Burning of Bridget Cleary
I had the pleasure of doing the post-performance interview
with Tom McIntyre after the An Grianan production of his
play, "What Happened to Bridgie Cleary?" during
yet another excellent Earagail Arts Festival. Funny what
goes through your mind when engrossed in captivating theatre.
With the Patrick MacGill Festival coming up next week (dont
forget Com Mellys book launch on Monday) I was transported
back some 22 years to Fall River, Massachusetts, where Patricks
daughter, Patricia and her husband, Owen, took me to visit
her fathers grave and on the same day showed me the
house of the infamous axe murderer, Lizzie Borden. Remember
the rhyme - Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her
mother forty whacks. And after that when she was done, she
gave her father forty-one. Bridget Cleary was called
the last witch burned in Ireland and she was
immortalised in a childrens rhyme: Are you a
witch or are you a fairy, Or are you the wife of Michael
On March 15, 1895, twenty-eight year old Bridget Cleary,
a coopers wife, disappeared from her cottage near
Clonmel in County Tipperary. Immediately, strange and lurid
rumours began circulating the neighbourhood about what had
happened. Some said she ran off with an egg seller, others
supposed it was an aristocratic foxhunter who had taken
young Bridget away. Swirling amid rumours was the barely
whispered, but widely held, belief that Bridget had gone
with no mortal man; rather, she had gone off with the fairies.
The mystery deepened when seven days later her body was
discovered, bent, broken and badly burned in a shallow grave.
Within a few days, the unimaginable truth came to light:
for almost a week before her death Bridget had been confined,
ritually starved, threatened, physically and verbally abused,
exorcised and, finally, burned to death by her husband,
Michael Cleary, her father and extended family who confused
her bronchial medical condition with a fairy dart.
They had all become convinced that their Bridgie
had been taken from them and her fairy-possed body left
behind to deceive them.
She was a stylish dressmaker with additional independent
income from keeping hens, who eschewed the customary shawls
and scarves of her peers for hats and cashmere jackets.
Her husband was a cooper from a neighbouring town who also
had a good income. That, along with their childless state,
had made them relatively well-off compared to their neighbours
and family. The Clearys were friendly with their neighbours
- an emergency man, or caretaker for the landlord
who had moved into a farm after a family was evicted during
the land wars of the early 1890s. These neighbours
were shunned by a small community resentful of such opportunism.
Bridget did the shopping for them and may have been the
young husbands lover. She was out delivering some
eggs and hoping to get payment owed from her uncle, and
caught a cold that possibly developed into TB on her two-mile
trek home. Over the next week Bridgets condition worsened,
yet the doctor, a drunk, refused to come, while the priest
stayed 20 minutes and merely gave the last rites. Soon Michael
Cleary and Bridgets uncle, Jack Dunne, a seanchai
well versed in herb lore, began to circulate the story that
Bridget had been taken by the fairies, and the woman in
the bed was a changeling. Some herbal cures were prescribed
and forced down Bridgets throat - she was also manhandled
and held over the fire on Thursday, March 15, while being
repeatedly asked if she was indeed Bridget or a changeling.
Several family members assisted, and neighbours were present
the evening before her death. Several more tests were conducted
by her male relatives to see if she was truly Bridget -
including throwing urine and chicken droppings on her.
By the next morning, she appeared to recover and was up,
dressed and out of bed the following evening, when neighbours
came at her request to verify that she was better, and not
a changeling. After the neighbours left, seemingly still
not convinced that she was truly his wife, Michael Cleary
tried to force Bridget to eat three pieces of bread before
he would give her a cup of tea- she ate two and insisted
on the tea. He waved a burning stick in her face, causing
her clothing to catch fire. She passed out, and he threw
paraffin oil on the changeling and burned her
to death, all the while screaming that she wasnt his
wife, that his wife would appear riding on a white horse
at a ruined hill fort the following evening, when he would
cut the cords that bound her with a black-handled knife.
On 14 March they held her over the fire to drive the spirits
out, and on 15 March Bridgets husband set fire to
her nightgown, throwing on lamp-oil to make the fire burn
more fiercely. Shes not my wife, he told
the assembled people.
Youll soon see her go up the chimney.
Brandishing a kitchen knife at her brothers, he forced one
of them to help him carry her to a shallow grave. Shortly
afterwards, some men reported to their local priest that
young Bridget Cleary, who was known to have been ill, had
been burned to death by family members, including her husband,
in a case of fairy exorcism. The priest in turn went to
the police, who found Bridgets charred body and arrested
nine family members, neighbours and friends in connection
with the incident. The subsequent trial became a weapon
in the hands of Tories opposed to Home Rule for Ireland.
After all, how could one grant political autonomy to a people
still so in the grip of superstition? Michael Cleary was
sentenced to 15 years after which he emigrated to Canada.
Tom McIntyre told me an intriguing story from the Clonmel
area some time ago when a young man (possibly a Canadian)
was observed in the vicinity of the Cleary household only
to disappear again. Did Michael re-marry and have a family?
I would strongly recommend Angela Bourkes The
Burning of Bridget Cleary and also worth a look is
The Cooper Wife is Missing by John Hoff and
What fascinates me about the Bridget Cleary story is that
it happened just over a hundred years ago - in my grandparents
time - so that we cant dismiss it simply as some aberration
from the Dark Ages.
This is what an 1895 publication, Gaslight,
had to say of the burning, an event which provided sensational
headlines throughout these islands at the time. It
seems,then, that whatever explanation we accept of the beliefs
which led to Bridget Clearys death, we cannot suppose
that it was the purpose of these men to murder her. The
account given of the matter by all the witnesses is too
fantastic and too uniform not to be genuine. We cannot imagine
that they, by pure chance, invented a course of reasoning
to excuse primitive superstition, nor is there the smallest
evidence to show that any of those motives which, for most
part, lead to murder were influencing, or had influenced,
any of the actors. The story is too strange not to be true.
That such superstitions should still be believed in a Christian
country, and by men who by religion are Christian, is appaling
enough; but the remedy for such a state of things is not
to be found in the hangmans noose, nor yet, perhaps,
in the convict prison, and one cannot but feel that it would
be in the spirit of that wise and merciful law which ordains
that boys under a certain age may not be hanged for capital
offenses to spare these men, even if they are condemned;
for children they are if, as can, I think, be proved, they
have acted under the influences of such superstitious fears,
as surely as the savage who fears his own shadow is a child.
It is as impossible for educated and unsuperstitious people
to appreciate the enormous force which such beliefs exercise
on untutored minds as it is for a heathen to estimate the
immense powder of religion in determining the conduct of
a man. But if, as this paper has tried to show, they killed,
but not with intent to kill, still less should the extreme
penalty be inflicted.
Staying with Festival Theatre - Amajuba - Like Doves
We Rise runs in An Grianan. On the night I attended
it received three standing ovations and I would recommend
that you mortgage your house to see it.
Courtesy of the Donegal Democrat