In the mid-1890s, a case from a small village in County Tipperary, Ireland caught the attention of both Irish and English newspapers, even reaching publication in The New York Times. Known as the ‘Tipperary Witchcraft’ case, English newspapers– during a time when Irish home rule was highly contested– manipulated the case to argue that people who still believed in a folklore of evil spirits, banshees, and ghosts should not be allowed to govern themselves in the developing modern world. Contemporaries such as E.F. Benson even went so far as to call those involved uneducated, comparing their actions to examples of ‘savage tribes’. Although the case was no reflection of Irish political abilities, it quickly cemented itself into popular culture, with schoolchildren repeating the rhyme ‘are you a witch, or are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’ But who was the wife of Michael Cleary, the ‘Tipperary Witch’, and why has her story become synonymous with Irish folklore?
In an act of public aid after the Great Famine, The Board of Guardians (an Irish governing body) built a petite labouring cottage in the small village of Ballyvadlea. The settlement consisted of only 8 other houses, with a total of 31 residents. The cottage was built on the remains of an ancient Iron Age fort, also believed to be a fairy ring in Irish myth. The first occupiers quickly moved out after a series of strange events took place, allowing Patrick Boland along with his daughter Bridget and his son-in-law Michael to move in.
Bridget and Michael had been married for 5 years and, although they had no children of their own, were described locally as having a ‘happy union’. Michael was a cooper by trade and made barrels, although he was not the main breadwinner of the household. Bridget, on the other hand, was unusually independent for the time, working as a dressmaker and selling eggs. She was able to make more than enough money to support herself and, as Aaron Manke states, was a ‘self-made, self-possessed woman’.
It is unknown when Michael began to believe that something was wrong with his wife. Some claim that it was a drawn-out process, citing an event in December 1894, when Bridget claimed that Michael had attempted to burn her. Others, however, see it as a culmination of factors that reared their head in March 1895. By this point, Michael believed the woman in his house was not his wife.
The folklore of changelings is an anciently held belief across Europe. In fact, the fairies of rural Ireland remained a key element of its oral tradition up to modern times: in 1959, workmen refused to destroy a fairy fort while rerouting a road in County Mayo. Traditional lore tells that fairies are known to come into our realm and kidnap children and sometimes adults, replacing them with these ‘changelings’. Irish poet, W.B. Yeats mentions the belief in his Irish Folk Tales (1892):
The logic behind the belief was that if a person or a child was sickly, ill-tempered or weak, they were thought to be the changeling replacement, an inferior substitute for the person residing in the fairy realm. They were also said to have drained all the good luck from a family, as well as having enormous appetites, which would have greatly affected Irish families trying to overcome the hardships of the previous century. Parents would leave their children in the wilderness or bathe them in icy waters, with neighbours becoming involved in what became known as ‘fairy exorcisms’.
After walking home from selling her fowl eggs in harsh weather, Bridget caught a cold and became confined to her home with rapidly declining health. Michael on this occasion called for the local doctor and priest, whom upon examining her believed her to be suffering from mental derangement. When her condition did not improve despite both medical and religious intervention, Michael began to consider other causes for her illness, turning to local changeling folklore, and sought the advice of a local ‘fairy-doctor’.
On the night of 15 March 1895, relatives and neighbours gathered to see Bridget take the prescribed herbal exorcising cure, the event itself demonstrating the widespread belief in the changeling lore. When she refused, Michael tortured her with a hot poker. As she was forced to take the mixture, her screams were heard throughout Ballyvadlea. Throughout the event, she was interrogated by both her husband and father, ‘Are you Bridget Cleary, my wife, in the name of God?’. Due to her weakened state, she was not able to answer satisfactorily, although some sources state that she declared her husband was ‘making a fairy out of me’ in the midst of the ordeal. The torture continued, whereupon she was also held over the kitchen fire. Eventually, Michael called for the priest once again to say a Mass that he believed would banish the evil he saw before him, but even the Word of God would not bring Bridget home. In a fit of rage and mania, he placed her in the fire and covered her body in lamp oil, causing it to instantly catch fire. Her last words echo through time: ‘Give me a chance.’
