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Strange Brew

THE COOPER'S WIFE IS MISSING, The Trials of Bridget Cleary; By Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates; Basic Books: 472 pp., $26

October 29, 2000|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author of "Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages."

It's a long way to Tipperary, especially if you take the Limerick road southwest out of Dublin, then turn left at Portlaoise on the N8 for Cashel. If you don't mind detours, you can take the L27 at Urlingford and drive through Killenaule to Clonmel on the river Suir. On the way, just before a village called Cloneen, you'll pass by Ballyvadlea, which you will not notice. But that's where the grim events chronicled by Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates took place a century-and-some-odd years ago in 1895.

Religion is the beliefs that bind those who hold them in common. Superstitions are the religions of others who speak a different language of belief. Hoff and Yeates' "The Cooper's Wife Is Missing" is about an encounter between the two. It is part murder mystery, part social history, tricked out with Irish fairy lore and superstition.

Ballyvadlea is not a village but what the French call a lieu-dit--a named place not fit to rank as a village. That's where Michael Cleary, a cooper from Killenaule, married a local girl in 1887 and settled down in her parents' cottage. Michael worked whenever he found work; Bridget, his high-spirited wife, raised hens whose eggs she sold in the district. Earning additional income as a seamstress, she owned a Singer sewing machine, which wasn't bad for those days. He made barrels for the brewery at Clonmel and for the condensed milk factory there. "A united couple . . . in comfortable circumstances for persons of their station," the Clearys were troubled only by Bridget's barrenness and her obsession with the fairy faith of ancient (and not so ancient) Ireland. Bridget's mother had had a penchant for the fairies. After her mother died in 1894, Bridget made more and more frequent treks to the two fairy forts on Kylnagranagh hill nearby, whether to glimpse her mother among the fairy folk or to meet a lover, we shall never know.

As she became increasingly "weird," Michael became increasingly bothered by her flirtation with fairies, fearing they might abduct her, possess her or drive her out of her mind. One late afternoon in March 1895, when she returned home chilled, aching, feverish and trembling, it seemed pretty clear that Bridget had suffered a fairy stroke, perhaps had become possessed by a fairy spirit. Michael was scared. His wife had been taken by the fairies and replaced by a changeling, a fairy or witch in Bridget's guise. In a desperate struggle to drive out the interloper and restore the true Bridget, the stricken woman was dosed with herbal remedies, doused with urine (a purifier), tortured, battered, finally burnt alive, her distorted corpse hidden in a thorn-filled dike.

Friends and family who participated in the deadly exorcism said that Bridget had disappeared, "gone with the fairies"; but the police after days of searching discovered her concealed body, back and lower belly "roasted clear to the bone, with the vital organs clearly visible." The trial of the nine men and women present at Bridget's brutal murder (or that of the changeling) attracted international attention and ended in sentences that some found harsh and some too lenient. Condemned to 20 years' penal servitude, Cleary himself clamored his innocence: He never burned his wife; he'd only burned a fairy. Who can tell?

"The Cooper's Wife Is Missing" makes a lurid yarn, especially because it's true. The authors, who plumbed trial records, newspaper accounts and local testimony, recount it in meticulous detail copiously larded with mythology, folklore and political, social and ecclesiastical history. Unfortunately, as Thomas De Quincey complained while commenting on murder as one of the fine arts, there's always something wrong with Irish slayings "near Tipperary or Balina-something," because "tithes," "politics" and other digressions "vitiate every Irish murder." They do so here because Hoff and Yeates tend to depart from the rabid ritual murder in its local context, the better to decode its wider cultural and political role. The central story trickles off while the narrative tap leaks distracting information.

I'm ready to stipulate the political history of Ireland that Hoff and Yeates sketch more in anger than in sorrow because they don't like the colonial occupation of the island, as one long oppression cratered by uprisings, rebellions, agitations and repressions. Their version of the trial trumpeted by the press as "The Tipperary Witchcraft Case" is more debatable because it hints at a sinister British plot to set Irish nationalists at loggerheads, divide "rational" politicals and "superstitious" Catholics, discredit both pagan Irishry and a Catholic Church accused of paganizing practices. How does the argument go?

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