THE DEATH OF BRIDGET CLEARY: FAIRY OR WIFE?
The burned body of Bridget Cleary was found on March 22, 1895 in a shallow grave that was less than a mile from her home in the village of Ballyvadlea, Ireland. Nine persons, including her husband, her father, her aunt and some of her cousins, were found guilty of manslaughter in connection with her death.
Bridget Clearly lived with her husband, Michael Cleary, and her father, Patrick Boland, in Ballyvadlea, a small and isolated village in the county of Tipperary, Ireland. In the year of her death, Bridget was 26 years old and had been married to Michael, nine years her senior, for 8 years. They had no children.
The events surrounding the death of Mrs. Cleary can be discovered from the testimony that was given at the trial by various witnesses and can be summarized as follows. Mrs. Cleary had taken ill and the doctor, Dr. Crean, was summoned and called on her on March 13. He found Mrs. Cleary to be suffering from nervous excitement and slight bronchitis. The local priest, Father Ryan, also visited Mrs. Cleary, who was confined to bed, on March 13. She did not complain to either the doctor or the priest of any ill treatment.
On the evening of March 14, some neighbours heard that Mrs. Cleary was ill so went to visit her. They heard a voice yelling, inside the house, “Take it, or we will burn you!” and “Away she go! Come home Bridget Boland!” When the door of the house opened, the neighbours saw John Dunne, described as the local expert in fairies, and three of Mrs. Cleary’s cousins holding her down on the bed while her husband was forcing her to take some herbs. Those holding her down were shouting, “Away with you! Come back Bridget Boland in the name of God!” Michael Cleary asked his wife, “Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?” She answered yes, but she was asked again. She was picked up out of her bed and held her over the kitchen fire. She answered, “I am Bridget Boland, daughter of Pat Boland, in the name of God.” They then put her back to bed.
On the next day, March 15, one of the neighbours returned to the Cleary home. Michael, Bridget’s father and some of her cousins were sitting at the kitchen fire talking about fairies. Bridget said to her husband, “Your mother used to go with the fairies; that is why you think I am going with them.” Michael then gave Bridget three pieces of bread and asked her, “Are you Bridget Cleary, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost?” Bridget answered twice and ate two pieces of bread. But she could not eat the third. Cleary then stripped his wife’s clothes off, threw lamp oil on her and held her over the fire. He yelled, “It is not Bridget I am burning,” leading the neighbour to believe that Michael suspected that it was a fairy and not his wife that was there. Mrs. Cleary was burned to death. Michael Cleary and one cousin then took the body and buried it in the shallow grave where it was found by police on March 22.
Nine persons – Mrs. Cleary’s husband, her father, 4 of her cousins, John Dunne and two others – were committed for trial on the charge of wilful murder. Bridget’s aunt testified that Bridget had told her that Michael Cleary was making a fairy of her, and that he had tried to burn her three months ago. Dunne stated that Michael told him that “She was not my wife. She was two inches taller than my wife.” The charge of murder was withdrawn by the Crown. All the accused were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to various prison terms. Michael Cleary received 20 years. The lenient verdict of manslaughter rather than murder for this gruesome and seemingly intentional death reflects an acceptance of the apparent belief of the accused that Bridget Cleary had been taken away and a fairy had taken her place.
Works Cited and Further Reading
McCarthy, Michael J. “Bridget Cleary burned to death,” Five Years in Ireland, 1895-1900.www.libraryireland.com/articles/Burning-Cleary/index.php
Hoff, Joan and Marian Yeates. “The Cooper’s Wife is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary. Journal of Social History, vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring, 2002), 741-742.www.jstor.org/stable/3790713
The “Witch-Burning” at Clonmel. Folklore, Vol. 6. No. 4 (Dec. 1895) 373-384. www.jstor.org/stable 1253745