Long ago, in County Tipperary, Ireland, Bridget Cleary was put on trial for being a changeling. The judge was her husband; the jurors were her father, cousins, and neighbors. After nine days of ritualized torture, they concluded that 26-year-old Bridget was indeed the victim of fairies and her spirit had been abducted. A priest was called in to give her last rites, and she was burned to death in the fireplace.
What makes this story amazing is that it took place in eighteen ninety-four.
How on earth could this happen? How on earth, in 1894, could a dozen people who knew Bridget Cleary be so steeped in the "old religion" that they would do this to the poor woman?
To understand what happened to Mrs. Cleary, you have to understand her. Bridget was described as intelligent, of high spirits, and maybe more than a little weird. She was barren, for one thing, despite several years of marriage, and she perhaps too much enjoyed the freedom that childlessness afforded. Bridget was also interested in the old pagan faith and visited ancient sites. She may have carried on an extramarital affair. Her husband had a personality to match and a fierce belief in banshees, goblins, ghosts and fairies, to the point that he believed his mother's old tale that the fairies had abducted her for three days. Michael Cleary was petrified of his wife's activities and perhaps jealous and threatened. His repeated warnings to her to stop visiting "those places" went unheeded. So when she fell ill, perhaps with pneumonia, after one of these not-so-surreptitious visits, her husband and family decided it was time for an exorcism, and they grew more and more convinced over the ensuing days and sleepless nights that she was indeed possessed of an evil spirit. And perhaps Bridget believed it herself.
After she died, her family made an effort to cover up the crime, but her badly burned and battered body was found in a shallow grave. Nine people went to prison for their roles in her death, including her husband, who served 15 years for manslaughter.
Bridget Cleary's death made headlines throughout the world, but nowhere more so than in London, where many were shocked that pagan beliefs still held such a strong grip in Tipperary. The sensational case became a political weapon in the hands of the British, who pointed to Bridget's fate as a reason to keep Home Rule from the "backward" Irish.
A couple of recent books delve into the case and the historical backdrop and consequences for the beleaguered people of Ireland. The Cooper's Wife is Missing by Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates (New York: Basic Books, 2000) and The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke (Viking, 2000) both emphasize Irish culture and history in explaining the bizarre case. [An aside: one day perhaps someone will solve the mystery of why it is so often that two books come out at the same time about one old interesting case. Can someone explain this twinning to me?]
To this day, one can hear in southern County Tipperary an old child's rhyme:
Are you a witch? Are you a fairy?
Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?
"Burning a Witch. Cloneen, Ireland, the Scene of an Awful Tragedy," The New York Sun, reprinted in The Newark Daily Advocate, April 15, 1895.
"A Wife Murderer Sentenced. Burned His Wife in the Presence of Her Father and Relatives," by the United Press, i.e. Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Daily Gazette and Bulletin, July 6, 1895.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this post in June 2005, I've seen a huge number of hits from people searching for Bridget Cleary on Google.co.uk. I get the impression there must be a documentary broadcast about the murder. Would some Clews visitor kindly advise where you're hearing about the case?
To buy the book from Amazon.com: