The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A [partial] retraction

[Tree, or anyone triggered by mentions of graphic violence, don’t read this. Partial spoilers for Angela Bourke’s book about the Bridget Cleary incident. Edited for typos.]

We hadn’t heard about it in so long that I thought it was dead — and I made no secret that I had no regrets about that (as here, where I wondered if this project was part of a larger pattern for him). When the identity of the project became known, in June 2015, after being hinted at in a Cybersmile interview, I looked at the wikipedia entry and thought, uch. I was so uninterested in this project that I mostly didn’t follow the gossip about it (which you can read here). Herba read the book, but I stated I’d only read more about it once it was clear it was happening. Since Richard Armitage referred to it again this week in a way that suggested it’s still a possibility, and since I have more free time at the moment, though, I decided to borrow the book from the library.

“A man kills his wife in late nineteenth-century Ireland because he thinks she’s been taken by the fairies” was the version of the story in my mind. I taught a heresy / magic / witchcraft course in my last job, and I know quite a bit about the components of belief in fairies and the elements of social circumstance and popular culture that underlay them as well as the modern theories usually adduced to explain violence related to them; and since a lot of victims of magic / folk belief related violence were women, I’ve also had a full dose of the crude version of explanations of historical misogyny. In seven straight semesters of discussing this with students, I became and still am fatigued with the vulgar platitudes that people spew about this sort of thing: they didn’t know any better, they didn’t have science, women were subjugated in the past, and so on. All of these explanations rely on the galling sentiment that nowadays we have all this stuff worked out and we would never do such things today, the feeling of superiority that many people have when looking at the atrocities and miscarriages of justice of the past. After years of teaching this material, it was hard for me to see how any version of such a project wouldn’t descend immediately into anachronistic, annoying stereotypes.

So when I opened Angela Bourke’s book, I was expecting the worst. What I got was an excellent micro-history with which I only had one small methodological quibble (I felt her discussion of the reasons that she accepted much of Michael Cleary’s explanation for the events around his wife’s murder — taken from a petition made ten years later — needed more clarification), which is stunning for me. (Micro-history is genre with a lot of philosophical and political pitfalls; many professional historians view it with suspicion; and I tend to be a stickler anyway; but this book does really well with it.) The book is well organized and it does a fantastic job not only of presenting context but also of explaining and examining carefully both the testimony of the witnesses to / perpetrators of Bridget Cleary’s murder, in places line by line, critically and with an eye toward things that the modern reader and even people at the time were inclined to miss.

I encourage you to read it for yourself if you can stomach the story line; it’s a quick read. Among many of its particular strengths: First, it actually doesn’t explain why Michael Cleary killed his wife, Bridget — it tells the story, lays out the various contexts and surviving evidence, and lets the reader see how many factors intertwined to facilitate the homicide. Bourke’s explanation of the situation is highly complex and falls very far from stereotype. Secondly, Bourke explicitly rejects the modernist narrative about superstition — that people who hold some or any superstitious beliefs are backward and that progress eventually erases them. Rather, the book makes clear that while the content of certain beliefs may remain stable over centuries (for example, the folk belief that fairies stole butter or butterfat was held in basic form over several centuries), the reasons why these particular villagers and their surrounding culture in 1895 continued certain sorts of supernatural belief and superstition are strongly related to their varying experiences of modernization (in Ballyvadlea, the home economies that provided butter to the country were being eliminated by industrial production — which means that the superstition has to be understood in a different context). Third, Bourke is typically highly critical of the historical testimony she accepts, pointing out that a mere statement of belief in a superstition is not necessarily to be taken at face value (just as the statements of overwhelming percentages of Alabamans that Barack Obama is a Muslim can’t be understood literally), and that elucidating the reason one witness espouses such a belief does not explain it for everyone in a particular culture or time period. She explicitly rejects synecdoche on an evidentiary level, which is very smart.

As Bourke notes: Michael Cleary said he killed his wife because he believed she’d been replaced by a changeling — and the other witnesses / participants in the murder shared this account of events. Her detailed account makes clear, however, that the reason articulated in court and on the evening itself is only one facet of a complicated narrative that has to do with modernization, competing educational and social statuses, superstition, the Catholic / Protestant divide, the nature of landholding in the village in the wake of the Land War, family rivalries, and his outsider status in the hamlet where they lived.

