autumn days

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Burning of Bridget Cleary, Part 2

I began to read The Burning of Bridget Cleary as a way to connect with ancient fairy stories.  (Part 1 is here.)  Fairies were important to my grandmother and the women who came before her.  This is unlike any other book I've read and far from my usual choice, though I followed my curiosity into this book to learn more of how fairies fit into our world through old tales.

After completing this book, detailing the circumstances surrounding a young woman's death in 1895, I have a new perspective on that time of cultural transition.  I appreciate having insight into Ireland's political changes to contrast what I know of my own country's challenges at that time (Laura Ingalls Wilder's stories and the mass settlements of white homesteaders in Indian land around 1889).  It was indeed a time heavy in shifting powers and domination.

Bridget Cleary was a young woman caught between old oral, fairy-centered tradition and the incoming Catholic structure.  She was trained in a valued profession, made her own money, had saved more money than most of her neighbors made in a year, and was childless in her marriage.  She was self-supporting, independent, and friends with a wide variety of people in her community.  She did not conform to the cultural expectations of her time and of those around her.

"She had accumulated power, both economic and sexual, it seems, far in excess of what was due to a woman of her age and class, and when the balance tipped, all the anger flowered toward her" (page 155).

At this particular time in history, people were said to have "gone with the fairies" when they were ill or different.  One way to bring people back from mental or physical illness was to threaten to or to actually burn them with hot shovels.  Aside from Bridget, all victims who died from this practice were children.

When Bridget fell ill with bronchitis, her husband exhausted himself in caring for her by not sleeping for over a week.  He was under high pressure from those around him to get her to conform to the standard role of women, to bring her back from the fairies and into health again.  When she refused to break under his violence, he killed her, unhindered by the numerous family members in attendance.

They "were exerting their communal power against a woman whose behavior they found unacceptable.  Modern though they might have been in some aspects of their lives, Jacke Dunne and the Kennedys, men and women, were here reasserting the authority of an older way of life.  As they did so, there were also driving a wedge between husband and wife by demanding that Michael Cleary ally himself with the ideology of stigma and control, which fairy legend represented, against his wife" (page 154).

This is a sad and violent tale, though the author's detailed research and well-rounded perspectives provide a way to see this era in a new way.  It is curious to see the same story line and struggle for control with differing details in our own lives and times, such as how people repress and oppress certain groups.  The lessons shared through this story share threads with many throughout history.  I find it very fascinating.

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