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In 1895 twenty-six-year-old Bridget Cleary disappeared from her cottage in rural County Tipperary and remained missing for several days. At last her body was discovered, bent, broken, and badly burned in a shallow grave. Within a few days, her unimaginable story came to light: for almost a week before her death she had been confined, starved, threatened, physically and verbally abused, exorcised, and finally burned to death by her husband, father, aunt, cousins, and neighbors, who had collectively confused a ...
In 1895 twenty-six-year-old Bridget Cleary disappeared from her cottage in rural County Tipperary and remained missing for several days. At last her body was discovered, bent, broken, and badly burned in a shallow grave. Within a few days, her unimaginable story came to light: for almost a week before her death she had been confined, starved, threatened, physically and verbally abused, exorcised, and finally burned to death by her husband, father, aunt, cousins, and neighbors, who had collectively confused a simple flu with possession by the fairies. In The Cooper's Wife Is Missing, Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates try to make sense of this outlandish, unfathomable, medieval "trial" and murder. Drawing on firsthand accounts, contemporary newspaper reports, police records, trial testimony, and a rich wealth of folklore, they weave a mesmerizing fireside tale of magic, madness, and mystery. This is narrative history at its evocative best.
Christmas in Clonmel
The place was Clonmel, located on the River Suir in the south of County Tipperary, Ireland—that long-suffering, long-disloyal domain of Queen Victoria's grand and growing empire, where if the stout-hearted, stout-loving men of South Tipperary had their way, there'd be few tears if the Queen, her empire, and the royal family, too, for that matter, were suddenly to sink beneath the icy waves of the North Atlantic.
The year was 1894, and what was sinking, instead, was Prime Minister William Gladstone's political career, fallen to age and Tory imperialism, dashing all hopes for passage of a Home Rule Bill that would grant Ireland a measure of autonomy. In 1893, Gladstone's Second Home Rule Bill cleared the House of Commons but in 1894 had no chance of slipping past the House of Lords, whose members had their eyes fixed on expanding Victoria's holdings rather than giving them away. Late in the summer, Gladstone fled London complaining of gout and leaving his Liberal government in the weak hands of Lord Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery.
And now it was Christmas in Clonmel, the season of peace, goodwill toward men, and for all the colonial commotion elsewhere in the world, the Nationalist and Tipperary Advertiser reported in its first issue of 1895 that the holiday passed with "remarkable sobriety and peacefulness." The worldwide agricultural depression, which was causing grief in America and elsewhere, had little effect in Clonmel, for here depression was a staple. In recognition that purses were slim, managers of the Exhibition House offered winter goods at the "very lowest prices," made possible by their ability to pay "Ready Money" to suppliers, while James Byrne offered budget-minded housewives a large selection of "Room Papers" for covering parlor walls. Likewise David Atkins's Posting and Coach-Building establishment announced coaches for hire at the lowest rates, with funeral requisites if need be.
The police responded to fewer holiday disturbances than in previous years. On Christmas morn there were scattered incidents of unruliness in the "welkin ring" of "darkest Clonmel" as thirsty souls meandered from pub to pub, but even in the rowdiest section of town, order prevailed. In outlying districts, fewer incidents of "roughness" were reported, although a certain Mrs. Miller took the "family jug" to her poor husband's head, exacerbating his hangover more than police thought necessary. Charges were not pressed, for the assault left but a small lump. At the Templemore Petty Sessions, Johanna Tearchy was hauled before the bar for heaping "abusive language" upon the head of her neighbor, John Bowe. Mrs. Tearchy was fined and ordered to use "good language" in the future so as not to threaten public order.
Authorities in the Bansha district, southwest of Clonmel, reported but one assault, two trespasses, and one dispute involving a watercourse. Otherwise, the district was calm, prompting officials to declare, "It speaks well for the good conduct of the people of the village and district that there would be but few charges of drunkenness against them especially after the Christmas season." In the Templemore district, police received reports of "wild and abusive behavior" at the gaming establishment of Patrick Guider. The police responded and found a game in progress; however, no arrests were made, since Guider and his gaming men used neither cards nor money, so technically were not in violation of the law. As Mr. Guider politely explained, the fellows were playing for a pig's head, and meaning no disrespect to His Honor the Constable, the pig's head was meant as a "Christmas exhibition of good feeling toward the police." The Head Constable was not amused, but recognizing that he had been outwitted, sent the boys home, they no doubt heaving with laughter all the way.
