The story of the last ‘witch’ burned alive in Ireland
In 1895, Bridget Cleary was set alight by her husband because he believed she was a fairy
A prison photograph of Michael Cleary from the General Prisons Board Penal File. Photograph: National Archives
A wedding portrait Bridget Cleary and her husband Michael
When Johanna Burke went to pay her cousin Bridget Cleary a visit, she found the 26-year-old being held down and force-fed a concoction of herbs and milk.
The men restraining her were three of Johanna’s brothers, an elderly neighbour named John Dunne and Bridget’s own husband, Michael.
Bridget, dressmaker and egg seller from Ballyvadlea, near Clonmel, Co Tipperary, had taken ill and been bed-ridden for a number of days. She had remained under the watchful care of Michael, who had sent for a doctor in a nearby town and at one point requested a priest.
By Thursday, March 14th, 1895, he had also sent for herbs, gleaned from a witch-doctor type named Denis Ganey; by that stage, Michael Cleary was gripped by the belief that his wife was a malevolent fairy changeling.
According to a court report in The Irish Times on March 27th of that year, Johanna said the men forced Bridget “to take the herbs and Cleary asked her: ‘Are you Bridget Boland, the wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?’”
She answered twice, but when she refused to answer a third time, she was hauled up and held in a sitting position over the slow-burning embers of the kitchen fire.
Bridget “seemed to be wild and deranged, especially while they were so treating her,” according to the report. She eventually responded: “I am Bridget Boland, daughter of Pat Boland in the name of God,” referring to her maiden name.
The above story would form just one part of a series of violent acts against Bridget that would culminate in her death; it is also the testimony of Johanna Burke, the Crown’s chief witness in a landmark murder case in which eight people would be convicted for their roles in Bridget’s abuse.
Michael Cleary, who was 35 at the time, was a cooper from Killenaule, Co Tipperary. The two had been married for about eight years and had no children. As far as Johanna Burke could see, the couple were on good terms, she “never saw them quarrel or dispute.”
While taking a walk to deliver eggs in Kylenagranagh, the site of a fairy ring according to local folklore, Bridget Cleary had caught a chill. Her house was often occupied by a smattering of neighbours and relatives, many of whom would become embroiled in Michael Cleary’s growing belief in a supernatural basis for his wife’s sickness.
According to a 1995 analysis by Angela Bourke, this belief may also have been boosted by the presence of the neighbour Dunne, who was more aligned with the oral fairy traditions that were very much dying out as the 19th century closed.
A fairy changeling, the lore would have it, was a duplicate put in the place of a real person - often a woman or child - after they were abducted by fairies.
According to Johanna, after the episode on Thursday, the men put Bridget back to bed.
‘Go with the fairies’
In the house the next day, Friday March 15th, Bridget told Michael she could see the police at the window, and he should leave her be; he responded by throwing the contents of a nearby chamber pot over her and at the window.
Bridget was dressed and brought to the kitchen. At that time, Johanna, her mother Mary Kennedy, Bridget’s father Pat Boland and Johanna’s brother Pat Kennedy, were sat, talking.
“They were talking about the fairies and Mrs Cleary said to her husband: ‘Your mother used go with the fairies and that is why you think I am going with them’.”
Michael then prepared three pieces of bread and jam, demanding Bridget eat all three before she could drink a cup of tea made for her by Johanna; again, he asked for her identity three times. She answered twice and ate two pieces of bread, according to The Irish Times court report.
“When she did not answer the third time, he forced her to eat the third bit, saying ‘If you won’t take it, down you will go’,” according to Johanna. He threw her to the ground and mounted her, with a knee on her chest and a hand on her throat. “Swallow it,” he said. “Is it down? Is it down?”
He grabbed a hot stick from the fire and held it close to her mouth. Finally, he stripped her to her chemise, doused her in lamp oil a number of times, and set her alight.
“It is not my wife,” Michael reportedly said while she burned. “I am not going to keep an old witch in place of my wife, so I must get back my wife,” he said, referring to the traditional expectation that once the changeling died, the abducted loved one would return, riding a white horse.
“It is not Bridget I am burning,” Cleary said to Johanna, “You will soon see her go up the chimney.” The reporter adds that the delivery of this line caused a “sensation” in the courtroom.
“She was burning on the hearth. The house was full of smoke and smell,” said Johanna in her testimony. “When I looked down to the kitchen, I saw the remains of Bridget Cleary on the floor, lying on a sheet.”
Pat Kennedy helped carry the remains from the house. Bridget’s burnt body was later discovered in a shallow grave nearby and 10 people, all of whom were in the house at some point throughout the ordeal, were arrested.
The case was widely covered, with the story reaching London and even across the Atlantic. According to Angela Bourke, the Tory papers treated it as fodder for reinforcing the idea of the “barbarism” of rural Ireland, while papers at home were quick to distance themselves from the act.
A contemporary opinion piece in The Irish Times said it was unfair to tar the “peasantry” (though the Clearys were far from peasants) with the same brush; just as unfair as “to hold that Eastenders are devoured by demoniacal thirst for blood because Jack-the-Ripper figured amongst them”.
The evidence heard - only a fraction of which is explored in this article - was elaborate and involved many conflicting testimonies spanning a number of days, though Johanna Burke’s is the version that all of the defendants, including four of her brothers, agreed with.
Cleary, whom the papers said was a “respectably dressed man,” though “his eyes had a wild kind of look”, was prone to outbursts during the trial, charging his co-accused with colluding against him.
Others who were in the house at different times over the two days were tried for their involvement. Though the ones present for the burning were terrified and had asked Michael to stop, they didn’t physically act to help Bridget, the prosecution argued.
Charging the jury, Mr Justice O’Brien said: “This most extraordinary case demonstrated a degree of darkness in the mind, not just of one person, but of several - a moral darkness, even religious darkness, the disclosure of which had come with surprise on many persons.”
The charge against Cleary would be dropped from murder to manslaughter. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years penal servitude.
Seven others were convicted of wounding Bridget; Johanna’s four brothers and her mother Mary, Bridget’s father and the neighbour, John Dunne. With the exception of Mary, each received a sentence, ranging from six months to five years of penal servitude.
The above story is part of the ‘Lost Leads’ series - a re-visiting of lesser-known stories that have made the pages of The Irish Times since 1859. What can you find? Let us know @irishtimes. For more information on subscribing to the archive, click here.