The 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 (don’t forget Com Melly’s book launch on Monday) I was transported back some 22 years to Fall River, Massachusetts, where Patrick’s daughter, Patricia and her husband, Owen, took me to visit her father’s 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 children’s rhyme: “Are you a witch or are you a fairy, Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”

On March 15, 1895, twenty-eight year old Bridget Cleary, a cooper’s 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 Cleary’s 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 1890’s. These neighbours were shunned by a small community resentful of such opportunism. Bridget did the shopping for them and may have been the young husband’s 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 Bridget’s 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 Bridget’s 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 Bridget’s 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 wasn’t 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 Bridget’s husband set fire to her nightgown, throwing on lamp-oil to make the fire burn more fiercely. “She’s not my wife”, he told the assembled people.

“You’ll 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 Bridget’s 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 Bourke’s “The Burning of Bridget Cleary” and also worth a look is “The Cooper Wife is Missing” by John Hoff and Marian Yeates.
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 can’t 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 Cleary’s 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 hangman’s 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
Frank Galligan