Faeries, changelings and herbalist doctors might seem like characters in a winding tale of medieval folklore today, but in 1895, Ireland bore witness to a case that saw these facets of folk tradition flare up in a very real way when Michael Cleary, a skilled tradesman of County Tipperary set fire to his wife, burning her to death. As the body of Bridget Cleary was placed in the ground, her husband was convinced that he would see his wife again, riding on the back of a grey horse as she emerged from an invisible plane. The body in the ground was merely that of a changeling, an imposter placed in his house by the fairies, he had merely expedited the process of return.
Amazon – The burning of Bridget Cleary: Angela Bourke – An excellent book that documents the case of Bridget Cleary along with the social and political issues of the time.
The Irish History Podcast – Fins episode on his own podcast, The Irish History Podcast that covers the Bridget Cleary case.
If you enjoy the podcast, please consider leaving us a review over in itunes or your app of choice. It really helps us out. Cheers!
Bridget Cleary: Gone with the Fairies
“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.”
Faeries, changelings and herbalist doctors might seem like characters in a winding tale of medieval folklore today, but in 1895, Ireland bore witness to a case that saw these facets of folk tradition flare up in the human world in a very real way when Michael Cleary, a skilled tradesman of County Tipperary set fire to his wife, burning her to death. As the body of Bridget Cleary was placed in the ground, her husband was convinced that he would see his wife again, riding on the back of a grey horse as she emerged from an invisible plane. The body in the ground was merely that of a changeling, an imposter placed in his house by the fairies, he had merely expedited the process of return. This is Dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
19th Century Ireland was a volatile land, politically, socially and culturally. In the space of one hundred years, it rose to high prosperity and fell to desperate poverty. Rebellions fought against Anglo-Irish rule, rural communities pushed back against state legislation for more humane rights along with better land securities and sectarian violence saw a religious, cultural grasp tighten and falter. Education was reformed and the Irish language itself saw a steep decline in usage. After a boom in population, famine and large volumes of emigration stripped communities to the bone and finally, as prosperity returned, modernisation, industrialisation and globalisation turned familiar landscapes on their heads. In the space of just two generations, a family could have lived through all of this and much more. To say that the social norms of Ireland in the dying throes of the 19th Century could be complicated would be a gross understatement.
Bridget Cleary, born Bridget Boland, was 26 years old in 1895. She was described, “of middle height, brownish hair, blue eyes and regular features. A pretty woman”. The daughter of Patrick Boland, a farm laborer and his wife, Mary Boland, Bridget had three elder brother, Michael, Edmond and William, though by 1895, they had either died unfortunately young, or all left the Bolands hometown of Ballyvadlea in the Irish County of Tipperary. Records are not clear on the fates of the three Boland brothers, however, with the death rates so high and the emigration figures so large that one or the other seems highly likely and far from unusual. In 1851, the population of Ballyvadlea had been 112, but by 1891 the number sat at only 31 people living in 9 houses. One thing was clear, that they were no longer around the family home. Bridgets mother too had passed away in recent years and so Bridget lived in a relatively small family unit with her father, Patrick Boland and husband, Michael Cleary, in a modern, slate roofed, stone house. Ballyvadlea was extremely rural, but it was not entirely isolated. Clonmel, a large town that served as an important railway junction, lay only 13 miles to the South, Drangan 3 miles to the North and Fethard 5 miles to the West, all of which had populations in the thousands, oil lamp lit paved streets , schools, surgeries, churches and police barracks.
During the 1880s, Bridget had herself moved to Clonmel to train as a Dressmaker, a skilled and respectable trade and it was in Clonmel that she had met her soon the be husband, Michael Cleary.
Michael Cleary was born in Killenaule, 8 miles to the North of Ballyvadlea, though by the 1880s, lived in Clonmel and worked as a cooper, making barrels as a skilled tradesman. Nine years Bridgets senior, when they married in August of 1887, the pairing would have caused tongues to wag, the age gap was one matter, but Bridget’s young age of 18 too was 9 years younger than the average age of marriage at that time within Ireland. Though, with both husband and wife working a skilled trade, it was perhaps less of a strange matchup than their ages might have led some to believe. Besides, during the first years of their marriage, age was not the only unorthodox factor in their marriage that had caused gossip to spread. After Bridget completed her apprenticeship, she moved back to Ballyvadlea, possibly to help her father nurse her sick mother and had decided to stay living in her hometown. Michael Cleary visited her on the weekends, but with the distance in their marriage, rumours of affairs flew through the small population of Ballyvadlea freely. On Bridget, fell accusations that she was carrying on an affair with her neighbour, 24 year old William Simpson, a particularly unpopular man in the village of Ballyvadlea, given that he lived on land with his wife and two children that had been repossessed from a previously evicted tenant, tending the land under employ of the landlord. Known as emergency men, these were men who were positively despised in the local communities, with population wide boycotts often put in place that would refuse to deal with them socially or financially, even refusing to sell them goods in shops or entire classrooms of children being emptied as other members of the local communities withdrew their own children to keep them away from the emergency mens.
