After Michael Cleary murdered his wife Bridget Cleary, he wandered the Tipperary countryside in his best suit, telling everyone he met that he was going to reclaim her from the fairies. Three nights he waited for her to come out of the local fairy fort – the ring of stones that were settlements in Neolithic Ireland and have since fallen into ruin and legend. Of course she didn’t. She was buried in a shallow grave not far from their home in Ballyvadlea, Ireland. Michael Cleary’s murder of his wife, Bridget Cleary, is a bizarre and horrifying crime. But it’s also a case study of domestic violence, the urban-rural divide, and a simultaneously modern and superstitious Ireland, rife – according to the contemporary British presses, at least – with barbarians unfit for self-governance.

Transcript of A Changeling or His Wife? The Brutal Murder of Bridget Cleary in 1895 Ireland:

Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD

Produced and recorded by Averill Earls, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Ave: In March 15, 1895, a man in Tipperary, Ireland brutally murdered his wife in front of her neighbors, cousins, aunt, and father. When she refused to eat a piece of bread he was shoving into her mouth, he bodily hauled her to her feet and then slammed her to the ground. He held her down in front of the hearth, knee on her chest, and he shouted at her, holding the burning end of a stick to her mouth, trying to jam the bread down her throat. He stripped her down to her chemise and stockings. As he held her down, her shift caught fire, and he scrambled back. Up to this point, other than a few exclamations of “Michael, that’s your wife,” nobody moved to stop him. Nobody hauled him off her prone body, nobody intervened to stop this horrific treatment of a woman–their daughter, niece, cousin–by her husband. At the last he grabbed the lamp off a nearby table and poured the paraffin oil on her body. According to the witnesses – those friends and family members who stood by watching her murder – she was already dead as he doused her in the oil, fanning the flames and ensuring that she’d never rise again. When her body was discovered three days later, buried in a shallow grave, the Royal Irish Constabulary arrested nine people, the husband – Michael Cleary – among them. Needless to say, with six eye witnesses, Cleary was convicted. Yet at the end of a lengthy trial, full of conflicting and confusing testimony, Cleary’s charges were reduced from murder to manslaughter, and he was sentenced to just 20 years of penal servitude. The mitigating circumstances? He sufficiently convinced the jury that he believed his wife a fairy changeling, and that setting her body on fire was the only way to save her. Michael Cleary’s murder of his wife, Bridget Cleary, is a bizarre and horrifying crime. But it’s also a case study of domestic violence, the urban-rural divide, and a simultaneously modern and superstitious Ireland, rife – according to the contemporary British presses, at least – with barbarians unfit for self-governance.

a close up black and white photograph of a man looking into the camera with a second image behind it in profile

Michael Cleary’s mugshot | The National Archives of Ireland

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley Cousins

And we’re your historians for this episode of Dig.

Ave: There aren’t many murders in Irish history as famous as that of the burning of Bridget Cleary. There’s even a chilling children’s rhyme that girls jump rope to – “Are you a witch or are you a fairy? Are you the wife of Michael Cleary”?

Sarah: Twelve years into her marriage to Michael Cleary, Bridget Cleary got sick. She was a childfree, 26-year-old dressmaker with her own egg business, and February had been a particularly cold month – the coldest on record at the time in the United Kingdom, in fact. On Monday, March 4, Bridget went out to deliver her eggs to customers. It another bitterly cold day, though sunny, and it had snowed the previous day. According to witnesses, she waited two hours for her father’s cousin, Jack Dunne, but he never returned. Chilled, she went back home, and tried to warm herself by the fire. She went to bed still cold that night, and woke the next day complaining of a headache, shivering, and feverish. She stayed in bed for most of that week.

Ave: The records we have about the events of the next ten days come from court testimonies. Eleven people were arrested in connection to Bridget’s death, including her cousin, Johanna Burke. Burke turned Queen’s witness in exchange for immunity, and provided the main thread of the story as it has since been told. How much Burke played up or downplayed certain elements to protect herself, or her brothers – all three of whom had been arrested as well – we simply cannot know. Though Bridget’s older cousin, Johanna Burke lived a very different life from Bridget. She had at least four children in 1895, lived in one of the dilapidated daub and wattle homes. She had neither the economic independence nor freedom of a childless marriage that Bridget had. It is entirely conceivable that her role in Bridget’s death was very different from the master narrative she wove for the magistrate and courts. The story she told suggested that Jack Dunne – Bridget’s father’s cousin, known throughout Tipperary as an accomplished storyteller well versed in fairy lore – was the prime instigator in the fairy tales about Bridget Cleary.