So, yes, the book meets my need for subtlety in explaining things fully. Kudos to Angela Bourke and it’s possible she’s a great scriptwriter, too, although I am suspicious that the things that are best about this book — the detailed examination and explanation of the testimony of the witnesses — will get lost in a film.

Which brings me to the reason why my retraction is only partial. Bridget Cleary was tortured and brutally murdered by her husband with the assistance of some of her relatives, and the people who could have helped her (a doctor, her parish priest) failed to see what was going on and intervene. Apart from what is by our standards emotional abuse, her husband dosed her with folk medicines forcefully (threatening her, branishing a poker and a stump at her, holding her over a hot fire with the aid of friends until her nightgown scorched), deprived her of food and drink, and then when she seemed to be recovering on the next evening, threw her to the floor, struck her, covered her in paraffin wax spilled from a lamp and set her on fire.

Perhaps I lack imagination. But the story as it could be filmed will likely be much more about her brutal death and much less about the superstitious beliefs that provoked it. It’s relatively less disturbing, I suspect, to read all this stuff and just try to keep oneself from visualizing it. On the screen, however, it would be beyond unpleasant to look at. And I’m just … I don’t know how to put this. It may be a small consolation that it’s really not clear to me that Armitage would find a role in this film — I don’t see him playing someone with a strong Irish accent, for starters, but the only significant male role is Michael Cleary and somehow I don’t see him in that role. Graham McTavish, maybe, when he was a bit younger.

I guess this is the way to say it: film lends all violence a kind of pornographic quality (even if the point is to shock or revolt the viewer’s sensibilities). I was thinking this after reading that Adi Shankar had “promised” his audience plenty of violence for his Castlevania series. Some people are looking for precisely that; they want to see violence, and in our culture, that frequently means demeaning, horrifying violence against women. Pilgrimage has this vibe as well — let’s have some violence for the sake of violence, excusing ourselves with the platitude that the medieval period was violent, not thinking about how Norman Ireland would have drawn the cultural boundaries around violence, just going for the effect of shock. It was certainly true in Hannibal, not for violence so much but for gore.

And I don’t know how much of that I can really stand. I’ve been more aware in the last few months, as I get more exposure to it, of how out of synch I am with the Zeitgeist. I’d realized recently how much less contemporary TV I watch than most Armitage fans I know and frankly, that’s not accidental. I don’t miss it. I don’t like the violence and the sexism. I don’t get anything from filmmakers who perpetrate this particular kind of glance at women or at humans. Yes, Bridget Cleary’s murder is (as Bourke’s book makes clear in its subtitle) “a true story.” And the way Bourke puts the story together, it’s a story worth telling. I’m just concerned that a film about the murder of a woman will turn into what most films like this turn into — another excuse for graphic violence that excites our voyeuristic impulses while giving us nothing beyond sensation, a sensation that many of us not only avoid, but firmly repudiate.

~ by Servetus on July 1, 2017.

33 Responses to “The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A [partial] retraction”

  1. Thanks for this. I’m interested to hear that it’s a thoughtful book but like you, I really don’t think I would wish to see this brought to the screen. Richard Armitage as torturer doesn’t appeal in any way and there is far too much violence in real life to need more on the screen. I feel the need for escapism at the moment, not grisly truth 😏


    • Yeah, if you think about that concretely for a second — Richard Armitage burning a woman’s face with a poker. Richard Armitage threatening his screen wife that he’s going to choke her unless she eats three pieces of bread with jam.

      I’m totally with you on the escapism, although I’m willing to watch realistic things. I just am turned off to things that are made solely for effect.


  2. Perhaps he needs Yael as an advisor on this one, I saw Salome in London and she made the beheading of John the Baptist seem less important than Salome strength.


    • I hopefully will get to see Salome in October when it makes it here. However, I think that would be a terrible idea. From what I can tell about Farber’s work it’s mostly about how society hates women. It’s not that that’s false — but in most cases, in Salem certainly, and in this case especially, that’s exactly the kind of reductive explanation that is so galling.