Michael Cleary faired little better and he too fell under suspicion of carrying on an affair in Clonmel. The affairs were, essentially, both baseless rumour and in early in 1895, Michael Cleary moved to Ballyvadlea to live with Bridget and her father. He had a workshop in the yard to continue his trade whilst Bridget had a sewing machine in their bedroom which doubled as her dressmaking workshop. The couple were both educated and worked respected trades, to many outsiders they would have been a successful partnership, though the fact they were childless, highly unusual at the time, only caused the rumours to keep rolling. Despite the rumours, there were voices that expressed no overt signs of unhappiness in the couples daily goings on.
Financially, the Cleary household would have been a step above their rural neighbours. Michael Cleary would have made the wages of a skilled craftsman and Bridget too, with their lack of children was free to continue her own business as dressmaker. On the side, Bridget also partook in the keeping of hens, a common business venture for women in rural Ireland. The maintenance of the birds fell solely onto the shoulders of the wives and was far from an easy undertaking. It was also rarely taken seriously by some men who perhaps felt a certain threat from the practice, however, the reward for those keepers lie in the money earnt from the selling of eggs, which remained independent from their husbands influence. In many respects, Bridget was the embodiment of a modern, cosmopolitan woman, working hard and earning a good living with a certain degree of independence from her husband and her family. She dressed fashionably in bright colours and wore gold earrings in her pierced ears, setting her somewhat apart from the other women of Ballyvadlea, whilst the Singer branded sewing machine in the Clearys bedroom was not a cheap hobbyist device. These machines were often bought on an instalment basis and it seems likely that Bridget too would have been making regular payments on her own as a long term investment.
Caring for her hens and selling their eggs would have taken quite a large portion of Bridget’s time and so it was that on the 4th of March 1895 that Bridget was traipsing up to a local ringfort named Kylenagranagh to sell eggs to the house of her father’s cousin, Jack Dunne. At 55 years old, Dunne was an elderly looking man with a left leg slightly shorter than his right, a lasting remnant of an earlier fracture, that caused him to walk with a limp. When she arrived at the Dunne household, she found no one home and sat out to wait upon their return for a period, though unfortunately, the weather saw a turn and Bridget instead found herself walking home in the cold rain. By the next day, 5th March 1895, Bridget found herself in bed with a headache and a fever. Whilst today this might seem fairly straightforward and a common outcome of being caught in a cold downpour, in 1895, a fever was not always simply a fever, especially not when you’d fallen ill after visiting a house built on the ringfort of Kylenagranagh.
Ringforts & Faeries
Fairy Forts, Raths, or Ringforts are the remains of ancient dwellings dating as far back as the Iron Age, with the majority having been built during 500-900 AD. These primitive forts are dotted throughout Ireland, with suggestions of numbers that extend upwards of 60,000 and In some areas, remains of the ringforts can be seen in concentrations of one for every two kilometres of land. The earthen structures were originally used to house small circular settlements, surrounded often by wooden fencing and the earth surrounding them banked up to provide a defensive area around the settlement. Behind each bank a ditch would be formed from the shifting of the dirt to the bank, creating a secondary level of defence and often wooden palisades would have sat atop the banks. Nowadays the wood has fallen and the remains rotted and degraded, so that all that is left are the banks themselves, at times with low, surrounding supporting walls, built predominantly in the West of Ireland and others found in the East without. Whilst the term fort may conjure images of warfare and martial excitement, the reality is less violent. Most were built to protect the inhabitants and their cattle from predators.
In early Irish societies, Lore sprang up to explain the ringforts and in a time before the sciences of archaeology or anthropology were widespread, serious pursuits, stories were spun to make sense of these peculiar circular arrangements creeping up through the grass in the hillsides. Stories of Fairies and of other worlds were born into the local oral histories and ringforts commonly became known as the home of many mythological creatures, eventually setting on the “small people” or the “Good People” as Fairies were commonly known. These fairies lived in a preternatural realm that co-existed alongside our own,
“They lived parallel lives to humans: they kept cows; enjoyed whiskey, hurling, Gaelic football, music, singing and dancing; liked gold, milk and tobacco; and hated iron, fire, salt, urine and Christianity”
Often invisible, descriptions of faeries vary with every account told. Smaller, of same height and at times taller than humans, they dressed in green dresses and took on a vaguely human-like appearance, though they were also known to shapeshift and take on the appearance of animals. Rabbits and hares were the major suspects for a fairy in animal-disguise. Whilst generally benevolent, they were known to cause mischief amongst the human realm and could almost certainly be the bringer of bad luck, causing poor harvests, sickness and stolen farm produce. This mischievous trait was severely magnified if their ringfort dwellings were disturbed in any way by humans. Blindness was attributed to a human glimpsing the fairy world, whilst death and sickness in childbirth was often explained by fairy involvement, along with numerous cases of untimely or unusual deaths along with inexplicable mental health problems and disability. The fairies did not always explain the negative however, and so too did they find themselves the explanations of good fortune, or the helpers when people found themselves in desperate situations.