Sarah: According to the court records, Patrick Boland walked the nearly nine miles from Ballyvadlea to Fethard to fetch the local doctor on Saturday, March 9. Bridget had been in bed sick since Tuesday. The doc still hadn’t shown up by Monday, March 11. Michael Cleary made the trip to Fethard this time, to summon the doctor. Still, the doctor did not show up. Michael walked again to Fethard on Wednesday, demanding that the doctor see his wife. While he was out, he stopped at Jack Dunne’s and asked him to visit Bridget. Michael also stopped to ask Bridget’s aunt, Johanna Burke’s mother, Mary Kennedy, to visit when she could. Both stopped in that day, as well as Johannah Burke. The priest also stopped in, and upon seeing Bridget’s condition, he administered the last rites – just in case. Bridget’s cousin, aunt, and father’s cousin, Jack Dunne, were all still there when the doctor finally came. He told them that she had a touch of bronchitis, and left Michael with a vial of medicine.

Ave: In his statement, Michael Cleary insisted that the doctor was drunk when he came to the house. Though none of the other witnesses could attest to that, later the doctor was dismissed from his parish position for chronic drunkenness, so it seems as likely as not. But Michael Cleary had perhaps already made up his mind about his wife, for on the second trip out to summon the doctor, he apparently stopped at a local fairy doctor and procured some “herbs” to administer to his ailing wife. None of the witnesses could say whether he ever gave Bridget any of the doctor’s medicine, but all were present when he gave her his own cure.

Sarah: According to Johanna’s testimony, Bridget was particularly agitated on Wednesday. She whispered to her cousin that she had a pain in her head, and that “Michael Cleary was making a fairy of her, and that he had tried to burn her three months ago.”[1] Johanna, her mother Mary Kennedy, and Jack Dunne stayed at the Cleary’s until late – possibly even staying the night entirely. On Thursday, March 14, Michael Cleary again ventured out into the unseasonably cold March whether to seek the advice of fairy herbalist Denis Ganey. Ganey would ultimately be arrested in connection with Bridget’s death, though he never visited the house himself. Jack Dunne reportedly insisted that Ganey be consulted – that, in fact, the advice of the parish doctor was pointless, because Bridget’s case was one of fairy mischief.

Ave: So when Michael returned, he had the instructions for turning the herbs he’d obtained into a ‘cure.’ Quite a few of Bridget’s relatives were in the house when Michael returned, as well as their neighbor, William Simpson, and his wife. Bridget’s cousins – two of Mary Kennedy’s sons Patrick and James – showed up around 9pm that night with bad news: Michael’s father had passed away, and they were planning to attend the wake. For Jack Dunne, the bad news reaffirmed the fairy’s role in Bridget’s illness – according to lore, the fairies used tragedies to distract watchful family members from noticing the wasting of their changeling loved one. Cleary said to Dunne, “I have something here that will make her all right.” And Dunne replied, “Three days ago you had a right to be beyond with Ganey, for the doctor had nothing to do with her. It is not your wife is there. You will have enough to do to bring her back. This is the eighth day.”[2]

Sarah: According to Dunne, Michael Cleary locked the door, and said “‘I think then, it is time to give her this.’ He had [the ‘cure’ – herbs boiled in new milk -] in a pint, which he held against his breast; the four of us caught her and I had her by the neck; it was very hard on her to take it; Cleary told me that after taking that she should be brought to the fire; so we brought her to the fire; we raised her over it, but did not burn her; I thought it belonged to the cure; he told me it belonged to the cure.”[3]

Ave: When Johanna Burke arrived that evening, just before 10pm, she was met on the road to the house by the Cleary’s neighbors, the Simpsons. They found the front door locked, and shouts and screams from inside. Someone yelled “Take that, you witch, or I’ll kill you.” Eventually, Michael opened the door. Patrick Boland – Bridget’s father – was in the kitchen, but everyone else was in the bedroom. Bridget was in her undergarments on the bed, and Jack Dunne was sitting beside her, holding her ears to keep her head still. Bridget’s cousins James and Patrick were holding her arms, and William Kennedy lay across her legs. Mary Kennedy, Bridget’s aunt, watched from the door of the bedroom. Bridget was struggling against the men, and against the bitter mixture that Michael was trying to spoon into her mouth.

