its bed.

The case of Bridget Cleary was far more shocking. In March 1895, three years before Synge went to Aran, she vanished from the house where she lived with her husband in Co. Tipperary. She was 26, good-looking, a fashionably dressed and forceful young woman who might have been taken for an early suffragist. She knew how to earn good money as a dressmaker and hen-keeper. Her husband Michael Cleary was an educated and literate cooper, whose services were much in demand by local businesses. He had served his apprenticeship in the progressive town of Clonmel and had good prospects. As a couple, they seemed the very image of a modernising Ireland and were singled out by the authorities as suitable occupants of a new slate-roofed cottage in the area. On the other hand, unlike many other local people, they weren’t afraid to live in a dwelling which was rumoured to have been built on a fairy-mound. Undaunted, they moved in, along with Bridget’s father, Patrick Boland, a landless labourer who must have taken pride in the improvement to his family’s fortunes. All that was lacking was a child to bless the happy union.

The weather in March was bitter and Bridget fell ill. She had been on a visit to her father’s cousin, Jack Dunne, when the fever struck. Dunne was a product of the older, oral culture, a gifted storyteller (seanchaí) and an interpreter of charms, spells and incantations. The spread of literacy and the campaigns of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to root out ‘superstitious’ beliefs among their flock had reduced the power Jack Dunne and others had once wielded, but there was life in the fairy lore yet. Even as the priests sought to extirpate it, exponents of the Irish Literary Revival, led by Yeats, were using the new powers of print to recirculate old legends and tales among a public that was having all the usual trouble adjusting to an increasingly urban way of life. Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry had appeared in 1888; his Irish Fairy and Folk Tales in 1894.

Jack Dunne came to visit the sick woman and said quite simply: ‘That is not Bridgie Boland.’ The being before him in the bed was a changeling: the real Bridgie was away with the fairies. Michael Cleary insisted that his wife see a doctor. The nearest available was in Fethard, eight miles away, and often roaring drunk. Five days went by before he came to see the patient. He told the subsequent inquest that he had found her suffering from nervous excitement and bronchitis.

The cause of her nervous excitement can only be guessed at. Some local people claimed that she had been unfaithful to Cleary, who was often away at Clonmel. One possible lover was William Simpson, a man hated by many locals because he worked as a ‘heavy’ for the landlord. Bridget, always a defiant individualist, did his shopping when local grocers refused to serve him. (This may have helped the couple to secure the house from the authorities.) Another candidate was an egg-man with whom she dealt.

Whether these suggestions were true or not hardly matters. Cleary, increasingly exhausted, soon became susceptible to the idea that the sick woman was not his wife, though it may be that he found the very possibility of Bridget’s infidelity so unbearable that he had forced himself some while back to believe that the perpetrator of such outrages could not be his wife. ‘He’s making a fairy of me now,’ Bridget complained to her father’s sister: ‘He thought to burn me about three months ago.’ In folk belief fairies were notoriously fearful of fire – and of priests.

Before setting out for Fethard to get the doctor, Cleary had sent for Father Ryan. The priest stayed for less than half an hour, but was sufficiently worried to give the last rites to the patient. Cleary brought some orthodox medicines back with him from Fethard, but also some healing herbs (still widely used in Ireland). On seeing them, Dunne enthusiastically directed the exhausted husband to a local herbalist, Denis Ganey.

By now, Cleary was despairing of orthodox methods. He had fallen out with the doctor over his diagnosis and the priest was keeping his distance, refusing a further visit. In the midst of all this, his father died and Cleary was unable to attend the wake, a painful dereliction of familial duty.

The herbs prescribed by Ganey were boiled with nús, new milk from a cow that had just calved and rich in nutrients and antibodies. Three doses were force-fed to Bridget, who had to be held down by four men, including her father. Each time, Cleary asked the suffering woman whether she was his wife, Bridget Cleary. She screamed; he threw urine onto her; the men shook her and shouted: ‘Come home, Bridget Boland, in the name of God.’

She was burned on the forehead with a hot poker. Next she was held over the fire and asked: ‘Are you the daughter of Patrick Boland, wife of Michael Cleary?’ ‘I am, Dada,’ she said to her father. The men brought her back to bed, where she lay in anguish, her clothes streaked with urine and soot. The men believed that they had brought back the true Bridget.

The following evening the couple began to argue and the husband accused his wife of using spells. She said that Cleary’s own mother had gone with the fairies for two days and that this was the real trauma which lay behind his allegations. Cleary, Bourke suggests, was deeply hurt by what she said, which not only reflected badly on his family but was also a comment on his fertility (another likely point of dispute between the two). He returned at once to his obsessive behaviour, asking Bridget on three separate occasions to eat pieces of bread and jam and to confirm that she was his wife. Twice she complied: but the third time she refused. He knocked her down and threatened her with a burning stick. Her head struck against the floor and, seconds later, her chemise caught fire. Cleary threw paraffin oil over her and she burned to death. ‘You are a dirty set,’ Cleary said to her relatives in the room, claiming that they were happier to have her at the local fairy-mound than with him in the modern house.