The ringforts, so numerous in the landscape, were spoken of as gates that bridged the hidden world with the physical, allowing faeries to influence the human realm and for humans to be taken away into the fairy realm, a practice which was used to explain the onset of much of the bad luck with concerns to illness.
The taking of children in particular became a common mischief perpetrated by fairies, who would steal away a human, often a child and leave a changeling in their place. The changeling would often have some physical disability or illness and would therefore need to be treated. Enter the Fairy Doctor, a skilled herbalist and enchanter of sorts, knowledgeable of the fairy realm and at times, an individual with direct contact to the invisible realms. The fairy doctors held an important and esteemed position in rural communities of Ireland, particularly amongst the poor and uneducated classes who could little afford or understand a modern medical practitioner. The fairy doctors primary role was to offer herbs, remedies and instructions on rights to restore order to the situation, usually in forcing the fairies to return the original victim to their rightful place in the human realm and their services were, for the most part given as an act of charity, though some were also happy to carve a living from the practice. Whether or not they made the practice their primary means of income, most extended back through generations, practicing cures that had been handed down from an ancestral root that often stemmed from a long past family member who was at one point in time “touched by the fairies” or had returned themselves from the fairy realm after being taken.
These folk beliefs span through centuries of history and extends in minorities through until today with differing levels of seriousness and superstition. in 2017, member of the Irish Parliament Danny Healy-Rae proclaimed that subsidence problems with a road were caused by the proximity of the local Ringforts to the modern structure. Claiming that,
“There are numerous fairy forts in that area . . . I know that they are linked. Anyone that tampered with the ringforts back over the years paid a high price and had bad luck . . . there was something in these places you shouldn’t touch”
Whilst Danny Healy-Rae was a contentious character in Irish politics at best, well known for his controversial statements and his comments on fairies were viewed with a sceptical and by many, scathingly derisive eye, it does show that the roots of belief can have strong heritage and leave traces in the mind even today. In 1895, we find a time with similar, but much more compounded and complicated beliefs. The modernisation that swept through Ireland in the latter half of the 19th Century was quick to push back against the elder stories of magical realms and faery folk, though perhaps not everyone was entirely ready to embrace this new and different age that threatened a way of life they could understand and were comfortable with and held a degree of social currency within.
Lead up to disappearance (illness etc.)
The day after Bridget got caught in the rain, Tuesday 5th March, she fell ill with a fever and a headache and took to bed to rest. Her illness continued throughout the week and she was nursed daily by both Michael Cleary, who had spent the week with little sleep whilst he worked and took care of his wife and Bridgets cousin, Johanna Burke. On Friday, Jack Dunne visited Bridget and Michael at their home and sowed a seed that would linger in the mind of Michael Cleary. As he approached Bridget, he exclaimed “That’s not Bridgie Boland!”, exclaiming that the fairies had visited Bridget and that the proof was in the fact that one of her legs was shorter than the other. Whether or not this was a serious comment on behalf of Dunne is unknown, had he simply been implying that Bridget was not herself due to the illness, or had he meant that quite literally, the woman in the bed was not the original Bridget? Regardless of his intentions, his comments bored deep into Michael Cleary’s mind and began to fester.
