This appeared in North Clare Local in May.
While of course 1895 is out of living memory for even the most senior of us, in some ways it really wasn’t that long ago. It was an era where mass communication, aided by the telegraph and photography, was beginning to come into its own. The car, although a pipe dream for virtually everybody, had been invented. So had radio, although it would be some decades before it became accessible. Cinema was in its infancy. In short, it was a modern era, and not one of witch-burnings.
Yet a witch-burning supposedly occurred in Co Tipperary that March. This was largely a media label. As I have pointed out in a previous column, belief in witches was never particularly strong in the Gaelic tradition. The name stuck though, and Bridget Cleary is sometimes called the ‘last witch burnt in Ireland’.
Last month, we saw that changelings- fairy substitutes for humans- were generally thought to be associated with babies and children. Children with developmental disorders were at high risk of being labelled as changelings. Bridget Cleary, however, was a completely normal 25-year-old woman.
Bridget Boland was born in 1870 (or thereabouts) to a poor labouring couple. She was bright and ambitious. During her education, she discovered a talent for sewing, and she became a dressmaker. While working in Clonmel, she met Michael Cleary, a cooper. Michael and Bridget married. During the early days of their marriage, they lived apart while Michael continued his trade in the town. Soon, however, they moved back to Bridget’s home townland of Ballyvadlea. They resided in a labourer’s cottage that was very comfortable by the standards of the time.
Bridget kept hens and the money she received from selling eggs, along with her dressmaking, made her financially independent. Angela Bourke, in her excellent book on the case, The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story, states that such female financial independence was often resented by husbands, especially when the income could outstrip a man’s weekly wage for labouring.
But Michael Cleary was not a poor labourer, and the couple were doing well. There had been rumours, fanned eagerly by some of Bridget’s cousins, that Michael had been unfaithful while working in Clonmel. From that, we can deduce that things were not always ideal between the young cooper and his in-laws.
Early March 1895 was blustery and cold, living up to the old adage about March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb. Bridget had gone to her father’s cousin, Jack Dunne, to deliver some eggs, passing the fairy fort at Kylenagranagh on the way. She caught a bad chill and ended up with a fever, possibly a heavy flu or pneumonia.
It was serious enough to warrant a call from both the priest and the doctor, but Jack Dunne and the rest of Bridget’s extended family reckoned something else was afoot, and that Bridget had been replaced by a fairy changeling. Herb cures were obtained from a man called Denis Ganey, and other rituals were undertaken, including dousing her with urine. Finally, on March 15, after a mass was performed in the house, things came to a head. Bridget became ‘wild’ again and refused to finish her meal, although she was physically better. Michael reportedly held her down, forced her to eat, and then brought a poker and burned her with it. In a rage, he decided to ‘get the fairy’ out of her for once and for all. Bridget’s cousin, Johanna Burke, who turned Crown witness to avoid prosecution for her part in the murder, said she saw Bridget bang her head off the floor, while her chemise began to singe. Whether this was enough to kill Bridget Cleary, we will never know. Mary Kennedy, Bridget’s aunt, said she heard Michael declare, “I believe she is dead.” He then seized paraffin oil, threw it on his wife’s prone body, and set her ablaze.
It must have been an agonising and terrifying death. Perhaps worst of all, Bridget had pleaded futilely that she was not a changeling constantly during her last days, but the pleas fell on deaf ears. The people who were supposed to love her most, her family and husband, ended her life cruelly and without mercy.
How could such a thing have happened? Did the culprits really believe they were ridding themselves of a supernatural impostor? Or was it all a convenient front for a murder motivated by decidedly mundane reasons? Next month I will cover the aftermath of the murder, and the trial.
But in the dead of the night of March 15, Michael and Bridget’s cousin, Patrick Kennedy, dragged her burnt corpse and buried it in a shallow grave nearby. It became known that Bridget Cleary was away with the fairies.
The cover-up had begun.