Even the "wren boys" exhibited something less than their usual passion for the traditional St. Stephen's Day hunt for the elusive wren, believed anciently to be the cleverest of birds. At gatherings around the county, rollicking gangs set off through the countryside, "with the whack on the drum and a small drop of rum," in search of the tiny wren. The birds survived, but Daniel Murphy suffered a good whack to the head, and several days later appeared in court, draped in bandages, charging Daniel Greede and John Barleycorn with assault. The judge listened patiently as plaintiff and defendants hurled charges and countercharges, then sentenced the whole lot to serve twelve months of "good behaviour."
In keeping with the season's spirit, women from the upper levels of Tipperary society performed their duties for the hordes of needy, while husbands dissipated their passions at the racetrack. Mrs. Charles J. Boland, mistress of the county workhouse, served a festive holiday dinner to inmates, hoping to brighten their spirits as much as possible "under the circumstances." In a similar gesture, Mrs. Richard Bagwell, the wife of Clonmel's leading citizen and largest landowner, distributed gifts to residents of the male hospital, supplemented by a pint of stout from a certain Dr. William Crean, who will play a part later in our story. At Lord and Lady Buckley's Galtee Castle, Christmas brought "varied degrees of joy and sorrow" to the estate's tenants and laborers. From far and near the estate's poorest residents flocked to the castle, where Lady Buckley graciously attended to "their wants" and, "with ready hand and sympathetic word," distributed the usual store of blankets, boots, clothes, and meat. Special attention was paid to the young scholars at the estate school who received fine gifts for achievement and good attendance.
In rebellious South Tipperary, nonattendance at school was often an indicator that trouble was brewing in the countryside. During the bloody Land War of the 1880s, tenants' rights associations organized boycotts against schools that enrolled the children of so-called emergency men, farmers brought in by landlords to manage farms taken from evicted tenants. In 1887, the village of Cloneen was the site of a particularly troublesome school boycott. In February of that year, headmaster Michael O'Brien complained to officials in Dublin that attendance was "irregular" owing to the presence of two students named Kennedy and Hogan, whose fathers worked for the local land corporation. The parents of these "obnoxious" children, according to O'Brien, were greatly "disliked" because of their association with the land corporation, and as a consequence, other parents in the area would not allow their children to associate with them. By September 1887, after the offending students had been withdrawn, school attendance returned to normal levels. Even though school boycotts were less common after the Land War subsided, the threat of fresh eruptions continued throughout the 1890s.
In Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel's sister city to the east, observers noted that Christmastide was becoming more "prosaic" than in years past, and marked with less "hilarity and sentiment." Citizens celebrated in a "proper way" and their enjoyment was no less real when unaccompanied by the "exuberant gaiety and gushing sentiment" that some felt a necessary companion to the season. Celebrations in Cashel, Clonmel's neighbor to the west, were both pious and commercial. Observers described the colorful shop windows decorated with cards, beautiful gifts, and sweet things of all description. On Christmas morning, immense crowds gathered at Cashel's cathedral to hear the dean deliver a sermon on the birth of Christ, after which the Temperance Society band performed a choice musical program. In keeping with the spirit of the season, the convent's orphan children received a sumptuous meal of pudding, sweet bread, and tea.
Throughout the county, people went about their business peacefully. At Clonmel's railway station, crowds of travelers gathered on their journeys to and from the outlying villages within Clonmel's orbit of influence. Among the inbound passengers were numbers of country people who came late in the afternoon to attend traditional Christmas Eve Mass, an "old practice" among them, which suggested to watchful clerics that the spirit of "true" religion was active among them, despite newspaper accounts and police reports of lingering pagan superstitions and stories about fairies in the countryside These silent, rudely clad figures filled the pews at St. Mary's Cathedral, bent their knees, bowed their heads, and reaffirmed their allegiance to God and Church, if not the Queen. These were Ireland's faithful, her sullen masses, who came to town that Christmas Eve, knelt at the rail, and received the wafer as the choir sang "Adeste Fideles."
