Circulating Flames: Sati, Bridget Cleary and the Fiery “Native Woman”


The practice of sati and its attendant social and political discourse has been much debated and has placed the body of the sacrificed widow at the center of many fields. However, the “burning native woman” did not only offer herself as a convenient confirmation of the good intentions of the British colonial government only in India but also proffered herself in the late 19th century in another British colony, Ireland. On March 15, 1895, Bridget Cleary was burned to death in her own home in County Tipperary, Ireland by her husband as a group of friends and relatives looked on. Her death was the climax of a grueling nine-day “fairy trial.” These events proved significant far beyond Ireland as the brutal nature of Bridget’s death prompted wide criticism that Ireland was too “primitive” to be trusted with its own governance due to the “backwards” beliefs of its people. Bridget’s death became an event through which to talk about the future of Ireland’s desired freedom, its women, and relationship to “modernity.” “Mother Ireland” in the guise of Bridget Cleary became a subject to talk through in a manner similar to the women obscured through the sati debates as understood by Lata Mani and others. By bringing the remembrance(s) of Bridget Cleary’s death and sati into conversation, I interrogate how the (fiery) bodies of women are called into service as “neither the subjects nor the primary concerns” of the symbolic discourses of British colonial rule. Thus, their bodies operate at the level of spectacular presentation and fetish. Even today, the deaths of these women continue to be obsessively staged as a site of horror linked closely to pleasure through popular accounts, books, theatre, songs, and folklore. Do these recirculations continue to make questionable use of these stories or afford them a new chance for representation? In addition, by bringing Indian and Irish colonialisms into conversation with one another, how does an address of these linked uses of suffering women as the fodder for debates about colonialism enable a local well as global history of British imperialism to emerge

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This paper was published in eScholarship - University of California.

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