The Fairy Witch of Clonmel
Written and compiled by George Knowles.
you a witch, or are you a fairy,
are you the wife of Michael Cleary.
the nursery rhyme as told in Ireland today.
In this day and age belief in fairies is very much a fable, most often
recited to children as a bedtime story of enchantment.
Who then would believe that not so long ago belief in fairies could
cause so much fear and apprehension as to result in murder?
It did, and this is a true story.
was a rural community of just 9 houses and 31 persons; the residents were mainly
low class peasant folk, illiterate farm and field laborers.
It was a staunchly Catholic area of Ireland, despite which it was an area
rife with superstition, were many believed in witches and fairies.
The nearest town of any substance was the market town of Clonmel, 11
miles south in the county of Tipperary. Clonmel
in 1895 would be the setting of Irelands most notorious case of torture and
murder, “the death by burning of Bridget Cleary”.
The resulting trials of her husband, relatives, and friends, were the
last trails involving Witchcraft, to be held in Irelands history.
Bridget Cleary was the daughter of Patrick Boland, a poor landless
laborer and his wife, Bridget nee Keating.
Despite their poverty, Bridget grew into a stylish good-looking woman.
She had her own successful dressmaking business, kept hens, and sold eggs
and fowl as an additional source of income.
As her prosperity increased, Bridget preferred to wear gold earrings and
hats adorned with feathers rather than the shawls and scarves of the common
countrywoman. Her style soon set
her apart, and in the eyes of other women she affected a sense of superiority, a
cause of resentment and jealousy for many.
serving as an apprentice in Clonmel, Bridget aged 18, met and married Michael
Cleary, an outsider from Killenaule. Michael
then aged 27, must have seemed a good match for the ambitious Bridget, he had a
taste for three-piece suits and the ability to read and write (literacy at that
time was still a rarity, particularly among the peasant classes).
He also had a trade, and had set up a lucrative cooperage business making
butter firkins and barrels for local farmers and factories.
They were married in August 1887.
finishing her apprenticeship, Bridget returned home to the tiny mud-walled cabin
occupied by her parents near Ballyvadlea bridge.
Using a new “Singer Sewing Machine”, (a much-prized possession in
those times), she soon gained a reputation as a dressmaker.
Michael in the mean time continued to work in Clonmel, and visited there
at weekends. Property in
Ballyvadlea was scarce, but a new law had recently been passed to alleviate
poverty in rural areas. It provided
the means and resources for newly built laborer’s cottages to be built in
poverty stricken areas. One such
area was Ballyvadlea and shortly after their marriage, a new cottage was built
half way up the hill and across from the bridge near Bridget’s home.
on the right hand side of the road it faced south, and commanded sweeping views
of the Anner Valley with the famous Slievenamon Mountain beyond it.
It was a rectangular shaped cottage with a high-pitched slate tiled roof,
and chimney’s in each end gable. The
front door was left of center with a sliding-sash window on either side of it.
There were two similar windows at the back of the cottage and a further
small one high in the west gable, placed to one side of the main kitchen
chimney. A slightly larger window
was placed in the center of the east gable, between the chimney shafts that led
up from two small bedrooms located to the front and rear of the cottage.
This gave light to the loft above, reached by a ladder from the kitchen
below. The front door opened
directly into the kitchen, to the right were the ground floor bedrooms with the
loft above, and to the left in the west gable wall was the hearth for heating
and cooking. Outside at the back of
the cottage there were two small outhouses, and the whole was separated from the
road by a gated low stonewall.
Compared with the mud-walled windowless cabins that most residents of
Ballyvadlea lived in, the new laborer’s cottage must have seemed luxurious,
and well beyond their means. But
Bridget ever ambitious, determined one day to live there. In the late 1880’s Bridget and Michael together with
Bridget’s parents applied for the tenancy, but were turned down in favour of
another laborer. However the
cottage had a disadvantage the planners and builders had failed to consider.
They had built it on a “rath”, or “ring fort” as archaeologists
now call them. Ring forts are
common in Ireland, but many are regarded as sites of mystery, places to be
avoided let alone built on.
folklore ring forts were always fairy-haunted, and after the new tenant moved in
strange things began to happen. It
was alleged that the fairies displeased with the new tenant held high revel on
moonlight nights near to the cottage. They
so annoyed him with unearthly noises and cries in the night that he fled the
locality in fear. The tenancy was
then offered to the Cleary’s but as Michael was not a laborer, he was
therefore not entitled to it. Patrick
Boland an ex-laborer though retired and in his sixties, was allowed to sign the
lease and became the official tenant. The
Cleary’s took possession of the cottage in 1891 and after moving in, all
hauntings and cries in the night ceased. Some
believed that the Cleary’s might have been responsible for chasing the old
after they moved into the cottage, Bridget’s mother died, leaving Patrick
Boland alone in the old mud-walled cabin near Ballyvadlea bridge.
They moved Patrick into the spare bedroom in the cottage, which then
allowed Michael still working away in Clonmel during the week, to move his
workshop into the old cabin, and set up business in Ballyvadlea.
