Bridget Cleary (Irish: Bríd Ní Chléirigh) was an Irish woman killed by her husband in 1895. Her death is notable for several peculiarities: the stated motive for the crime was her husband's belief that she had been abducted by fairies with a changeling left in her place; he claimed to have slain only the changeling. The gruesome nature of the case — she was either immolated while still alive or set on fire immediately following her death — prompted extensive press coverage. The trial was closely followed by newspapers in both Ireland and Britain. As one reviewer commented, nobody, with the possible exception of the presiding judge, thought it was an ordinary murder case.
Cleary was born Bridget Boland around 1870 in Ballyvadlea, County Tipperary, Ireland. She married Michael Cleary in August 1887. The couple met in Clonmel in August 1887, where he worked as a cooper and she served as a dressmaker's apprentice.
After the marriage, she returned to her townland of Ballyvadlea to live with her parents, while Michael continued to work as a cooper in Clonmel. During this period of living apart, Bridget's independence grew, with her keeping her own flock of chickens and selling the eggs to neighbours. Somewhat unusually for the era and location, she was also a professional woman. She obtained a Singer sewing machine, state of the art at the time, and was variously described as a dressmaker and a milliner. Despite their eight years of marriage, the couple had had no children by the time of Bridget's death. Following the death of Bridget's mother, the Clearys found themselves responsible for Bridget's elderly father, Patrick Boland. His residence with the couple enabled them to secure a house reserved for labourers. Neither Bridget nor Michael was entitled to this cottage, but as Patrick had been a labourer in his youth, they were able to acquire the best house in the village. However, there was no widespread interest in the house, as it was built on the site of a supposed fairy ringfort.
Bridget was reported missing in March 1895. She evidently had been ill for several days, although her specific diagnosis is unknown. More than a week into her illness, on 13 March 1895, a physician visited her at her home; her condition was considered sufficiently grave that a priest soon followed, to administer last rites. Several of her friends and family members attended her over the next two days, and a number of home remedies were administered, including one ritual that anticipated her later demise: her father and her husband accused her of being a fairy sent to take Bridget's place. Urine was thrown on her, and she was carried before the fireplace to cast the fairy out. By 16 March, rumours were beginning to circulate that Bridget was missing, and the local police began searching for her. Michael was quoted as claiming that his wife had been taken by fairies, and he appeared to be holding a vigil. Witness statements were gathered over the ensuing week, and by the time Bridget Cleary's burnt corpse was found in a shallow grave on 22 March, nine people had been charged in her disappearance, including her husband. A coroner's inquest the next day returned a verdict of death by burning.
Legal hearings ran from 1 April to 6 April 1895. A tenth person had been charged, and one of the original nine was discharged at this stage, leaving nine defendants bound over for trial. The court session began on 3 July, and the grand jury indicted five of the defendants for murder, including Michael. All nine were indicted on charges of "wounding". [clarification needed] The case proceeded on to trial. The evidence showed that on 15 March, Michael summoned Father Ryan back to the Cleary household. Ryan found Bridget alive but agitated. Michael Cleary told the priest that he had not been giving his wife the medicine prescribed by the doctor, because he had no faith in it. According to Ryan, "Cleary then said, 'People may have some remedy of their own that might do more good than doctor's medicine,' or something to that effect." Bridget was given communion, and Ryan departed. Later that night, neighbours and relatives returned to the Cleary house. An argument ensued, again tinged with fairy mythology. [clarification needed]
At some point, Bridget told Michael that the only person who'd gone off with the fairies had been his mother. Michael attempted to force-feed his wife, throwing her down on the ground before the kitchen fireplace and menacing her with a burning piece of wood. Bridget's chemise caught fire, and Michael then threw lamp oil on Bridget. The witnesses were unclear as to whether she was already dead by this point. Michael kept the others back from her body as it burned, insisting that she was a changeling and had been for a week previously, and that he would get his wife back from the fairies.
