With a lot of relatives in Massachusetts, I grew up familiar with the story of the Salem Witch Trials. And over the years I’ve heard all kinds of explanations for 1692-93 executions – from property disputes to hallucinogenic bread mold. Even so, when I came across a newspaper article about Bridget Cleary, an Irish woman murdered by her husband in 1895 with the help of as many as eight accomplices, I was shocked by the headline:
Yes, you read that right: fairies. As in Tinkerbell. In an earlier blog post, I related the story of the Cottingley fairies – a series of hoax photographs taken in England shortly before and during World War I. Ireland, in particular, has a strong folkloric tradition of fairy belief, including the threat of changelings: unbaptized babies kidnapped by fairies and replaced with fairy children. Children with physical or developmental disorders were sometimes thought to be changelings. It was also believed that a changeling might remember its fairy origins and vanish without warning – returning to its fairy kin. If a changeling was discovered, its human counterpart might be recovered by placing it in a fire. The fairy would fly up the chimney and return the family’s real baby. This last part of the superstition is what doomed Bridget Cleary.
Michael and Bridget Cleary lived in Ballyvadlea, County Tipperary, Ireland. Michael was a cooper – or barrel maker – and Bridget was a dressmaker who also raised chickens and sold the eggs they produced. The couple was married for eight years, although they lived apart for a period of time while Michael worked in the neighboring town of Clonmel.
In the town of Ballyvadlea, there was apparently a very nice house that went vacant because it was rumored to have been built on the site of an old fairy ring – although it’s not entirely clear whether this “site” was some sort of stone circle attributed to fairies or a naturally-occurring fairy ring. According to one source, the house’s first tenant was awakened continually by noisy fairy feasts until he fled in terror.
Bridget Cleary, at least, doesn’t appear to have been superstitious. The house was reserved laborers, and when the original tenant left the couple were able to move into the house with her father, Patrick Boland, who had once been a laborer. Their claim to the house was tenuous, but they didn’t have a lot of competition.
Sometime in March 1895, Bridget fell ill, and the local doctor was unable to cure her. A priest performed last rights, and neighbor Jack Dunne, a local storyteller, voiced his suspicion that Bridget was a fairy changeling. A number of friends and family assisted in a variety of rituals to cast the fairy out, including throwing urine on her, force feeding her a mixture made from the milk of a cow that had recently calved, and carrying so close to a fireplace that her nightgown singed.
On or around March 16, the police were notified that Bridget was missing. When they visited Michael, they found him holding a vigil for his missing wife, who he claimed had been abducted by fairies. Bridget’s badly burnt body was found on March 22 in a makeshift grave. Even before the body was found, witnesses had begun to confess to what happened. During an attempt to exorcise the fairy, Michael attacked his wife with a burning chunk of wood and then threw paraffin on her. According to some accounts, he then prevented others from helping her at knife point, claiming the real Bridget had been taken by the fairies a week earlier and burning the changeling was necessary to get her back. However, other stories, together with the large number of people who seem to have known about Bridget’s ordeal, suggest that those present may not have needed to be held back and made no real attempt to save her.
In the trials that followed, four people were convicted of wounding Bridget Cleary, and Michael Cleary was sentence to 15 years in prison for manslaughter. Patrick Bolen served six months for his part in his daughter’s death. Jack Dunne served three years. After his release, Michael Cleary emigrated to Montreal and dropped out of public view.
Bridget Cleary has become a feature of Irish folklore, even being incorporated into a nursery rhyme: Are you a witch, are you a fairy, or are you the wife of Michael Cleary? Because of the way she died, it’s understandable that her death is often swept together with European witch trials, and she’s sometimes referred to as the last witch to burn in Ireland. But fairy lore is far different from witchcraft superstition. Witches were often executed as punishment for allegedly having made pacts with the devil. But if Michael Cleary was to be believed, he never thought he was killing his wife at all. Rather, by destroying the fairy changeling, he sought to have the “real” Bridget restored to him.
In all likelihood, her death was the result of a perfect storm of events, including becoming ill shortly after walking past a nearby stone ring, a priest who may had administered last rights to avoid being summoned back a second time, a drunken doctor, and her own underestimation of the depth of her husband’s belief in fairy magic, which apparently led her to do and say some ill-advised things near the end of her ordeal. She was also, by all accounts, an accomplished, outspoken woman with an entrepreneurial spirit – character traits that weren’t necessarily prized in 19th century women. For his part, Michael Cleary allegedly went to his grave insistent that his wife had been taken by the fairies and never returned.
For a detailed account of the story of Bridget Cleary, check out this blog.