Sarah: Over and over, Michael and Jack asked her if she was Bridget Cleary, if she was Patrick Boland’s daughter and Michael Cleary’s wife. Over and over, she said yes. Over the next few hours, the men carried her struggling and feverish body to the kitchen, and held her over the low but undeniably warm fire, before carrying her back to the bedroom and forcing more of the mixture down her throat. They shouted at her, demanding that she affirm her identity again and again. They used a hot poker, held against her face, to force her to open her mouth and swallow. They threw liquids on her – possibly water and wine, but more likely urine. Three times they poured the ‘medicine’ into her mouth and made her swallow it. Repeatedly they carried her over to the fire, holding her over it. As the Southern Star reported in 1895, “When they held her over the fire she had only her night-dress and chemise on. They repeated the questions, and she replied–’I am Bridget Boland, daughter of Pat Boland, and wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God.’”[4]

Ave: Three times appeared to be the charm. Johanna Burke testified that, while Bridget was still noticeably agitated – understandably – the men seemed calmer. The power of three satisfied them. She took three doses, and she answered their demands as they held her over the fire. Michael seemed, that evening, surrounded by her family and their neighbors, to accept that she was Bridget Cleary. They put her back in her bed, and her cousin Johanna and her aunt Mary Kennedy cleaned her up, put her in a new nightgown. She was broken, defeated, put in her place by the men in her life.[5]

The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Burke, Penguin Random House

Sarah: Once she was clothed again, the men returned to the bedroom, standing around the bed, and asked her to identify each of them. She complied. Satisfied, they all spoke consolingly to her, telling her all would be well, she was safe now. All seemed well. Bridget’s male cousins and her father left to go to Michael Cleary’s father’s wake. The Simpsons went home. Johanna Burke, her mother Mary Kennedy, and Michael stayed up late talking in the kitchen, until Michael left early the next morning to fetch the priest. He requested that the priest administer a Mass to Bridget that morning, for she’d had quite a trying night, and could use the spiritual support.

Ave: Father Ryan rode to the Cleary’s and said the Mass. After the priest left, Johanna Bourke told the courts that there was an argument about a milk delivery. Bourke provided the Clearys with their milk – including the new milk (which is the first milk after a cow gives birth) – that Michael forced down his wife’s throat the night before. As the Southern Star reported, Johanna testified that “Bridget asked her husband if I had been paid for the milk, and he said yes. I took the shilling out of my pocket, and showed it to her. She took it in her hand, and put it under the bed-clothes, and gave it back to me.”

Sarah: This was the straw, evidently, to break the camel’s back. In rural Ireland, women who rubbed a coin on their inner thigh or – more scandalously – their vulva did so to temporarily give the holder of that coin bad luck. The only witness to this action, however, was Johanna Burke – so, again, we can’t say whether it happened or not, and to that end, whether the subsequent argument and ultimate murder can be connected to that alleged curse. But that’s the way Johanna Burke told the story. As historian Angela Bourke notes in The Burning of Bridget Cleary though, even if she did rub the coin on her thigh, it needn’t have had malicious intent. “It could have been almost automatic, as when some Catholics make the sign of the cross on their bodies.” But unlike an acceptable Catholic motion, this would have been associated with the “piseogery” that Bridget’s family had shaken, scalded, and choked out of her the night before. Bridget dressed fully for the first time in over a week. She sat in the kitchen by the fire. Life seemed to have returned to normal. Friends and family circulated in and out of the house for the remainder of the day, laughing and joking and relaxing. As Angela Bourke notes, even the role of Jack Dunne, the purveyor of the fairy tales that effectively punished Bridget for being too independent, too wealthy, too childless in a world that resented women guilty of any of those crimes, was over. He’d done his job, and had gone home. It seemed, to Johanna Burke, to the Kennedy boys and their mother, to Patrick Boland, that it was over.

Ave: But, as we know, it was not. According to Johanna Burke, “her husband spoke to her about rubbing the shilling to her leg. She got angry, and said there were no “pishogues” about her. There was talk about fairies, and Bridget Cleary said to her husband, ‘Your mother used to go to the fairies, and that is the reason you think I am going to them.’ He asked her, ‘Did my mother tell you that?’ and she replied, ‘She did; she gave two nights to them.’ I made the tea, and offered Bridget Cleary a cup of it. Her husband got three bits of bread and jam, and said she should eat them before she took a sip. He asked her three times, “Are you Bridget Cleary, my wife, in the name of God?” She answered twice, and ate two pieces of the bread and jam. When she didn’t answer the third time he forced her to eat the third piece of bread, saying, ‘Eat it, or down you’ll go.’”[6]

