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The Cooper's Wife Is Missing: the Trials of Bridget Cleary
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On March 15, 1895, twenty-eight year old Bridget Cleary, a cooper’s wife, disappeared from her cottage in rural County Tipperary. Immediately, strange and lurid rumors began circulating the neighborhood about what had happened. Some said she ran off with an egg seller; others supposed it was an aristocratic foxhunter who had taken young Bridget away. Swirling amid rumors was the barely whispered, but widely held, belief that Bridget had gone with no mortal man; rather, she had gone off with the fairies. The mystery deepened when seven days later her body was discovered, bent, broken and badly burned in a shallow grave. Within a few days, the unimaginable truth came to light: for almost a week before her death Bridget had been confined, ritually starved, threatened, physically and verbally abused, exorcised, and, finally, burned to death by her husband, Michael Cleary, her father, and extended family who confused bronchitis with a “fairy dart.” They had all become convinced that “their Bridgie” had been taken from them and her fairy-possessed body left behind to deceive them. In The Cooper’s Wife Is Missing, Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates make sense of this ancient, rarely publicized, ritual exorcism and explain how the incident went on to become a national and international incident. Set against a backdrop of renewed Irish nationalism, a Church crackdown on lingering pagan practices and the ongoing British humiliation of Catholic Ireland, the authors deftly map the dislocating anxieties that beset the rural peasantry in late nineteenth-century Ireland. Bewildered and frightened by the changes occurring all around them, pulled in all directions by their politicians, priests, landlords and English overlords, the Clearys were not alone in retreating to the relative comfort of pagan ritual. Drawing on first-hand accounts, contemporary newspaper reports, police records, trial testimony and a rich wealth of folklore, the authors weave a mesmerizing tale that touches upon magic, madness and mystery as it details, day by day, Bridget’s ordeal and the resulting investigation. This is narrative history at its evocative best. It fascinates as it illuminates.