The ‘savage’ Irish peasant unfit for Home Rule

Week IV

A comment on the Irish people: A page from United Ireland, April 13 1895, showing the coverage of the Cleary case, and of Oscar Wilde’s arrest.

A comment on the Irish people: A page from United Ireland, April 13 1895, showing the coverage of the Cleary case, and of Oscar Wilde’s arrest.

During the 1880s and ‘90s a series of Land Acts gradually diffused the sometimes bitter animosity that had grown between landlord and tenant. Over the years new and imaginative legislation dramatically improved the status of the tenant. Improvements for the tenant, however, were gained at the disadvantage of the landlord class. In many cases the Unionist landlord vigorously resisted change. During this bitter time landlords and their agents were murdered, animals were maimed and let loose to wander; there was ‘boycotting’, and heartless evictions. Practically every town and village had its RIC station. These were the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle. Any suspect person, or any unusual activity, was reported. On April 6 1895 RIC district inspector in Kilkenny, Pierris B Pattison, sent a report to Dublin Castle, with photographs, on a case ‘that is remarkable’ and which has caused ‘much public interest and local excitement.’

‘A man named Michael Cleary in a state of almost incredible grievance, superstition and savagery, with circumstances of great cruelty burnt his wife to death on a kitchen grate under the belief that he was exorcising an evil spirit. In this extraordinary proceeding he was - more extraordinarily - assisted by several others including the murdered woman’s father.

I fear the incident is indicative of a vast amount of ignorance and superstition existent still among some of the Irish peasantry. It is satisfactory to know that the perpetrators of this outrage are in the hands of the law.’

Following the gradual success of the Land Acts, the call for Home Rule for Ireland began to dominate British politics which continued into the 20th century*. The Bridget Cleary story, which was widely reported in the British and American press, was seized upon by the Unionist owned newspapers as an illustration of a people unfit for self government. Here are some typical examples: The Daily Express demands from the Irish nationalist MP William Smith O’Brien ‘whether he would still after the revelations made by the Tipperary Horror, be inclined to give over Ireland and all her civilisation and all her hopes for the future to a peasant-elected Irish Parliament?’

The bluntly anti Catholic Scotsman proclaimed that ‘the strange and shocking story...reads like a tale of the dark ages of some savage tribe in Africa...As the Irish peasants who are said to have tortured Bridget Cleary to death are no doubt devote Catholics, it may be made a reproach to their religion and their priests that they should be living in such a state of superstition.’

On Sunday March 31 1895, the London correspondent of the New York Times informed his readers that ‘ As might be expected, the barbarous episode near Fethard, in Tipperary, of a woman being tortured to death by her husband and her male relatives in the process of expelling a witch that had taken possession of her body, is being gravely cited by the anti-Irish papers here as evidence of the mental degradation and savagery of the Irish peasant population.’

The Wilde trial

Further injury was heaped upon the Irish character during the trial of Oscar Wilde, which followed less than a month after the Bridget Cleary sensation. Wilde had ill-advisably sued Queensbury, an eccentric and violent aristocrat, for libel. It was Wilde’s misfortune that the barrister for Queensbury was Edward Carson, one of the most successful lawyers of his generation. Carson was also an extremely articulate Unionist MP, one of the founders of the Ulster Unionist Party. He bitterly defended Irish landlordism, and practically declared war on Dublin for persuing its Home Rule policy.**

Wilde’s dignified defence crumbled under the onslaught of Carson’s righteousness. Immediately following the collapse of the libel trial, Wilde was arrested He was charged with indecent sexual behaviour with men and boys; and after an eagerly followed trial he was found guilty and imprisoned. The two stories, Wilde and Cleary, were often presented side by side. Professor Bourke says that it is well known that Wilde’s downfall was seized on as propaganda by those opposed to Home Rule. Like Charles Stewart Parnell before him, Wilde was an upper-class Victorian Irishman, publicly accused of sexual irregularity. ‘If such potential leaders among the Irish could not be relied upon to set an example,’ the argument ran, ‘ what hope could there be of morality, and ‘intelligence’ among the rank and file of the electorate?’

Buried at night

The funeral of Bridget Cleary was a sad event. On Thursday March 28 1895 The Times reported that Bridget was buried at Cloneen, but the funeral was boycotted by all her relations and neighbours. ‘Not one civilian attended the burial, and the rites of sepulture were performed by four police-constables. There was no hearse, and the coffin was borne by a common car from Fethard. The significance of this will be understood when it is remembered that the Irish peasantry regard a funeral not only as an expression of respect for the deceased and of sympathy with the family, but as invested with a certain degree of sanctity.

The Tyrone Constitution adds a few more details: ‘It is a remarkable that after the inquest none of the neighbours of the deceased offered to undertake the interment of the remains. The relieving officer of the (Poor Law ) Union supplied a rude coffin, and three young fellows, assisted by two policemen, removed the body at night and conveyed it to the Roman Catholic burial place at Cloneen, where they arrived at ten o’clock. One of the lads, with the light afforded by a small lamp, read a portion of the burial service, and the remains of the “martyred woman” were placed in a grave beside that occupied by her mother.’

Next Week: The trial, and the influence of fairies on our world (I promise to end it next week ). .


* I am taking this from a talk given by Professor Angela Bourke of University College Dublin, at the recent Autumn Gathering at Coole Park; and from her book The Burning of Bridget Cleary, published by Viking Press in 2000.

** Despite his association with the Northern Unionists, Carson was born in Dublin in 1854. He came, however, from Scottish stock. His father, Edward, was an architect and civil engineer. His mother was Isabella Lambert, of Castle Ellen, Athenry, Co Galway. Carson was a fellow student of Wilde at Trinity. When Wilde heard that he was employed by Queensbury, he commented: ‘ No doubt he will perform his task with all the added bitterness of an old friend.’ Wilde, as we know, lost; but worse was to come. On foot of the evidence elicited by Carson during the libel case, Wilde was arrested, tried for indecency, convicted and sentenced to two years hard labour in prison. Wilde died, a broken man, in Paris in 1900.


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