Sarah: Down she went. Johanna Burke went on to describe the grisly scene. “He flung her on the ground, put his knee on her chest, caught her by the throat and forced the bit of bread and jam into her mouth, saying, “Swallow it; is it down?–is it down?” I called out to him, “Mike, Mike, don’t you see ‘tis Bridgie is in it,” meaning that it was Bridget Cleary his wife who was there, and not a fairy. He suspected she was a fairy and not his wife at all. He stripped his wife’s clothes off except the chemise, and got a blazing stick out of the fire. She was lying on the floor and he put the red stump across her mouth. My brothers and I said we would smash the door and go for the peelers [the police], but Cleary repeated that the door would not be opened and no one would leave the house until his wife came back. When he put the lighting stick near her mouth he called on her to answer her name three times. He said he would burn her if she didn’t answer. She answered him, but the answer didn’t satisfy him, and he got a tin of lamp oil and poured it over her . In a few minutes I saw her in a blaze. The house was filled with the fumes of the oil and burning. When I looked down in the kitchen I saw the remains of Bridget Cleary on a sheet.”[7]

Ave: Bridget Cleary wasn’t the only Irish woman to be murdered by her husband in 19th century Ireland. The Freeman’s Journal reported on a wife murder trial in Dublin not two months after Bridget Cleary’s death. 34-year-old Bridget Bolton was killed by her husband, William, in their home on 15 May, 1895. The coroner hypothesized that her neck was snapped, resulting in instantaneous death. Her body also had lacerations, one on the inside of a breast – possibly caused by a kick, but more likely by some instrument – and on her temple. As their daughter, Ellen, aged 11, testified, the two were “always quarrelling,” and “her father was in the habit of beating her [mother],” and that her mother “drank heavily occasionally,” but her father “constantly drank.” William Bolton was punished three times for ill-treating Mrs. Bolton, and he was – according to little Ellen – “in the habit of accusing [Ellen’s] mother of being dishonest.” Ellen also told the court that her father had long since stopped supporting her and her mother. Even when they were separated, Mrs. Bolton gave her husband food and supported his drunken useless ass. The previous Christmas, Ellen witnessed her father grab her mother, twisted her arm and then broke it across his knee. That was the most recent assault he’d been punished for – he got two months imprisonment, though Mrs. Bolton got a month herself, because she refused to prosecute her abuser.[8]

A black and white seal with Gaelic writing and a harp in the center

Seal of the Irish Free State | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Domestic violence was all too common in 19th century Ireland. As Diane Urquart shoes, “surveys of Irish national and regional papers in the 1870s reveal weekly cases of wife-beating in the magistrates’ courts, and criminal records from 1853 to 1920 include over 1000 appeals from Irishmen convicted of domestic violence.” Wife-beating in Ireland was widespread and brutal. Wife murder was a more likely result than women being granted a divorce. Most familiar with modern Irish history are probably aware that divorce was illegal in the 26 counties (the Irish Free State from 1922-1949, and the Republic of Ireland thereafter) until a referendum on the constitution was passed in 1995. But prior to Irish independence, it was still difficult for women to secure divorces and leave bad marriages. Though divorce was technically legal, Ireland did not benefit from the 1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Clause, which moved most United Kingdom divorce proceedings from a parliamentary appeal to the standard court system. It allowed women to sue for the divorce when there was evidence of adultery and desertion for at least two years.[9]

Ave: Certainly obtaining a divorce, even through the court system, was no walk in the park for a British woman, and divorce proceedings were often the hottest news in the gossip rags, airing the most intimate of dirty laundry of middling and upper class couples for all to read. Still, while women in the rest of the United Kingdom had at least some recourse for getting out of bad marriages, the new law was not applied to overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland. While the Catholic hierarchy did not officially oppose the new legislation, British lawmakers apparently deemed the potential opposition from the emancipated Catholics too high to try and apply the law to Ireland.  Thus at the end of the 19th century, divorce requests continued to be submitted to the Irish parliament for consideration.

Sarah:  Parliamentary granted divorces usually required three separate steps: usually involved three separate legal suits: divorce a mensa et thoro to allow separation so that the parties could live apart but could not remarry; a civil action brought by a husband to claim damages from his wife’s lover in the common law courts, popularly known as crim. con., — essentially adultery — and a private act of parliament to grant divorce a vinculo matrimonii.[10] These suits were immensely expensive, costing between 200 and 5000 pounds, and certainly out of the realm of possibility for women like Bridget Bolton or Bridget Cleary.

