That this only happened 3 generations back… Tipperary has to be the most backward, inbred place in Western Europe…
On March 15, 1895, twenty-eight year old Bridget Cleary, a cooper’s wife, disappeared from her cottage near Clonmel in County Tipperary. Immediately, strange and lurid rumours began circulating the neighbourhood about what had happened. Some said she ran off with an egg seller, others supposed it was an aristocratic foxhunter who had taken young Bridget away. Swirling amid rumours was the barely whispered, but widely held, belief that Bridget had gone with no mortal man; rather, she had gone off with the fairies. The mystery deepened when seven days later her body was discovered, bent, broken and badly burned in a shallow grave. Within a few days, the unimaginable truth came to light: for almost a week before her death Bridget had been confined, ritually starved, threatened, physically and verbally abused, exorcised and, finally, burned to death by her husband, Michael Cleary, her father and extended family who confused her bronchial medical condition with a “fairy dart.” They had all become convinced that “their Bridgie” had been taken from them and her fairy-possed body left behind to deceive them.
She was a stylish dressmaker with additional independent income from keeping hens, who eschewed the customary shawls and scarves of her peers for hats and cashmere jackets. Her husband was a cooper from a neighbouring town who also had a good income. That, along with their childless state, had made them relatively well-off compared to their neighbours and family. The Cleary’s were friendly with their neighbours - an “emergency man”, or caretaker for the landlord who had moved into a farm after a family was evicted during the land wars of the early 1890’s. These neighbours were shunned by a small community resentful of such opportunism. Bridget did the shopping for them and may have been the young husband’s lover. She was out delivering some eggs and hoping to get payment owed from her uncle, and caught a cold that possibly developed into TB on her two-mile trek home. Over the next week Bridget’s condition worsened, yet the doctor, a drunk, refused to come, while the priest stayed 20 minutes and merely gave the last rites. Soon Michael Cleary and Bridget’s uncle, Jack Dunne, a seanchai well versed in herb lore, began to circulate the story that Bridget had been taken by the fairies, and the woman in the bed was a changeling. Some herbal cures were prescribed and forced down Bridget’s throat - she was also manhandled and held over the fire on Thursday, March 15, while being repeatedly asked if she was indeed Bridget or a changeling. Several family members assisted, and neighbours were present the evening before her death. Several more tests were conducted by her male relatives to see if she was truly Bridget - including throwing urine and chicken droppings on her.
By the next morning, she appeared to recover and was up, dressed and out of bed the following evening, when neighbours came at her request to verify that she was better, and not a changeling. After the neighbours left, seemingly still not convinced that she was truly his wife, Michael Cleary tried to force Bridget to eat three pieces of bread before he would give her a cup of tea- she ate two and insisted on the tea. He waved a burning stick in her face, causing her clothing to catch fire. She passed out, and he threw paraffin oil on the “changeling” and burned her to death, all the while screaming that she wasn’t his wife, that his wife would appear riding on a white horse at a ruined hill fort the following evening, when he would cut the cords that bound her with a black-handled knife. On 14 March they held her over the fire to drive the spirits out, and on 15 March Bridget’s husband set fire to her nightgown, throwing on lamp-oil to make the fire burn more fiercely. “She’s not my wife”, he told the assembled people.
“You’ll soon see her go up the chimney”. Brandishing a kitchen knife at her brothers, he forced one of them to help him carry her to a shallow grave. Shortly afterwards, some men reported to their local priest that young Bridget Cleary, who was known to have been ill, had been burned to death by family members, including her husband, in a case of fairy exorcism. The priest in turn went to the police, who found Bridget’s charred body and arrested nine family members, neighbours and friends in connection with the incident. The subsequent trial became a weapon in the hands of Tories opposed to Home Rule for Ireland. After all, how could one grant political autonomy to a people still so in the grip of superstition? Michael Cleary was sentenced to 15 years after which he emigrated to Canada. Tom McIntyre told me an intriguing story from the Clonmel area some time ago when a young man (possibly a Canadian) was observed in the vicinity of the Cleary household only to disappear again. Did Michael re-marry and have a family?