Ireland is steeped in mythology and tales of faeries but these fae have nothing in common with the adorable little Disney-created pixies that flit across the movie screen. Irish faeries have a dark side and many folks still attempt to appease them to this day. You can still find bowls of milk outside certain homes on certain days and many locals who stay away from nearby hills, caves, and mounds. They warn wayward travelers to do the same. Some have iron in their doorways or other superstitious markings to protect against dark creatures of a different world. In the past these beliefs were even more prevalent and tales of changelings and other mischievous things in the night were simply a part of life. These stories also became part of a highly publicized murder after a young woman named Bridget Cleary was burned to death by her husband, her father, and others, on this day in 1895.
Bridget Cleary (née Boland) was well-known in Ballyvadlea, the village in Tipperary where she and her husband lived. She was described as being a lovely, independent, nontraditional and flirtatious young woman. The world was changing rapidly at the turn of the century but the customs in the village were not. Women were still bound by traditional, subservient roles in rural Ireland. They were expected to tend the home, defer to their husbands in almost every circumstance, have children, and keep quiet about politics or other “men’s business.” Bridget appeared to bristle at some of those expectations. She seemed to be looking forward to a more modern society.
Bridget was a dressmaker by trade and she put the latest, most fashionable touches on everything she wore. She cared about her appearance and was a very pretty young woman who garnered a lot of attention. Some thought she was uppity and it was rumored that she may have had a lover at some point, which was enough to destroy a woman’s future back then. When she married Michael Cleary most of those rumors stopped even though Bridget continued to buck tradition after they were married. She and Michael were married for nearly eight years but they did not have any children. Her husband moved into her house, instead of the other way around once they were married and he worked in the nearby town of Clonmel, which meant that Bridget still had a lot of time to herself. The cottage where they lived with Bridget’s father was one of the best in the area but no one else would have wanted it anyway. It was too close to what many called a faerie fort – an ancient, circular mound that superstitious neighbors and religious people avoided. Everyone in the village had grown up with tales of the faeries, especially Bridget and her kin since they had a famed faerie expert in the family. John “Jack” Dunne was a neighbor and her father’s cousin. He was well-known for his ghost stories and dark tales and many thought he had a peculiar relationship with the faeries. People thought he used spells and incantations. He also may have been the one who officially set the murder of Bridget Cleary in motion.
Bridget stepped out to visit a neighbor who lived about a mile away in March of 1895. Shortly after the visit she felt ill and took to her bed. Her condition got worse before her husband called a doctor who diagnosed her with a severe case of Bronchitis. He also sent for a priest just in case he was wrong and she didn’t recover. In spite of the common diagnosis, Michael Cleary refused to give Bridget the medicine the doctor prescribed. He decided to treat her with various herbs, mystical remedies, and tinctures because he feared that her illness was faerie-related. He convinced the entire family that Bridget was possessed by a witch or a faerie, or that she had been replaced by a changeling. Their fears came to a head when Jack Dunne walked into her bedroom and loudly proclaimed, “That’s not Bridgie Boland.”
The family’s “treatments” got worse. Michael Cleary (and many other relatives) forced Bridget to eat when she didn’t want to by laying a hot poker against her skin. They shoved horrible tinctures down her throat, doused her in urine, and held her right next to the fire for hours on end in an effort to expel the dark force they thought was inside her. They abused her repeatedly while she screamed. Nearly a dozen friends and relatives took part in these tortures and Bridget became hysterical at the way they were treating her. Sometimes she refused to cooperate with them and other times she just couldn’t do anything due to exhaustion and pain. Unfortunately, her silence or moaning and wailing only convinced them they were right to think she was a changeling. Toward the end of her ordeal, she accused her husband of “making a fairy out of her” and when she was feeling strong, she mocked him, his mother, and his treatment of her. Witness statements (which there are an astonishing amount of) tell an infuriating tale of group hysteria, brutal torture, and cowardice. Not one of Bridget’s friends, family members, or neighbors stepped in to save her at any time. They did nothing except watch (or help) while Michael Cleary tortured her for nearly a week. At the end, they didn’t even protest when he stripped her, threw lamp oil on her, and set her on fire. In fact, they helped bury her in a shallow grave and swore to protect her murderer.
By mid-March the gossips in town began to whisper that Bridget had disappeared. Her husband told a wild tale about how she’d gone with the faeries and he claimed his wife would soon return on a white horse. (This is what happens to human survivors when a changeling is killed). The authorities found her body just a few days later. Bridget’s remains showed obvious signs of torture and trauma and she was found in nothing but a pair of charred black stockings.
Bridget Cleary came to be known as the last witch in Ireland but she wasn’t killed by the church and she was never accused of being in league with the devil. She wasn’t a witch or a faerie per se, she was just another strong, independent woman who couldn’t be confined by the standards of the time or controlled by those around her. Michael Cleary had many excuses as to why he had tortured and killed his wife, but one of those responses was “She was too fine to be my wife.” He meant that she suddenly looked a tiny bit different which is why he thought she was a changeling but if you ask me he accidentally spoke the truth with those words. Bridget Cleary was definitely too fine for him and too fine for any of their cowardly friends and murderous family too, and they killed her for it. The blame falls on them them, not the faeries.