The Last Witch of Parkland

On March 15, 1895, Michael Cleary burned his wife Bridget alive. He claimed his real wife had been taken by the fairies, and a changeling put in its place. After days of folk remedies (including dousing her with urine and force-feeding her herbal concoctions) and attempts to coax the fairy to leave through exposing it to the lit hearth (in other words, burning Bridget with the flames), Cleary finally poured paraffin oil on her smoldering clothing, setting her aflame. The media frenzied at Cleary’s trial, digging into the details of the witness statements and “evidence” of the supernatural at work in modern times.

There was more to this fairy story, however. “The overwhelming message of the fairy legends is that the unexpected may be guarded against by careful observance of society’s rules,” explained Angela Bourke in her 1999 book, The Burning of Bridget Cleary.[1] To Bourke, Bridget presented a more potent challenge to her local society than the supernatural ever could. A trained dressmaker who owned her own Singer sewing machine and also raised her own chickens, she was an educated tradeswoman who earned her own money. Her clientele brought her into contact with men and women in higher social classes, and through them, new ideas about what she wanted and expected from life. A woman who could support herself financially could not be as easily controlled by a husband or society in general. Adding the fact that she had not performed her wifely duty and borne a child to carry on the Cleary name, Bridget was a dangerous anomaly within the social norms of her community.

News coverage of battered spouses always seems to turn up warning signs far too late, and Cleary’s story is no different. A few months before she was killed, Bridget confided in her aunt Mary Kennedy about her troubles at home, saying “He’s making a fairy of me now, and an emergency…he thought to burn me three months ago.”[2] Cleary could have been speaking figuratively, saying her husband was disappointed in her and wished she would revert to the naïve, uneducated woman he married. It also could have been a literal cry for help, voicing her fears that her husband planned to harm her physically. History does not allow us to say with certainty which of these possibilities is true, but we do know Michael Cleary justified burning his wife to death because she was a “fairy.”

Cleary went to jail for fifteen years and his wife became the “last witch of Ireland,” a neat label that both sold papers and kept the public from developing too much empathy for the woman. Bridget Cleary was not a witch. At most she was a victim of the supernatural, or at least a victim of a society that used the supernatural as a cover for forcibly bringing women into line with accepted conventions.

One hundred years later, we pat ourselves on the back for disdaining the supernatural. We say we don’t burn witches, but that’s not exactly true. Modern society retains its own system of rules and punishments to regulate female behavior that is more often than not contradictory to those it holds for males. Our worst censure is reserved for women who defy convention: the ones who speak when they are supposed to be silent, rage when they are supposed to be resigned, act when they are supposed to be accepting. We don’t burn women at the stake; we roast them on social media. There is a reason the slang term for putting someone in their place using a well-timed insult is called a “burn.”

The survivors of the school shootings at Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, have come under fire for their response to the massacre. It defies the resigned “thoughts and prayers” that bolster the status quo. Channeling their grief and anger into action, the teenagers built one of the most powerful and compelling challenges to the American gun lobby in recent memory, if not ever. The sincerity of their message, spoken and shouted through tears, is difficult to deny, so detractors took aim at the messengers themselves. NRA leaders and other anti-gun control supporters insisted the teens are too young to be so poised and must therefore be talking heads for adult anti-gun/anti-Second Amendment groups already in place.

The worst insults seem to be reserved for Emma Gonzalez, a young woman whose words are as cutting as her hair is close-cropped. She called B.S., so Leslie Gibson, a Republican candidate for Maine’s House of Representatives referred to her as a “skinhead lesbian” on Twitter. Outrage over Gibson’s comments forced him to drop out of the race, but branding Miss Gonzalez in this manner shows modern America has its own answer to the Irish changeling fairy tale. Women must look and act a certain way to be accepted and must parrot the approved message if they are to be respected. Her haircut is not threatening in itself. Her sexual orientation, whatever it may be, has absolutely no bearing on her stance on gun control. Gibson may have attacked other classmates for their message, but he refused to hear Gonzalez because of her appearance and his interpretation of her sexuality. A non-white female with the courage to stand up to established adult politicians and the strength to stay on message as she attended a month of friends’ funerals and memorial services? Threatening does not begin to describe the woman. Neither does powerful. She again did the unthinkable at the March 24 March for our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. by staying silent. For six long minutes and twenty interminable seconds, Gonzalez stood on the stage, most of them saying nothing as tears dripped down her face. She weaponized silence, bringing the crowd to its feet and her detractors to their knees. The gun control crusader was without speech but had the last word.

In looking to history for lessons, we must remember we will sometimes see things we don’t want to see, including the fact that repeated “thoughts and prayers” are historically ineffective at keeping it from repeating itself. That prejudice, hate, and fear make words like “lesbian” (and “Pocahontas” for that matter) a slur and insult. That over a hundred years of experience, growth, and technology cannot keep us from behaving in the same ways as our “backward” ancestors did when confronted by change and challenge. We don’t burn young women as witches anymore, but we are very keen to crush the spirits of women and men who refuse to conform to societal expectations.

Describing the Cleary case in 1901, historian Michael J. McCarthy bemoaned the fact that the “events took place, not in Darkest Africa, but in Tipperary; not in the ninth or tenth, but at the close of the nineteenth century.”[3] Another century has passed. When will America stop burning its “witches,” or at least accept the fact that we aren’t as enlightened and modern as we would have others believe?

[1] Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 34.

[2] Bridget Cleary quoted in Bourke, 75.

[3] “Bridget Cleary burned to death,” excerpted from Michael J. McCarthy, Five Years in Ireland, 1895-1900, posted in Library Ireland, accessed March 25, 2018, http://www.libraryireland.com/articles/Burning-Bridget-Cleary/.

KMS 2018

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