Are you a witch, or are you a fairy
Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?
So went a popular children’s rhyme in Ireland at the turn of the 20th Century. I can hear the echo of those words spilling from young lips all the way to here. In amongst the childish innocence, however, is a terrible truth that cost the life of a woman and made her name a byword for superstitious beliefs.
In a week when tales of witches and spells are used to entertain our children as they prepare to go trick or treating, it’s worth remembering that there was a time, not too long ago, when such stories could spark very real and dangerous repercussions.
Bridget Boland was working as a dressmakers’ assistant when she first met her husband-to-be, Michael Cleary, who worked as a cooper. They married in 1887 in the townland of Ballyvadlea, in Co Tipperary, when she was just 17 years old. Bridget was an industrious, independent young woman – she kept her own chickens and sold them to neighbours, and she had her own sewing machine with which she made dresses.
The couple, together with Bridget’s elderly father, Patrick, moved into a labourer’s cottage. Despite it being the best house in the village, there was little interest in the property as it was said to have been built on the site of a s fairy ringfort.
Tradition has it that such forts are imbued with mystical powers. For some, they are seen as entrances to another world, and to build upon them is considered by believers to be a very foolhardy thing to do.
Bridget, Michael and Patrick lived quietly there for almost eight years, but everything changed in March of 1895 when she was taken ill. After more than a week, Bridget hadn’t improved and the doctor was summoned.
He prescribed medicines, but things seemed to be going from bad to worse and soon the priest was called to administer last rites.
Friends and family visited the house and attempted to treat Bridget with their own remedies. With nothing seeming to help, and with suggestions that fairy spells may be the cause of Bridget’s malaise, Michael formed his own deadly diagnosis.
This was not actually Bridget they were treating, he concluded, but some form of fairy changeling who had taken her place. Michael wanted his Bridget back and he would do all in his power to get her.
He tried to force feed his wife, to no effect. Then, urine was thrown on her and she was carried before the fireplace to cast the fairy out. Bridget may have been sick, but she still had enough of her senses to tell her husband that the only person away with the fairies was himself. She begged him to stop.
But Michael wasn’t listening. He threw her to the ground and threatened her with a burning piece of wood. And that’s when Bridget’s nightdress caught fire.
With her screams of panic ringing in his ears Michael Cleary set about finishing what had been started and decided to destroy this changeling now squirming before him. In his hand he held an oil lamp, the contents of which he then tossed onto his wife’s body.
Those present watched as the flames consumed her. Michael kept them at bay, assuring them all that he would now be able to get his wife back. And so they gathered around, their faces lit up and their ears closed to the agonised screams as Bridget Cleary burned to a crisp.
In the days that followed rumours spread about Bridget’s disappearance. The police began a search. They questioned Michael, who told them that she had been taken by the fairies. He appeared to be sitting in vigil as though awaiting her return.
On March 22, Bridget’s burnt body was found in a shallow grave. Police arrested nine people, including Michael.
His lawyer must have put up a convincing defence because in the subsequent trial, Michael was only found guilty of manslaughter, and charges against the other defendants were largely dropped, although four were convicted of ‘wounding’.
Michael Cleary was jailed for 15 years. After his release on April 28, 1910, he went to Liverpool and then emigrated to Montreal on June 30 of the same year.
It is a widely held view that those involved in this horrible death genuinely believed they were doing the right thing…such is the power of folklore and myth in some societies.
I love Halloween – it is my birthday after all (which might explain a few things), but at this time when bonfires blaze and tales of spooks and goblins abound, spare a thought for poor Bridget.
Hers was a peculiar kind of fairy tale – that of the Irish changeling who paid with her life for the superstitions of others.