      • Agree with you, Servetus. At least that’s how her work comes across at times. Not entirely sure it what she aims for initially. I think in interviews sometimes she doesn’t necessarily aim for the ‘common’ (simplified?) or reductive explanation but actually wants to go deeper instead. – That, however, could also be reading more intervher statements.
        I don’t think this material would be up her street. She usually goes for the strong femal type, or at least wants her female leads to have a strong voice. It’s an interesting thought though what she would do with it. And then screen would likely be preferable to stage! I’d like to read the script.

        Did RA appear to want to play in it or produce/direct this in the past? From his tweet I can’t quite tell.


        • I think you could make an argument for Bridget Cleary as a Farberesque heroine — she’s also more educated than her neighbors and more upwardly mobile and one way to read the murder is that the witnesses who help her husband or don’t intervene with him are somehow bound by personal jealous or social prejudices against ambitious women. But if that were the main thing you portrayed it would be a distortion. Perhaps part of the problem for me is that in a book you can always include another chapter, complicating things, whereas that’s not really possible in a film.

          From what we know, it seems more likely that he wants to produce. there was a mockup video ad / trailer about it (which later disappeared; I didn’t see it but I’ve seen screencaps) and he’s one of three executive producers. Part of the issue I think is that from our perspective today it seems so much a story about a woman, but it’s not entirely clear that Michael Cleary has the multi-faceted constitution of a really successful Armitage character.


          • Ne voulait-il pas produire le film et non y participer en tant qu’acteur, mais en tant que financeur?


            • It’s not clear. His first comments about it were ambiguous and since then he’s only been identified definitely as a producer (which can mean that he’s financing, but can also mean that he will play a creative role outside of appearing on the screen).


  3. Sounds like a fascinating book. I’m always interested in what prompts people to do something so beyond the pale.
    I was listening to an interview with John Grisham today, where he was asked why it’s been so long since any of his books have been made into movies. He observed that books like his, that are serious adult dramas, just don’t get made into movies anymore. The studios are only interested in making superhero movies or big action movies that will sell well overseas. Violence seems to sell well too, and the more shocking the better.
    I’ve been watching a favourite Canadian show called “Orphan Black”, which shows strong women in a unique sci-fi scenario. But in the second episode of the new season, there is a killing so shocking that I can’t get it out of my head and I haven’t yet watched the episode that recorded a week ago. I’m not sure why they felt that this particular scene done in this particular way was necessary.


    • There’s a weird juxtaposition between the fact that in the US, at least, our society is increasingly less violent as our culture becomes more explicitly so. (Displacement?) But it sounds like that would turn me off, too — as I learned from watching Hannibal — historical, real violence I can watch. Play violence for effect, not so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I abhor violence for its own sake, it worries me that as time goes on, people are being de-sensitised to it. It then becomes a vicious circle whereby film makers feel they have to depict even more brutality and gore in order to bring in the viewers; making it stylised as in Hannibal doesn’t make it any more acceptable imho.
    Wrt SueBC’s mention of John Grisham – if his opinion truly reflects reality, I find that depressing. There are so many books out there that would translate into good movies given a quality script, cast and director.
    I watch very little contemporary television, although I did catch a couple of episodes of Big Little Lies (and it’s based on a book too!) on the long haul flight and found myself engaged, am hoping to see more on the way home.


    • The violence (and, to be fair, the sex) drove a big group of moviegoers out of the theaters in the US in the 70s, including my parents, who were frequent moviegoers until then. I think it’s interesting that our local cinema has started showing a lot of Bollywood flicks — at least two per week. Some of that is due to immigration of South Asians to the area, but there aren’t enough of them to sustain this many films every week. I think quite a bit of it must have to do with the fact that the stories, even if they are often sexist, are pretty “clean.” No bloody murders, usually no naked bodies. I don’t really get into those films but I should go to one just to see who’s buying the tickets.


  5. What I find most interesting about the story is the political context it happens in. The story of the ‘barbaric burning’ came handy to a regime that used the ‘primitive barbarism’ as a way to legitimize their rule in Ireland. I wonder whether that is a possible slant for the filmmakers to take. Or whether there could be the role of a judge or attorney in it, from whose POV the story is told, and who is played by Armitage? I can’t imagine buying him as a rural Irish farmer; he’d be more believable as the ‘hand of the English law’…


    • I read the book back when the project was first mentioned in 2015. I am not a big fan of violence for the sake of violence, but I think this story has tremendous potential depending on how the movie presents it. There are so many sub stories in this: political, cultural, etc. The Irish politics and culture were new to me, so I tended to focus on the gender politics as I read it. I don’t necessarily think that the movie would need to focus on the violence.

