The Dutch word for superstition is bijgeloof and in a literal sense translates into side belief or side religion. This sort of religion was the cause of the murder of Bridget Cleary on 15 March 1895.
Bridget Cleary was an Irish woman who was murdered by her husband. She was either burned alive or immediately after her death. The husband’s stated motive was his belief that she had been abducted by fairies and replaced with a changeling, which he then killed. The gruesome nature of the case prompted extensive press coverage, and the trial was closely followed by newspapers across Ireland.
When Johanna Burke visited her cousin, Bridget, 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 husband, Michael.
The Clearys were not quite like their neighbours. They were childless and, although Bridget was a local girl, they had lived in far larger towns than the nearby villages of Drangan and Cloneen. They may also have been richer than their neighbours. Coopers were well-paid craftsmen, and Bridget brought in extra money as a seamstress, she even owned a Singer sewing machine.
Bridget had become ill with a cold in the prior days to her death. She had been delivering eggs in Kylenagranagh, the site of a fairy ring, according to local folklore. Over the coming days, her house would be occupied by several relatives and neighbours amid a growing concern that there was a supernatural element to her illness. Trial records were later to suggest that this idea may have been put forward by John Dunne, a neighbour who was known to be more aligned with old faery traditions that were dying out in Ireland.
Relatives of Bridget were convinced as the days passed that there was a faery changeling in the house. In superstitious folklore, it was believed a faery changeling was a duplicate put in the place of a real person, often a woman or child, after they had been abducted by faeries.
There were several attempts to have the doctor and the priest visit the house, as well as an herbal doctor. As the days passed Bridget’s fever did not improve. By Friday 15th March 1895 tensions were running high in the small cottage with Michael repeatedly asking his wife who she was. She angered him by asserting that his mother had gone off with the faeries. She also stated that she could see the police at the window in an effort wanting to be left alone.
According to a court report in The Irish Times on 27 March 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.
Michael repeatedly attempted to get her to say her name while getting her to eat three slices of bread. When she did not reply to the third time of questioning, he stripped her, doused her in oil and set her alight. He shouted that it was not his wife but a witch he was burning.
By 16 March, rumours were beginning to circulate that Bridget was missing, and local police began searching for her. Michael was quoted as claiming that his wife had been taken by fairies, and he appeared to be holding a vigil. Witness statements were gathered over the ensuing week, and by the time Bridget’s burnt corpse was found in a shallow grave on 22 March, nine people had been charged in her disappearance, including her husband. A coroner’s inquest the next day returned a verdict of death by burning.
Legal hearings ran from 1 to 6 April 1895. A tenth person had been charged, and one of the original nine was discharged at this stage, leaving nine defendants bound over for trial. The court session began on 3 July, and the grand jury indicted five of the defendants for murder: Michael Cleary, Patrick Boland, Mary Kennedy, James Kennedy, and Patrick Kennedy. All nine were indicted on charges of “wounding”. The case proceeded on to trial.
The evidence showed that on 15 March, Michael summoned Father Ryan back to the Cleary household. Ryan found Bridget alive but agitated. Michael told the priest that he had not been giving his wife the medicine prescribed by the doctor because he had no faith in it. According to Ryan, “Cleary then said, ‘People may have some remedy of their own that might do more good than doctor’s medicine,’ or something to that effect.” Bridget was given communion, and Ryan departed. Later that night, neighbours and relatives returned to the Cleary house. An argument ensued, again tinged with fairy mythology.
All ten people who had been in the house in the days surrounding the murder were arrested but only the men involved were given sentences ranging from six months to twenty years.
Charges against one co-defendant, William Ahearn, were dropped. Three others – John Dunne, Michael Kennedy, and William Kennedy – were convicted of “wounding”. Patrick Kennedy was sentenced to five years of penal servitude, Michael Kennedy was sentenced to six months of hard labour, James Kennedy was sentenced to eighteen months of hard labour, William Kennedy was sentenced to eighteen months of hard labour, Mary Kennedy was released owing to her age and frailty, Patrick Boland was sentenced to six months of hard labour, and John Dunne was sentenced to three years of penal servitude.
Michael Cleary was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years of penal servitude; he spent fifteen years in prison. He was released from Maryborough (now Portlaoise) prison on 28 April 1910 and moved to the English city of Liverpool, from which he emigrated to Canada in July of the same year. On 14 October 1910, a black-bordered letter was sent from the office of the Secretary of State, Home Department, London, to the undersecretary, Dublin Castle, stating that Michael had emigrated to Montreal on 30 June.
Bridget Cleary’s death has remained famous in popular culture. An Irish nursery rhyme reads
Are you a witch or
Are you a fairy?
Or are you the wife
of Michael Cleary?