Authorities were relieved that all was calm among remnants of the "indomitable Irishry," which was what William Butler Yeats called Ireland's rural peasantry. In the years before the Great Famine, which began in the 1840s, this class of laboring poor was "indomitable" in the sense that they comprised most of the population, produced nearly all the economic wealth, and provided the manpower for political uprisings. Fifty years later male farmworkers had dwindled from half the male population to less than a third. This fast-disappearing class, also known as "the old Irishry," was most resistant to change and, not incidentally, the class that most honored the ancient fairy faith.
By century's end, this "old religion" had been driven underground, but hints of its continuing practice occasionally surfaced, as in June 1894, when Clonmel's Nationalist reported that ghosts and apparitions were sighted by a group of boys in Ballinacurra, near Carrick-on-Suir. News of the event caused a great stir throughout the area, prompting the Nationalist to distance its readership from such nonsense:
Public talk is no longer solely engrossed with tales and stories of ghosts, hobgoblins, banshees and bibes, and a general feeling of scepticism in spirits, other than earthly ones, has taken hold of the larger proportion of the people and of those who in the first flush of the story were credulous of the opinion that ghosts sometimes do appear.
Eruptions from the "Otherworld" of the fairies were unwelcome in the Nationalist camp because those seeking Ireland's independence could ill afford the embarrassment that these incidents incurred. Intelligence of this sort was promptly relayed to London, where Unionist politicians made good use of the news, implicitly asking: How could anyone seriously consider granting political independence to a nation whose populace still believed in fairies?
While the fairies made good political propaganda, the persistence of pagan beliefs among the peasantry disrupted the orderly administration of justice. Authorities were especially troubled by reports of burnings in the countryside, associated with ancient beliefs about changelings—mortal spirits taken by the fairies and replaced by alien spirits from the Otherworld. This peculiar form of death by fire, particularly of children persisted in the Irish countryside late into the century as indicated by a random sampling of the Fethard district death registries from the mid-1860s to the 1890s. For example, it was common to find entries like these: "John Rocke, 12 months, child of a tradesman, accidently scalded, died 13 December 1877; Anne Hanly, 2 years, child of farmer, accidently burned on the abdomen, died 13 April 1879; Patrick Dannell, 3 years, child of a labourer, accidental burning, died 10 November 1879." In these and other numerous cases, the local coroners almost always cited the cause of death from burning as "accidental," rather than as infanticide or fairy-induced.
Open fires were common in rural cabins, and most deaths were indeed accidental, but some were most assuredly not. To believers, it was a known fact that changelings feared fire more than anything else, and after herbs and incantations had been tried, only burning could drive away the alien spirit in possession of a loved one's body. Young women and small children were favored targets for fairy abduction, according to newspaper accounts in England, Ireland, and the United States in the spring of 1895. Little did anyone suspect that another shocking event was about to disturb the tranquillity of Christmas in Clonmel.
The waning of boycotts, protests, and pagan primitivism left the Queen's enforcers little to do. At Her Royal Majesty's Royal Barracks, the Highlander Regiment celebrated New Year's Eve with a traditional Scottish meal of "bannocks o' barley," after which the oldest soldier of the regiment dressed up like Father Time and at midnight knocked loudly at the door, seeking admittance. "Who goes there?" shouted the sentry. "It is Father Time," the old soldier replied, "bearing with him the New Year, 1895." Those inside entreated Father Time to enter, declaring "all is well." And indeed, all seemed well—for the moment.
The holiday season's calm encouraged the county's Corporation Board to recommend that the tax for extra policemen be eliminated, saving the county nearly a thousand pounds a year. The tax was a large expense, the board contended, for which there was "not necessity ... now that things have smoothened down." Even though the Corporation felt confident that peace would prevail, British authorities took no chances in volatile County Tipperary. A small notice in the Nationalist, dated January 16, disclosed that the Highlander Regiment of British Army regulars, stationed in Clonmel for some years, departed in the night by train, to be promptly replaced by a flesh regiment from India.