By Saturday the 9th, with still little improvement in her condition, Bridget’s father Patrick Boland walked the five miles to Fethard to fetch the doctor for a house visit. Doctor William Crean however, was a busy man and one who was prone to drink. He failed to visit the Clearys and so, on Monday 11th, this time Michael walked to Fethard to attempt to rouse the doctor in the hope he might get the picture and realise the clearys weren’t going to leave him in peace until he had done his duty. Despite this persistence, the doctor still did not show and so on Wednesday, Michael Cleary left his house at 5am to walk to Fethard once again. This time, the doctor did get the message and promised to visit Bridget that afternoon. Whilst in Fethard this time, the doctor was not the only medical practitioner that Cleary chose to visit however, and when he returned home in the afternoon, he carried with him a pouch of herbs to create a more traditional remedy for Bridget. On the same day, their neighbour, William Simpson sent his servant as a messenger to Drangan to ask for a visit from a priest. Whilst this might sound extreme and given the fact that the priest, upon his arrival, read Bridget Cleary er last rights, it was not altogether an unusual state of affairs and whilst Bridget was by now, quite ill, the rights were read purely as a safety measure by the priest who admitted he had done so only as a basic security and he thought there was no particular urgency in Bridgets condition. How Michael perceived this ritual however, is a different matter. By now he had watched his wife’s illness progress for over a week without much improvement and he returned home from Fethard to find Jack Dunne, Johanna Burke and Father Cornelius Ryan in the house in a somber mood. The doctor had already visited and had been of little help, he had diagnosed Bridget with a mild Bronchitis but shown no immediate concern. That evening Michael Cleary mixed the herbs he had bought in Fethard and fed the resulting medicine to Bridget. Whilst Bridget took the herbs voluntarily, she had shown her own reservations concerning her husbands suspicions earlier that day when she had told Johanna Burke that her husband was “making a fairy of me”. Johanna had tried to avail her concerns by telling her to not pay any mind to these suggestions.
Tired from working, caring for his wife and traipsing across the county in pursuit of an elusive doctor, that evening Michael Cleary sat down with Jack Dunne in his house. Dunne had private concerns about Bridget and he thought wise to voice them to Michael. He had little faith in the doctors medicine and the herbs that Michael had obtained in Fethard might have been a step in the right direction, but, he insisted, it is Dennis Ganey, a Fairy Doctor in Kylatlea, that Michael really needs to visit. He, Dunne ensured, would set Bridget’s condition straight and he expressed some disappointment in Cleary for not visiting him sooner. As lore tells it, Cleary had a right to visit the Fairy Doctor after the 5th day of Bridget’s illness and today was already way beyond this preternatural waiting period.
The next morning at first light, Thursday 14th March, Michael Cleary once again hit the road in search of someone to help his wife. This time he was taking Dunnes advice and walking to Kylatlea, another four mile trek into the hills to the South of Ballyvadlea. He also stopped by the Simpsons to request they send for the priest once again, though on this occasion the priest sent reply that there was little more he could do and elected not to pay s second visit to see Bridget. The same messenger also stopped by Jack Dunnes house and asked him to go down to the Cleary house and Michael Cleary himself stopped in on Mary Kennedy, asking her too to visit Bridget. He spent the majority of the day on his mission to attain the remedy from Ganey which would, in all hopes, put to bed the problem of his wives illness. He returned home that afternoon with fresh herbs and instructions on how to administer them along with certain rights and rituals. Upon his return home, he was greeted with sour news. His father had passed away in their home town of Killenaule that afternoon and the wake was to be held that night. It would have been a crushing blow for Cleary, though he made no intention of attending his father’s wake. For now he had business with the fairies first, though he might, he assured family, be able to make it later that night.
At around 9pm, the Cleary house was crammed with family members and bystanders who Michael had asked to aid in one way or another, either in sending for people to visit or in holding a candle to light the room. There were nine people in total, Michael Cleary, Bridget’s father Patrick Boland, her aunt, Mary Kennedy, her four cousins, Patrick, Michael, James and William Kennedy, jack Dunne and William Ahearne. On their way to the house also was the neighbours, William and Minnie Simpson and Bridgets cousin Johanna Burke who had been nursing Bridget every day since her onset of Bronchitis.
Michael Cleary was busying himself preparing the herbs he had retrieved from Ganey. He was instructed, either by Ganey or Dunne, to boil the herbs in “new milk” the first milk taken from a cow after calving and he had sat by the fireside, stirring the mixture, bringing it to boil. He was mid-way through forcing his milk upon his wife when the Simpsons and Johanna Burke arrived. The door to the house was locked, but they heard shouting from inside.
“Take it, you old bitch, or I’ll kill you” though the word bitch, was later suggested to have been mistaken for “witch”. There were other shouts too, as a voice erupted.
“Away she go! Away she go!”
When Michael eventually opened the front door to the three late visitors, he told them the house was full of fairies. He had, in fact, not opened to door to let the visitors in, he was quite unaware of their waiting, he was simply opening the door to let the fairies out.
The scene inside the house was not a particularly cosy one. Patrick Boland was alone in the kitchen, whilst Bridget was lying on bed, Jack Dunne holding her head to the mattress, whilst Patrick, William and James Kennedy were pinning her arms and legs to the bed. Michael Cleary had a saucepan of milk and herbs and the young William Ahearne held a candle in he corner alongside Mary Kennedy. Michael Cleary continued to attempt to feed his wife the milk and herb mixture, screaming at her to answer in the name of God if she was Bridget Boland, the wife of Michael Cleary. Bridget, for her part protested, screaming back that the milk was bitter and attempting to resist drinking it.