      Richard was pretty convincing as John Standridge, and he’s been effective as a villain before — why do so many think he couldn’t pull off Michael Cleary?


      • I just always assumed, since I first heard of the project, that he would play Michael. I thought I remembered him saying he would be playing a very violent man, in an interview, but maybe he meant Raymond deMerville. He’s played a farmer twice, successfully and he can play any sort of dramatic part – but I see where Guylty is coming from on the Irishness. But yeah, maybe he’s a lawyer.


        • Cleary isn’t that violent, or at least not by nineteenth-century standards. The book hints based on local word of mouth that he and his wife had marital troubles and that he might have hit her before this incident, but that would totally have been in the canon of permissible marital violence in the 1890s in Ireland. It’s more that at a crucial moment, he snapped and committed this brutal deed.

          I guess what I end up thinking is that filmmakers go for the visual. That means a lot of the stuff that’s important for understanding the crime (Irish modernization; the conflict with the English; jealousy over how the Clearys got access to their house; anything where the evidence or argumentation comes from the papers) isn’t especially visual. What’s visual are the sensationalist moments. I liked the book because it turned something that could have been sensationalist into a fascinating look at the rural Ireland of the 1890s. The priority of most filmmakers is usually to do the opposite, to make everything sensationalist.


      • That’s what I have a horror of: a film that makes it all and only about the gender matters. It would also run a heavy risk of condemning the film to a viewing ghetto, imo. (And I am not by any means an anti-feminist!) In that case, if they wanted people to see it, they’d be better off emphasizing the supernatural part.

        I assume you know this after reading the book, but it bears repeating: Michael Cleary is not a farmer but a cooper. He’s also the most educated of all of the defendants and the most upwardly mobile (another thing that makes the resort to the ‘fairies’ explanation interesting and more symptomatic of modernist conflict than simple village superstition).

        I think that the category Irish farmer (or in this case, skilled tradesman) is a substantially different one than Yorkshire farmer. Armitage’s father is from Yorkshire, he can clearly mimic the accent effectively because he’s heard it for a long time, and the political issues in such a portrayal are not as significant as when an English actor would choose to play an Irishman. It’s not just the accent, or whether Armitage can act the role of a skilled laborer (we know he can sharpen a knife for a whole day). It’s that I would have a very hard time, knowing the history of the English colonization and oppression of the Irish, accepting that portrayal. And I don’t live in Ireland or have a drop of Irish blood in my veins. Given the connection of this story to the question of whether Irish people were fit for self-governance, any time Armitage made any misstep in his portrayal of Irishness, he’d be liable to charges that he was making fun or relying on stereotype.


    • I agree that the question of how the “authorities” dealt with it and the tangential relationship to the politics of the Home Rule question is crucial — and in the book she does draw a tangential, although not causal, connection to that context. However, I think it’s the part mostly likely to be cut in any film adaptation. In the book it’s all portrayed through newspapers and accounts of parliamentary discussions and even Bourke says, essentially, Irish historiography more or less omits this episode from its accounts because it’s not considered important. I skimmed those pages because (a) I’m superficially familiar with the problems from grad school but (b) at least the way she tells it, it’s the least gripping element in the book. Could it be included? Yes, certainly, Spielberg’s Lincoln film makes a great deal of drama out of Senate debates; but is it likely? I don’t think so.

      I can’t see him as an Irish farmer, either. Although I guess Michael Cleary, like most people of his age from that area, was not Gaelic speaking.


  6. I think RA could do the part after John Proctor and the Pilgrimage role. And I am going to stick with faith in him that he is interested in doing the movie for more than just the violence (hopefully he won’t let me down). What happened to Bridget Cleary is still happening to women and even children throughout the world today – even in Canada and the US.


    • I think “Irish cooper” is a really different category from either of those (see above), politically and culturally. It’s not so much whether he could or couldn’t do it, but how audiences might be inclined to see it.

