Are you a witch?
Are you a fairy?
Are you the wife
Of Michael Cleary?
— Children’s rhyme from Southern Tipperary, Ireland
Everyone enjoys a good fairy-tale. Being Irish, I grew up with them and often heard tales of fairy forts and changelings and the consequences of interfering with either. Many cultures around the world believe in fairy abductions when a human child is replaced by a fairy. The theme of the swapped child is common in medieval literature and was often a way for people to explain children thought to be afflicted with unexplained diseases, disorders, or developmental disabilities. But changelings were not necessarily only children. There is a rather grisly tale which took place in Ireland in 1895.
It is the tragic story of Bridget Cleary
Bridget was born around 1870 in County Tipperary, Ireland. She married Michael Cleary, almost ten years her senior, but after the wedding she returned to her parents’ house, while Michael continued to work away from home as a cooper. Bridget’s independence grew. She was attractive, and forthright, with a reputation for a quick wit, and a direct gaze – none of which were common characteristics of young Irish Catholic women. Bridget was an accomplished seamstress and in addition to her income from sewing, she kept hens and sold their eggs. Following the death of her mother, the couple set up home with Bridget’s elderly father, Patrick Boland, in a house reputedly built on the site of a fairy ring fort.
By 1895 the couple had been married about eight years but had no children. Bridget continued her egg selling but often had to walk miles to deliver her eggs. It would appear that after a particularly bad rain soaking, she took ill. Over the course of a few days this seemed to develop into pneumonia or she may already have had tuberculosis. More than a week into her illness, on 13 March 1895, Dr. Crean, the local doctor, visited her at her home. He found her suffering from nervous excitement and a slight bronchitis. She was in bed, but the doctor “could see nothing in the case likely to cause death.” Dr. Crean then gave her some medicine. Father Ryan, who visited Mrs. Cleary on the same Wednesday afternoon, said that her conversation was quite coherent and intelligible. (Above image is Lily Fairy, by Falero Luis Ricardo, 1888)
Soon Michael Cleary and Bridget’s uncle, Jack Dunne, a seanchai well versed in herb lore, began to circulate the story that Bridget had been taken by the fairies, and the woman in the bed was a changeling. Michael even claimed she was taller and finer than his wife! The next day, Thursday March 14, he went to a herbalist and bought herbs as a “fairy cure.” A traditional remedy for someone “taken” by fairies, was to boil specific herbs in milk. Michael dosed Bridget repeatedly that evening, but only by having his wife physically restrained by family members. Witnesses said she was also held over the fire and questioned rigorously as to whether she was really Bridget Cleary.
On the morning of Friday March 15th, Michael fetched the priest, who performed mass in Bridget’s bedroom, where Bridget was lying in bed. Michael told the priest that he had not been giving his wife the medicine prescribed by the doctor, because he had no faith in it. That night, according to Bridget’s cousin, and other family members who were present, she was dressed and brought to the kitchen, where an argument about fairies ensued. Again Michael repeatedly questioned Bridget. “Are you Bridget Cleary, my wife, in the name of God?”
Eventually she refused to answer any more questions and in a rage Michael flung her to the floor, and half strangling her, forced some bread and jam down her throat. He then stripped her down to her chemise, fetched a lighting stick out of the fire and held it to her forehead (a gesture meant to chase out the fairy). Her chemise caught fire and whether this was deliberate or not is unknown, but then he drenched Bridget in paraffin oil from a lamp, until she was consumed with flames. He stood over her and stopped the other members of the family from helping her.
One witness testified that when he cried out to Michael Cleary “For the love of God, don’t burn your wife!”
Cleary replied: “She’s not my wife. . . . She’s an old deceiver sent in place of my wife. She’s after deceiving me for the last seven or eight days, and deceived the priest today too, but she won’t deceive anyone any more. As I beginned it with her, I will finish it with her! . . . You’ll soon see her go up the chimney!”
In the early hours of the following morning, Michael asked a relative to help bury Bridget’s twisted, and partially incinerated corpse. They wrapped the body in a sack and carried it to a boggy area about a quarter of a mile away. Michael threatened all of the witnesses but by the 16th March, rumours were beginning to circulate that Bridget was missing. Some time afterwards, it was reported to the local priest that Bridget had been burned to death by her husband and other family members. The priest went to the police. On the 22nd of March, after a week of speculation, newspaper reports, and intensive searching, the Royal Irish Constables discovered the body in its shallow grave. A coroner’s inquest the next day returned a verdict of death by burning. In the intervening time, Michael Cleary, in the company of his father-in-law and neighbours, spent three nights at the fairy fort at Kylenagranagh, convinced that he would see his wife emerge on a white horse, at which point he would cut her free, and rescue her from the fairies.
The police arrested nine people, including Michael and Bridget’s family members, neighbours and friends, in connection with the murder. All nine were indicted on charges of “wounding”. Michael Cleary served 15 years for manslaughter after which he emigrated to Canada. It is debatable whether Michael actually believed her to be a fairy – many believe he concocted a “fairy defence” after he murdered his wife in a fit of rage, and he maintained until his death that he did not murder his wife.
Her death and the publicity surrounding the trial were regarded as being politically significant at a time because Irish Home Rule was an active political issue in England. Press coverage of the Cleary case occurred in an atmosphere of debate over the Irish people’s ability to govern themselves and worries were expressed about the credulity and superstition of rural nationalist Catholics as a result.
Unsurprisingly, Bridget’s murder has been the inspiration for many books, myths and plays.
- Angela Bourke’s “The Burning of Bridget Cleary” and
- “The Cooper’s Wife is Missing” by John Hoff and Marian Yeates