This was the third time that evening that the milk and herbs had been forced upon Bridget. Another threatening part of the ritual had been to threaten her with fire and burns by brandishing a red hot poker, heated on the fire and pushing it towards her face. Fire was a known bane of the fairies. Likewise, a foul concoction of Urine and Hens excrement had similar banishing qualities and as such, Cleary and Dunne had mixed up a further saucepan of this awful making and tossed it over Bridget’s face on several occasions. The reports of this differ slightly and some say it may have been water and wine, though it seems likely that may well have been purely wishful thinking, as several witness named it a “Noxious Fluid”.
As all of this took place, the people in the room clapped their hands together and shouted “Away with you, come home Bridget Boland in the name of God!”, Jack Dunne threatened loudly to “Make down a good fire and we will make her answer”, whilst Bridget lay in bed screaming. The situation was desperate, if the mens questions were not answered to their satisfaction by midnight, the real Bridget Boland would be lost to the fairies forever and so at 11:30 pm, in a last ditch effort, they carried her to the fireplace and threatened her with the heat of the flames. Again they screamed at her to tell them she was Bridget Boland. Bridget screamed back that she was and after ten minutes, the men carried her back to the bed.
Finally, after several hours, the horrific ordeal was done. Midnight passed and the men relaxed, apparently satisfied that the whole thing had been a success. Bridget lay in the bed, moaning to herself and speaking in confused strings about returning home. Mary Kennedy and Johanna Burke fixed her clothing and redressed her in a fresh nightgown and after, the men gathered around the bed again. Michael Cleary asked Bridget if she recognised the men in the room and one by one, she told him that she did. Satisfied with the nights proceedings, the men stayed a while longer and then the four Kennedy brothers left to attend Michael Clearys fathers wake. Cleary himself did not go, though he asked them to send a message to his mother that he “had his wife back from the fairies”.
Disappearance (paper reports, fairies etc.)
On the 15th, the morning after the terrible night of the Fairy ritual in the Clearys house, Michael Cleary went once again to visit Father Ryan. He asked him once again to visit his wife. He was sure that the ouse was full of evil spirits and wanted it to be cleansed with a mass. The priest followed him home on horseback and upon his arrival, said mass and gave Bridget a Holy Communion. According to Father Ran, Bridget,
“Appeared more nervous and excited, but notwithstanding her wild and excited looks, her conversations were coherent and intelligent.”
As he left eh Clearys, Father Ryan asked Michael Cleary if he had been giving Bridget the doctors medicine, to which he was told, in no uncertain terms that the clearys had little faith in the doctor and that people have their own remedies for dealing with these situations.
That evening saw more visitors to the Cleary household. Tom Smyth and Davy Hogan along with Johanna Burke were over for the afternoon and so, now with her physical condition slowly returning, Bridget got up and dressed for the first time in eleven days. That night, Johannas brothers Patrick, James and William arrived back from Michael Clearys fathers wake and visited the Clearys. The neighbours Smyth and Hogan had left, but Johanna Burke, Patrick Boland, Mary Kennedy and four of her children and grand-daughter all remained stuffed into the kitchen. They sat down a little before midnight to take tea, which Johanna Burke had prepared. The men expressed their happiness to see Bridget up and dressed and as they drank tea, Michael Cleary served Bridget three pieces of bread and jam. Bridget ate the first two, however, when she refused the third, things took a dramatic shift. Michael Cleary threatened her again. He yelled at Bridget, exclaiming that if she would not eat it, he would “put her down”, he begun repeating the same questions from the ritual, asking her if she was Bridgie Boland, threw her to the ground and stuffed the bread into her mouth, commanding her to swallow it. Bridget whimpered in response, apparently telling her husband to “give her a chance”, in response, he stripped her clothing down to her chemise, placed his knee on her chest and took a piece of wood from the fireplace, threatening Bridget with the red hot embers and suggesting he would shove it down her throat. In his tooing and throwing with the burning wood, embers fell upon Bridget and in a flash of flame, her chemise ignited. As she lay on the floor, Bridgets body burned. Michael Cleary stood back from the burning Bridget and picking up the paraffin lamp, threw the flammable oil over her body.
Patrick and James Kennedy, who had been sleeping in another room woke and walked into the kitchen along with Mary Kennedy who had also been asleep in another room. As they made their way into the kitchen, James Kennedy exclaimed to Michael Cleary, “Don’t burn your wife!”
“She is not my wife, she’s an old deceiver sent in place of my wife. She’s after deceiving me for the last seven or eight days, and deceived the priest today too, but she won’t deceive anyone any more. As I beggined it with her, I will finish it with her! You’ll soon see her go up the chimney!”
