Bridget Cleary: The Last Witch Burned in Ireland
Some killings are eerie because we don’t know who did them or how they happened. Other killings are spooky for precisely the opposite reason. A belief in witchcraft and fairy lore was one way that people have dealt with the things that are unknown. Over time, those beliefs are stripped away and replaced with science or simply a better understanding of the world.
Ireland is a country with a rich tradition of myths and legends. Today they amuse and entertain, but little more than a century ago, they were used to exert control over a world that was far from understandable. One woman who fell prey to superstition was Bridget Cleary, and it cost her her life.
Bridget Cleary was born to the Boland family of Ballyvadlea in County Tipperary. Her birth year is generally given as 1870, and when she was 17, she went on to marry Michael Cleary. After their marriage, they separate for a brief time so that he could find lasting work. It was during this time as a married woman who lived with her parents, that Cleary asserted her own independence.
She kept chickens and sold eggs, and she also set up a small cottage business as a dressmaker and hatmaker.
When her mother died, Cleary and her husband took in her father. He had been a laborer in his youth, and as a result was due a house from the local government. The house that they were given was considered quite beautiful, but it was generally undesirable due to its reputation as a fairy fort.
The superstition of the time held fairies to be fearsome creatures that were as likely to be harmful as they were to be helpful. People stayed in on nights where the fairy folk were known to ride, and some disappearances were blamed on supernatural courses.
Reports of Cleary’s character were mixed. Some of her neighbors thought that she was very proud, though others had no such thoughts. It is known that she and her husband occasionally quarreled over the money that she made.
In 1895, Cleary fell ill. There is no record regarding what the illness was, but it was thought to be serious. After some visits from friends and family, a priest was brought in to ensure that if she died, she would do it in a state of grace.
After about a week of illness, somehow it came to be rumored that Cleary’s place had been taken by a changeling. In Irish lore, fairies would take a human child and leave a changeling in its place. A parent would know that a child was a changeling if they laughed at funerals, cried at weddings and felt no pain. Some modern researchers believe that tales of changelings came from parents who were befuddled by autistic children.
It is unknown what led the Cleary family to believe that Bridget Cleary was a fairy changeling. It resulted in her husband flinging urine in her face and carrying her in front of the fireplace, things that would make her reveal her fairy nature.
A week after she had come down with her illness, Cleary was showing signs of recovery. She was sitting with a friend when her husband came storming in, determined to prove her supernatural origins. In the conflict that followed, Cleary was doused with paraffin and set on fire. She was buried in a shallow grave not long after.
When the authorities caught up with Michael Cleary, he and some companions were determinedly sitting close to one of the paths that was known to be taken by the local fairies. They all firmly believed that Bridget Cleary would return that night on a grey horse, and if Michael could pull her from it, he would have his wife again.
Michael Cleary was given 15 years in prison, and afterwards, he moved to Liverpool.
Of Bridget Cleary, little remains by the rhyme that was current after her death:
Are you a witch or are you a fairy?
Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?