He soon had a steady trade going with the local farmers, and gained a
lucrative contract supplying butter firkins to the creamery at Fethard, the
nearest village four miles to the south. Over
the next four years the Cleary’s continued to prosper, the only dark cloud on
the horizon was their childlessness. Tongues
were starting to wag among locals, as to why after eight years of marriage; they
still had no children.
On Monday the 4th March 1895, a cold but sunny dry day,
Bridget Cleary left her cottage and walked down the hill to Ballyvadlea bridge.
She was intent on delivering some eggs to her father’s cousin Jack
Dunne. Jack lived with his wife
Kate in a small house near the fairy fort (another ring fort) at Kylenagranagh,
just a mile or two from her home. It
had snowed heavily on the previous day and as she walked up Kylenagranagh Hill,
the snow on the mountains beyond shone white.
Finding no one at home, Bridget waited for a while on his doorstep, but a
cold wind chilled her through. Her
wait seemed in vein and shivering from the cold she returned home to warm
herself up by the kitchen fire. So
cold had she been that the fire did little to warm her, her shivering persisted
and she retired to bed.
following morning Bridget complained of a violent headache and was unable to
leave her bed, shivering fits continued to seize her. The illness continued throughout the week and steadily grew
worse. A few days into the illness,
Jack Dunne and his wife dropped by to visit her. Jack was commonly known as a “Shanachie” (an Old Irish
storyteller), one who could recite the legends, ghost stories, and fairy tales
of an age gone by. Apparently, he
was also learned in incantations, charms, and spells. Shanachie’s were much revered and respected by local common
folk, even feared by some because of their knowledge of things unknown.
years old, Jacks eyesight was beginning to falter and after several days in bed
with sickness, Bridget was far from looking her normal neatly turned out self.
Neither had Jack ever seen her lying down in bed before, but upon seeing
her he made a prophetic pronouncement, one that would later condemn Bridget as a
not Bridgie Boland”, he declared emphatically. Later he elaborated saying “that the woman in the bed was a
fairy, because one of her legs was longer than the other”. How he could determine that from under the bedclothes, we can
only wonder, but his remarks sparked off rumours that “Bridget had been taken
by the fairies”. For those who
disliked Bridget’s aloofness, or who were envious of her accomplishments,
rumours of fairy involvement easily explained her sudden loss of health, her
recent prosperity and her childlessness.
Saturday morning the 9th of March, Bridget was no better and if
anything she continued to get worse. Michael
Cleary and her father Patrick Boland, initially thinking, “it was naught but a
bad cold”, now increasingly began to worry.
Despite Jack Dunne’s pronouncement about fairies, they determined to
seek and consult a university trained medical doctor. While it was raining heavily that morning, Patrick, leaving
Michael to care for Bridget, walked the four miles into Fethard.
Dr. William Crean the local dispensary doctor was out, so he left a
message asking him to call as soon as possible.
Returning home they waited, but the doctor didn’t call.
Sunday, still raining and dull they waited, but still no doctor called.
By Monday morning Bridget was burning with fever, the rain had stopped
and by two in the afternoon without a visit from the doctor, Michael Cleary
decided to go himself and set out for Fethard.
arrived in Fethard, the doctor was out again, and word had to be left for him to
follow as soon as he could be found, and as quickly as was possible.
By this time it had been a week since Bridget had caught the chill, and
her condition was causing deepening concern.
Johanna Burke, Bridget’s cousin had been to visit while Michael was in
Fethard. While talking (perhaps in
a delirium), Bridget told her that the illness had started when she “took to
trembling” as she passed by the fairy fort on Kylenagranagh Hill. Further fueling the rumours that her illness was due to the
failed to show up again that day, nor did he call on Tuesday.
After another sleepless night, the strain was beginning to build in
Michael, but he determined to try again early the next morning.
At 5am on Wednesday morning, Michael left his wife and Patrick Boland
asleep in the house, and set out again for Fethard.
On his way he called in at Brook Hill, the home of the “Poor Law
Guardian,” Mr. Edmond Cummins (the local official responsible for medical
health), and reported the doctors conduct.
He received a written order obliging the doctor to attend without delay. Arriving at the dispensary in Fethard, the doctor had left on
another call just half an hour earlier, but had left word that he would be
attending his wife before he came back. Michael
decided to wait, just in case, determined his wife would be seen this day.
The doctor returned some hours later, having called in to see Bridget
on his way back. According to
Michael the doctor was drunk, and visibly annoyed that he had been reported.
He argued that he had seen his wife and found her weak and irritable,
suffering only from nervous excitement and “a slight bronchitis”.
He had prescribed some medicine and wine for her, which Michael was to
take back with him. He also
demanded that as he had already attended Bridget, that the written order should
be returned to Edmond Cummins as satisfied.
Michael did as he requested, and collected the doctor’s medicine and
wine. Before returning home, he also bought some herbs from a woman in
Patrick Boland had asked his sister Mary Kennedy, to come and take over the
household chores. After a brief
visit with Bridget, Mary (herself frail with age) left to fetch her daughter
Johanna Burke, who would do the heavy cleaning and washout Bridget’s
bedclothes. Boland then asked their
closest neighbour William Simpson, to send a messenger to Drangan, (the nearest
village with a church, four miles to the north), and ask one of the priests to
come and give a blessing. Simpson
was a well to do emergencyman (a caretaker of farms and properties whose tenants
had been evicted); he lived just a few hundred yards from the Cleary’s, half
way between them and Mary Kennedy’s house.
Later that morning the doctor finally arrived, and examined Bridget
returned with her daughter Johanna just as the doctor was leaving, and reported
that he looked annoyed. Bridget had
apparently asked him, “why had he not come when he was sent for”; further
irritating the doctor who had already learned that Michael Cleary had reported
him. After the doctor had gone,
Mary and Johanna set about cleaning and washing Bridget’s bedclothes.
At about half past three in the afternoon, Father Cornelius Ryan arrived
from Drangan to perform his blessing. He
later reported that he found Bridget to be in a very nervous state, almost
hysterical, and he thought he might be witnessing the beginnings of mental
derangement. While he didn’t consider her dangerously ill, he did think
it might become dangerous later on, so instead of a blessing, he administered
the last rites of the Church.
As he was doing so Michael Cleary arrived home, surprised and concerned
to find the last rites being said, he waited outside until the priest had
finished. When he had done, Father
Ryan came out and explained that he had prepared Bridget for death, and that she
was very sick. He asked if the
doctor had been drunk, and then examined the medicine that had been prescribed.
While he wasn’t a man of medicine, he was a man of education and
greatly respected, he said that he did not approve of the medicine and stated,
“that doctor was never sober”. Much
later after these events, but partly because of them, Dr. William Crean would be
discharged from his duties in disgrace.
Father Ryan had left, Michael entered the cottage carrying the medicine, wine
and herbs from Fethard. Inside he
found Mary Kennedy and Johanna hard at work washing and cleaning.
Shortly afterwards Jack Dunne arrived to pay another visit.
Speaking with Michael Cleary he asked, “What way was his wife”.
Cleary replied that she was only fair to middling, and that the doctor
and priest had been to see her. Dunne
then went in to see Bridget, and said to Cleary that she seemed not so bad.
Cleary then said to Dunne, “I have here something that will make her
better”, and showed him the medicine and herbs.
knowledgeable in herbs, charms and fairies, said the herbs would do for now, but
insisted that Denis Ganey of Kyleatlea (the local herbalist, or fairy-doctor)
should have been consulted about Bridget’s illness, and not Dr Crean or the
woman in Fethard. “The doctor has
naught to do for her” said Dunne, “for ‘tis not your wife in there”.
Cleary, having witnessed the doctor’s incompetence and hearing the
priests disapproval of him, now listened to Jack Dunne talk about herbs and
fairies, the doctors medicine was all but discarded as Dunne began to instruct
him on how to use the herbs. After
boiling the herbs they fed some to Bridget, then went around the house making
“pishrogues” (Old Irish term for making charms or spells by using signs or
actions, much like a blessing followed by the sign of the cross.).
Before leaving that night, Dunne told Cleary he should go over the
mountain the next day, and consult with Denis Ganey for a proper cure.
News of the day’s happenings quickly spread to relatives and friends
around Ballyvadlea. Michael
Cleary’s rejection of the doctor’s medicine in favour of a fairy cure
surprised none, but the priests reading of the last rites was indicative to many
of just how serious Bridget’s condition had become.
That Cleary was to consult with Denis Ganey; the fairy-doctor was greeted
with approval. Ganey was well known
and popular, and had treated many people in the area. Many too, vowed to stop by the ‘morrow, and lend support
for her treatment.
another restless night in the Cleary household, Michael Cleary weary with worry
and lack of sleep, supported by Patrick Boland, again kept a fitful vigil over
Bridget. After the herbs he had fed
to her earlier, assisted by Jack Dunne, she seemed to recover slightly and was
able to take some chicken Mary Kennedy had prepared.
Still she remained distressed and feverish as she tossed and turned all
night, her face red and sweating.
next morning at 6 o’clock, Michael Cleary set out on the four-mile walk over
the mountain to Kyleatlea. On his
way he asked his neighbour William Simpson, if he could fetch Jack Dunne for
when he returned, and to send a messenger to Drangan and ask the priest to call
in again. He also stopped by at
Mary Kennedy’s house and asked her to visit with his wife. In Kyleatlea, Michael received from Denis Ganey a mixture of
herbs and instructions on how they should be prepared and used.
By the time he returned home, Patrick Boland, Mary Kennedy, Johanna
Burke, and Jack Dunne were inside waiting, but the priest, having administered
the last rites already, had felt there was no need to attend again so soon.
Jack Dunne, Michael told him, “I have something now that will cure her”.
have you”, asked Dunne.
that there is nine cures in,” said Michael, “it will be hard to make her
take this, so you must help me with her and then she will be cured”.
prescribed by Ganey required the herbs to be boiled in the first milk given by a
cow after calving, (also known in Irish as “beestings” or “beastlings).
It had a strong smell and flavour, and was especially rich in nutrients
and antibodies. It was also said to
be particularly attractive to fairies. The
mixture, Ganey had said, should be fed to Bridget “three times three” before
midnight (meaning that she must swallow the mixture at least three times, during
three feedings before midnight). Cleary
and Dunne prepared the mixture in a pint (a small saucepan) on the fire, and
then watched on by Patrick Boland; they fed it to a reluctant Bridget.
As she gagged and complained about its bitter taste, the three men
threatened her with dire warnings till finally she swallowed the required third
times. Satisfied, the men sat down
by the fire to rest, while the women attended to Bridget.
Soon after, Johanna left to replenish the new milk and care for her own
children before returning.
It was late afternoon by now, and Cleary was showing signs of strain
and fatigue. He had lost lots of
sleep during the previous week, and had been up early both that day and the day
before. He had had an altercation
with a drunken doctor, the priest had refused to attend again, and still his
wife was sick. He couldn’t have
imagined things getting worse, but fate it seems was against him.
As they sat around the fire reviewing Bridget’s treatment, a messenger
arrived with news that Cleary’s father had died in Killenaule, and that his
wake would be held there that evening. It
was another devastating blow for Cleary, who made no move to go to the wake, and
determined to restore Bridget before he would allow any of the others to go.
He was now totally convinced that the woman in his bedroom was a witch,
and not his wife Bridget.
early evening another dose of the mixture was forced on Bridget, who by now, was
beginning to rant deliriously. “No!
No!” she cried, “ … No more!” she pleaded, as the men advanced toward
her. Jack Dunne, knowing her
resistance might increase, had heated a poker in the fire prior to the second
feeding. (Iron and fire were both
well-known weapons against witches and fairies).
As they advanced he threatened to burn her through with it, and touched
it to her forehead, “Eat you witch and begone in the name of God” he
demanded. Bridget, hysterical with
fright and fear, struggled to consume it.
after the second feeding William Ahearne arrived at the house.
He was from Kylenagranagh, and was a neighbour of Jack Dunne’s.
Only sixteen and described as delicate, he had been sent by his mother
to asked after Bridget’s health. He
was followed around nine o’clock by Mary Kennedy’s sons, Patrick and James.
Then shortly after William, their younger brother arrived and asked if
they were going to the wake. (News travels fast in rural communities, particularly of
someone passing, for wakes were all-night affairs and a major social event for
the rural working classes. There
would be storytelling, games and other amusements.
It was a prime time to catch up on gossip, hear and tell stories of
legends, ghosts and fairies, and a time for young men to meet young women).
The Kennedy brothers agreed they were going, but Michael Cleary stopped
them. He told them that, “his wife was getting better, that he
was after giving her more herbs he had got from Ganey over the mountain, and
that he should give them before they went, with their help”.
by the fire preparing the final mixture, when Michael Kennedy, the forth brother
arrived. He too asked if his
brothers were going to the wake, but they told him they couldn’t go just yet,
and he saw Michael Cleary lock the door. By
this time, there were nine people in the house as well as the sick Bridget
Cleary. They included: her husband
Michael, her father Patrick Boland, her aunt Mary Kennedy, her four cousins
Patrick, Michael, James, and William Kennedy, Jack Dunne was also there and William
Retrieving the pint from the fire, Michael Cleary addressed them, “I
think then” he said, holding up the pint with the mixture “it’s time to
give her this”.
William and Minnie Simpson, the emergencyman and his wife who lived
door, left their house to visit with Bridget around ten o’clock that
evening. As they approached the
Cleary’s house, they met with Johanna Burke and her eleven-year-old daughter
Katie. Johanna was returning with a
fresh supply of new milk, and told them that herbs were being given to Bridget
Cleary, which her husband had got from Ganey over the mountain. When they
arrived at the house, the men inside were forcing feeding Bridget Cleary, and
they found the door was locked and barred.
From the front bedroom window to the right of the main door, they could
hear the men shouting at her, “Take it you witch, in the name of God,” but
the wooden shutters inside the glass were closed and they couldn’t see inside.
William Simpson banged on the door demanding to be let in, but Michael
Cleary called out, “that no one could come in as yet”.
As they waited outside the shouting continued, interspersed with agonized
cries of protest they could only imagine to have come from Bridget.
the door was opened and the four were admitted. The tension inside the house was palpable and the sight that
greeted them shocking. Patrick
Boland was in the kitchen where a large oil-lamp was burning, but most everyone
else was in the front bedroom. Bridget
Cleary was lying on the bed wearing a flannel-striped nightdress over a calico
chemise. Jack Dunne was sitting on
the bed beside her, gripping her ears to hold her head down.
Patrick Kennedy on the far side of the bed pinned down his cousin’s
right arm, while his brother James Kennedy held on to her left arm.
The youngest brother William Kennedy lay across Bridget’s legs,
preventing them from moving. Michael
Cleary stood beside the bed holding a pint and a spoon, and young William
Ahearne at the back of the bedroom, held a candle that cast an eerie light over
the scene. Mary Kennedy hovered anxiously near the door, but ready to
assist when called for by Michael Cleary.
Cleary screamed and ranted at the men to leave her alone as she wriggled and
struggled to get free, heedless her husband pushed more of the mixture into her
mouth, then clamped his hand there till she was forced to swallow.
Each time she swallowed she was shouted at and questioned, “In the name
of God - are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary?” they shouted.