Cleary had locked the door to the house and some of the men made to leave. Cleary took out a knife and told them that none would leave until he got his wife back. As the group removed themselves from the kitchen, leaving Michael Cleary throwing more lamp oil on his wifes burning body, they shut themselves in the bedrooms. Michael Cleary left, locking the door behind him and upon returning around an hour later, enlisted Patrick Kennedy to help him to bury Bridgets body. The ordeal was over as far as he was concerned. He had burned the fairy from his household, tearing out the heart of the problem. All that was left for him to do was to visit Kylenagranagh Fairy Fort and wait for the return of his real wife riding a grey horse. If he cut her free from the saddle, he could, he told them return home with his wife and the problems were over. For the next two days and nights, Michael Cleary went with Jack Dunne to Kylenagranagh to await his wifes return.
Police find body / arrests
“Barbarism in Tiperrary, Horrible scene of Superstition and Barbary. A sick Woman Tortured as Witch”
“The sensation caused by the mysterious disappearance of a sick woman named Cleary has been heightened by the discovery of her dead body yesterday buried in a dyke on an evicted farm in Drangan Police District, about a quarter of a mile from her own home. She was just a week missing, and the police and others were searching for her vainly all the time until yesterday, when a police constable found her body buried about two feet in the boggy bottom of the dyke, her only covering being a chemise and some bags. On turning the body it was found that one side was dreadfully burned from the face down to the legs. The police took charge of the remains at once, but left them, as found, in the custody of the a special guard all night. After the discovery of the body a woman named Burke, who had been caring for Mrs Cleary while sick, was taken in custody by the police.”
In the days between Bridgets death and the discovery of her body, police had already rounded up and kept in custody ten of the eleven they would eventually hold. Johanna Burke had gone to the police, though she had not told the full story, only that Bridget Cleary was missing, so too had William Simpson given a testimony to that which he had witnessed on the 14th of the brutal fairy ritual. Michael Cleary, Patrick Boland, Jack Dunne, Michael, Patrick, James, William and Mary Kennedy, William Ahearne and Denis Ganey were all taken into custody, charged with having ill-treated Bridget and causing her actual bodily harm. The eleventh, Johanna Burke completed the set shortly after the discovery of Bridget buried in the field. Before the body was discovered, the ten accused were taken to stand before the magistrates court, in Clonmel Town Hall. When invited to ask the inspector any questions related o their charge, Cleary only stated:
“All I have to say is that I would not illtreat my wife.
Mr Casey – That is not a question but a statement. Have you any question to put to the District Inspector? Cleary replied that he had not, and was further understood to say that it he who had gone for the man Denis Ganey.”
“Patrick Boland (Father of Bridget Cleary) was next asked a similar question, and he said – I don’t know; I have nothing to say about my daughter.”
None of the others that took the stand felt they had anything to ask, although Michael Kennedy asked why he was detained, given that he had only spent 10 minutes in the house.
“I did not wish to do her any harm” he said.
Denis Ganey, however, was adamant the affair had little to do with him at all.
“Did he see me? Does he say that I assisted in doing away with the woman?”
A statement from Michael Cleary was then read aloud to the court.
“I believe that the ill-treatment which Bridget Cleary was subjected to was in administering herbs prepared for her by Denis Ganey, and that it was by his instructions she was ill-treated.”
Again, Ganey objected,
“Did he hear me? Does he swear that I instructed the people to do so? What grounds has he for charging me? What grounds has he for believing that I gave instructions? When did he see or hear of my being there, or was I there at all?”
Despite his remonstrations, the application to hold all of the accused in custody until Bridget was found. Though all confessed only that Bridget was last seen on Friday night, strong and dressed before she “went away”.
All the male prisoners were kept in a cell in Clonmel, whilst the female prisoners were sent by train to a romans prison in Limerick.
Following the discovery of Bridgets body an inquest was held on Saturday the 23rd March, whereby evidence was given from the police constable who found the body, along with Dr Crean who had visited Bridget during her illness.
“I was called to see the sick woman on the 11th instance. I was not able to go to see her until the 13th instance. I went to her residence on that morning. I found her simply suffering from nervous excitement. She was in bed. She had a slight inflammation of breathing tubes of the lungs, or bronchitis. I could see nothing in her case that would cause death. I did not see the slightest danger. I prescribed, and afterwards, the same morning gave the medicine to her husband. I had no anxiety whatever about her case. I did not see her alive afterwards.”
Dr Crean assisted Dr Heffernan in the Post Mortem examination of Bridgets body, and both doctors gave evidence, which included a long list of burns throughout the body.
“We believe she died from shock caused by the burns. We believe death resulted from them. No living person could exist from the severe burns… We should say death must have occurred very soon or immediately after the burns or in the process.”
A verdict was given that it was clear how Bridget had died, but how she had been burned was a matter for which court was yet to determine. The horrific story of the Fairy ritual was still a secret from all but those present on the night of the 15th.
