December 15, 2014 § 8 Comments
I read my colleague Emerson Baker’s fantastic A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience this weekend. Salem bills itself as “Witch City, USA”, the image of a witch on a broom adorns the police cars here. My wife is on the board of the Salem Award Foundation, which seeks to draw
upon the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, [to promote] awareness, understanding and empathy in support of human rights, tolerance and social justice. We advance social change through educational programming, stewardship of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial as a place of reflection, and by awarding and celebrating contemporary champions who embody our mission.
As a public historian, the Hallowe’en silliness has fascinated me, as ‘ghost walks’ are held all around town, showing some of the locations sort of connected to the Witch Trials. I say ‘sort of’ because most of the action did not take place in Salem. Most of the accused came from Salem Village (then apart of Salem, now Danvers) and Andover. Some of the trials took place here, though. Nonetheless, every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to Salem, in the wake of the murder of twenty innocent people in 1692-3, most of them on Gallows Hill, to engage in revelry and have fun.
But, this is the first time I’ve engaged seriously in the actual history of the events. I knew the stories, I knew the outlines of what happened here and how those twenty people came to be killed in an explosion of mass hysteria. But, in reading Barker’s book I’ve been impressed at just how deeply held was the beliefs in witches in 17th century New England. Baker makes this argument forcefully, noting how a belief in witches, and in the wickedness of Satan drove Puritan beliefs. In this way, as he argues, witches became a convenient scapegoat in tumultuous times in Massachusetts. There was war with the aboriginals on the frontiers, from what is now Maine to towns located 15-20 miles inland from Salem, like Billerica. The economy was suffering. Puritans felt themselves under attack as religious toleration was extended.
Salem is itself named after the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace, and is a shortened version of Jerusalem, or City of Peace. Massachusetts was established as a city on the hill, and Salem is amongst the oldest towns in Massachusetts, settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and a group of Puritans, and is two years older than Boston. In 17th century Massachusetts, Salem and Boston were the two major commercial and administrative centres in Massachusetts. All of this was under attack in the late 17th century.
The story Baker tells is not unlike that told by Angela Bourke in one of my favourite books, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, the story of the burning to death of Bridget Cleary, a 25-year old woman, by her husband, Michael, in 1895 in Ballyvadlea, in rural Co. Tipperary, Ireland. What seems a straight-forward case of domestic violence is more than that. Michael Cleary claimed his wife had been taken away by the faeries, and he killed the changeling posing as his wife, as the real Bridget would return from the nearby ringfort, where she had been held captive by the faeries. Bourke then ties the case of Bridget Cleary into larger stories of Irish nationalism and the fight for Home Rule; faeries, then, were a traditional folkway for the people of rural Ireland in a rapidly changing time.
Bridget is often called the ‘last witch’ to be burned in Ireland. She was never accused of witchcraft, so that’s unfair (yes, I am aware of my title). But what is interesting in the similarity of these two stories.
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.