Ave: And, significantly, the parliamentary process was particularly biased in favor of men. Women were most likely to lose custody of their children, have their character slandered in public, and, because all of their property became their husband’s upon marriage, lose virtually everything, The very first divorce case granted to an Irish woman was in 1886, approved by Westminster, on the grounds of domestic abuse.[11] This set a precedent in the waning years of the 19th century, but the barriers to the average Irish woman continued to be insurmountable. Most had to stay with their abusive husbands, were economically and socially bound into unhappy and painful marriages. The system was sympathetic to wife-beating husbands. They were given passes when they could articulate how they were “correcting” their wives.” And women who stayed with these husbands were credited with trying to make their marriage work. Some paid the ultimate price.

Sarah: And some husbands even got away with wife murder. Such was the case of William Bolton, despite evidence given by his daughter that there was a history of violence, that she had other marks on her body indicating an altercation, and that he was in the house when she fell – and ran out of the house shortly thereafter. The other witnesses, including other borders in the slum tenement where the Boltons were living, could not say whether her fall, which broke her neck, was an accident or if he pushed her down the stairs, and so the jury came back to say that there was not enough evidence to indict him. Michael Cleary did not have the benefit of no witnesses to his murder. Bridget’s cousins, father, and neighbor were all in the house watching him kill her. And yet Michael Cleary was the only husband in 19th century Ireland to get a more lenient sentence based on his professed belief that the woman he killed was not his wife, but a changeling.

Ave: It’d be easy to dismiss Michael Cleary as crazy. By modern standards, perhaps he would have been diagnosed with temporary insanity under the circumstances. All accounts suggest he had been walking all over the Tipperary countryside, fetching the parish doctor, the priest, and family members to look in on his wife. He hadn’t slept much in the week or so before he doused his wife in lamp oil. He listened to the assurances of local wisemen – fairy men Jack Dunne and Denis Ganey – that the symptoms were that of someone fairy touched. Maybe he was convinced, or convinced himself, that his wife was a changeling, and per fairy lore, the final cure was fire. Maybe he truly believed enough in fairies to see one in his sick wife.

Sarah: One of the most interesting elements of the case, though, isn’t just this question of Michael Cleary, his crime, and his fairy defense. Rather, this case highlights the division of rural and urban Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Michael Cleary’s case rests on a belief – by the jurors, judge, and police – that the people of Tipperary believed in fairies. There is ample evidence, in the case presented, in earlier cases, and in the oral histories taken of Ireland after the Famine, to suggest that in most places in rural Ireland, some semblance of belief in the fae persisted throughout the 19th and early 20th century, despite or at least alongside Catholicism’s revival and restructuring at the same time. But most likely, as Angela Bourke evidences in The Burning of Bridget Cleary, that ‘belief’ was very limited. In most cases, fairy tales functioned as morality tales, stories to define social norms and warn those who were transgressing. Instead of the ardently superstitious, Bourke argues, rural Ireland was more a mix of convenient belief in the fae — particularly when tragedy struck. An illness that suddenly took an infant or child could be blamed on fairies planting a changeling. Locals spoke of women and teen girls taken into the fairy forts that dotted Ireland’s landscape, to live among the fairies – when in reality they fled to London or Dublin, seeking any life other than that of domestic violence and impoverishment in rural Ireland.

A large street sign with many arrows, one reading "London" and another reading "Tipperary - A Long Way!"

Katie Thebeau, It’s a long way! | Flickr CC-BY

Ave: Lore lived on in Ireland largely, until the Gaelic Revival, because of the fairy women and fairy men – wise, older, usually disabled individuals who prescribed herbal cures, told the stories of the Ireland’s rich mythological past, and provided guidance to those dealing with the diseases and symptoms lore associated with fairy interference. Bridget Cleary’s cousin, Jack Dunne, who helped Michael Cleary administer the herbs boiled in new milk to Bridget, was one such individual. Though not the fairy man that Cleary went to for herbs – that was Denis Ganey – Dunne was a respected orator, known for his storytelling skill, and made a living at that. These individuals weren’t the sole authorities in Victorian Ireland. The agents of Irish modernity were increasingly visible in all corners of the island. University-trained doctors, the Royal Irish Constabulary – a modern police force created in 1822 to surveil the provinces of Ireland – and, of course, the expanding legion of Catholic priests throughout Ireland. These various entities worked in concert and opposition to control and administer to the people of rural Ireland, to replace and preserve the heritage of fae and superstition.

