Joan Huff and Marian Yeates, The Cooper's Wife is Missing (Basic Books, 2000)

The term 'Witch Burning', generally speaking, is one that recalls a method of torture used to rid the local area of a person with an evil spirit, or one who is guided by bad influences and has been labelled a witch in return. This term has been used in a variety of idioms and circumstances both factual and personal.

In this case, the so-called witch-burning incident is a true life happening in Ireland in the 1800s. Bridget Cleary from County Tipperary was the last woman to be burned as a witch in Ireland. That was my usual take on the subject matter of The Cooper's Wife is Missing until it was pointed out to me that Ms. Cleary wasn't in fact a witch at all, but a fairy changeling. That, however, did not prevent her for meeting her eventual fate in the usual gory manner.

Information on Bridget Cleary in Ireland is quite scattershot, in so far as facts are few and far between apart from her own local area, and she has not achieved the notoriety of being raised as a fireside subject matter for conversation. In fact, prior to this book being published, the only mention of Bridget Cleary that I came across was on an album released in 1982 called Tryal by The Host — a post-Horslips project from three of its best known members: Charles O Connor, Eamon Carr and Johnny Fean.

To get a chance to unravel the Bridget Cleary mystery even further offers a welcome opportunity to set some records straight and unveil the true facts behind her case. Ms. Cleary's death and the manner in which it was administered were both a pagan ritual and an exorcism of evil spirits. Due to the use of the ancient fairy trial to rid the fairy changeling of her so-called evil ways, Bridget Cleary's ultimate demise led her into local legend. This is a place she inhabits with other extremely localised heroines like Biddy Early in East Clare, whose healing powers were distributed from a potion brewed in her so-called 'magic bottle'. Again, as in Bridget Cleary's case, the influence of the fairy world was often alluded to in Biddy's magic powers and their success.

Writing-wise, Joan Huff and Marian Yeates use factual evidence to reenact Ms. Cleary's trial and torturous death. Having a strong factual grounding, they then re-create the events of time in a vivid and gripping manner. Pleasantly eschewing the overdramatic and any tendency to overkill, The Cooper's Wife is Missing spins an entertaining yet factually correct narrative. In short, by using this approach the authors make the story come alive again. For other authors wishing to revive ancient and forgotten stories from Ireland's past and turn them into interesting narrative works, The Cooper's Wife is Missing ought to be read as a template; such is its command of the historical narrative genre. The Cooper's Wife is Missing is not just a good read in terms of entertainment value. It is an important contribution to unveiling some hidden truths of the past. This is something we in modern 21st century Ireland are too often inclined to forget; or we have tended to rely upon half-baked remembrances from selective folk memory for our source information.

[John O'Regan]

GMR has also reviewed The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke.