When I was 7 years old, I developed ringworm on my face. After several rounds of medicine hadn’t cleared it up, my Mum took me to a local faith healer to try and treat it. This was 1978. As a child growing up in Catholic Ireland, my grandmother still believed in the banshee, my great aunt could foretell the future through her dreams and you never set foot inside a fairy ring. It should be no surprise then that 100 years previously in rural Ireland, a young woman was burnt to death by her husband who thought she was a fairy changeling.
Bridget Cleary has passed in to the stuff of legend. So goes the children’s rhyme
Are you a witch or are you a fairy?
Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary
She is often cited as the last woman in Ireland to be burnt as a witch, but that is not entirely the case.
In March 1895, in Tipperary, Bridget Cleary, a healthy, intelligent and attractive 26 year old, fell ill with what was possibly bronchitis. Just over a week later, her husband, aided by her relatives, including her father, burnt her to death in her own kitchen and buried her in a makeshift grave. Only they didn’t agree that they had killed Bridget. Intheir minds, they had killed a changeling, a sickly, frail facsimile left in the place of Bridget when she was abducted by fairies. Her husband insisted that his real wife would soon return at a nearby fairy ring, riding a white horse.
Cleary said that his wife had told him she would ride out of the fort on a white horse on the Sunday night, and that if he could cut the ropes that tied her to the saddle and keep her, she would stay with him
Of course, she didn’t reappear and Michael Cleary, Bridget’s father, her aunt and four cousins were all tried for murder with Michael eventually receiving a 20 year sentence. Upon his release, after serving 15 years, he emigrated to Montreal.
The story of Bridget Cleary lives on though and in Angela Bourke’s wide ranging examination of the case, she not only explores the crime against Bridget, but the social and cultural and folk lore beliefs in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century. The murder of Bridget Cleary was widely reported in Irish and English newspapers and even in the New York Times, mainly due to the more fantastic elements of the case and Bourke has a lot of source material to work with, drawing out the wider political implications of the murder and its’ reporting at that time.
Ireland was undergoing a deep cultural change in the 1880s with a tension between the Catholic Irish belief system and the English push for progress and logic. The Land Bill and Home Rule were being debated and the newspapers covering Bridget Cleary’s murder took entrenched political sides when it came to the reporting of it.
Newspapers and law courts told it one way; oral rumour and legend, concerned more with finding ways of skirting around the unspeakable and marking points of danger than with bringing offenders to justice, told it very differently.
Through the death of Bridget and the conviction of her husband, Bourke delineates these two very different ways of thinking, the clash of the peasantry, who brought their world to rights by exorcising a fairy and the modern culture of judgement and punishment.
Bourke is very good at painting a portrait of rural Irish life at this time, with the focus on oral rumour and legend and she explores the customs and living conditions; salaries and manners of commerce; the role of the police and the Catholic Church and the constraints placed on women and how they were viewed in society. She has a keen knowledge of, and understanding for the traditional beliefs about fairies and the supernatural in a world where ways of thinking were not based on reading or learning, but on the oral tradition. Storytelling, music and song still held high currency in rural Ireland and Bourke describes the belief in fairy legend as a means of understanding the world.
Fairy legend can be compared to a database: a pre-modern culture’s way of storing and retrieving information and knowledge of every kind, from hygiene and child care to history and geography.
Fairy legend also allowed the Irish peasantry to explain away the unexplainable. Child mortality, physical and mental disability and sudden illness were all the work of the fairies. The English word ‘stroke’ comes from the Irish ‘poc sí’ or ‘fairy stroke’ and Bourke points out that,
Fairy-belief legend provided a way of understanding congenital and other disabilities, or at least gave an imaginative framework which could accommodate them.
Fairy-belief explained the abnormal, the unacceptable and it was also used as a means to keep deviant behaviour in check in children and to remind women of their place within a patriarchal society.
Bridget Cleary was not your average 26 year old woman in Ireland in 1885. She was attractive, dressed well and spoke her mind, not too unusual, but she was also educated and economically self-sufficient. She kept hens (as many women at that time did) and was a dressmaker who owned a Singer sewing machine, a unique acquisition at that time and she dies with £20 in a jar under her bed, a year’s salary for a labourer at that time. Michael and Bridget were also childless, after eight years of marriage, a fact that would have given rise to gossip in the town. Bridget was generally seen as superior and aloof in the village, and there were rumours that she had a lover. She did not conform to social expectations, so it is not surprising that when she fell ill the rumours of fairy involvement started to circle.
Those who were jealous of her would have gained a certain satisfaction from seeing her chastened by illness, while stories about her abduction by fairies could have been a euphemistic way of noting her extra-marital activities.
But what of her husband, Michael Cleary? What did he believe? When his wife first fell ill, he certainly tried to help her, calling on the doctor (who did not come) and then the priest – who perhaps, unhelpfully, gave her the last rites. When these avenues failed him, he turned to a fairy doctor for a herbal remedy. Was he driven mad by lack of sleep and the death of his father two days previously to strike his wife and set her on fire? Did he genuinely believe she was a changeling and what he was doing was necessary? And what of Bridget herself? During her illness she seems to have goaded her husband, accusing his mother of being a changeling and telling her visitors that her husband ‘was making a fairy out of me’. Bourke never allows the reader to forget about the spirited, smart woman at the centre of this crime, a woman who, at the height of the torture she received, replied to her father’s question as to whether she was a fairy or Bridget Cleary, with the heart-breaking ‘it’s me, Dada’.
Bourke certainly seems to feel that the murder of Bridget was not premeditated and came from some extent in the belief that she was a changeling, yet the torment she endured before her death, the brutality of her murder and the lack of support she received from her family members make this a difficult conclusion to reach today, or for that matter, for the judge in the case at the time who found all the defendants guilty.
Bourke however, is asking the reader to remember that
Fairies belong to the margins, and so can serve as reference points and metaphors for all that is marginal in human life. Their underground existence allows them to stand for the secret, or the unspeakable
Her thoroughly researched, well-structured and thrillingly dramatic account of the life and death of Bridget Cleary places the murder in context and gives credence to its historical importance in Anglo Irish politics and the parallels with the concurrent trial of Oscar Wilde. It is a fascinating exploration of the folk beliefs of the time and a devastating reminder of the cruelty that can stem from a belief system against those we love.
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