      Also, I hope I didn’t indicate that there is no violence against women today. But what bothers me is just the way that people talk about that continuity. Violence against women is the result of oppression of women / patriarchialism, and that this is an eternal thing. It’s not really that way. As historical and social circumstances change, violence against women comes to have a different meaning than it has in the past (think for example of how we treat rape today vs. a century ago). It’s very hard for film to treat this kind of theme with any sensitivity at all.


      • No, I definitely would never think you would indicate there is no violence against women today. It is definitely a complex subject and you always treat it very sensitively but I do feel even today for some it is an eternal thing, that regardless of the era or community some still hold fast to beliefs that most others now dismiss? For sure most have a different view of rape for example – but not all people do and definitely not in all communities throughout the world, even in this more enlightened day and age. I haven’t read the book and have only a rudimentary knowledge of what happened to Bridget Clearly and didn’t think I wanted to know any more than that – it gave me an icky, as you say, voyeuristic vibe to want to read more about the events. But after your writing what you think of the book I am definitely going to read it and will hope RA has read the same book for his research and his interest and intentions for the film is more than entertainment.


        • I also had the impression from one of his recent tweets or comments (forget which) that Pilgrimage might have been some sort of stepping stone to bringing his Bridget Cleary project to fruition.


          • Possibly, but I doubt it. BoF and Pilgrimage were part of a package deal orchestrated by WME through their partnership with the Irish Film Board; the Irish Film Board had already decided to finance these films when Armitage got on board; he was an afterthought. Entirely separate from the Bridget Cleary project which has different leadership. I think he was just reacting to the Irish Film Board’s statement about Irish films, although perhaps he and his colleagues have a funding application underway.


        • I don’t know — maybe we are talking about different things — but my point isn’t that no one still thinks about rape in the way someone might have two centuries ago, but rather that these definitions are culturally and historically conditioned. For instance, someone in the US who thinks it’s okay to rape one’s wife (i.e., that it’s not rape) is now outside the legal mainstream, which was not the case even in the 1960s. So, if someone does that now, they do it not as a matter of course (it’s my right to sleep with my wife when I want to whether she wants to our not) but in awareness that they are committing a crime. Whereas if a husband rapes his wife someplace else, where this discussion has not been going on for decades, it is a different sort of act. In the West we define non-consensual sex as rape but there are cultures that see it differently. It doesn’t mean the same thing for them.

          To use the example we’re talking about: it’s a different thing for a woman in 1500, before industrialization, to accuse her neighbor of being a fairy and stealing her butter, than it would be in 1895 (Bridget Cleary’s age), or it would be today. It’s a different thing to tell your sister you believe in fairies than it is to say that to a priest or to a policeman; the statement communicates different things to different audiences. The charge is the same, the accused action is the same, the statement about it is the same, but the meaning is different.

          To use a mundane example — it’s different if I drop litter on the ground in absence of any knowledge that it’s a bad idea, than if I drop litter on the ground in front of a sign that says “do not litter.” It’s different if I do that in Texas or in a third world country. I could go on and on. Not all crimes are created equal. Their contexts give them different meanings to their perpetrators and committers, so saying “well, society just hates women and always has” doesn’t cut it. Besides being politically counter-productive (because even people who would agree with that statement know it’s more complex than that), that’s actually a way of misunderstanding what’s going on.


          • I see what you are saying….I think I am thinking somewhat along the same lines but expressing it differently. I think! I’m not quite sure, but I think so.