Bridget crying responded each time, “Yes, Yes”, but Cleary refused to
side of the bed was an old black pot, used by the Cleary’s in times of
emergency. (Urine, often mixed with
hen’s dropping was another common defense against fairies).
“Mary”, called Michael Cleary, “reach me that pot”.
you want of it, is it to drown her?” questioned Mary.
Cleary snatched the pot from Mary, and threw some of the contents into
Bridget Cleary’s face, drenching her. Again,
and again, three times he drenched her. The men holding her then lifted her up, her feet still on the
bed. Gripping her arms and legs on
both sides while one held her head, they lifted her bodily and wound her
backwards and forwards, shaking her as they did so.
All together in unison they shouted, “In the name of God, out with the
witch, come home Bridget Boland”. Bridget
was screaming terribly as they proceeded to slap and clap her hand together,
symbolically driving out the witch with stinging pain.
Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?” demanded Michael
Cleary. Bridget, sickly after the
forced feeding and such a violent manhandling, mustn’t have answered loudly or
strong enough. Jack Dunne called
out, “Make down a good fire, we will make her answer”.
The fire as it was, was burning slowly in the kitchen grate, and
further fuel was added.
The men holding Bridget lifted her of the bed and carried her through to the
kitchen. Jack Dunne still holding
her head supported her upper body, while James Kennedy held on to her legs and
feet, Patrick Boland moved forward and held her hips clear of the bars in the
grate. As they lowered her into the
fireplace, her head was to the left of the grate, her right hip resting on it,
with her legs protruding partly out to the right. Bridget Cleary was conscious and aware of what was going on,
but in her weakening state did little to resist.
William and Minnie Simpson standing in shocked disbelief from all they
had witnessed so far, heard Bridget telling the men “not to make a herring of
her”, and to “give her a chance”.
By now it
was after half past eleven, and William Simpson heard one of the men saying,
“if the questions aren’t answered by midnight, the real Bridget Cleary would
be lost forever”. Patrick Boland
let go of his daughter’s body long enough to ask the question again, “Are
you the daughter of Patrick Boland, wife of Michael Cleary. Answer in the name of God”.
Dada, I am”, replied Bridget. As
her hips now rested on top of the fire, her nightdress began to singe, and the
smell of scorching cloth pervaded the room.
Michael Cleary stepped forward and put a similar question.
Gathering what must have been her last remains of strength, Bridget
somehow managed to answer in a fair clear voice; “I am the daughter of Patrick
Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God”.
Satisfied, the men carried her back to the bedroom.
midnight passed the atmosphere in the house began to change and the tension that
had been present slowly dissipated. The
men grew noticeably more relaxed and satisfied that the witch had been banished.
They were delighted that Bridget Cleary was now back, and assured each
other that the treatment had worked.
In the bedroom Bridget Cleary was a pathetic sight, her nightdress and
chemise streaked with soot and soaked in urine. There was a large scorch mark on her right hip where she had
been placed on the fire, but fortunately it hadn’t burned her through, and
physically at least she seemed undamaged. Not
so mentally, she was severely distressed and traumatized, her eyes rolled around
wildly, as she ranted and raved incoherently.
The men held back now as the women moved in to help her.
Torture gave way to domesticity as Johanna Burke produced a fresh
nightdress. She aired the dress in
front of the fire, while Minnie Simpson and Mary Kennedy removed Bridget’s
soiled clothing. They dressed her
again in the clean garment and put her to bed.
clothes had been changed, the men gathered around her bed again, while Bridget
watched them fearfully. Less
threatening this time, Michael Cleary pointed to each in turn, one at a time he
asked his wife if she recognized them. When
she did, they all began to console her, welcome her back and tell her she would
be all right, she had nothing more to fear.
They left her then to settle in bed and gathered in the kitchen to talk.
By now it
was well past midnight, but tea was made and past around to all.
Shortly after the four Kennedy brothers begged leave to set off for the
wake at Killenaule. Michael Cleary still refused to go along, preferring to stay
and look out for his wife Bridget. Patrick
Boland was also want to go, and Michael asked that he tell his mother “he had
his wife back from the fairies”. Jack
Dunne and William Ahearne were the next to leave, being neighbours; they left
together at about two in the morning.
Cleary, William and Minnie Simpson, Mary Kennedy, Johanna Burke and her daughter
Katie remained and stayed up talking till first light.
Bridget Cleary also remained awake, but was delirious most of the time.
They fed her drinks as she called for them, and endeavored to make her
comfortable and sleep. The
Simpson’s left as dawn broke, followed shortly after by Mary Kennedy, who took
the exhausted Katie with her. Michael
Cleary, wearier than ever after another sleepless night, set off for Drangan to
call on Fr Ryan again. While elated
with the night’s success, he still thought there was evil spirits in the
house, and wanted Mass said to banish them.
Johanna was left alone to care for Bridget Cleary.
in Drangan shortly after seven that Friday morning, Michael sought out and found
Fr Ryan. After he had refused to
return the day before, having given the last rites to Bridget on the Wednesday.
Michael explained to him that that she had had a very bad night, and
asked that he come and say Mass at the house.
Fr Ryan agreed, and followed him home on horseback.
