This appeared in the North Clare Local in June. Part I can be found here.
Last we saw of Michael Cleary, he was dragging his wife Bridget’s body to a remote spot in Co Tipperary in the dead of the night. But this was no ordinary murder. Bridget Cleary had been burnt, possibly alive, because it was thought she was a fairy changeling.
Over the next week, it became known in the townland of Ballyvadlea and beyond that the real Bridget Cleary was away with the fairies. Sooner or later she would come riding out of the fairy fort at Kylenagranagh on a white horse. Michael kept vigil at the fort for three days, sometimes joined by Bridget’s relatives. In the meantime, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were making their own, more mundane, investigations.
The police discovered Bridget’s body on March 22 and charged nine people in connection with her disappearance and death.
The trial began on April 1 and hearings ran for six days. Denis Ganey, the fairy doctor, was released without charge, his advice on cures dismissed as causing no harm to Bridget. As Angela Bourke says in her book The Burning of Bridget Cleary, “the court had found the fairy-doctor and his traditional healing neither culpable nor sinister, merely irrelevant.”
The jury found Michael Cleary guilty of manslaughter that July, and he served 15 years in Maryborough (now Portlaoise) Prison. Patrick Kennedy, and Bridget’s relative, Jack Dunne, were also found guilty and were sent to prison.
It was the era of seemingly interminable debates about the validity of Irish Home Rule. It is unlikely that the Bridget Cleary case had any real political influence, however it was eagerly seized on by Unionist newspapers in Ireland and Britain. It was proof of a superstitious Catholic population, no better than pagans or the ‘Hottentots’, a South African tribe correctly known as the Khoikhoi. Such people could not be relied onto rule themselves.
But the case was far from that simple. As stated last month, Bridget and Michael were well educated and prosperous. While Bridget’s father, Patrick Boland, was an elderly man and illiterate, and Bridget’s cousins had had varying fortunes, it could be supposed that Michael Cleary was above falling victim to superstition.
Maybe then, he had used the cover of fairy belief to murder his wife. It’s said that Bridget was proud, glamorous (not for her the shawls of other wives, instead she designed her own hats) and not afraid to speak her mind. These were deadly traits for an Irishwoman of her era, and gossip surrounded the couple. Last month, we saw how Bridget’s family suspected that Michael was having affairs in Clonmel. There were also rumours about Bridget’s own faithlessness. Some said she was having an affair with a mystery man she sold eggs to; others named William Simpson, a young emergency-man (an enforcer for evictions, an incredibly unpopular job). Simpson himself proved to be an invaluable resource to both the RIC and the media throughout the case.
That the Clearys talked to Simpson and his family was unusual enough and would indicate a certain respect for authority and even British rule. In the era of boycotts, Simpson would have been up against a stone wall in the locality. Indeed, Bridget’s funeral was boycotted, and “not one civilian attended the burial, and the rites of sepulture were performed by four police-constables,” according to The Times. Given the importance of death in Irish culture, this was the greatest insult of all.
Even more telling were the couple’s childlessness. Despite being married for almost eight years, Bridget had never had a child. In a pre-contraception era, this would mean that the Cleary’s physical relationship was non-existent or that either Michael or Bridget was infertile. Either state of affairs could have led to rancour and resentment which may have exploded within Michael on the night of March 15.
Pre-meditated murder is a possibility. However, Michael could have easily let the illness take its course; it certainly would have been easier than burning her. There is also the matter of him keeping vigil at Kylenagranagh. It seems he believed that Bridget would really come back.
Michael was not neglectful. He visited the doctor several times, walking to Clonmel to do so, and consulted the priest and Denis Ganey. These were not actions of man who wanted his wife to die. Likewise, his behaviour in prison was impeccable, only receiving one minor reprimand during his sentence. Following release, he emigrated; first to Liverpool, and then to Montreal; nothing is known of his later years, and he did not come to further official attention.
Angela Bourke paints a picture of a man under stress, barely sleeping, goaded by his in-laws, who snapped under extreme pressure, killing his wife under what we would term today diminished responsibility. Almost 120 years on, we will never know the exact truth.