  7. 🙂 Thanks
    Depuis mes études de botanique en général et en particulier de cryptogamie et de mycologie, les exemples historiques d’intoxications mortelles ou les épisodes d’épidémies avec des cas de folie et de sorcellerie m’ont toujours fascinés.
    C’est le cas de l’étude du “mal des ardents”, un des grands fléaux du Moyen-Age. A partir du Xème siècle le “feu de Saint-Antoine” ou “feu infernal” ou encore “feu sacré” causa la mort de centaines de milliers de personnes et de nombreuses furent brûlées ou exécutées sur la place publique car considérées “possédées” par le diable. Cette “peste des extrémités“ était provoquée par un champignon du groupe des ascomycètes: l’ergot de seigle (claviceps purpurea), qui parasite des céréales comme le seigle, le froment et l’orge … Mais ce n’est qu’en 1777 que l’origine de ce fléau fut découvert.
    Je ne ferai pas la liste des intoxications connues en Europe. Seulement,
    ce parasite fut même incriminé pour expliquer les cas relatés en 1692 dans “Les sorcières de Salem”:
    Je me pencherais peut-être sur ce film et lirais le seul livre disponible en français: “L’Exorciste” de Carlo Gébler seulement comme éternelle étudiante curieuse… mais pas pour les scènes de cruauté.
    Quelle succession de choix de films violents et traitant de sujets spirituels, de sujets sur la folie! Coïncidence ou appétence ou choix délibéré de sa part?


    • While I would never rule out organic causes for certain episodes of European history, the argument for ergotism at Salem has been more or less discredited among historians. Citation: Spanos, Nicholas; Gottlieb, John ‘Jack’ (December 1976). “Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials”. Science. 194 (4272): 1390–4.

      I think Bourke’s book is excellent but it is not an easy read and there doesn’t seem to be a French translation, unfortunately.

      Until recently I would have said this is coincidence or just a current condition of the entertainment industry, but I’m starting to wonder as this film is something he’s purely choosing for himself as producer.


      • ” Vous avez dit bizarre?… Comme c’est bizarre!”!
        Quote “Drôle de drame” (1937) de Jacques Prévert


  8. Really interesting discussion! Please correct me if I’m wrong (I really mean that – my memory is not what it used to be! 🙃), but when I think of the references to the Bridget Cleary project, I seem to remember words like “ghost story”, “haunting”, “supernatural”, and even “horror”, so the impression I got was that it would be a fictional tale based on a true story. If that’s the case, there would be no obligation to portray Michael Cleary or any other real person in a true fashion. But of course, if they are making a supernatural horror story (which might be a little more commercial come to think of it), that also means that they may go above and beyond any of the actual brutality of real events (also more commercial come to think of it). Just a thought! Keep up the good work – I love reading your posts! 💛


    • Thanks for the comment and welcome!

      I think if we separate the Bourke / Casey project and the comments made about it (although I did not hear the voiceover for the mockup trailer if there was any, so I don’t know what was on there) from the general perception of the case o/s of that specific framework, we get two different pictures. The Bourke project (assuming the script was based on the book — see here: , note also that Armitage is said to be “starring”) could not be described with “ghost story” (there are no ghosts in the historical account) or “haunting” (no one is being haunted). You could definitely use the word “horror” (because it is very violent, enough to horrify — setting someone on fire with paraffin wax would definitely qualify in that light) and potentially, depending on how you tell the story, “supernatural” (in that both Bridget and her murderers, the accomplices, and witnesses hold some supernatural or at least superstitious beliefs (although, to be fair, Roman Catholicism can also be called a supernatural belief), and this is the explanation that Michael Cleary et al used for purposes of the court). On the mockup trailer, the screenwriter is listed as Anne-Marie O’Connor, who is a US journalist with no screenwriting experience, so this seems to be a red herring (I could not find any information actually connecting O’Connor to a Bridget Cleary project). If, however, it’s true, it’s hard to say anything about it at all.

      My concern before reading the Bourke book was that it would be a ghost / haunting story (I had caught the tagline “last witch burnt in Ireland,” although Bourke explicitly rejects this in her book), extrapolating from and trivializing this historical episode, probably condescending to the historical actors because that tends to be how these things go, and making light of the violence. Now I am less concerned about that than I am about the violence itself. I’m not confident that a film that hopes to be commercially successful will avoid brutality; on the contrary, the more brutal films are today, the more successful they seem to be. To me, the only merit in this project would lie in portraying something that approximates history. If it’s going to go off in the direction of our contemporary supernatural / horror genre, in hopes of appealing to a broader audience, well — the mind pales.


  9. Something I hadn’t considered — maybe he’d play a role like Jack Dunne? (Dunne is the older neighbor who supports / convinces Michael Cleary of his suspicions about the changeling having taken the place of his wife). If Armitage were starring, that might be a meatier possibility along with less violence. Hmmm.


  10. Thanks again for the link love!


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