Sarah: Charles Dickens and countless other scholars of the Victorian period argued that literacy and Victorian literature killed the superstitious belief in fairies in the United Kingdom. Generally the rise of print media is associated with a ‘modernization’ of the middling and educated Anglophone world. But, as Caroline Sumpter evidences, literacy and accessible printed materials actually served to reaffirm and spread fairy lore. Lady Augusta Gregory, WB Yeats, Lady Wilde, and, in the 1930s, the Folklore Commission of the Free State of Ireland – among others – collected the mythologies, legends, and fairy tales of Celtic Ireland. They preserved those stories in a world otherwise designed to wipe out pagan superstition. They published the collected lore in journals, poetry collections, books, children’s magazines, and shillings monthlies, consumed extensively by the increasingly literate public.[12]

Ave: This obviously isn’t to suggest that reading about fairies in children’s books means that adults grow up to believe their sick wives are changelings. That’s not the correlation that Sumpter is making, and it’s not the correlation we’re making. Instead, what is interesting is that the facilitators of the Gaelic Revival, the people who preserved the cultural heritage of fairy lore, were upper-class, educated, largely urban elite Victorian men and women. They were not remotely like the people they interviewed to collect those stories, and in their romantic narratives of the quaint Celtic fringe folk, they propagated a particular vision of rural Ireland: illiterate, superstitious, backwards, barbarians. Michael Cleary’s heinous crime, and his insistence that he did so because he believed she was a fairy, was further evidence for the British newspaper-reading public that the Irish were unfit to rule themselves. For the jury that accepted Cleary’s tale of changelings and ringforts, of course this country bumpkin believed his wife was a fairy. That was just par for the course.

A painting showing shadowy, evil figures leaning over a crib, appearing to remove a child and replace it with a troll-like creature

Henry Fuseli, The Changeling | Flickr CC-BY

Sarah: Take Michael J. McCarthy, a Trinity-educated Irish lawyer known mostly for his anti-papism writings in an increasingly Catholic Ireland. In 1901 McCarthy wrote, “I sincerely pity all the people connected with these tragedies, but I pity still more intensely the many peasants who border upon, if they do not firmly entertain, the beliefs expressed in these … cases. This latter feeling is the gadfly which urges me on, as it urged Socrates of old, to do what little I can to crush out those remnants of savagery which should by this time be as extinct as the snakes in this so-called “Island of Saints.””

Ave: But this was not the backwards group of bumpkins one might’ve assumed from the reports coming out of Ireland. Johanna Burke testified that she told Bridget she didn’t believe in fairies, and certainly didn’t believe Bridget was a changeling. Michael Cleary was a literate craftsman. He apprenticed as a cooper in Clonmel, the ‘big city’ (relatively speaking), about 16 miles from Bridget’s hometown of Ballyvadlea in County Tipperary. He met Bridget there when he was working, and she was apprenticing in a dressmaker’s shop. And Bridget spent four years in Clonmel learning her craft, and bought a sewing machine of her own to take back to Ballyvadlea. Both Bridget and Michael would’ve been National school educated, Bridget perhaps all the way to the official leaving age of 14, after which she took up her apprenticeship.

Sarah: They married in the mid-1880s, and for the first four years of their union, she lived in Ballyvadlea with her ailing mother and elderly father, and he lived in Clonmel, visiting her on the weekends. After her mother passed away, Bridget, Michael, and Bridget’s father, Patrick Boland, applied for and were granted tenantship of the only new-build laborers cottage in Ballyvadlea. Michael moved in, and started making barrels for the local dairies. This took some smart finagling – these government-subsidized housing projects were to be reserved for farm labourers, and only Bridget’s elderly father qualified. They used his technical designation to secure the finest home in Ballyvadlea. As a pair, Bridget and Michael Cleary were quite well-off, compared to their neighbors and family members. Bridget’s dressmaking income and egg sales set her starkly above the other women in her community, including her cousin, Johanna Burke, the Queen’s witness in the case against Michael Cleary.

Ave: It seems unlikely that an educated, skilled, smart man like Michael Cleary bought into fairy lore. Angela Bourke suggests that his disheveled mental state – worry over his ailing wife and the feverish things she was saying, lack of sleep and adequate food intake, and walking all over Tipperary in search of help for Bridget – was exploited by resentful and superstitious family members. It was Jack Dunne who suggested that a fairy cure was needed, and not to heed the doctor. The doctor’s drunkenness probably didn’t help to inspire confidence. But the Cleary’s relative prosperity in a deeply impoverished region certainly didn’t help their situation. And there’s also the possibility of some underlying currents of resentment – after all, Bridget wasn’t merely rising above her own kin. Her economic ventures and the couple’s childlessness, while freeing economically, were likely a source of strain, possibly even resentment, between the two. Undoubtedly Michael blamed his wife for the failure to conceive a child. None or any of these symptoms alone might be cause for wife murder; but certainly the convergence of these conditions created a very dangerous situation for Bridget Cleary.

