Bridget and Michael Cleary

Bridget Cleary, Sex, Death, Fairies and Other

This is the third in a series of posts about fairies as other. I promised, in my first post, to concentrate on fairies as other, particularly in the context of sex and death, because, as MacAllister Stone notes “other is all about sex and death.” Last time I looked at the tragic death of Bridget Cleary, burned because her husband Michael thought Bridget was the victim of a fairy abduction. This time I want to look at the story of Bridget Cleary in the context of sex and death.

Bridget and Michael Cleary
In Bridget Cleary we have a woman who is seen as other, an outsider in her community because of her differences, differences which are particularly marked for a woman in nineteenth century Ireland where an assertive, opinionated and financially independent woman without children is very much seen as an anomaly. In the March 29, 1895 >Cork Examiner special report on her death, the reporter, having interviewed locals, describes Bridget as
“a bit queer” in her ways, and this they attribute to a certain superiority over the people with whom she came into contact . . . Her attire . . . is not that of every woman in the same social plane (Bourke 2000, 43).

Bridget was perceived as an outsider, “a bit queer,” even by another outsider.

The attention paid to Bridget Cleary’s clothing and body in the descriptions of her “cure,” in the careful details about the extent of her clothing in the court testimony (presumably, as Bourke suggests, to remove any thought of sexual impropriety) underscore the sexual subtext of the situations. Bourke observes that despite the “prudery” in the eye witness accounts

the violence meted out to Bridget Cleary before her death has an unmistakeably sexual character. On Thursday, when he used a metal spoon, and again, on Friday, when his weapon was a burning stump of wood, Michael Cleary’s actions amounted to a kind of oral rape. On both occasions Bridget Cleary was pinned down and prevented from struggling free, while a substance was forced into her body. . . . [the inquest revealed signs of injury to her mouth and throat] The violence used in holding Bridget down was certainly not sufficient to kill her, but its scale and ferocity would have been enough to terrify her, and to show her and anyone watching just who was master (Bourke 2000, 120).

Michael Cleary may very well have felt he needed to assert himself, not only against the uncanny malice of fairies, but as a man with an assertive, financially independent wife, a wife who may well have had a lover. Most of all, he may have felt it was imperative to assert himself given community pressure regarding his relationship with a wife who had not born him any children, which would have been very much seen as a failing by the community. One reason Bridget was taken by the fairies might have been her childless state; the unvoiced assumption being that since she had no children, that there was some sort of sexual failure, a situation that wasn’t helped in the least by the fact that Michael was nine years older than Bridget and that they spent most of the first few years of their marriage apart except on weekends (Burke 2000, 96).

The standard academic way to refer to fairies taking mortal women is to call it fairy abduction, or, more commonly, fairy rape, particularly in medieval texts. Corinne Saunders, writing about Middle English romances that involve fairy abductions and rapes points out that “What is most striking in all these works is the association of the otherwold with sexual violence or desire for possession of the woman’s body” (Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. 233).

Both Bridget Cleary and Heurodis are perceived as victims of a fairy rape.The fairy king threatens to tear Heurodis limb from limb if she doesn’t come willingly, and tells her that she’ll be taken to the otherworld even if they take her in pieces. Bridget is mistreated physically, dosed with “cures,” verbally abused, then doused with human urine before being burned. The overt physicality of the way Bridget Cleary was treated, the man-handling of her, is an inversion of the customary fairy threat to a mortal victim; with Bridget Cleary, we see mortals abusing what they think is a fairy changeling, though she is a mortal woman—her sex is a huge part of the reason she is treated his way.

Women who are assertive, and independent, who dress better than their peers, women who are financially independent, women who have no children, forthputting women who approach men, fairy mistresses and otherworld women like Rhiannon, these are other. They are potentially dangerous to the community, because they disrupt the natural order, or the perceived natural order. These women who like Heurodis are in the right place and the right time, and who, like Bridget, go to the forbidden liminal areas, are just as disruptive as the ostensible external agency, the fairies, who take them. It’s bad enough to have a child or lover taken by the otherworld, but what’s worse for those left behind are the mortals who go off with their fairy wooer, quite happily, and the abducted mortal women who choose to stay in the otherworld, rather than return to their mortal husband and children.

Bridget Cleary was perceived as dangerous and engaging in risky behavior; Michael Cleary objected to her going to the rath, and did all he could to “bring her back.” Underlying his frantic, desperate efforts, almost certainly, was the fear that Bridget might not want to come back. In court testimony from Johanna Burke, Bridget is said to have told her husband, shortly before he set her on fire, “Your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them.” Michael Cleary asked Bridget, “Did my mother tell you that?” She said, “She did; that she gave two nights with them” (Folklore 1895, 375). There’s a very definite sexual connotation to “she gave two nights with them,” particularly given the numerous references to fairies taking mortal lovers in medieval literature and folklore.

Otherworld folk are not shy about making sexual conquests. Rhiannon is very much seeking Pwyll as her spouse when she comes to the gorsedd in the first branch of the Welsh Mabinogi, Pwyll Pendeuvic Dyfed. The fairy queen in Thomas of Erceldoune is more than willing to take Thomas as her lover, keeping him mute but with her in the otherworld for seven years, before returning him to the tree where she found him, saving him from becoming a human sacrifice. She leaves him with an unwelcome gift, the ability to prophesy, thus converting him from dangerous other, to magical other with a redemptive gift for the community.