Michael Cleary was found guilty of manslaughter, and spent 15 years in prison. He was released from Maryborough (now Portlaoise) prison on 28 April 1910 and went to Liverpool. On 14 October 1910, a black bordered letter was sent from the office of the Secretary of State, Home Department, Whitehall, to the undersecretary, Dublin Castle stating that Michael Cleary had emigrated from Liverpool to Montreal on 30 June. Charges against some of his co-defendants were dropped, but four were convicted of "wounding".
Public reaction and aftermath
Bridget Cleary's death has remained famous in popular culture. An Irish nursery rhyme reads,
Are you a witch, or are you a fairy/Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?
She has been popularly described as "the last witch burned in Ireland" or as the subject of the last of the witchcraft trials, although it has been noted that Bridget was never actually described as having consorted with the devil, which is customary with accused witches. Instead, she was thought to have been replaced by a fairy changeling. Her death and the publicity surrounding the trial were regarded as being politically significant at the time. Irish home rule was an active political issue in England; William Ewart Gladstone's Liberal Party had come to power on a Home Rule platform, but had relatively recently lost its latest Irish Government Bill in the House of Lords. Press coverage of the Cleary case occurred in an atmosphere of debate over the Irish people's ability to govern themselves, and worries were expressed about the credulity and superstition of rural nationalist Catholics. The coroner who examined Bridget's corpse claimed that "amongst Hottentots one would not expect to hear of such an occurrence."
The writer E. F. Benson took a considerable interest in the case, publishing a scholarly commentary on it, "The Recent 'Witch-Burning at Clonmel'", in the influential periodical The Nineteenth Century in June 1895, before the trial itself began. It accepts the defence argument that those involved with Bridget Cleary's death acted out of a genuine belief that she had been possessed by a spirit, had no intention of murder, and were attempting to restore her to her rightful self. Benson cites a pattern of similar beliefs in "savage tribes", with examples from various societies, and talks of "the enormous force which such beliefs exercise on untutored minds". He also points out that the door of the Cleary house was left open and no attempts were made to keep the assaults on Bridget secret. "It is inconceivable that, if they had wished to kill her, they would have left the door open, that they should have allowed their shouts to attract the neighbours, or that ten persons should have been admitted to witness the deed. Terrible and ghastly as the case is, we cannot call it wilful [sic] murder." The article ends with the statement: " ... if ... they killed, but not with intent to kill, still less should the extreme penalty be inflicted".
In 2010, The Fairy Wife, a play by Lawrence Bullock, based on the life of Bridget Cleary, premiered in New York City, at the Producers' Club Theatre, under the auspices of Le Wilhelm and Love Creek Productions.
- David Willis McCullough (8 October 2000). "The Fairy Defense". New York Times. Retrieved 23 March 2007.
- Her father is recorded as giving her age as 26 years old in 1895.
- Bourke posits pneumonia, although Hoff and Yeates suggest tuberculosis, which had been rumoured at the time.
- Angela Bourke (1 July 2001). The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story. Penguin Group USA. p. 231. ISBN 978-0-14-100202-6.
- David Willis McCullough, "The Fairy Defense", New York Times, 8 October 2000; accessed 23 March 2007
- Bourke, p. 232.
- See e.g. http://www.controverscial.com/Fairy%20Witch%20of%20Clonmel.htm
- March 1894 according to Bourke, although the Wikipedia article gives September 1893.
- Bourke, p. 130.
- NYT extract, 22 April 1895
- "The New York Times article on Michael Cleary's sentence", 6 July 1895
- Benson, E. F. (1895). "The Recent 'Witch-Burning' at Clonmel'. The Nineteenth Century Vol. 37 (1895-Jun), pp 1053–58; accessed 16 September 2010.
|This section lacks ISBNs for the books listed in it. (October 2013)|
- Bourke, Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. New York: Penguin, 1999.
- Hoff, Joan and Yeates, Marian. The Cooper's Wife Is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary. New York: Basic Books, 2000 (original), 2006 (paperback reprint).