When they arrived at the house, Fr Ryan went inside to speak with
Bridget, he found her to be “more nervous and excited” than when he had seen
her last, though her conversations were “coherent and intelligent”.
Fr Ryan performed the Mass in her bedroom and also gave her the Holy
Burke had remained in the kitchen while Fr Ryan was saying Mass, and watched as
he gave her Holy Communion. Also in
the house was Michael Cleary, Patrick Boland was there having returned from the wake in
Killenaule, and a neighbour called Mrs. Nagle.
After the priest had left and returned to Drangan, Johanna tended to
Bridget. She later made mention
that “Bridgie was not her sensible self, she didn’t swallow the communion
host, I seen her take it out, she’s not the whole of her senses yet,” she
said. While probably referring to
Bridget’s distressed mental state, one can only imagine the effect her
comments had on Michael Cleary. To
remove the communion host from her mouth was something strictly forbidden by
Catholic teaching, and indicated a much greater sacrilege, one that smacked of
As the morning progressed, some of their friends and relatives arrived
to visit with Bridget Cleary. They
ask how she was, stayed and talked for a while, then left.
Bridget in the meantime while still weak, had recovered enough to sit up
in bed and drink milk, brought to her by Johanna.
Tension between the Cleary’s was mounting.
Bridget perhaps was beginning to resent her husband’s maltreatment of
the night before, while Michael, in light of Johanna’s comments earlier, was
growing ever more suspicious of his wife. By
early afternoon her strength seems to have returned, she was no longer feverish
and had had something to eat. With
the return of her strength her dominant character also began to assert itself,
and soon an argument ensued.
argument started simply enough when Bridget asked Johanna if she had been paid
for all the milk. “Yes she
had,” Johanna had told her, and showed her the shilling that Michael Cleary
had given to her. Bridget took the
shilling and put it under the blanket covering her, then gave it her back after
a minute. A shilling was much more
than the market value for the amount of milk she had brought, as Bridget Cleary
was well aware off. But then it
hadn’t been just ordinary milk she had brought; it had been new milk,
beestings, which had been used to prepare the herbal treatment.
Michael Cleary therefore had not considered this an ordinary purchase,
but a symbolic exchange of silver (symbolic for protection, luck and good health
against fairies), for the healing properties of the new milk.
If Bridget Cleary had rubbed the shilling on her thigh, or indeed her
vulva, as was believed, to the superstitious common folk this was like making a
pishrogue (Charm or Spell using signs or actions.), to withhold or divert the
luck intended. It was another
indication of witchery.
late afternoon Johanna Burke left, returning to her own home in Rathkenny.
She returned at sunset, about half past six, bringing with her a bottle
of fresh milk. By which time Mary
Kennedy had arrived to visit, with Johanna’s daughter Katie and another
neighbour Johanna Meara. Johanna
set the new milk down on the bedroom window ledge as Bridget Cleary asked,
“Will you give me a sup of it?”
Cleary listening from the kitchen, perhaps churlishly after the argument over
milk that afternoon said, “No, she could have a drink of water.”
Burke spoke out and said, “Now what nourishment is a sup of water for a poor creature?”
Cleary, his word not to be denied, took the milk away and refused to give her
any. As the friction deepened, his
suspicions that his wife still harbored a witch changeling increased and filled
him with dread. After the stresses
and worries of the past week and more, and not having slept for the last couple
of days. After all he had been
through and tried to do to protect and help his wife, the thought of having
failed caused a deep anger to build inside him.
Bridget Cleary perhaps sensed this, but seemed to be more frustrated
than frightened by her husband’s behavior.
Still, she asked Johanna to go fetch Thomas Smyth and David Hogan, two
local men and field laborer’s who lived not far away, feeling that the
presence of other men in the house may have a calming effect on Michael Cleary.
Johanna Burke left at about eight o’clock and returned some half-hour
later with the two men. Johanna Meara and Mary Kennedy was still there in the house,
with Patrick Leahy another neighbour who had arrived. Patrick Boland, who had been asleep most of the day in the
other bedroom, was also up and talking with Michael Cleary in the kitchen.
Cleary ushered Smyth and Hogan into the front bedroom.
Bridget Cleary was lying propped up on pillows, talking with Johanna
Meara and Mary Kennedy. “Here’s Tom Smyth and David Hogan to see you now,” he
said. As they talked with his wife,
Cleary produced a noggin bottle, which he claimed contained holy water.
He told his wife to drink from it “in the name of the Father, Son and
Holy Ghost”. After she had done
so, he then gave her the drink of the milk she had requested earlier.
Smyth would later recall that Bridget seemed agitated and angered by
Michael Cleary’s actions. When
they left the bedroom, Michael Cleary followed them into the kitchen and told
them, “that as his wife had the company, she was going to dress and get up”.
help of the other women, Bridget dressed in an ordinary chemise, pulled on
petticoats, a navy-blue flannel dress with gray stays, a navy-blue cashmere
jacket, and black boots and stockings. As
this was the first time in eleven days that she had been able to get up, she
also put on gold earrings, wanting to present her normal image of a stylish and
successful woman. A shawl completed
her outfit and when she was ready, Michael Cleary brought her through to the
kitchen and sat her down on a form near the fire.
