The Burning of Bridget Cleary
November 19, 2014 § 3 Comments
My students in my Irish History course read Angela Bourke’s fantastic The Burning of Bridget Cleary and wrote a paper on it. The essay question asked them to situate Bridget Cleary’s murder within the context of Irish politics at the time, as this is what Bourke does, and why her book is so powerful. So much so that I assign this book every time I teach Irish History.
In reading the essays this semester, my students were particularly struck by the comparison of the Irish Catholics of the late 19th century with ‘Hottentots’ and Catholic Ireland with ‘Dahomey’ by both the British and Irish Unionist press. This was, of course, code for dismissing Irish claims to the right to Home Rule by comparing them with what the British regarded as ‘savage’ African nations. Leaving aside the racism inherent in this construction of Africa for another day, what struck me this year with the papers was the very fact that my students were so struck by these comparisons.
The major theme of my course is the way in which Ireland existed as a British colony, and the ways in which the British colonial discourse worked in keeping Ireland separate from, and excluded from, the wealth that accumulated in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland by the 19th century. This is obvious in moments like The Famine, especially when the Under Secretary of the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, declared The Famine a gift from the Almighty and celebrated the change to reform Ireland away from the ‘perverse’ character of the native population.
For me, teaching Irish History, this has become de rigeur, I see this discourse and I don’t, it’s so deeply embedded into my brain. Thus, I really enjoyed seeing my students’ response to the discourse of Irishness on the part of the Unionists and British in 1895, when Bridget Cleary was murdered. I suppose it’s one thing to imagine Trevelyan’s cold response to The Famine as something that happened a long time ago. But, sometimes 1895 doesn’t seem like so long ago.
Bourke’s book has pictures of the inside of the Clearys’ cottage in Ballyvadlea, Co. Tipperary, and we see their poverty laid bare. However, the Clearys were not, actually, poor by Irish standards. But, because we can see some comparison between the Clearys in 1895 and our world today, they don’t seem so far away. Michael and Bridget Cleary were in their 30s and were childless. But perhaps more than that, they both had careers, so to speak. He was a cooper and she a milliner. Bridget, unlike many women of her era, especially in rural Ireland, was more or less independent. Thus, the Clearys look more like us than Trevelyan, and therefore, closer to us. So to read this comparison of the Clearys’ people, Irish Catholics, with African tribes dismissed as ‘cannibals’ is shocking (again, leaving aside the racist assumptions implicit in the dismissal of Dahomey as the land of cannibals).
And this is why I love teaching, I love the opportunity to get refreshed and re-enforced by my students as they discover something for the first time.