A Story Up in Flames: The Tragic Tale of Bridget Cleary, the Burned Irish ‘Witch’

“Are you a witch or are you a fairy, Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”

On March 13th 1895, a series of events that occurred in the Cleary household culminated in a fiery death of a 26 year old Irish woman named Bridget Cleary. Bridget Cleary, the wife of Michael Cleary, lived in Ballyvadlea along with Bridget’s father Patrick Boland. She was described as a handsome and kind young woman while her husband had few faults as well. For a seemingly perfect life, what fault was so bad that it ended up taking young Bridget’s life?

The Story

According to the interpretation of Michael McCarthy’s in his book Five Years in Ireland, 1895-1900, word went around the town that Bridget had fallen ill. Concerned, and unfortunate as they would soon find out, family members and neighbours went to visit, only to stumble upon a commotion in the house. They heard someone yelling threats to burn another person among other things said, and eventually the door flew open where they beheld the sight of Bridget being held down by several members of her family while they threw a liquid at her, which turned out to be urine.

Michael and Bridget Cleary on their wedding day
Michael and Bridget Cleary on their wedding day

The Lore

What could have possibly happened to Bridget that would cause this kind of strange and violent behaviour, from her own family no less? Thomas McGrath, who wrote Fairy Faith and Changelings, said that the Irish took their folk tales very seriously even when Ireland was progressing into modernity where these superstitions were not exactly looked kindly upon. Now what would old wives tales have to do with what happened to Bridget? Well, it was popular belief that fairies would abduct people from their homes and put in place of them a duplicate changeling.

These folktales gradually turned into nursery rhymes, like the opening quote from above, according to Carole G. Silver who wrote for the Irish Quarterly. These tales were, and still are, ingrained in the peoples mind that if someone does not seem like themselves, it is under logical reasoning that they could think that could be a changeling.

A changeling in place of a baby
A changeling in place of a baby

The Results

It was under the belief that his wife was a changeling that Michael Cleary tortured and murdered his wife. As stated in The Globe (1844-1936) in a piece titles Clonmel Witch-Burning, Michael Cleary and the company continuously force feed her milk with bitter herbs while interrogating her in order to drive out the evil being. The events culminated in the fiery death of Bridget Cleary and a conviction of manslaughter for Michael, which is a lenient sentence as he could have been charged with murder, but the source states that there didn’t appear to be any murderous intention as he thought he was doing it for her own good.

Conclusions

The tale of Bridget Cleary is a tragic one that has taken on from many different subjects of view. It is a tale, for the Irish people that is worth remembering as a lesson in the supernatural.

Further Reading

“Clonmel Witch-Burning,” The Globe (1844-1936), July 8, 1895, 4.
McGrath, Thomas. “Fairy Faith and Changelings: The Burning of Bridget Cleary in 1895.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 71 (1982): 178-184.
McCarthy, Michael J.F. Five Years in Ireland, 1895-1900. London: London Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent, 1901.
Sternlib, Lisa. Review of “Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness,” by Carole G.Silver. The Journal of English and German Philology 100 (2001): 151-152.