In the mid-1890s, a small village in County Tipperary caught the attention of not only the Irish and English newspapers, but even The New York Times. Known as the ‘Tipperary Witchcraft’ case, English newspapers argued that, during a time when Irish home rule was highly contested, people still believed in a folklore of evil spirits, banshees and ghosts, and should therefore not be allowed to govern themselves. The English novelist, E.F. Benson even went so far as to call those involved as uneducated, comparing their actions to those of ‘savage tribes’. Although the case was no reflection of Irish political abilities, it quickly cemented itself into popular culture, with schoolchildren repeating the rhyme “Are you a witch, or are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’. But who was the wife of Michael Cleary and why has her story become synonymous with Irish folklore?
In an act of public aid after the Great Famine, The Board of Guardians (an Irish governing body) built a labourer’s cottage in the small village of Ballyvadlea. The hamlet only consisted of 8 other houses, with a total of 31 residents. The cottage was built on the remains of an ancient Iron Age fort, also believed to be a fairy ring in Irish myth. The first occupiers soon moved out after a series of strange sounds and events, leaving Patrick Boland, his daughter, Bridget and his son-in-law, Michael, to move in.
Bridget and Michael had been married for 5 years and although childless, were described locally as having a ‘happy union’. Michael was a cooper (barrel maker) by trade, although he was not the main breadwinner of the household. Bridget was unusually independent, while working as a dressmaker and selling eggs, she was able to make more than enough money to support herself and was described by Aaron Manke as a “self-made, self-possessed woman”.
It is not known when Michael first began to believe that something was wrong with his wife but in December 1894 Bridget claimed that Michael had attempted to burn her. By March 1895, he believed the woman in his home, was not his wife but a changeling.
The folklore of changelings was an anciently held belief across Europe, it was believed that fairies came into the realm of the living and switched children or sometimes even adults, substituting these ‘changelings’ for the kidnapped human. The Irish poet, W.B. Yeats mentions the belief in his Irish Folk Tales (1892)
“They steal children and leave a withered fairy a thousand, or maybe two thousand years old instead. At times full grown men and women have been taken. Near the village of Coloney, Sligo, I have been told lives an old woman who was taken in her youth. When she came back at the end of seven years, she had no toes for she had danced them [away].”
If a person or child was sickly, ill-tempered or weak, they were thought to be the changeling replacement, an inferior substitute for the person residing in the fairy realm. They were also said to have drained all the good luck from a family, as well as having enormous appetites, which would have greatly affected Irish families trying to overcome the hardships of the Great Famine. In extreme cases, parents would leave their children in the wilderness or bathe them in icy waters with neighbours becoming involved in what became known as ‘fairy exorcisms’.
Bridget had begun to fill this narrative; Michael slowly began to see her as a changed woman, one that brought ill-will and shame into the traditional patriarchal home with her independent finances and ways. Michael could no longer see himself as the customary ‘family man’, one that supported his wife and dependents. Instead, Bridget herself had taken on this role.
After walking home from selling her eggs in harsh weather, Bridget caught a cold, became housebound and her health declined. Michael firstly called for the local doctor and priest, both of whom upon examining her believed her to be suffering from mental derangement. When her condition did not improve, despite the interventions of both medicine and religion, Michael turned to local folklore and the changeling tale and sought the advice of a local ‘fairy-doctor’.
On the night of the 15th March 1895, relatives and neighbours gathered to see her take the prescribed herbal exorcizing cure. When she refused, Michael tortured her with a hot poker; her screams heard throughout Ballyvadlea as she was forced to take the mixture. Throughout, she was interrogated by both her husband and father, “Are you Bridget Cleary, my wife, in the name of God?”. Due to her weakened state, she was not able to answer satisfactorily, although some sources state that she declared her husband ‘was making a fairy out of me’ in the midst of her ordeal. The torture continued, whereupon she was also held over the kitchen fire. With her body covered in lamp oil she instantly caught fire. Her last words echo through time; “Give me a chance”.
Those who still remained at the house made no effort to extinguish the flames and fled as Michael claimed “It is not Bridget I am burning. You will soon see her [the changeling] go up in the chimney”. Bridget died in her own home, tortured, abused and burned. The following day, after rumours had spread of his wife’s disappearance, Michael was found in the parish church in a dire mental state, pulling his hair out and stricken with grief. When asked about his wife, he was still convinced she would return as the lore told, in a white gown on a pale horse, where he would cut her from her bindings with a blackened knife.
Michael and some others had buried her in a shallow grave where she was found on the 22nd March, her body curled in the foetal position, with a sack covering her largely unscathed face. She still wore her black stockings. Those involved were found by the court to have caused bodily harm and sentenced to penal punishment. Michael was found guilty of manslaughter, rather than the higher charge of wilful murder, and sentenced to 21 years imprisonment, although only serving 15 before emigrating to Canada.
The extent of changeling belief and lore in Ireland meant that Michael’s original charge of wilful murder was dropped to manslaughter, as he claimed he didn’t mean to kill her, only to bring her back.
Bridget Cleary was an independent, clever, and entrepreneurial woman, who did not conform to the traditional rural village’s idea of a subservient wife. She did not allow the patriarchal ideal to create barriers along her life and took it upon herself to support her family; and in consequence fell victim to it, along with thousands of other women throughout history.
Although tales of Changelings helped people understand why things happened, why their loved ones had fallen ill or become changed beyond recognition, Bridget’s tragic story is a stark reminder about the cruel reality of some of the superstitions in the past, and those that have fallen victim to it. The reputation of the ‘Tipperary Witch’, was significant and highlighted the power that these beliefs still retained within Irish popular culture at the end of the 19th century and the price paid by those who did not conform.
Melissa is a second-year undergraduate history student at the University of Edinburgh with a particular research interest in Early Modern Europe with a focus on religious change and its integrations with popular culture, folklore and mythology as well as the social and political changes during this period. She is a columnist at Edinburgh University’s History, Classics and Archaeology Magazine, the Retrospect Journal. (Twitter @melissaaalyson)
Image credit: wikimedia commons.
Thomas McGrath, ‘Fairy Faith and Changelings: The Burning of Bridget Cleary in 1895, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review Vol. 71, No. 282 (1982), 178-84
David Willis McCullough, ‘The Fairy Defense,’ New York Times (2000)
Miklos Voros, Jeremy Straugn, Eileen Moore Quinn and A.Scott Catey, ‘Where the World Ended: Reunification and identity in the German Borderland/The Burning of Bridget Cleary/Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbours and Friends,’ Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe 1 (2001), 37-44
Aaron Manke, ‘Episode 11: Black Stockings’ Lore Podcast (2015) https://megaphone.link/CAD3930740845. Accessed October 13, 2020
E.F. Benson, ‘The Recent ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel,’ The New York Times 37 (1985), 1053-58
‘NOT WITCHES, BUT FAIRIES – A New Explanation of the Strange Tragedy in Tipperary,’ The New York Times (1895)
 Thomas McGrath, ‘Fairy Faith and Changelings: The Burning of Bridget Cleary in 1895’ Irish Quarterly Review Vol. 71, No. 282 (1982), 183
 W. B. Yeats, Irish Fairy Tales (1892); summarised in Thomas McGrath, ‘Fairy Faith and Changelings: The Burning of Bridget Cleary in 1895’, Irish Quarterly Review Vol. 71, No. 282 (1982), 178
 Manke, ‘Black Stockings’
 Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story (New York: Viking Press: 2000), 40
 Bourke, The Burning, 40
 McGrath, ‘Fairy Faith and Changelings’, 181