Ireland’s last witch burning
When ‘enchanted’ seamstress Bridget Cleary was executed by her own husband, the political shockwaves threw the possibility of Irish Home Rule into question
Words: Marian McHugh
There is a rhyme that has been recited for generations in the playgrounds of Tipperary: Are you a witch of are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?
It is thanks to this rhyme that Bridget Cleary has become a household name in Ireland, but it’s probably safe to say that she would happily have traded this fame for a much longer life, or at least a less gruesome death. Often referred to as ‘the last witch burned in Ireland’, Bridget was killed in her home by her husband Michael, surrounded by witnesses. Michael’s unusual reason for his crime – that his wife was a fairy changeling – sparked a media circus in turn-of-the-century Britain and Ireland.
Born in 1869, Bridget was educated in the local convent before becoming a seamstress. Her talent for dressmaking ensured she was always dressed in the latest fashions, something which made her stand out among her poorer neighbours in the village of Ballyvadlea, County Tipperary. In 1887, Bridget caught the eye of Michael Cleary. Michael was a cooper, a respected and well-paid profession at the time. They married soon after meeting.
The Clearys had an unusual domestic setup in the early years of their marriage. Michael stayed in the town of Clonmel, while Bridget returned to Ballyvadlea, bought a sewing machine and continued as a seamstress. She had a few hens and sold their eggs, bringing in a tidy little side income.
This financial independence allowed Bridget a freedom that was highly unusual for a young woman of her class and time, as society expected her to live with Michael and produce children. It has been speculated that when Michael eventually moved in with her, Bridget refused to give up her independence, much to his dismay.
On 4 March 1895, Bridget became sick after walking some distance to deliver eggs. Her path had brought her past a ring fort, which, in Celtic folklore, was said to be a portal to the ‘Otherworld’ where the fairies lived. Celtic fairies weren’t the glitter-loving creatures found in modern pop culture; they were malevolent manipulators, which led Michael to believe that his wife had been kidnapped and replaced with a changeling – a sickly fairy doppelganger.
Tales of children being stolen away by fairies and replaced with changelings were rife in Irish folklore
He called for the local doctor, who took several days to turn up, so in the meantime Michael sought the advice of a local 'fairy' doctor, John Dunne. By the time the doctor arrived, Bridget's condition was desperate, and a local priest was called to administer last rites. When the priest later testified at trial, he said that Michael had told him, “People may have some remedy of their own that might do more good than doctor’s medicine.”
From Thursday 14 March to the early hours of the following Saturday morning, Bridget endured fairy remedies and cures that were tantamount to torture. Johanna Burke, Bridget’s cousin, witnessed Michael pin a delirious Bridget down while force-feeding her a concoction of milk and herbs: “When Cleary put the milk into the mouth he put his hand on her mouth to prevent the medicine coming up. He said if it went on the ground that she could not be brought back from the fairies.”
As iron and fire are said to be weapons against fairies, Michael had Bridget’s cousins hold her over the hearth. He branded her with a hot poker, and had urine thrown on her. All of this served to drastically diminish Bridget’s mental and physical health, which in turn reinforced Michael’s belief that his wife had been replaced by a fairy.
On the Friday night, Michael once again tried to force-feed Bridget. When she refused, Michael threw her to the floor, stripped her to her undergarments and poured paraffin oil over her, where she caught alight from the open fire and burned to death. Convinced that he had finally destroyed the fairy, Michael told Bridget’s family that he would see his wife return on a white horse at the ringfort. He then left the cottage, locking the witnesses in with her remains.
Michael was found guilty of manslaughter and given a 20 year sentence. Her father and four cousins were all found guilty of “wounding” and received sentences ranging from six months to five years. Intriguingly, John Dunne was sentenced to three years imprisonment for his involvement in Bridget’s death, despite his absence on the night of her murder. The judge held him to be an influencing factor, stating, “With you it would seem the idea originated.”
Bridget Cleary’s death became the focus of much public debate in Britain and Ireland. At a time when Ireland was seeking Home Rule from Westminster, the British press used the case as a reason as to why the ‘backwards’ Irish were incapable of self-government. In Ireland, the scandal prompted the upper classes to distance themselves further from their rural countrymen.
Over time, the Cleary case has been the subject of much speculation: rumours circulated that Bridget was having an affair, or Michael suffered a psychotic break around the time of his wife’s death, or the ‘failure’ of being a married couple with no children. What is certain, though, is that the burning of Bridget Cleary marked the beginning of the end for fairy tales in Ireland.