The Last Witch Burned in Ireland: Fairy Folklore and the Law
by Alison Gillespie
(reprinted from the Celtic Cultural Alliance Newsletter - March 2009)
“Are you a witch or are you a fairy? Are you the wife of Michael Cleary”?
Such innocent words, often chanted by Irish children in nursery rhyme, only hint at the grisly but true story of the young Irish woman whose life was snuffed out on a bitterly cold day in March only a little over a century ago in Ireland. Here in America, the Salem Witch Trials brought an end to witch burning and the use of the supernatural or “spectral evidence” as permissible in court in the 1690s, but such practices continued in Ireland until as recently as the turn of the last century with the infamous ritual killing of Bridget Cleary and the precedent-setting trial of her accused murderers.
Bridget Cleary was a seamstress married to a cooper nine years her senior named Michael Cleary. Around the village she was known to be a polite, friendly, independent woman, well respected but little understood by her neighbors. The couple had no children after eight years of marriage, which was unusual in those days, and they lived in one of the finer cottages in town. The well-dressed Bridget was known to take long walks by herself to deliver eggs to her customers and often stopped by the old “Fairy Forts”, medieval ring forts outside of Clonmel.
One day in March of 1895 during the hardest winter so far on record, the 26-year-old Bridget fell ill, and the events that followed are still shrouded in mystery and folklore. The doctor was summoned, but he took almost a week to show up, so Michael grew impatient and visited a “fairy doctor” who prescribed herbs for Bridget. By this ime, Michael had become convinced that the fairies had replaced his wife with a sickly changeling. Most likely the idea was planted in his mind by a relative who visited Bridget and thought her “much changed and not herself".
Bridget grew weaker and the priest came to give her last rites---just in case. At this time, Bridget’s aunt and uncle decided to pay a visit to check on their niece and found the house full of villagers chanting and performing rituals while her husband and brother and some other men forced a concoction of herbs boiled in milk down Bridget’s throat. They also threw human urine on her---another popular fairy remedy. When that didn’t work, they held her over the hearth fi re to try to cast out the devil they believed possessed her, while they prodded her with a red-hot poker from the fire. Bridget was repeatedly asked if she was a fairy and continuously tested by “established methods” in local folklore to see if she really was one.
A few days after St. Patrick’s Day, Bridget was reported missing. A rumor began to circulate that Bridget had been abducted by (or had gone willingly with) the fairies inhabiting the fairy forts. Her husband supported the story. When her badly charred and mutilated body was found nearby in a shallow grave, Michael and eight other people were charged with her murder. The coroner confirmed death by burning, but also detected signs of previous abuse. Michael denied having murdered his wife, although he did admit to “driving out the fairy.” The real Bridget, he said, would soon be found at a nearby fairy ring riding a white horse where he would be waiting to bring her home.
The ensuing investigation, legal battle and public reaction surrounding the case sparked national interest at a time when Ireland’s ability to self-rule was being hotly contested. How, asked the English and their loyalist Irish friends, could people who still believed in evil spirits be trusted to govern themselves in the modern world? This case also came to light at a time when Irish Nationalists such as writer William Butler Yeats were celebrating Irish folklore in their literary works. But the mutilated body of a country woman was not what Yeats, Lady Gregory and their well-known literary circle had in mind when they went out among the poor asking for lyrical stories about wee folk in the heather. Evidence given during the trial revealed that when Bridget’s chemise caught fire, Michael took the opportunity to douse his wife with lamp oil and held the other people back as she burned alive in their home.
Recent interest in this gruesome murder, the court trial and Irish folklore in general have prompted the writing of several books about Bridget Cleary, which include Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary, and The Cooper’s Wife is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary by Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates. The first book offers a detailed account of the probable events at the Cleary cottage and then the trial. The second book does an excellent job of exploring the folklore and the lifestyle of the rural people of Ireland at the turn of the century and their influence on this case. The circumstances of the case ask the questions: “Does a firm belief in fairies and the supernatural legally establish insanity"? And, “How does the legal system separate centuries of beliefs and traditions from the standard norm for society"? A fair analysis of the events must take into account the role of folk beliefs in a rural society that was gradually moving from oral tradition into literacy.
Michael Cleary denied having murdered his wife, admitting only to having done away with her changeling. His so-called “fairy defense” did not hold up in court and he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison— after which he sailed for Montreal. His cohorts, including some of Bridget’s own relatives, were convicted of wounding Bridget and served lesser sentences.
As a result of this landmark case, a precedent was set in Irish law that a person could not be harmed or killed for suspicion of witchcraft, and a belief in witchcraft could not be used as an insanity defense in a murder trial. Much like Lizzy Borden and her ax in this country, Bridget’s story has remained part of popular culture in Ireland ever since. Even with the fact gathering for the case, interviews with locals at the time, and further analysis more than a century later, no one is really sure what happened inside that cottage.
Some say Bridget was hiding an extramarital affair and that her husband killed her out of jealousy. Other witnesses claim she admitted to being a changeling and taunted her husband until he killed her. Many believe that Michael felt threatened by his modern-thinking, independent wife and took advantage of the circumstances to be rid of her.
No surprise that the macabre story of Bridget Cleary should capture the imagination of two 15-year-old girls local to the Lehigh Valley during a sleepover three years ago as they stayed up to read the eerie account by candlelight. Inspired and a little “creeped out” by the story, Rose Baldino and Genevieve Gillespie, the two young fiddlers, composed their first instrumental tune together in tribute to Bridget. The tune, “Burning Bridget Cleary” was to become the name of their Celtic music band as well as the signature cut from their first album, Catharsis. Three years later, they have again paid tribute to Bridget’s story with a song “An Tusa an Si” which they penned partly in Irish Gaelic, and recently recorded on their second album, “Everything is Alright.”
“We don’t want to appear morbid about our fascination with Bridget Cleary,” says Rose. “I suppose we first related to her because she was a young woman. We just think her story and the mystery and fairy folklore surrounding the case are representative of Ireland at the time. Much of the music we play dates back to that era so we feel a connection".
Genevieve adds, “Bridget didn’t know it at the time, but she was to die for a good cause. In that sense she was a sort of heroine—some positive did come out of her death. She is remembered today in Ireland for that, and we honor her as well with our music".