Monday, July 13, 2009

Joan Hoff & Marian Yeates' "The Cooper's Wife is Missing": Book Review

Hyped as "The Tipperary Witch Case," peddled as "The Cloneen 'Fairy' Mystery," shunned as "The Ballyvadlea Horror," Bridget Cleary's 1895 burning by her husband to free her from the spell of the fairies-- no sprites but terrors-- comprises the reason she was said to have went missing. "It's a simple story that shows how simple beliefs can shape big events." (392) Two historians eschew feminist theories (for these see Angela Bourke's 1999 study), arguing after sifting enormous amounts of primary evidence from court testimony, and secondary sources that span the nineteenth century far beyond the case itself.

Buried within closely-printed if fascinating "notes on sources," Hoff and Yeates sum up this thoroughly researched, if perhaps too broadly conceived, work: "the true power exercised in the Cleary incident was the power of fairy beliefs, which, at a critical juncture of Bridget's illness, overrode the individual power of the men in her life, and the collective power of the state, religion, and medicine." (439) The Church, eager to ally itself not with "superstition" of the credulous peasantry but with Home Rule and respectable Irish nationalism under local but powerful prelate Archbishop Croke (about to celebrate his Golden Jubilee of ordination), strove to distance itself from complicity with Fenians, agrarian agitators, and "paganism." Unionists used the Cleary case to embarrass the Church; Justice William O'Brien labored long to implicate the clergy with those seven local men sentenced to hard labor for her death. The British and Irish press rushed to sensationalize the skulduggery.

Hoff and Yeates labor mightily to recover the contexts. It's nearly a hundred pages of local history, Parnell, and even Brian Boru (who could not have fought except in legend if at the Boulick "in the twelfth century," [pg. 9]-- having died after Clontarf's battle in 1014) before Bridget's fatal nine-day torment commences. Nine days, as the authors helpfully explain, for beyond nine for Celts lay infinity. (165) Nine days, therefore, a window in which Michael Cleary and his neighbors and father-in-law sought to allay their suspicions about the wandering, headstrong, infertile, and folk-remedy inclined woman who, according to lore they all believed, had her body taken by the fairies, the threatening forces of the Otherworld that haunted rural life even as the Church and nationalists longed to advance Irish causes.

"How could anyone seriously consider granting political independence to a nation whose populace still believed in fairies?" (9) This was the implicit challenge dramatized by the ordeal of Bridget. Her assailants sincerely believed that they had but nine days to free her from her plight, for unless of her own will she chose to return to her mortal body, her changeling spirit would inhabit it while her true self was spirited off to the underworld forever. If Michael and his mates failed to convince her to come back, the fairy forces could abduct her with never a hope of return. By exorcising her, with the help of the priest and of iron as they entered the feared fairy-fort at midnight if through ancient if crude and repulsive and violent rituals her freedom was not first attained, they hoped to heal her of her mysterious pains. By such desperation, her husband and neighbors and father tried to tame the strong-willed woman, who'd never born a child after eight years, and who seemed maddeningly to resist the conformity expected of her, as if she continued to embody the women in her own line who were said to employ herbal remedies and cures.

If the changeling within Bridget was not expelled, they held she'd fulfill the folk tales, and die. If the creature imitating her was driven out by urine, beatings, and fire, however, Bridget might return. The folk tales also assured him of this hope.

With great sympathy, the historians allow us to enter this now-vanished frame of the traditional Irish mind. They avoid facile second-guessing or anachronistic theories; their scholarship rests on archives, books, visits to the long-abandoned Cleary cabin, and interviews with locals still spooked or annoyed long into the twentieth century by the blame cast upon South Tipp. Reviewers have sniffed at the anti-British or Protestant-blaming tone, but this reflects the nationalist accounts themselves as filtered through Hoff & Yeates' attempt to recreate this mindset. And, when one reads of the Famine with "entire families walling themselves inside their mud huts to die together with a modicum of dignity," indeed for many later in the century, "these images would not go away." (13)

Those contending against long memories of oppressed "Old Irishry" encountered hostility. "The constable made it his business to know everything because his life depended on it." Often a peasant's son, one who "tended to be brighter than average but was a social leper in his own community-- an insider made forever an outcast because he was too bright to spend his life mowing the landlord's hay, too complacent to leave, and too willing to betray his countrymen. If he needed good ears, sharp eyes, and quick reflexes, he also needed a thick skull." (111) They preface this pithy description with a nearly Sherlockian account of how the RIC man could observe at a few casual glances an "Irish Yankee," a Fenian returned from the Civil War to subvert the calm slumber of the southwest countryside, with its persistent rebel reputation.

This detail may seem the sort of tangential one that some readers skim over. I admit the trials themselves wore on with more recitals than I personally needed, but others will benefit from the diligence shown here. Similarly, while the extended forays into the storied setting of Slievenamon and Charles Kickham of one-time "Knocknagow" fame seemed detours, they will inspire others to follow up with their own forays into the footnotes, as I will with a couple linking Victorian titillation to the fairy craze spinning off of the Celtic Revival! (I add that singer Liam Clancy's memoir "The Mountain of the Women"-- the probable derivation for Slievenamon's looming presence over the region-- and Patricia Monaghan's chapter on the same area in her folkloric feminism fashioned as "The Red-Haired Woman from the Bog" will both satisfy those wanting more on Southwest Irish landscapes, women, and lore. Find truly frightening encounters with fairy folk collected by Eddie Lenihan in "Meeting the Other Crowd." I've reviewed these on this blog and on Amazon US.)

Therefore, as I read on, I realized how Hoff & Yeates strive to illuminate the shadows over the Cleary case itself for a wider audience than the Irish, and more academic, one of Burke's history published but the year before. The accused, both Bridget and those sentenced for her death, emerge as people that, as far as the limits of documents and newsprint can restore, you learn to understand as caught up in forces, Crown or fairy, Celtic or political, Catholic or judicial, that they cannot control. For an American, this book may daunt by its heft and detail, but out of such attention, one comes away with a far more comprehensive perspective on the whole century that culminated in an unwitting showdown between the pressures of modernity and those of tradition. (Posted to Amazon US 6-25-09.)

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