Sarah: Bridget Cleary’s story is also unique in that, while she wasn’t the only suspected fairy murdered in nineteenth-century Ireland, she was the only adult. Stories about children being taken by the fairies – babies dying suddenly of wasting sicknesses, or children murdered by terrified parents – were mental leaps that allowed people to exist in a world of high infant mortality, poverty, and sickness. But Bridget was a grown woman. The continuous accusation that she was a changeling is the strangest and most suspicious element of the case.

Ave: Sir William Wilde – Oscar’s father – was a doctor who studied both fairy folklore and catalogued the illnesses of his patients in the Irish countryside. The 19th century newspapers are also peppered with stories of children “fairy struck” — the Morning Post reported in 1836 that “Ann Roche, an old woman of very advanced age, was indicted for the murder of Michael Leahy, a young child, by drowning him in the Flesk. This case…turned out to be a homicide committed under the delusion of the grossest superstition. The child, though four years old, could neither stand, walk, nor speak–it was thought to be fairy struck…”

Sarah: Disturbing, deeply sad, and complicated in their own right, the murder of children who were suspected of being changelings is consistent with a fairly standard fairy lore: changelings almost universally took the place of children. And there are no other cases of adults being murdered for being a suspected changeling. As we’ve already suggested, fairy tales were by and large allegorical, or morality tales, not hard and fast facts. Angela Bourke has some really fascinating conclusions about this case, which we won’t recount here. I definitely recommend you pick up a copy of her book, which is an excellent study of rural 19th century Ireland. I assigned it to my undergrads regularly, it’s really a great read, and pulls together so much of what makes Irish history fascinating – threads gendered political, social, economic, and religious clash that converge in the horrific murder of an independent woman.

Ave: What is most disturbing to me is the bystander element of this story. Johanna Burke was not the only one present as Michael Cleary murdered his wife. According to the court testimonies, Patrick and James Kennedy were napping in Bridget’s father’s room – not far from the commotion in the kitchen by any means, if they were even really sleeping there – and Mary Kennedy was sleeping in the Cleary’s bed. But Patrick Boland, Johanna Burke, and William Kennedy were all in the kitchen when Michael attacked his wife for the final time. Johanna says she cried out, telling him to stop – but made no move to stop him. William, a strapping and tall 21-year-old man, did nothing to pull the violent man off of his cousin.

Sarah: Perhaps they were stunned by the outburst. Perhaps they, in some deeper part of their subconscious, believed she was a fairy. Perhaps they wished her ill. Everyone behaved so bizarrely, unfeelingly, on that terrible Friday night. When Michael stood over his wife’s burned body, he told the (reportedly) shocked family members present that it was done now, and Bridget would come to the local fairy fort on a white horse, and that they had to be there to free her from the fairies with an iron knife. Patrick Kennedy helped Michael Cleary bury his wife in a shallow grave, wearing nothing but a sack over her head and her black stockings. He convinced a bewildered William Kennedy to go with him that very night to wait outside the ringfort for three nights. Surely, he told them, she’d appear by the end of three nights.

Ave: Of course, she did not appear. She was dead, first shoved hastily into an 18 inch hole, and later buried quietly by the RIC in Clonen, under the cover of darkness on Wednesday March 27, a charred corpse. In early investigations, people like Johanna Burke swore to the local constables that Bridget got up and walked out of the house when she was put to the fire. Most perpetuated Cleary’s delusion / cover story. As early as Saturday the 16th there were rumors of foul play regarding Bridget’s disappearance. William Simpson went to the police on Monday, March 18, and when the constables went for a second round of questions, Johanna Burke changed her tune, and gave a new statement.

Sarah: On March 21st, those connected to the murder were arrested. When the Royal Irish Constabulary found her body on March 22, they’d already arrested 11 people – Johanna Burke; her mother, Mary Kennedy; her sons, William, Patrick, Michael, and James Kennedy; Bridget’s father, Patrick Boland; Jack Dunne; the herb doctor, Denis Ganey; a 16-year-old boy who’d been present at the milk fiasco; and, of course, Michael Cleary. Ganey was soon released, when it was clear he had no direct involvement in the murder. Johanna Burke, as we’ve said, turned Queen’s witness and was granted immunity from prosecution.

