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The Wag Chats with
Angela Bourke

Irish oral historian Angela Bourke discusses Irish changeling murders of the nineteenth century and tells us why fiction can sometimes be easier to write than nonfiction.

You write that Bridget Cleary was a stylish, literate woman who, in a small, tightly knit community, seemed perhaps less interested in fitting in than her neighbors might have liked. How large a role do you think Bridget Cleary's marked independence played in her murder and its subsequent cover-up?

Bourke: When other working-class women wore shawls, Bridget Cleary wore a hat with a feather. Everything we know about her suggests that she was articulate, strong-willed and feisty. She was married, but childless, and of course she earned her own money. She had £20 in a coffee canister under her bed: much more than a farm laborer could earn in six months in 1895. That level of nonconformity would have been enough to make people talk about her, and tell stories about her. It's hard to list reasons for her death, but certainly without the stories that she was "away with the fairies," the scene could not have been set. There would have been no theatrical ordeal of interrogation, and she would almost certainly not have died on that Friday night in the way she did.

When questions were first asked about Bridget's disappearance, the story that she was in the fairy fort and would ride out on a white horse at midnight on Sunday provided a wonderful smokescreen. It was the sort of story many people would have heard as local legend, but it also reflected a kind of glamour about Bridget Cleary. Anybody who didn't conform would have risked being isolated by rumors about the fairies, but on the other hand, someone who didn't want to conform might encourage her neighbors to think she had fairy connections.

WAG: You note in the book that there are several cases in which individuals who had murdered a child thinking it was actually a changeling were not convicted of murder, on the grounds that they were insane. You also note that, pointedly, Bridget Cleary's death was the nineteenth century's only known instance of an adult being murdered under the suspicion that they were a changeling. How important do you think Bridget Cleary's gender and age were in the criminal conviction of nine people involved in her death?

Bourke: The judge who tried Michael Cleary for his wife's murder was certainly influenced by her age and gender. He went on and on during the trial about her innocence and trust, and how they had been cruelly betrayed by the man to whom she would have looked first for protection and care. It's interesting too that although Bridget's aunt and her cousin Johanna were arrested along with the men after she disappeared, neither ended up serving a prison sentence, as almost all the men did.

Almost all the supposed changelings who were killed in the nineteenth century seem to have been young children who were quite severely disabled. I think stories about changelings gave people a way to rationalize heart-breaking decisions: if you were very poor and hungry, and your child had no prospect of growing up healthy and self-supporting, you might feel you really had no choice. Calling someone a changeling was a way of denying that they were a person, but that takes on a very different complexion when you're dealing with a fully-functioning adult, so it's not surprising that there was a criminal trial. In fact, though, there was at least one other case of an adult being killed as a fairy changeling: what I say in the book is that Bridget Cleary was the only one burned. Just a year later, in County Roscommon, a disturbed and suicidal young man was beaten to death by members of his family. He had been observed visiting a local fairy-fort. A murder trial was held in that case too, but the killers were sent to a lunatic asylum, not to jail.

WAG: You present Bridget Cleary's story as a powerfully dramatic narrative that almost reads at times like a well-documented True Crime story, and the dramatic tension certainly enhances the book's popular appeal. But I can imagine your thinking initially that this was perhaps a risky decision, given the strong, scholarly experience you have in the Irish literary and oral tradition. Indeed, in the "Acknowledgements and Sources" section, you write that the book began life "as a chapter in a projected academic work on Irish fairy legend." Why did you decide to tell the Bridget Cleary story at least partly in a more popular structure, and when were you sure it was going to work?

Bourke: I wanted to treat the story at length, in a way that would give space for all the ambiguities and the conflicting motives that I saw at work in it, and I wanted to present a much more integrated picture of the society and the landscape Bridget and Michael Cleary lived in than most conventional academic approaches allow. Most of my work has been on Irish oral tradition, but in recent years I've been approaching that material from a Cultural Studies point of view. I didn't want to choose between disciplines, therefore, but neither did I want to write a theoretical work about the Burning of Bridget Cleary, because to do that would be to lose the power that story has. I realized that the nineteenth century novel allows the author to break away from narrative to address the reader, sometimes at considerable length, and I thought that structure would suit what I wanted to do. The book took shape gradually. At first I was writing a straight reconstruction, leading to an analysis of how the legends were interwoven with the facts, but as I went on, and discovered new sources, like contemporary weather records, the details started to fill out with more and more color and texture.

WAG: Treating the story as either a dramatic narrative or a socio-historical analysis might seem straightforward enough, but you managed to weave the two divergent approaches together into a single text. In terms of the actual writing experience, how difficult was it to make the historical record come alive as a vivid drama while also examining the case's broader ramifications (political, social and religious)?

