On March 15, 1895, Bridget Cleary, the 28-year-old wife of a copper went missing from her cottage near Clonmel in County Tipperary. She was found days later, her body was found in a shallow grave, burned to death by her husband and family members who suspected her of being possessed by a fairy.
Cleary, was named “the last witch burned in Ireland,” and she was the victim of dangerous superstitious beliefs. Her story has become part of Irish folklore, and her tragic tale has been immortalized in the children’s rhyme “Are you a witch or are you a fairy, Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”
Bridget was a dressmaker and egg seller from Ballyvadlea, near Clonmel, Co Tipperary, she had taken ill and been bed-ridden for a number of days. She had remained under the watchful eye of her husband, Michael. Michael had sent for a doctor in a nearby town and at one point requested a priest also.
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 many neighbours and relatives, many of whom would become influenced 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.
By Thursday, March 14th, 1895, he had also sent for herbs, gleaned from a witch-doctor type named Denis Ganey. By this stage, Michael was caught up in the belief that his wife was a malevolent fairy changeling.
In folklore and folk religion a Changeling is a creature. A changeling is typically described as being the offspring of a fairy, troll, elf or other legendary creature that has been secretly left in the place of a human child. Sometimes the term is also used to refer to the child who was taken. The apparent changeling could also be a stock or fetch, an enchanted piece of wood that would soon appear to grow sick and die.
According to a court report in The Irish Times on March 27th, It was reported 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.