the peculiar case of the burning of bridget cleary
Updated: Mar 19
Ireland’s last witch-burning
In 1895, poor Bridget Cleary was the last woman in Ireland to be burned as a witch. Her story is a sad and terrible one, which I could only deal with writing about in small doses. She endured so much suffering through no fault of her own, was gruesomely murdered, and in the end was not even allowed a Christian burial. I think she deserves to be remembered.
Bridget was only twenty six when she died. She was unusual for a woman of her time; she worked as a seamstress, and did well enough that she could afford to dress herself in all the latest fashions. She also kept a flock of hens and sold eggs to raise additional income. Thus she was a financially independent woman of means who stood out from the other women in her rural community.
Her marriage was also unusual; she met Michael Cleary in Clonmel in August 1887, where they were quickly married, after which she returned to live with her parents in Ballyvadlea, County Tipperary. He remained in Clonmel where he was employed as a cooper (making wooden vessels bound by metal hoops, such as barrels). Bridget continued to support herself and live as an independent woman in control of her own finances.
After some years, Michael joined her, and they set up home in a labourer’s cottage, which they shared with Bridget’s elderly father, Patrick, following his wife’s death. Despite being married for eight years, the couple remained childless, but whether it was due to chance or choice is not known. However, women of that era were expected to produce a family, and so this was something else which also marked the couple as unusual in their community.
Belief in the fairies
In the nineteenth century, belief in the fairies was still rampant in rural communities. Folklore and memory along with Christian doctrine had inspired a fear of the supernatural and their malevolent nature. The fairies were believed to be anti-Christian, demons and witches.
When Bridget became ill in early March, Micheal became obsessed with the notion that Bridget had been consorting with fairies, and that they had abducted her and left a changeling (a fairy replacement) in her place.
On March 13th, a doctor was called, and a week later, a priest was summoned to administer the last rites. Michael told him that he had not dosed her with the doctor’s medicine, as chillingly, he believed “People may have some remedy of their own that might do more good than doctor’s medicine.”
One man’s remedy is a poor woman’s torture
Michael’s ‘remedies’ amounted to little more than horrific abuse. He had her held over a fire while forcing her to confess ‘in the name of God’; he threw the contents of a chamber pot over her; he burned her with a hot poker; he force fed her dry bread while she was pinned to the ground with his knee pressed against her throat, and another time forced her to drink milk laced with unidentified herbs while she was being held down by five men.
On the night of Friday 15th March, the torture culminated in stripping her to her undergarments, throwing lamp oil over her, and setting her alight, all in the presence of ten witnesses, who did nothing to stop him or help her.
fairy lore – a convenient explanation
According to the Irish Times, “Michael reportedly said while she burned. “I am not going to keep an old witch in place of my wife… It is not Bridget I am burning… You will soon see her go up the chimney.”
Folklore dictated that the death of a changeling would free the abducted person to return to her family, riding a white horse. Michael’s words indicate that perhaps he expected something like this to happen. But then again, perhaps he was cleverer than that.
It is interesting to note that only women and children appear to have been susceptible to fairy abduction and changeling lore. I wonder how many other women besides Bridget were abused and murdered, accused of being swapped for fairy changelings, when their husbands no longer wanted them.
So Bridget died a cruel and agonized death at the hands of her own husband with an audience of ten people which included members of her own family, none of whom lifted a finger to help her, or stop him. How could this have happened?
It seems that Michael convinced them all to cover up the horrible violence they had been party to by concocting a story of Bridget’s disappearance. However, the police eventually discovered Bridget’s badly burned body in a shallow grave not far from the house. A coroner’s report confirmed the death was caused by burning. All those present at her death were arrested.
sensational court case
The trial was widely reported and caused a sensation. Cleary himself was reported as ‘having a wild look’ in his eyes during the proceedings, and ‘was prone to outbursts’ in which he accused the other witnesses of colluding against him. It’s certainly possible; they had proved themselves capable of colluding with him during and in the days following the wicked event itself, why not against him later if it reduced their sentences?
Interestingly, the charge against Cleary was dropped from murder to manslaughter, for which he was sentenced to twenty years of penal servitude (imprisonment with hard labour). After fifteen years, he was released from Portlaoise prison on 28th April 1910 and went to Liverpool, from where he emigrated to Montreal on 30th June.
His accomplices were convicted of ‘wounding’, and received sentences varying from six months penal servitude to five years.
Despite all of this, Bridget was denied a proper Christian burial, and ended up being buried on church grounds in secret by police at night.
I find it incredible that one man held so much power over so many others. What was the nature of Cleary’s hold over them? Did they really believe his stories of fairy witches? Whether he believed it himself or not, I think there are some interesting clues as to his motivations in this story.
It’s interesting that Michael is quoted as saying of Bridget that ‘she is too fine to be my wife’. There is clearly some resentment here. She was a woman of independent means; she was said to be attractive, well dressed and fashionable… she did not need him in the way that most wives needed a man in their lives. She gave him no children; was this a source of conflict between them?
He was obviously capable of inflicting violence on a defenceless human being in cold blood. He apparently locked everyone in the house with Bridget’s burned body while he went out looking for a suitable site to bury and hide her body. He showed no remorse or grief that his real wife was not returned to him by the fairies. He acted out the part of a concerned husband after Bridget’s alleged ‘disappearance’ by joining search parties. He convinced everyone to lie for him to the police, then accused them all of colluding against him in court. He had several episodes, or outbursts during the trial.
We cannot know for sure, and I am speculating here, but I would suggest this man had issues with anger management and aggression, perhaps also mental illness, and that he was possibly a controlling, violent and abusive man. His unusual independent wife stripped him of his manly authority, and in a superstitious and rural community still governed by religious fear, folklore and old wives tales, his changeling story gave him a valid excuse for his actions, whether he believed it himself or not. Certainly, this story seems to echo similar stories of domestic violence we have all heard many times, and that still go on today.
Bridget’s death and the subsequent trial of her murderers was set against the backdrop of the struggle for Irish home rule, inflaming the debate in London over whether the Irish were actually fit to govern themselves, and endorsing the generally widely-accepted perception that the Irish were savage, superstitious, and uneducated.
The role of Catholicism was also brought into public scrutiny; already accused of supporting Irish nationalism, it was seen in this case to turn a blind eye to the moral actions of its parishioners.
Summing up English attitudes at the time, one contemporary writer claimed:
“Thus ends this tale of “moral darkness, even of religious darkness, not of one person, but of several,” the events of which took place, not in Darkest Africa, but in Tipperary; not in the ninth or tenth, but at the close of the nineteenth century; not amongst Atheists, but amongst Roman Catholics, with the Rosary on their lips, and with the priest celebrating Mass and administering absolution and extreme unction in their houses.
“Ah, my readers, Ireland is not the merry country which people think, which Protestant Irishmen like Lever and Lover have painted it; or the abode of half-humorous, half-contemptible braggarts, as Thackeray saw it. It is a sad, a gloomy, a depressed, a joyless country, for the bulk of its peasantry. Hence it is they leave it. When the heart is sad, and the mind clouded in ignorance, and oppressed by darkest fears and mystery, there can be no humour, no gaiety. There is, I have always believed, more real gaiety of heart in one coster on the Old Kent Road, than in all the Catholic peasants of Munster.”
R.I.P Bridget Cleary
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