Trials, Michael Clearys POV etc.
During the early press reports following the discovery of Bridget Clearys body, there were many headlines that ran the idea of Bridget having been burnt as a witch. It wasn’t until the 30th March when the Express ran a story with the headline “The Tipperary Fairies”, that the beginnings of the extent of the true story began to inch out into the public. At first, many Irish living abroad were skeptical of the tone of the articles, which often presented the rural Irish as barbaric. This narrative, naturally fed directly into the one that was pushed by the Conservative British press, who promoted home rule and pushed back against the concept of an independant Ireland. As the details leaked out however, it became apparent that the truth was just as dark as the stories were making it out to be.
“In the course of my investigations into the burning of Bridget Cleary at Ballyvadlea, near Clonmel – the circumstances connected with which I detailed in my dispatch last night – many extraordinary stories were brought to light, and some importance may be attached to them when viewed in connexion with the witchcraft theory. That a belief in the existence of fairies still lingers amongst the inhabitants of the Clonen District is beyond doubt, and many people are to be found who give the most circumstantial accounts of strange doings ascribed to the little “red coated gentry”. Indeed a belief in witchcraft is not by any means confined to this part of the country, nor for that matter to Ireland. Even in England, superstitious beliefs still linger in many country villages.”
“In connection with the recent tragedy, one of the reports which I heard – but which at best I hesitated to give publicity to – was that on the night of Mrs Clearys murder a number of people, each armed with a black handled knife, assembled on the rath at the back of the house in the belief that the real Mrs Cleary would appear stripped down on the back of a grey horse, their intention being to cut her bonds with the knives, by which it was believed they would break the enchantment and set her free. Improbable as this may appear, it is only a sample of the many stories current int he neighbourhood.”
The story had truth to it too. Michael Cleary had assembled a group of his neighbours on the nights following the murder of his wife. He had asked to borrow his neighbour, William Simpsons gun to threaten people with if they did not show up to go with himself and Jack Dunne to Kylenagranagh, though Simpson had denied him the use of the firearm. Instead, Simpson reported seeing the groups on the Monday and Tuesday evenings.
Still, the story of fairy involvement took a while to filter out into the public at large and for several more days, newspaper reports called the murder of Bridget Cleary the “witchcraft case”, with assorted headlines along the lines of “The witch burning” and “The Irish Witch case”.
A lot of the excitement that surrounded the case now lie directly at the prisoners in custody and little print was given to the funeral of Bridget Cleary which took place on the night of Wednesday 27th March. It was a sorry affair and was not only boycotted by the local community, but held under the cover of darkness.
“Not one civilian attended the burial, and the rites of sepulture were performed by four police-constables. There was no hearse, and the coffin was borne by a common car from Fethard. The significance of this will be understood when it is remembered that the Irish peasantry regard a funeral not only as an expression of respect for the deceased and of sympathy with the family, but as invested with a certain degree of sanctity. The fact is, however, that the people believe – or, perhaps, with a view to the defence of the prisoners, affect to believe – that the real Bridget Cleary will come back, riding on a white horse sent by the fairies, and that if they can succeed in cutting the reins of the horse they will secure her. With this object there are, it is stated, persons on the watch on the mountains, one of whom is specially provided with a sharp knife to cut the reins.”
Bridget Cleary was buried next to her mother at 10pm with no one in attendance. There might be, perhaps one other explanation somewhat more worldly for the boycott, that the Clearys were on friendly terms with their emergency man neighbour would not have been something seen in an altogether shining light by the community. Either way, it was a sad bookend to the life of Bridget Cleary.
On Monday April 1st, the Magisterial hearing opened in the Clonmel Court House. The first witness to be called was the neighbour William Simpson, who gave extended testimony as to all he had witnessed on the night of the 14th and the Fairy Doctor ritual. When asked if any of the people present int he room at the time of the ritual offered any disapproval to the brutality that Michael Cleary was dishing out towards his wife, he replied confidently, “No, Sir”. Following Simpson, Father Ryan gave evidence, who told of how he had seen Michael Cleary in church on the morning following the murder of Bridget.
“He knelt near the altar, and I saw that he was in an excited, nervous state, and I asked him into the vestry. He was tearing his hair and behaving like a madman, and said something about going to confession. He seemed in remorse for something he had done, and was calling out the holy name of God, and asking if he could ever be forgiven.”
