Bridget Cleary: Fairy Intrusion in Nineteenth Century Ireland

Are you a witch?
Are you a fairy?
Are you the wife
Of Michael Cleary?
—Children’s rhyme from Southern Tipperary, Ireland

I promised in my first post on fairies as other to look at a fairy intrusion in nineteenth century Ireland, specifically, the fairy burning of Bridget Cleary.

In March of 1895 Bridget Boland Cleary (Bríd Ní Chléirig) was a trained

Bríd Ní Chléirigh/Bridget Cleary

seamstress, with a good eye for fashion, who owned her own Singer sewing machine. She lived with her husband Michael Cleary and her father Patrick Boland in a small cottage in Ballyvadlea, Tipperary, Ireland. Michael, like his wife, was atypical in that he could read and write; he worked as a cooper. In 1895 they’d been married about eight years; Bridget was 26, and Michael was 35. On the fifteenth of March, Michael Cleary, believing his wife Bridget had been taken by the fairies and that they had left a changeling in her place, having spent three days in various rituals that were intended to force the changeling to leave and bring his wife back from where the fairies had taken her, set fire to her. He and nine others of Bridget Cleary’s relatives and neighbors were tried for her death.

On Monday March 4, Bridget walked to the house of her father’s cousin, Jack Dunne, to deliver some eggs. It was an extremely cold day, and Bridget caught a cold. She spent the next day in bed, and complained of “a raging pain” in her head, and shivers and chills (Bourke 2000, xi, 65). A few days later Jack Dunne came to visit, and, upon seeing the markedly ill Bridget in bed, said “That is not Bridgie” (Bourke 2000, 70). Jack Dunne was well acquainted with fairy folklore, and tales of fairy abductions and changelings, and the remedies and protections against them— as was Bridget’s own mother. By March 9, Bridget’s condition had worsened, and she told her cousin Johanna Burke that she thought she’d caught another cold. Despite the rain and cold, Bridget’s father Patrick Burke walked four miles to the doctor’s and asked him to come (Bourke 2000, 71). When the doctor hadn’t come by the following Monday, March 11, Bridget’s husband Michael walked four miles to Fethard and requested that the doctor come, and then, again, with a more forceful summons in hand from the local health authority, he made the trip again on Wednesday March 13. He also requested that the priest visit. While Michael Cleary was out, the doctor arrives and examines Bridget; he describes her as “nervous,” and prescribes some medicine. The priest gives her the last rites, just in case.

Michael Cleary, in the meantime, concerned, perhaps even despondent over his wife’s condition, has gone back to the doctor. On his way back, he purchases some herbs from a woman in Fethard that were said to be efficacious as a fairy remedy. At the trial Bridget’s cousin Johanna Burke testified that when Michael Cleary told Jack Dunne that he’d purchased herbs as a remedy against fairies, Jack Dunne said: “It is not your wife is there. You will have enough to do to bring her back” (Bourke 2000, 82).

The next day, Thursday March 14, Michael Cleary went to another herbalist; this time, to the locally known “fairy doctor” Dennis Ganey. He purchased more herbs as a “fairy cure.” Traditionally a remedy for someone “taken” by fairies is to boil specific herbs in “new” milk (new milk has properties associated with purification), and then the mixture administered to the patient, which Michael Cleary did. According to the testimony of Johanna Burke, she and William Simpson, and his wife Minnie, met outside of the Cleary’s door that evening.

Witness asked for admittance, but Michael Cleary said they would not open the door. While they remained outside they stood at the window. They heard someone inside saying: “Take it, you bitch, or ‘witch.’ When the door was opened, witness went in and saw Dunne and three of the Kennedys holding Mrs. Cleary down on her bed by her hands and feet, and her husband was giving her herbs and milk in a spoon out of a saucepan. They forced her to take the herbs, and Cleary asked her: ‘Are you [Bridget] Boland, the wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?” She answered it once or twice, and her father asked a similar question. Michael Cleary [witness thought] then threw a certain liquid on his wife. They put the question to her again, and she [refused] to repeat the words after them. John Dunnne then said: “Hold her over the fire, and she will soon answer.” Dunne, Cleary and P. Kennedy then lifted Mrs. Cleary off the bed, and placed her in a kind of sitting position over the kitchen fire, which was a slow one. Mrs Cleary had greatly changed. She seemed to be wild and deranged, especially while they were so treating her (Folklore 1895, 374).

This was the third dose of the herbs in milk; earlier, before Johanna Burke and the Simpsons arrive, Bridget had been forced to swallow two earlier doses, encouraged to do so by being threatened with a hot poker, a poker which left a small burn mark on her forehead (Bourke 2000, 91). Fire, particularly applied to iron, is a traditional method of warding off a fairy, or frightening a changeling into leaving so that the “real” person can return. The “certain liquid” was urine, traditionally believed to force the changeling to flee; Bridget was repeatedly doused with human urine. The neighbor, Michael Simpson, testified that after the third dose of herbs, while Bridget was still lying on the bed, the men “holding her arms on both side, and her head, they lifted her body and wound it backwards and forwards” (Bourke 2000, 92).

