The history of Ireland had many moments when politics and society seemed to struggle to come through, and one of these events took place during the end of the 19th century. Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary is a wonderful and inspiring account of a true event that took place in the Irish village Ballyvadlea, county Tipperary, during the spring of 1985. The event that the entire story builds up to is the murder of Bridget Cleary, a woman thought to be a witch and burned to death by her husband in front of her family. This brutal ending was decided by the superiors of that period, and Bourke managed, using rich and imaginative explanations, to create a vivid image of what the Victorian Ireland times were like.
The Irish society was very strict during the 19th century, as central power, literacy, and consistency were rising up on the scale of appropriate living. However, many were still illiterate and believed in supernatural forces, which could aid them in their daily struggle to survive. Because of this popular belief, there were many cases, in which people would end up being burned to death as they were accused of sorcery. This social issue is well described in the book, as Bourke says, “Among the documented cases of changeling-burning in Ireland in the nineteenth century, Bridget Cleary's is the only one that involves an adult victim.” (Bourke, 38) However, the main difference is that Bridget was the victim of a witch trial in her own home, something that was purely unlikely during that time.
Bourke tried to explain the way people were thinking in that period and how it was that a man from the Irish peasantry, who was granted the right to be independent, could also kill his wife. The murder was very beautifully described by Bourke as a part of a terrible triangle that took part during that time, along with the scandal involving Oscar Wilde and John Morley’s Land Bill. This suggested a strong social and political contribution to the book, as it demonstrates the way people perceived what they saw around them at that time. Probably the biggest problem of the 19th century Ireland was the fact that the peasants were given the right to independence, which led them to create many social discrepancies, such as this particular one. Their illiteracy and the fact that they believed in witches and fairies are proof enough to explain the murder of Bridget Cleary.
Apart from the fact that the peasants were one who socially spread the idea of supernatural forces coexisting with them, the press was also to blame for the manner in which this murder was handled. Troy Newspapers utilized the case of Bridget Cleary’s murder in their own advantage so that they could gain the support of the Union. They believed that with their support they could destroy Home Rule: this belief showed just how corrupt the political atmosphere was at the time. Newspapers, such as Daily Express, provoked the people stating the following:
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It is alleged that the fairies, who held high revel on moonlight nights on a wrath quite close to the new cottage, were displeased with the tenant, and so annoyed him by unearthly cries and noises at night that he fled from the locality. (Bourke, 56)
As the patriarchal system was established in Ireland that time, men were supposed to be the ones to control their wives and children. It is important to know that Bridget Cleary was not a subdued woman, as she liked to be independent and self-sufficient. As it is a well-known fact, bad news travels quite quickly. This is why, due to the press of the time, the entire Irish society heard of the events that took place in March 1895 in Tipperary, and the whole peasant community that lived there gained the label of brutes. Because of this, multiple political issues evolved throwing disorders into the lives of the Irish peasants of Tipperary, until then rather peaceful. Angela Bourke seemed to realize the fact that the explanations behind the murder were given in order to assist the political beliefs and laws of the time.
As Bourke very clearly tells in her book, “Civilization and humanity are much more precious, whether at Ballyvadlea or elsewhere, than the privilege of self-government, and most not be made the sport of ignorant and superstitious cruelty” (p. 142). This specific quote appears in the scene when the eleven people, who witnessed the murder, were taken to the police and questioned. To create an image of the mentality of people of that period and how they were integrated socially, Bourke chose to say that they “were well aware that they were engaged in operations forbidden by the law of the land” (p. 142), but they strongly believed that as they were making rights of their own, they should not apply to those of the British Law.
As they were only two decades away from the success of the Home Rule Movement, the Irish were under the reign of independence as they had an organization called Young Ireland, which became more and more powerful. However, during the 1890s, Gladstone introduced a notion called the Home Rule Bills, which enabled leaseholders to borrow money to buy land. These historical facts are important in order to understand the political view of the people in Angela Bourke’s book. Even though they were supposed to have an open mind and to show the fact that being independent was beneficial to them and the entire country, the peasants of Tipperary showed that they were ruthless, illiterate, and immoral. The murder that took place that March morning in the Cleary house is a proof of the fact that both, the social and political laws of that time were not strict enough.
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To come to a conclusion, Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary is a wonderful book, which depicts a very truthful image of the 19th century Ireland. This makes it an important one to read in the study of the folklore, political aspects, and sociology of that time. Knowing a few political and social facts of the time illuminates the importance of these two entities during the 19th century and makes clear many of the events that took place in that time. With expertise and wit, Bourke managed to point out several important features regarding the politics and society at the local and national level at the time. Without a doubt, this book is a mysterious yet sincere creation, which should be valued by someone interested in the domain and period of time.
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