Tom Smyth then asked her “how she was.”
I’m fair middling Tom,” said Bridget, “but he’s making a fairy of me
now, and an emergency” she said, her voice rising excitedly.
don’t you mind him” said Tom soothingly, “but lets not be that way, eh!”
unconsciously siding with Michael Cleary.
Hanny for fresh milk” she said sounding vexed, “and he won’t give me
ne’er a drop of it.”
hold your tongue, Bridgie,” said Tom more sternly, “don’t be minding him,
you’ll have the drink of it, bye the bye.”
She said no more then, but Michael Cleary chipped in with reference to
the shilling she had rubbed on her leg, “making pishrogues” he said,
continuing the argument of the afternoon.
not rub it on my leg,” said Bridget frustratingly, getting excited again, “I
used no pishrogues.”
o’clock that evening the house was beginning to fill with people.
The Kennedy brothers Patrick, James and William, arrived back from the
wake in Killenaule and joined the other men in the kitchen.
There Patrick Boland, Tom Symth, David Hogan, Patrick Leahy and another
neighbour Tom Anglin, stood or sat around the table talking.
Michael and Bridget Cleary sat on a form near the fire, arguing in the
background, while the other women Mary Kennedy, Johanna Meara, Johanna Burke and
her daughter Katie sat on stools about them.
Just before midnight Symth, Hogan and Leahy left, followed shortly by
Tom Anglin who volunteered to walk Johanna Meara home.
Cleary let them out and locked the door behind them.
had left, there was room around the table, lit by the oil-lamp for Johanna to
make a pot of tea, cut some bread and placed some jam out for all to help
themselves. As she was doing so,
she listened more carefully to the Cleary’s conversation as they argued:
mother was going with the fairies. That’s
why you say I am going there now,” Bridget was saying.
tell you she was?” demanded Michael.
did, she said she gave two days with them,” said Bridget, spitefully.
This was a
devastating allegation to make, particularly in front of present company, as all
who where present were members of her family. Michael was a blow-in, a person from another community and
social background, he could read and write and was prosperous, but they still
had no children, which meant his status among his wife’s neighbours could not
be guaranteed. To say his mother
had been with the fairies would cast doubt on everything about him, from his
mother’s virtue and sanity, to his own fertility and manhood. The anger inside Michael began to boil and the tension
between the couple remained acute as they moved from the fire to sit on chairs
around the table.
poured a cup of tea for Bridget but Michael Cleary stopped her, he
small pieces of bread and jam saying she should eat them before taking a sup of
tea. Bridget ate two pieces and
after swallowing each piece Michael demanded, “Are you Bridget Boland, wife of
Michael Cleary, in the name of God.” Bridget
answered twice that she was, but balked and wouldn’t eat the third piece till
she had a sup of tea. Michael
furious after all the taunting and bickering he had suffered during the day –
snapped! He knocked his wife off
the chair and onto the ground in front of the fire, her head hitting the floor
with a resounding crack as she landed. Cleary
leapt on her and started ripping at her clothing.
There was pandemonium as everyone scrambled to get out of their way, most
were forced out of the kitchen and watched from the safety of the bedrooms.
ranted and raved at his wife as she lay on the earthen floor.
Off came her shawl, jacket, skirt and petticoats, as he stripped her down
to her chemise. She could do nothing to resist weak as she was, and now
terrified by his sudden violence. Kneeling
on her chest and holding her down by the throat, he pulled a piece of burning
wood out of the fire and threatened to push it down her throat if she
“didn’t eat and renounce the witch.”
Han!” she cried out to Johanna for help.
“Make him stop and give us a chance.”
Burke was in the bedroom and unable to get through to intervene, but called out
for her, “Michael, let her alone, don’t you see it is Bridget you have
forced the last piece of bread into her mouth shouting “Swallow it down.
Is it down? Swallow it
witch.” As he swiveled to answer
Johanna and prevent interference from others, a burning ember fell off the
piece wood and ignited Bridget flimsy chemise.
Mary Kennedy ran to the fireplace then and shouted at Cleary saying,
“What are ye doing with the creature? Is
it roasting her you are?” Cleary
rising up of the burning Bridget pushed Mary to one side with his shoulder
causing her to stumble. Johanna
Burke then ran forward and pulled her back to the safety of the bedrooms.
Kennedy appeared from the back bedroom were he had been dosing until the
commotion woke him. Seeing Bridget
her dress alight near the fire, he confronted Cleary, “For the love of God,
man” he said, “don’t be letting her burn”.
not my wife,” said Cleary. “She’s
a deceiver sent in her place. She’s
deceived us all, even the priest today, but she won’t any more.
As I began it with her, I shall finish it with her.
You’ll see her go up the chimney this night, or else.”
said, “They would have naught to do with it” and made for the door demanding
it be opened for the rest of them to go home.
Cleary blocked his way and drew a knife from his pocket; menacingly he
threatened to take the life of anyone attempting to leave before he had his wife
back. Cleary looked wild eyed and
deranged as he forced Kennedy and those who had followed back into the bedrooms.
“If any of you come out, I’ll roast you down same as her,” he said.
