I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Shortly before St. Patrick’s Day in 1895, Bridget Cleary (aged 26) disappeared from her home in near Tipperary, Ireland. A badly burned body was found in a shallow grave and suspicion fell on Bridget’s husband, Michael, as her killer. But, there was far more to this story than a domestic dispute turning horribly tragic; fairies were involved.
Irish Belief in Fairies
The Irish Times notes that “For centuries we Irish have believed in and lived with the Little People; we’ve gone out of our way to avoid annoying them, not bringing foxgloves into the house, maintaining fairy forts, etc.”
Highly respected and prominent people have acknowledged encounters with fairies without there being calls for men in white coats to attend. The poet William Butler Yeats and the playwright Samuel Beckett talked with fairies, so they said. Ireland’s first President Douglas Hyde (in office from 1938 to 1945) described seeing “a strange horse run round a seven-acre field and change into a woman.”
Belief in sprites, leprechauns, elves, and other will-o’-the-wisps was widespread in the 19th century, and it lingers in many quarters today.
The Testing of Bridget Cleary
There were strong suspicions in the locality that Bridget Cleary was a fairy, and not one of the nice kind that grant three wishes; banish thoughts of Tinkerbell from your mind. The Irish fairies are not tiny creatures with wings; they look just like humans and have a sometimes nasty disposition. Irish fairies resemble the popular image of witches.
In March 1895, Bridget Cleary fell ill. A doctor was called and then a priest. Her condition worsened and her husband said that the sick woman in his house was not Bridget but a changeling.
(Common in European folklore, changelings were fairies swapped for humans who they had abducted).
Michael Cleary and Bridget’s extended family believed her bronchial condition was the result of a malicious attack known as a “fairy dart.”
Locals, such as a herbalist and a “fairy doctor” were called in. Also, Bridget’s father and other relatives attended a ritual that was supposed to drive out the changeling.
Irishcentral.com records that “Michael Cleary, assisted by Bridget’s four cousins and father, touched Bridget with a hot poker, drenched her with urine, and forced her to drink . . . concoctions of herbs in milk. Then came the trial by fire. They held her over the kitchen fire in an attempt to get her to admit her true nature as a changeling.
Michael Cleary went further. He demanded of his wife that she tell him her name three times. Apparently, he wasn’t happy with Bridget’s response so he poured kerosene over her and set her on fire.
Are you a witch?
Are you a fairy?
Are you wife of Michael Cleary?
— Children’s rhyme
The Trial of Michael Cleary
Bridget Cleary’s disappearance was noticed quite quickly and police started nosing around. Michael said she had been abducted by fairies, but soon, the poor woman’s charred remains were uncovered in a shallow grave.
As the story of the exorcism ritual came out, nine people, including Michael, were charged in connection with Bridget Cleary’s death.
Testimony from those present in the Cleary cottage made it clear that Michael was responsible for the fire that killed his wife, and that he claimed he was destroying a changeling. During the trial, the jury was taken to view the badly burned remains of Bridget Cleary; it was a grisly ritual.
All the co-defendants were found guilty of “wounding” and sentenced to a variety of punishments ranging from five years of penal servitude to six months of hard labour. Michael Cleary was found guilty of manslaughter and received a sentence of 15 years imprisonment. He was released in 1910 and emigrated to Canada.
Political Significance of the Bridget Cleary Murder
Normally, a murder in a faraway corner of the Irish countryside would not cause much of a stir in the governing chambers of Westminster. But the events described above happened at a time when many Irish politicians were seeking home rule from London.
The widespread press coverage of the affair focussed on the role of hobgoblins and pixies. Even The New York Times covered the story describing how Bridget Cleary was “slowly roasted to death because she was, in her relatives’ belief, bewitched.”
Comments were passed that such belief in paranormal apparitions were most likely to be found among “savage tribes.” In 1895, the magazine Gaslight wrote that “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 power of religion in determining the conduct of a man.”
Mockingly, the Irish were portrayed as backward and superstitious; how could people who had faith in the existence of fairies be expected to govern themselves?
The Dublin Evening Mail, which favoured continued union with Britain, wrote of the lawless people who burned Bridget Cleary as not fit for self government.
The Unionists held off the Home Rule forces until 1921. There were fears that, with Ireland becoming an independent nation, the foundations of the British Empire would be weakened. Others opposed independence on the grounds the country would fall under the control of the Roman Catholic Church.
Wealthy Protestant Irish landowners with seats in the House of Commons saw their privilege under threat. So, the accusation that because of a widespread belief in the supernatural the Irish people were unfit to look after their own affairs was a convenient misrepresentation.
The circumstances of Bridget Cleary’s death played a minor part in the home rule affair; as with most matters like this it’s usually about the money.
- There’s a psychiatric condition that is known as the Capgras Delusion. It involves a psychotic episode in which the sufferer believes a close family member, or even a pet, has been replaced by an impostor. It has been proposed that Michael Cleary might have suffered from this disorder.
- In 1826, Michael Leahy was drowned in the River Flesk in County Kerry, Ireland. The four-year-old boy died during a cleansing ritual ordered by one Ann Roche who said he was a changeling. Roche was found not guilty, with the trial judge telling the jury its members “would not be safe in convicting the prisoner of murder, however strong their suspicion might be.”
- “Away with the Faeries.” Manchan Magan, Irish Times, March 15, 2014.
- “The Last Witch Burned in Ireland.” Leone O’Hara, Irishcentral.com, July 6, 2013.
- “The Fairy Defense.” David Willis McCullough, New York Times, October 8, 2000.
- “Folklore and Fairies and the Question of National Identity.” Kilkennycastle.ie, undated.
- “The Burning of Bridget Cleary.” Irishindentity.com, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 12, 2021:
An intriguing tale, Rupert. Witches, fairies, vampires, zombies etc...are none of us safe?
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 12, 2021:
How sad for Bridget Cleary that her husband thought that she was a changeling and murdered her. It sounds like she endured a horrific death. People's beliefs can often lead them astray. We do not have to look too far to see instances of that even today.
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on January 12, 2021:
Rupert, thank you again for another interesting article about Ireland's history. Of course, I believe in fairies thanks again.
Ann Carr from SW England on January 12, 2021:
Awful how so many were cruel to those they regarded as witches or fairies. Interesting story though, and the historical background puts it into context.
I always enjoy these hubs of yours.