August’s 12 in 12 Challenge is to read 12 books from my to-be-read pile written by women about women. This is a theme which promises lots of variety in the month. The first book I have read is a true crime/social history book called The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke.
This is not really a true crime book in that it is known who committed the murder. It happened in rural Ireland in 1895 when Bridget’s husband burned his sick wife to death by throwing paraffin over her and putting her in the fire. He claimed that it was necessary to do so because the fairies had taken his wife and if he burned the woman in front of him the fairies would return her.
You could dismiss this just as a case of someone with a severe mental health problem and a fixation on fairies or perhaps an extreme case of gender based violence but the author writes a fascinating book in which she unravels the threads of this story much further and includes some very interesting information about the use of folklore in pre-literate societies.
In 1895 rural Ireland, much depopulated after the Great Famine, was in a transitional phase from an oral society to a more literate one. Bridget and her husband Michael were both able to read although many of their living family didn’t have that skill. Both Michael and Bridget were more skilled than most of their neighbours; Michael was a cooper, possibly at a nearby large brewery, and Bridget made her living as a seamstress with her own sewing machine which was very different from the lives of those around them who were mostly rural workers.
The author argues that the stories about fairies and changelings grew up to explain difference – autism, disabled children, strokes, changes in personality, dementia, barrenness, etc. These were all things that the community had no ready way to understand and the fairy narrative provided an easy to understand explanation for people to accommodate these things in their lives. Bridget was without a child, she was independent and apparently often quite loud. She didn’t fit in with the local community and she represented a change in the position of women in society for which they were possibly unprepared. Michael may have believed in the local folklore or he may have felt that he had to go along with what people said in case they turned on him next – he may also have had a problem with his mental health that made him irrational. Whatever the reasoning behind what Michael did he was not alone on the burning and many family members and neighbours were encouraging him to take action. It must have been a tense and frightening scene in the tiny cottage when the murder occurred.
This is a great read and very informative. It shows how suspicion of change in society and the social order can produce action, up to and including violence, from those who feel threatened. It shows how the growing independence of women was feared in traditional societies. There is a lot of interesting social history about living conditions at the time in rural Ireland, access to medical care, how extended families lived and the changes that were occurring and why they were happening. I really enjoyed it despite the difficult subject matter – it opened my eyes to a lot of new things.