Bourke: Dialogue is the key to dramatic narrative, I think, and the greatest gift to me as a writer coming to this story was the verbatim court record, as published in the newspapers in 1895. Some of the people who gave evidence were educated professionals, but many were illiterate or barely literate working people, and the ways they used language were very different. People who don't write tend to express themselves in stories, not in abstract argument, and they also tend to reproduce direct speech, rather than summarize it, so the evidence given in court was full of vivid reported speech, which I could simply use as dialogue in appropriate places. I was very familiar with the kind of language being used--words from Irish, archaic usages and the like--so I could integrate it into my own writing without too much difficulty.

Where I did have to work hard was in balancing that kind of vividness with scholarly standards of accuracy. I couldn't draw unwarranted conclusions, and I couldn't make anything up.

WAG: In addition to writing The Burning of Bridget Cleary, you've also published a collection of short stories. How did translating the Cleary story from the historical record to a dramatic narrative compare to writing fiction?

Bourke: I suppose writing fiction made me acutely aware of the value of details of how things looked, how they sounded, who was present, so that although I didn't make anything up, I think I did retrieve information from the record that a writer of straight history might not have—like the names of Bridget Cleary's dog and cat, for instance, or the garment-by-garment description of her clothing. I also reconstructed quite a lot of visual and other detail from statistical records. There is one very big difference, though, between writing fiction and writing this kind of non-fiction. When you write fiction, you have total authority: you can go inside the minds of your characters, and say what they think, or hope, or fear, and I couldn't allow myself to do that. I gave people's words when there was documentary evidence for them, and only said they had done something if more than one source said they had. That ran the risk of sacrificing some drama, so I had to compensate with the rhythm of how I told the story, and the way I framed the pieces of dialogue given in the court record. It was a very interesting writing exercise!

WAG: Another book attempting to unravel the mystery of the Bridget Cleary burning came out at roughly the same time (at least in the U.S.) as yours did. Of course, you began working on the story in 1993, seven years before its American publication, but I'm curious: did you know another book was being written while you worked on your own account? And if so, did you worry about the market not being able to sustain two book-length accounts of Bridget Cleary's death?

Bourke: In fact I'd been working on the story long before 1993: that was when I began seriously to research and write a book on the Burning of Bridget Cleary. I had done almost all the research and quite a lot of writing by 1997 when I heard that someone else was working on the story, so it wouldn't have occurred to me not to go ahead. I'd also given quite a number of lectures about it, in Ireland and in the US, and set out some of my major ideas about the story's political repercussions in a long article in the American academic journal Feminist Studies, in 1995.

There's always the possibility that more than one book will be written on a subject as fascinating and important as this one. I wrote in my Epilogue that "I hope...my telling of this story will be seen as a positive contribution to a discussion which will certainly continue," and that's still true. I'm gratified and delighted that my book has been so well received: I was so honored that writers and scholars of the caliber of Roy Foster and Marina Warner selected it among their Books of the Year after its London publication, and that really knowledgeable and thoughtful reviewers have taken the time to praise it and engage with its ideas. For me, one of the most reassuring things has been that people in County Tipperary, around the area where all this happened, have been so positive. The local newspaper, the Clonmel Nationalist, has a columnist called Michael Coady who is also a poet. He used words like "dazzling intelligence" and "meticulous scholarship," which of course I don't mind reading about my work, but what meant most to me was that he felt I had shown respect for local sensitivities. He wrote "To her telling of the story the author also brings uncommon qualities of cultural comprehension, sympathy and respect for people and place, then and now."

WAG: How rich do you think the Irish historical record of the nineteenth century is? Do you think there are stories as compelling as Bridget Cleary's still waiting to be found and recounted? Or is her story uniquely riveting because it brings together a plethora of watershed issues at a critical point in Irish history?

Bourke: Of course, there are more stories. The nineteenth century was a time of huge change, and Ireland is a country of long memories. There are public records in the National Archives of Ireland (www.nationalarchives.ie), there are dozens of newspapers, and there's a tremendously rich folklore archive, as well as all that's already been written in history, biography, local studies. The real challenge, though, is to find the meaning of a story. It's not enough simply to say what happened—apart from anything else, it's boring—you have to know why you're writing about it: what it means now. I think when you find a set of events that illustrates and illuminates a set of ideas, you're really in luck, and then the need to be faithful to the verifiable truth is a terrific discipline.

WAG: Are you presently working on a book-length project?

Bourke: I'm joint editor of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Women's Writing, which is due from Cork University Press next year. It's a very large, two-volume work which has been in preparation for a long time and includes lots of oral material as well as literature and historical documents. I also have a new writing project, but it's too early to talk about it yet.

—Interview conducted by Daphne Frostchild

Posted December 1, 2000


Photo Credit: Frank Miller

Angela Bourke is senior lecturer in Irish at University College Dublin, National University of Ireland. She has been a visiting professor at Harvard University and the University of Minnesota, and she writes, lectures and broadcasts regularly on Irish oral tradition and literature. In addition to her recent The Burning of Bridget Cleary, she is the author of a short story collection, By Salt Water.



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