Father Ryan did not offer to hear Michael Clearys confession as he thought he appeared in an improper state and beginning to fear his mannerisms, he took him outside the church where the pair met Michael Kennedy, who led Cleary away from the church. He also saw Jack Dunne that same morning,
“I was speaking to him in the chapel yard and asked him what was the meaning of Cleary’s state of mind and his excitement. His answer, as well as I can remember, was, “They burned her to death last night and buried her, and I have been asking them all morning to take her up and give her a proper Christian burial”. That is the substance of what he said. I had no further conversation with him that I can remember. I think he said that three or four of them buried her. I was horror struck, and I said to him I remember saying “How could three or four of them go out of their mind simultaneously,” not thinking it was any idea they had about witchcraft, and I don’t remember that there was any answer. I went to the police barrack after, and told Acting-Sergeant Egan that I thought Cleary was off his head.”
The following day, court resumed with evidence given by neighbour Mary Simpson. Her evidence fell largely in line with her husbands evidence from the day before, though when asked who ordered Bridget to be taken to the fireplace on the 14th, she replied “Jack Dunne.”
When the District Inspector stood to give evidence, a shovel was presented to the court found at the Clearys house several days prior and to much amusement to the jam packed court room, debate was had on whether or not the shovel smelt of oil or paraffin, finally it was decided that it indeed smelt as though someone with paraffin on their hands would have carried the shovel. Clearys clothing was then presented to the court and oil stains were pointed out and the court then adjourned for two days until Thursday 4th April. Over the following days, the medical evidence was heard and on Friday 5th April, Denis Ganey was discharged. On Saturday 6th April statements were made to the magistrates from the defence. Jack Dunne made no time in distancing himself from the whole affair, admitting to being present but conveniently removing himself from any tales of faeries or suggestions for remedies. The day concluded with the magistrates court decision on how to continue forward with each prisoner.
“There are no doubt different degrees of culpability in the part taken by each of the prisoners before us, but notwithstanding this difference, we are of opinion that there is a distinct question as to whether the occurence of Friday night, the 15th, March last, was not a legal continuance of the very grievous torture inflicted on the deceased, Bridget Cleary, on the previous night. And therefore we order the commital of trial to the next assizes to be held for the County Tiperrary. The prisoners were shortly after removed to the jail under a heavy escort of constabulary.”
On Thursday 4th July, Michael Cleary stood trial for murdering Bridget Cleary and pleaded guilty of manslaughter, whilst the eight remaining prisoners, Patrick Boland, Mary kennedy, Jack Dunne, William Ahearne and Mary kennedys four sons were all to stand trial for unlawfully and maliciously wounding Bridget Cleary, and on a second count of having committed actual bodily harm. All eight pleaded not guilty. The trial was brief and with much evidence previously heard during the magistrates hearing duly repeated, the jury went out to find their verdict on the evening of Friday 5th July. After 40 minutes, they returned verdict of guilty for all eight prisoners on the charges of wounding Bridget Cleary, though they recommended Patrick Boland, Mary Kennedy and Michael Kennedy be treated with mercy. Patrick Keneddy and Jack Dunne were found equally guilty for their involvement and Patrick was sentanced to five years imprisonment, whilst partly accounting for his age and partly accounting for his lack of involvement with concealing the body, Jack Dunne received three years. William and James Kennedy received 18 months imprisonment each. Patrick Boland received 6 months imprisonment with hard labour whilst Mary Kennedy was discharged without sentence along with her daughter. The judge then turned to Michael Cleary, expressing that his mind had “slunk into gross darkness” and that “the remorse he would suffer for the remainder of his life would punish hum infinitely more than the sentence which his lordship would be bound to pass upon him.” The judge assured the court that he had judged the matter at hand entirely independant of the superstitions that surrounded the case.
“The short of the matter was that he burned his wife alive.”
Michael Cleary was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Throughout the sentence, Cleary was said to have “wept bitterly”. All prisoners were then lead away from the court room under heavy escort to the county jail.
Of his twenty years, Michael Cleary served only fifteen and was released on 28th April, 1910. He boarded a ship to Montreal on 30th June and promptly disappeared from history.
The murder of Bridget Cleary is first and foremost, once all the superstition and folklore is stripped away, one of domestic violence. Bridget Cleary was a strong woman, with a degree of independence, she had modernity on her side, a facet of the times that went against and threatened the societal importance of characters like Jack Dunne. Michael Cleary is a different figure, he was on the up, educated and skilled as was his wife. Had the strains of the stigma of a childless marriage alongside other factors, such as outside influence, his fathers death and the rumours of his wives infidelity finally caught up with him, allowing him to unleash possibly years of resentment, unchallenged under the guise of a patriarchal society? Or did he simply believe, along with all the others present, throughout that his wife had genuinely been taken by faeries? Whatever the answers, they remain a mystery, the only truth to the story of Bridget Cleary being that all present were likely guilty and innocent to differing degrees with no winners, whilst Bridget Cleary suffered the harshest of treatments and a tragic end to a life which held considerable promise for the future.