The Philpott Case – A Lesson from History

I’m idly flicking through a copy of The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke. It tells the tale of what’s sometimes referred to as “the last witch-burning in Ireland”.

In 1895 Bridget Cleary, a 25 year old woman from County Tipperary, Ireland, was burned alive by her husband. It was a bizarre and grotesque tragedy in which her assailant used an unusual defence. He claimed that his wife had been abducted by the fairies, and he had only killed her changeling rather than Cleary herself.

The case provoked huge media interest, and that interest turned into politicised comment. To give a flavour of how this was reported in some quarters, here’s a quote from the Clonmel Nationalist around the time of the trial.

We found yesterday that the dreadful occurrence has been utilized editorially by the Tory-Unionist Dublin Evening Mail for purposes of political capital and as a suitable occasion to pour forth slander, odium and abuse on Irish people generally; to stir up racial and religious passion and prejudice, and if possible to damage the cause of Home Rule.

As you might gather, right-wing newspaper barons used this unusual and shocking event to slander an entire people, dismiss them all as unreasoning savages, and to advance a political agenda against them.

Thank goodness we live in 2013, not 1895. This is a much more responsible media era.

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