The caution was necessary given Tipperary's bellicose history. The gallant sons of Ireland's "premier" county were known for their hatred of the English, their passion for nationalism, and their eagerness to fight. The fighting spirit of South Tipp was akin to the famous Wheaten terriers of Carrick-on-Suir, touted as the best fighting dogs in all of Ireland, if not the world. The vicious "Carrick dog" began his fighting career at nine days old, feared nothing, and took particular delight in demolishing opponents thrice his size, which led the envious to call him a cannibal, but this was not strictly true, since, although he would happily devour any dog within a mile radius, he left his own breed alone. Wary visitors knew of the dog's reputation and its particular fondness for Clonmel canines, so no sensible Clonmel man would dare walk his dog down New Street unless, of course, he wished to leave town alone. The reputation of the Carrick dog was so widespread and well deserved that the phrase "Carrick, I dread you" arose in reference to South Tipp's fierce canine.
Like the Carrick dog, Clonmel's fighting spirit was well documented in Irish history. For over a century, Clonmel was the administrative, military, and commercial center of Tipperary's South Riding district. The town's name comes from the Irish Cluain meala (meadow of honey), because of the lush pastures flanking the wooded banks of the River Suit. To the northeast, a mountain, Slievenamon, rises above the river, woods, and meadows, forming a majestic backdrop for the town. Because of its long history of political resistance and agrarian unrest, the British maintained a garrison of six hundred in the town's central barracks, the size attesting to Clonmel's reputation as picturesque but violent—six hundred soldiers for just nine thousand inhabitants.
And then there were the town's legendary and eccentric heroes. Such a one was the good King Brian Boru, who fought the Danes at the Battle of the Boulick in the twelfth century. While the Danes massed a fearsome force at Peddar's Field, King Brian decided to take the afternoon off and fish for salmon. No sooner had he flung his "crooked pin" into the water than the genie of the Boulick Sthrame emerged from the river and asked King Brian what the commotion was all about. "Was it a regatta to celebrate the Queen's birthday?" he asked. No, Brian responded, it was just the Danes come to invade; thinking quickly, Brian promised to make him a Duke if he would drown the Danes. The genie agreed, and shortly the river began to flood with a current so swift and a torrent so violent that it lifted the Danes from their camp at Peddar's Field and swept them into Thomas Osborne's Bridge, leaving a gigantic crack. Nowadays when the rains come, they say the river is fixing to drown more Danes. And the English, too, for that matter.
A more recent local favorite was Hugh Dubh O'Neill, hero of the famous Siege of Clonmel. When the Puritan Roundheads invaded Ireland in 1641, the two powerful families of the district, the Butlers and Kildares, joined forces under O'Neill's command to hold off Oliver Cromwell at Clonmel's fortress. During the months-long siege, Hugh smuggled in twelve hundred troops to reinforce the royal garrison and had them waiting when Cromwell's men stormed the breach in the town's fortifications. Just as the Puritan forces were about to attack, O'Neill jumped up on the wall:
Then up he speaks unto his chiefs:
"Ere yet this town we leave,
We'll make a stand for fatherland
Will cause the foe to grieve.
The breach that yawns so widely now
Will serve our purpose well;
Before we go we'll make the foe
Remember `Rare Clonmel'!"
Cromwell lost two thousand men in the attempt, and the town held out for another two months before O'Neill took flight. Eventually the fortress fell to the Roundheads, but the siege of Clonmel proved to be the toughest encountered anywhere in Ireland.
After Cromwell left, the sons of Tipperary continued the fight against English landlords who had stolen more land from the Irish and had sent in soldiers to protect their ill-gotten property rights. A subculture of violence emerged in the late eighteenth century when bands of tenant farmers and agricultural laborers—known as hillside men, ribbon men, moonlighters, or Whiteboys—terrorized landlords and lackeys alike. After the Great Famine, violence flared again in the Land War of the 1880s, when bands of "summer soldiers" terrorized the countryside. Political agitators led the way, but the solid core of resistance lay with the country people, those tough, roughly civilized rural peasants who fought at a moment's notice when landlords raised, or "racked," their rents to levels calculated to drive them from the land. In the period between 1874 and 1881, landlords conveniently racked their rents just as agricultural prices fell, resulting in over 10,000 evictions and a huge increase in rural violence—more than 2,500 incidents in 1880 alone. Some of the worst of this violence took place in County Tipperary, particularly around Clonmel. Though Tipperary's "summer soldiers" were armed only with pitchforks, they fought like Carrick dogs to save their homes.
If Clonmel was known for its peculiar combination of beauty and toughness, the region was also notable for its fertility. In the prosperous pre-Famine decade of the 1830s, the town was the thriving commercial center of South Tipperary, as well as the major terminus for the distribution of grain, butter, bacon, and spirits. Its burgeoning population of 18,000 made it the county's largest town. At its peak, Clonmel's packing houses slaughtered over 30,000 pigs, most of which went down river in barrel-laden barges and thence to England. Its huge, factory-like grain mills employed hundreds and annually produced over 300,000 barrels of flour. The barrel industry alone employed a small army of cutters and coopers. At the town's quays along the River Suir, a flotilla of barges waited to lavish the bounty of Ireland's premier county on English tables.
By the mid-1840s, Clonmel, along with the rest of Ireland, was devastated by the Great Potato Famine, and within the space of a few years, half the town's residents were gone—either dead from starvation or emigrated. As a result of this holocaust, Clonmel lost its grain, meat, and dairy industries, and much of its commerce. After the Famine, the once flourishing town withered, prompting many to echo Billy Heffernan, the peasant farmer in Charles Kickham's novel Knocknagow, who observed, "There's nothin' doing there." By the 1860s, Clonmel had recovered somewhat, only to be knocked down again by a worldwide agricultural depression that lasted two decades. More children were born, but most of these left, so by 1893 the population still stood at a meager 8,810.
Fifty years after the Famine, although local industries had not fully recovered, Clonmel was becoming a modern town, with a condensed milk factory, breweries, manufacturing establishments that produced boots and carriages, a tannery, flour mills, a gasworks, gaslit streetlamps, sewage connections, telephone and telegraph services, and access to clean water, supplied from a central town pump, links to the railway system, a new cemetery, and a new Town Hall on Parnell Street. There were still grinding poverty, disease-ridden children, and countless pubs, and in the Irishtown shanties, there was talk of trade unions, nationalism, land reform, government informers, and warring political factions.
Even in the mid-1890s, the Great Famine continued to haunt "the indomitable Irishry." Memories of the grotesquely bloated bodies of children, dead mothers lying by the road with nursing children clinging to their breasts, corpses heaped in the lanes with grass-stained mouths, and entire families walling themselves inside their mud huts to die together with a modicum of dignity—these images would not go away.
The Famine had created a state of almost universal despair, and secular and cleric authorities leapt at the opportunity to tighten their grip on the weakened population and pushed ahead with their respective reforms. Landlords ordered more evictions to consolidate their holdings, abandoning any pretense of their traditional precapitalist paternalism and further alienating the remaining tenant farmers and rural laborers. The English colonial government in Dublin expanded the system of National Schools, instituted before the Famine, which systematically eliminated instruction in Irish language and culture. The second oldest of these National Schools, by the way, was established in 1832 in Cloneen, a village near Clonmel.
Excerpted from The Cooper's Wife Is Missing by JOAN HOFF MARIAN YEATES. Copyright © 2000 by Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||Christmas in Clonmel||1|
|2||Gone with the Fairies||57|
|3||Peasants, Peelers, and Priests||101|
|4||The Fairy Cures||143|
|5||The Fairy Trials||193|
|6||"To Go Amongst the People"||239|
|7||Tales of Slievenamon||289|
|8||The Archbishop's Jubilee||339|
|Notes on Sources||437|