Those who still remained at the house made no effort to extinguish the flames and fled as Michael claimed ‘It is not Bridget I am burning. You will soon see her [the changeling] go up in the chimney.’
Bridget died in her own home, tortured, abused and burned.
Armed with a knife, Michael and some others buried Bridget in a shallow grave. When she was later found on 22 March, her body was curled in the foetal position, with a sack covering her largely unscathed face. She was still wearing her black stockings.
The following day, after rumours had spread of his wife’s disappearance, Michael was found in the parish church in a dire mental state, pulling his hair out and stricken with grief. When asked about his wife, he was still convinced she would return wearing a white gown, riding atop a pale horse, as the lore told, at which point he would cut her from her bindings with a blackened knife. He still believed his Bridget would return home.
Those involved were charged with Actual Bodily Harm and sentenced to penal punishment. Michael was found guilty of manslaughter rather than the higher charge of wilful murder and sentenced to 21 years imprisonment, only serving 15 before emigrating to Canada.
The widespread belief in changeling lore resulted in Michael’s original charge of wilful murder being dropped to manslaughter, claiming that he didn’t mean to kill her, only to bring her back. Modern psychiatric evaluations of the case have even suggested that Michael was suffering from Capgras syndrome, whereupon people develop an irrational belief that a loved one has been replaced by an imposter. He was also likely sleep deprived and distressed during the event, his own father dying mere hours before Bridget’s torture. He also went to considerable lengths to arrange for a doctor to assess his wife and a priest to say Mass for her, but eventually, as both science and religion failed him, he was forced to surrender to superstition.
Bridget Cleary was an independent, clever and entrepreneurial woman– a force to be reckoned with in the small village of Ballyvadlea, that was set against a tradition of punishing those who did not conform. The lore surrounding her death gives us great insight into popular culture, religion, and belief in nineteenth century Ireland, a land torn apart by famine and devastation that sought to cure itself of the darkness from within. The tales of Changelings helped people understand why things happened, why their loved ones had fallen ill or changed beyond recognition. It was a grasp for anything that would help them cope, yet ultimately tearing them apart.
The tale of Bridget Cleary is a stark reminder about the influence of folklore in the past, and those that have fallen victim to it. The reputation of the ‘Tipperary Witch’, although no references were made to witches in the trial itself, highlighted the integration of these beliefs within Irish popular understanding in the nineteenth century. Folklore reflects the culture in which it was created and allows us to recreate wider societal beliefs and ideas as a historical source. The changeling tale brought a spark of hope to the population; that their ill or seemingly changed loved one would be returned to them as they once remembered, and the difficulties they had been through were the work of magical creatures. Bridget became the victim of a society that was scarred by fear, change and hardship, creating an output in traditions and supernatural belief. She will never return home.
Written by Melissa Kane
Thomas McGrath, ‘Fairy Faith and Changelings: The Burning of Bridget Cleary in 1895, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review Vol. 71, No. 282 (1982), 178-84.
David Willis McCullough, ‘The Fairy Defense,’ New York Times (2000).
H. O’Connell and P.G. Doyle, ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary: Psychiatric Aspects of a Tragic Tale,’ Irish Journal of Medical Science 71 (2006-7), 76-78.
Miklos Voros, Jeremy Straugn, Eileen Moore Quinn and A.Scott Catey, ‘Where the World Ended: Reunification and identity in the German Borderland/The Burning of Bridget Cleary/Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbours and Friends,’ Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe 1 (2001), 37-44.
Aaron Manke, ‘Episode 11: Black Stockings’ Lore Podcast (2015) https://megaphone.link/CAD3930740845. Accessed October 13, 2020.
E.F. Benson, ‘The Recent ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel,’ The New York Times 37 (1985), 1053-5.