On the morning of Friday March 15th, Michael Clary fetched the priest, who performed mass in Bridget’s bedroom, where Bridget was lying in bed. That night, according to Johanna Burke’s testimony, Bridget was dressed, and brought to the kitchen, where, Johanna says

Her father, my brother and myself, and deceased and her husband sat at the fire. They were talking about the fairies, and Mrs. Cleary said to her husband, “Your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them.” He asked her, “Did my mother tell you that?” She said, “She did; that she gave two nights with them.” I made 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 should take a sup. He asked her three times: “Are you Bridget Cleary, my wife, in the name of God?” She answered twice, and ate two pieces of bread and jam. When she did not answer the third time he forced her to eat the third bit, saying, “If you won’t take it, down you will go.” He flung her on the ground, put his knee on her chest, one hand on her throat, and forced the bit of bread and jam down her throat, saying “Swallow it. Is it down? Is it down?” . . . I said, “Mike, let her alone, don’t you see it is Bridget that is in it” meaning that it was Bridget his wife, and not the fairy, for he suspected that it was a fairy and not his wife that was there. Michael Cleary then stripped his wife’s clothes off, except her chemise, and got a lighting stick out of the fire. She was lying on the floor, and he held it near her mouth (Folklore 1895 373-76).

Johanna Burke testified that she heard Bridget’s head strike the floor, and then a scream. Her chemise, we learn from the inquest and trial, was ordinary calico; it would have caught fire quite quickly. Mary Kennedy, who was in the back bedroom, rushed to the kitchen where she saw Bridget Cleary lying on the hearth, her clothing on fire. According to Mary Kennedy’s testimony, Michael Cleary said “Hannah, I believe she is dead.” It is at this point that Mary Kennedy saw Michael Cleary reach for the lamp from the table, and drench his wife with paraffin oil, until she was consumed with flames.

James Kennedy testified that when he cried out to Michael Cleary “For the love of God, don’t burn your wife!” Cleary replied:

She’s not my wife. . . . She’s an old deceiver sent in place of my wife. She’s after deceiving me for the last seven or eight days, and deceived the priest today too, but she won’t deceive anyone any more. As I beginned it with her, I will finish it with her! . . . You’ll soon see her go up the chimney! (Bourke 2000, 124).

According to court testimony, at about 2 am the following morning, Michael Cleary asked Johanna Burke’s brother, Patrick Kennedy, to help bury Bridget’s twisted, and partially incinerated corpse. They wrapped the body in a sheet and carried to a boggy area about a quarter of a mile from Bridget’s home. On the 22nd of March, after a week of speculation, newspaper reports, and intensive searching, the Royal Irish Constables discovered the body in a shallow grave. In the intervening time, Michael Cleary, once in the company of his father in law and neighbors, spent three nights at the fairy rath at Kylenagranagh, convinced that he would see his wife emerge on a white horse, at which point he would cut her free, and rescue her from the fairies, much as Janet rescued Tam Lin.

I am absolutely positive that Michael Cleary, and most of not all of the relatives and neighbors who, like Michael, served time for their part in Bridget Cleary’s death, genuinely believed that Bridget Cleary had been taken by the fairies just as Heurodis was taken by fairies in Sir Orfeo. But I think that there are characteristics or aspects of this tragedy that would have provided cause for that belief, in the context of traditional fairy folklore. I’ve already cited MacAllister Stone’s definition of Other as

a term to describe the phenomenon of the outsider, particularly in fiction, who represents some kind of threat to the community—but often, also serves as the agent for the community’s salvation/redemption.

Bridget Cleary very much was an outsider in the tiny community of Ballyvadlea. She was attractive, and forthright, with a reputation for a quick wit, a sharp tongue, and a direct gaze—none of which were common characteristics of young Irish Catholic women in Ballyvadlea. Her wardrobe was much more fashionable than that of her peers, not unreasonable given her talent as a milliner. In addition to her income from sewing, Bridget, like most other women, kept hens, and sold their eggs; egg money, like milk money, was traditionally the property and income of women. Bridget was, then, fairly well off, and hence more independent because of it.

She was known to go for long walks in order to deliver eggs, and to visit the fairy fort at nearby Kylenagranagh. These “fairy forts,” or raths, are remnants of neolithic structures that dot the landscape of Ireland, where they are still seen as dangerous, liminal places, places frequented by fairies in search of mortal game and prey. Moreover, Bridget was married to a man who was nine years older than her, and, at the time of her death, though they had been married for eight years, they had no children; this would be very much seen as odd in an era and culture where women were valued for their fecundity, and men for their ability to get children and hence heirs to work the land in their own turn. In her extremely thoughtful study of Bridget Cleary, Angela Bourke observes “A suggestion that [Bridget] was away with the fairies was a serious reflection on [Michael Cleary] and on their marriage” (Bourke 2000, 96). Bourke builds a careful and well-supported case for Bridget as an outsider in Ballyvadlea, a woman who didn’t know her place, a woman who might even have had a lover, a suggestion that emerged early in the court testimony, but was soon dropped.

In my next post, I’m going to look at the story of Bridget Cleary in terms of fairies as other, and in the context of sex, and death. If you want to read more, and you have access to JStor, here are some references to match my citations.

  • Bourke, Angela. “Reading a Woman’s Death: Colonial Text and Oral Tradition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland.” Feminist Studies. Vol. 21, No. 3. (Autumn, 1995): 553-586. JStor link.
  • Bourke. Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. This really is the best study; there’s another slightly more recent book that’s vastly inferior.
  • “The ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel.” Folklore. Vol. 6, No. 4. (Dec., 1895): 373-384. JStor link. This is an anonymous article that reprints the newspaper coverage of the court testimony.

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