Ave: The jury, after three days of testimonies and nearly a month of evidence-collecting by the RIC, and just 40 minutes of deliberation, returned with guilty verdicts for all nine remaining prisoners. They strongly recommended Patrick Boland, Michael Kennedy, and Mary Kennedy to mercy. They found Patrick Kennedy most guilty, besides Michael Cleary, for his role in the disposal of the body – he got 5 years imprisonment. Jack Dunne got 3 years, less than the 5 the judge thought he deserved on account of his age. William and James Kennedy got 18 months. Patrick Boland and Michael Kennedy got 6 months imprisonment, and Mary Kennedy got none.

Sarah: About Michael Cleary, the judge delivered quite a pronouncement. “The short of the matter was that he burned his wife alive…[I do] not know that these medicines the prisoner procured, or those herbs were really intended for the cure,” but the judge could also not say whether or not Michael Cleary was mad, because there hadn’t been a lengthy inquest into that line of thought. All the same, the judge continued, “the fact that the prisoner inflicted upon the woman whom he swore before the altar to cherish and protect–that he took her life away [in what was] generally regarded the most cruel and painful of human afflictions, by burning her alive. Dead she was not at the time he threw the paraffin oil on her, and his wicked hand sent her to another world in the very prime of her life–a young woman who confessed to him her affections and her life and he most wantonly and most cruelly and most wretchedly betrayed her.”

Ave: All the same, the judge found himself doubting the clarity of the case enough that he stopped short of the extreme sentence. He did not doubt Michael Cleary’s guilt, but he did doubt Cleary’s sanity in the case. And so he remanded Cleary to 20 years penal servitude. According to the Irish Examiner, during the delivery of the sentence, “the prisoner wept bitterly. He seemed much agitated, and left the dock wringing his hands.”[13]

[1] “The Witch-burning” at Clonmel,” Folklore v6 n4 (Dec 1895) p373-384

[2] “The Witch-burning” at Clonmel,” Folklore v6 n4 (Dec 1895) p373-384; p382.

[3] Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, 89.

[4] “Dreadful Details,” Souther Star (6 April 1895) 5.

[5] Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, 93.

[6] “Dreadful Details,” Souther Star (6 April 1895) 5.

[7] “Dreadful Details,” Souther Star (6 April 1895) 5.

[8] “The alleged wife murder in the city: the inquest,” Freeman’s Journal (18 May 1895) p6.

[9] Diane Urquhart, “Irish Divorce and Domestic Violence, 1857–1922,” Women’s History Review (2013) Vol. 22, No. 5, 820–837, p822.

[10] Diane Urquhart, “Irish Divorce and Domestic Violence, 1857–1922,” Women’s History Review (2013) Vol. 22, No. 5, 820–837, p821.

[11] Diane Urquhart, “Irish Divorce and Domestic Violence, 1857–1922,” Women’s History Review (2013) Vol. 22, No. 5, 820–837, p820.

[12] Caroline Sumpter, The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[13] “The Sentence,” Irish Examiner (6 July 1895) p7.

Show Notes

“The Witch Burning at Clonmel,” Folklore (1895)

Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary (1995)

Pat Feeley, “The Burning of Bridget Cleary,” RTE (1995)

Joan Hoan, The cooper’s wife is missing: the trials of Bridget Cleary (2000)

Michael J. McCarthy, “Bridget Cleary Burned to Death,” Five Years in Ireland, 1895-1900 (1901)

Thomas McGrath, “Fairy Faith and Changelings: The Burning of Bridget Cleary,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 71, No. 282 (1982)

Dean Ruxton, “The story of the last ‘witch’ burned alive in Ireland,” Irish Times (24 Nov 2016)

Diane Urquhart, “Irish Divorce and Domestic Violence, 1857–1922,” Women’s History Review (2013) Vol. 22, No. 5, 820–837

After Michael Cleary murdered his wife Bridget Cleary, he wandered the Tipperary countryside in his best suit, telling everyone he met that he was going to reclaim her from the fairies. Three nights he waited for her to come out of the local fairy fort - the ring of stones that were settlements in Neolithic Ireland and have since fallen into ruin and legend. Of course she didn't. She was buried in a shallow grave not far from their home in Ballyvadlea, Ireland. #ireland #irish #irishhistory #bridgetcleary


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