Turning he dashed to the table and picked up the paraffin lamp, throwing
it’s contents over Bridget as she screamed.
Flames engulfed her and a stinking nauseatingly smell of burning flesh
filled the house. So intense was
the blasé that those in the bedrooms were forced to close their doors.
They waited as slowly Bridget’s screams died out and silence descended
on the house.
the silence, gagging on the smoke and smell, some 15 minutes passed without a
Mary Kennedy cautiously
opened the door and peered out upon a ghastly scene.
Michael Kennedy stood looking down at the smoking black mass that had
once been his wife. As Mary
watched, he moved to the far corner of the kitchen and returned with an old
sheet and mattress bag. He tried
rolling the smoldering mass in the sheet, but one of her legs had constricted
during the burning and was sticking up at an awkward angle, brutally he kicked
it flat, and a sickening crack echoed through the house. Wrapped in the sheet he then stuffed her into the bag.
Telling everyone to remain where they were and warning them against
leaving, he left the house and locked the door from the outside.
and perhaps in fear of their own lives no one attempted to leave.
Patrick Boland gathered everyone in the front bedroom, there with Mary
Kennedy and her four sons, Johanna Burke and her daughter Katie; they knelt and
said the Rosary. Cleary returned after an hour and called out for Patrick
Kennedy, but all in the bedroom were feared and reluctant to move.
Cleary called again and said, “I’ll come run you through if you
don’t come out.” As he stepped
out of the bedroom, Cleary told him “I’ll be needing your help now
Patrick,” he said, “She didn’t go out through the chimney, so we’ll take
her out through the door.” Cleary
at this time still believed that the body lying on the floor was not that of his
wife Bridget, but that of a witch changeling.
“I have the hole nearly made,” he said, “and I’ll be doing away
with you too, if your not to be helping,” he said threateningly.
Kennedy in fear of his life agreed to help, together they lifted the wrapped up
body and took her outside. Cleary
again warned the others against leaving and locked the door.
Retrieving a shovel and spade from under a furze bush, they carried the
body about a quarter of a mile uphill from the house.
There in a corner of a marshy field, Cleary had dug a shallow hole about
three feet in length and two feet in breadth and depth; it was already filling
with water when they arrived. Michael
threw the body into the hole partly on its side, and pressed it down with his
foot as they covered it with soil. To
conceal the newly disturbed earth, they threw on some branches and leaves before
returning to the house.
the house, Cleary gathered everyone before him in the kitchen and pulled out the
knife, “I’ll make ye now, take an oath” he said, “or I’ll drive the
knife through ye.” One by one he
swore them to silence, before letting them go.
By five o’clock that morning most had gone and only Mary Kennedy and
Patrick Boland remained. Cleary,
perhaps finally realizing the enormity of his actions told them, “She’s
burned now,” he said “and God knows I would never have done it but for Jack
Dunne. It was he told me my wife
was a witch. I would never have
forced her into the fire, but for him.”
next few days, rumours about dark deeds and Bridget’s disappearance began to
circulate. They were followed by a
police inquiry and a search of the neighborhood for her body.
Meanwhile Cleary, accompanied by Jack Dunne, spent three nights keeping
vigil on Kylenagranagh Hill, Cleary still hoped and believed that his wife would
appear on horseback at the fairy fort, and that if he caught her as she rode by,
he could cut her ropes and she would be freed to return.
Cleary’s remains were found later that week on Friday the 22nd of
March. It was a grisly, gruesome
find in that watery boggy hole. Her
legs, abdomen, back and hands were charred black, and bones and intestines
protruded. The ensuing
investigation revealed the culprits; witnesses were found and came forward.
Michael Cleary her husband, Patrick Boland her father, James, Patrick
and Michael Kennedy her cousins, Mary Kennedy her aunt, and the two local men
John Dunne and William Ahearne, were all charged with willful murder.
Later, two other men were charged William Kennedy, and Dennis Garney the
During the murder trials conducted in the Clonmel
courthouse, all charges of murder were reduced to manslaughter.
Dennis Garney, William Kennedy and his mother Mary Kennedy were released
and discharged without penalty. Patrick
Boland received six months imprisonment, as did Michael Kennedy but with hard
labour. James Kennedy got a year
and a half imprisonment, while his brother Patrick Kennedy got five years for
his part in the burial. The
harshest sentence was reserved for Michael Cleary; he was sentenced to 20 years
penal servitude for manslaughter. The
main witness for the prosecution had been Johanna Burke and her daughter Katie.
Michael Cleary served only 15 years in jail; he was
released from Maryborough Prison on the 28 April 1910, with a gratuity of just
£17. 13s. 4d. He
immediately moved to Liverpool, England, from where on the 30th June
1910 he immigrated to Montreal in Canada, there to live out the rest of his life
where nobody else knew him. Throughout
his time in prison, Michael Cleary steadfastly maintained he had not killed his
wife, he still believed right up to the end, that the fairies had taken her and
left in her place a “witch changeling”.
Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft" - By Rosemary Ellen
"The Burning of Bridget
- by Angela Bourke.
published on the 16th August 2003, 23:16:42 © George Knowles
wishes and Blessed Be