He buried her in a shallow grave. Local people said that she would reappear at the fairy-mound, astride a white horse. Cleary urged her relations to go with him to the mound the following Sunday, armed with knives to cut the straps binding his wife to the horse and rescue her from the fairies. By then, however, the police had found the body. Unionist newspapers found in it clear evidence that the rural Irish were still unfit for the responsibilities of self-government, a possibility then under active consideration.

Bridget Cleary’s husband, her father, aunt and four cousins were all charged in connection with her death. Cleary pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a 20-year sentence; the various members of her family got off a bit more lightly. Father Ryan seemed to speak for the whole community when he asked how three or four of the dead woman’s own relations could ‘go out of their minds simultaneously’.

What makes the case special is that it is the only documented account of the burning of an adult in 19th-century Ireland – there are numerous accounts of child-burnings. Bourke writes with sympathy for everyone caught up in the affair. She is quite certain that Michael Cleary didn’t think it was his wife that he was killing, taking a strong position against those who saw him as a murderer who cynically invoked the older codes in an attempt to whitewash his crime.

In her version, Cleary is a harried man, isolated and relatively powerless among his wife’s people; and despite his modern training, conscripted by an older ideology of stigma and control. His wife emerges as a classic strong woman of the 1890s, uppity and defiant perhaps, and shrewd enough to employ the residue of folk tradition for her own purposes. If Bridget Cleary did threaten to ride the white horse out of the fairy-mound, such a resort to the old lore would have offered this feisty but constrained woman a sense of real social power and an image to leave her husband and his male accomplices gaping in astonishment.

For Bourke, power is what this story is about and the many different ways in which it can be wielded. The authority of seanchaí like Jack Dunne was declining as the power of strong women like Bridget Cleary was on the rise; and the hysteria which grips so many of the males in the story (it immobilised the priest and the doctor, as well as others who might have intervened more forcibly) must have had some connection to a fear of the New Woman.

Yeats was very shocked by newspaper reports of the tragedy. He spoke in some worry to old tale-tellers, who assured him that the Tipperary people were quite wrong to attack and kill the ‘changeling’. In their view such behaviour was a breach rather than a true application of fairy lore. Yeats continued, therefore, to argue for a kinder, gentler interpretation of such traditions; and undoubtedly a great deal of evidence could be adduced in defence of that view.

To say someone was ‘away with the fairies’ was often a way of accepting and indulging patterns of eccentric or aberrant behaviour in the lives of individuals who might otherwise be subjected to the harsher sanctions of clinic or prison. Stories about the replacement of children or young women by withered changelings can, similarly, be thought of as a means by which a people who worshipped youth taught themselves to cope with the harshly ageing effects of a subsistence rural economy or even, perhaps, with the crises of middle age.

Bourke sees fairy stories as negotiating the difficult, often dark, relations between everyday reality and some other, ‘hidden’ world. Unlike the newspaper reporters of 1895, she prefers to speak of ‘fairies’ rather than ‘witches’, precisely because in Ireland ‘fairy’ is a convenient name for all those forces which cannot otherwise be explained. Another word would be ‘superstition’. It, too, has its dangers. ‘Used among equals,’ Bourke writes, ‘the word expresses tolerance for illogical foibles; given a racist or sectarian edge, it can mark an unwillingness to consider those to whom it is applied as fully human.’ She has little time for this and tries instead to see the protagonists as they saw themselves. In one sense, her method is similar to that of Sir William Wilde who, in studying wasting illnesses in Irish children, placed the scientific and vernacular taxonomies side by side in his reports.

Sir William is famous in Ireland not just for being Oscar Wilde’s father but also for his suggestion that the best way to combat and discredit superstitions was to write them down and publish them. Bourke, on the other hand, hints at a preference for tradition. By comparison with the complexity of the folk interpretation of the Cleary outrage, the facts which were brought to light in court seem a wan and paltry accounting. And in portraying an Ireland in transition, Bourke can’t resist comparing the fairies with the increasingly powerful police constabularies: ‘Like the fairies, the police in late 19th-century Ireland were everywhere: they communicated secretly from stronghold to stronghold; moved unpredictably about the countryside; observed all that went on in the community; and intervened arbitrarily in its life.’ Those who submitted to police training procedures returned as utterly ‘transformed’ as those who had been away with the little people.

The Burning of Bridget Cleary is not history or folklore or cultural study, but a combination of all these things. It draws, as all such accounts must, on the documentary sources left by the winners of history, yet it submits each of these to the stiff interrogation of oral tradition. That tradition had its moments of barbarism, of which the killing of the Tipperary woman was one. It was also, at its best, a system of compassionate and intelligent restraints and regulations.

A tension still exists in Irish spirituality between the claims of Christian doctrine and the instinctual imperatives of popular belief. Even devout Catholics will submit some of the mystery of their religion to the mockery with which the Kerry farmer spoke of the fairies to the Dutch television crew. (By now, most Irish schoolchildren have learned the Father Ted scripts by heart.) All beliefs in spiritual matters are held with some mental reservation – which may itself be a form of sophistication. After all, Scott Fitzgerald defined a first-rate intelligence as the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the head without losing the capacity to function. Perhaps it was because the onset of modernity came at such catastrophic speed to Tipperary that people like Michael Cleary and his in-laws lost that skill.