In Sir Orfeo, Heurodis returns from the fairy otherworld because Orfeo rescues her, and both return to Orfeo’s kingdom. At the end we are told Orfeo leaves the kingdom to his faithful steward since Heurodis has no children and Orfeo has no heir. We rarely hear or read of otherworld folk having progeny, and when we do hear about fairy offspring, say the child of the Grey Selchie, the offspring are the result of liasons between mortals and fairies, or other otherworld residents, and the children usually come to a bad end. Pwyll’s otherworld bride Rhiannon is scorned by Pwyll’s people because she is childless. Later, when Rhiannon has a child, the child mysteriously disappears. Rhiannon is typical in being less than fecund; otherworld folk are seemingly sterile, and, perhaps consequently, obsessed with taking fertile mortal women, and young children. Just as with other Others, say Gypsies, or whatever a given community’s racial/ethnic minority is, or queers, in stories about fairies and otherworld intruders it’s a case of “They want our women, and our children, and our women want sex/more sex/better sex, and so they voluntarily go with these Others, and leave us, and sometimes, they refuse to come back.”

I think that fear—the fear that Bridget wants to be with the fairies, with the other, is what’s underlying the Bridget Cleary horror. It’s interesting to note, as Bourke does, that in the spring of 1895 that the Irish papers, and some of the English papers too, were carrying stories about the “witch burning” in Clonmel, Oscar Wilde was on trial for sodomy. It’s also the date of the first attested use of “fairy” to mean queer. Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang cite the following reference from theAmerican Journall of Psychology as the first use of fairy to mean queer, or as the OED has it ” A male homosexual”:

“The Fairies of New York” are said to be a similar secret organization. The avocations which inverts follow are frequently feminine in their nature. They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian, requiring the dressing in female attaire, and the singing in imitation of the female voice, in which they often excel” American Journal of Psychology VIII (1895): 216.

I’ve been looking at the connection between fairy and queer for a long time, and I think there are a couple of reasons for fairy being used to mean queer. First, I think it works because there’s an association between fairies and an absence of progeny despite their overt eroticism, and the assumption, for many, that being queer has to do only with sex, that it’s all about sex, and that it’s sex without fear of progeny, just like real fairies.

Next time, I’m going to look again at medieval fairies as ways of dealing with other, and sex, and death.

Here are some references to match my citations.

  • “The ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel.” Folklore. Vol. 6, No. 4. (Dec., 1895): 373-384. JStor link.. This is an anonymous article that reprints the newspaper coverage of the court testimony.
  • Thomas of Erceldoune. Scroll down to the Appendix for the text as printed by Francis Child, as part of the versions of Child Ballad 57 “Thomsas the Rhymer.” You can find Murray’s 1875 edition of the romance here.
  • Ford, Patrick K. trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
  • Bourke. Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. This really is the best study; there’s another slightly more recent book that’s vastly inferior.
  • Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001.
  • Sir Orfeo with text and ms. page images from the Auchinleck ms.
  • Anne Leskaya and Eve Sedgewick’s annotated Middle English edition of Sir Orfeo.
  • A .pdf of a lightly modernized Sir Orfeo from the Norton Anthology of English Literature

3 thoughts on “Bridget Cleary, Sex, Death, Fairies and Other”

  1. Lisa:

    As a non-scholar I find a couple of aspects of this Fairy/Queer/Other quite interesting. Michael Cleary’s case is fascinating as a concrete way of grounding whatever conjectures we make from literary sources like Sir Gawain in actual, observed events. I realize there are a couple of centuries interval between them, but Ireland’s said to have been a bit behind the times. After reading your posts, I’ve got a question or two, if you have the time. I wonder if the neighbors assumed Bridget Cleary was sexually unsatisfied by her husband, thus withholding conception of a child in retaliation. Did people regard barrenness as somehow a spiteful choice by the woman not to conceive, or was it evidence of the husband’s unmanliness, the woman being only as passive vessel for the man’s seed? Might he think she joined the fairies to get what he couldn’t give her, like lots of hot and satisfying sex, or was it a true abduction in which she went unwillingly?

  2. I’ve been only recently — in the last couple days — following this series of articles, both on this and Mac’s blog. They’re bringing me to an understanding of my own otherness that I think has caused me to be pretty much ostracized from society in real life.

    In the last high school I went to, I really felt the worst of the stigma attached with being ‘Other’. Without trying to drum up sympathy, because I’m starting to take some pride in what I am for the first time in several years, the people in my last high school believed I was gay because of numerous reasons, not the least of which was that I was not normal and yet I was highly intelligent. In my teenage years, I was not terribly ugly, but I was not exactly an attractive person, either. Looking back on the way I was treated in that particular high school, I realize that the reason I was given such poor treatment, was that I was severely different from them.

    I’d like to be able to celebrate my otherness, because this, I believe, is how God made me. He didn’t intend for me to be something else, or He would have made me normal.

    I’ve also come to learn that much of my writing is about diversity and acceptance of people who are different than the norm. I hadn’t seen this before, partially because I never really thought about it; I just wrote it. But looking back, I see a pattern of writing about those who are in ‘other’ positions as being proud of what they are, yet having to prove that they are just as worthy of living as what is considered normal in their world.

    Sorry for the long post, but I’m beginning to understand myself better, probably for the first time in many years. I would very much like to be what I was, insofar as being proud of what I am instead of ashamed of it.

    I hope you have a good day today, and I look forward to reading more of your posts. Talk to you later, and have a good weekend.

    :)

    Sean

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