Angela Bourke and Irish Oral Tradition

It is a rather specific matter when one has to write about the peculiarities of the culture of a certain nation because not always people are acquainted with the national customs and traditions. It becomes even more complicated when the cultural peculiarities are to be studied with the help of a literary work where they are encoded and only very few people who can think analytically are able to decode them.

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In this essay, the author is going to interpret the world view of the people representing the Irish Oral Traditions with the help of the work by a famous Irish writer Angela Bourke “The Burning of Bridget Cleary”. This literary masterpiece is dedicated to a tragic side of the culture under consideration, and the author of the essay is going to look for the reasons for people of this culture to act as they did.

Needless to say, that every culture has its own peculiarities. People from all over the world should treat every other culture with respect, as far as every nation has a right for self-identity and expressing of its own ideals and values. But sometimes it happens so, that being strongly dedicated to the culture and its beliefs leads to uncontrollable consequences that are hardly or impossible to correct. The Irish Oral Tradition is a tradition of transferring the legends, sayings, fairytales, sayings, etc. only with the help of oral language without writing them down.

It goes without saying that the people of this tradition are characterized with a low level of intellectual development and lack of knowledge about the objective reality, as far as they can not write and read (Bourke, p. 555 ). So, the Oral Tradition becomes the only source of education for them, and sometimes it brings tragedy. The story under consideration depicts the event that happened in a small settlement called Ballyvadlea which is situated in Ireland in the end of the 19th century.

People there lived according to the medieval beliefs and customs, so although the event that happened was tragic there was nothing surprising if the context is taking into account. The family and her own husband, led by beliefs in witches and fairies, killed a woman who just could not recover from a simple cold (Burke, p. 553). This woman’s name was Bridget Cleary, and the whole topic of the essay is connected with her fate.

The author of the book under consideration depicts the settlement where all the events took place as a town where only ordinary workers lived who could scarcely read and write, and consequently were the people of the Irish Oral Tradition. As far as their beliefs were rather primitive it was not surprising for them to trust that the actual Bridget was taken by fairies and the person that was suffering from cold was the changeling the fairies usually leave instead of the person they steal.

So, when Jack Dunne, Bridget’s father’s cousin got a suspicion that fairies took Bridget, her husband had no other idea occurring to his mind than to believe it and to try to return the real Bridget to life: “It is not your wife is there. You will have enough to do to bring her back” (Bourke, 82) According to the Irish fairy folklore, it could have been done by severe tortures of the changeling, so the men including Bridget’s own father started torturing the poor girl with the hot iron poker and certain herbs.

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This can characterize the people from Ballyvadlea as prejudiced and not educated, while they were torturing Bridget with the medieval cruelty as if they were convinced in what they did and did not even imagine that they might be killing an innocent girl: “Again and, as though they doubted her identity, they demanded, in the name of God, that she say whether or not she was indeed Bridget Cleary, daughter of Paul Boland and wife of Michael Cleary.” (Bourke, p. 4)

Michael Cleary, Bridget’s husband was also absolutely convinced that his wife was taken by fairies and did not doubt to torture her. Nowadays, of course, such a cruelty can not be accepted but in the Irish labor settlements that lived according to the Oral Traditions it was a usual thing. If one asks a question, why was it so, he or she needs to address the Irish folklore and the fear that people had for fairies and witches. Of course, this can not affirm the bloody killing of a woman but for the Irish reality of those times it was not something unusual in using hot iron to kill a witch: “Bridget had been forced to swallow two earlier doses, encouraged to do so by being threatened with a hot poker, a poker which left a small burn mark on her forehead” (Bourke, 91).

Finally, Michael who still believed in Bridget’s being a witch, fired her clothes and drenched them with oil from a lamp so that the woman died in fire. James Kennedy, his friend who was present at this, cried for him to stop but nothing could help: “As I beginned it with her, I will finish it with her!… You’ll soon see her go up the chimney!” (Bourke, p. 124). The next day Bridget’s body was buried, and only the police found it and convicted Michael Cleary. He spent 15 years in prison and till the end of his life was convinced that he killed a witch but not his wife (Bourke, p. 126).

As a conclusion, I have managed to study the beliefs of people belonging to the Oral Traditions and tried to motivate, at least to some extent, the actions of illiterate people. To express my personal opinion, I have never read anything more cruel and terrible, and the impression made by the true story by Angela Bourke proves the fact that the work is a real masterpiece of the world literature which teaches people that real life and folklore beliefs together with old customs have nothing in common.

Works Cited

Bourke, A. 2006. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. Pimlico.

Bourke, A. (1995). Reading a Woman’s Death: Colonial Text and Oral Tradition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Feminist Studies, 21(3), 553-586.

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