In 1895 Ireland witnessed the most chilling and compelling of murder trials to ever take place in the Emerald Isle to the extent it was reported in newspapers throughout Britain, Ireland and Canada. Those charged with her murder cited the Faeries as their defence.
Bridget Boland Cleary was an attractive confident woman of twenty six years of age. She was married to Michael, an educated Cooper nine years her senior and the childless couple resided with Bridget’s father Patrick Boland in a cottage in Ballyvadlea, County Tipperary.
Bridget was fiercely independent and uncharacteristic of a married woman at that time, as not only was she literate, she was also a very successful business woman. A seamstress with her own machine she made and repaired garments for locals as well as selling eggs from her own chickens. To quote the Judge in the case, Bridget Cleary was “a young married woman, suspecting no harm, guilty of no offence, virtuous and respectable in all her conduct and all her proceedings.”
Early in March of that year Bridget had been out delivering eggs and having caught a cold, it escalated and she became quite ill. The young wife had been subjected to forced intake of herbal concoctions as was the way in that household, however as her condition remained unimproved, the doctor was sent for on 11th March, but was unable to attend until the 13th. At this point rumours believed to have been started by Michael and her Uncle Jack Dunne were circulating the community, stating that Bridget Cleary was gone and that a Faery Changling had been left in her stead.
On examination the doctor said that Bridget was in a “state of nervous excitement” and had a complaint, possibly TB or Bronchitis. In general her life was not believed to be at risk however the priest was called for to deliver the Last Rites. The priest carried out a last confession and the Last Rites. He too was convinced Bridget was not dying and stated there was no need for him to return.
At this stage both Michael Cleary and Bridget’s father Patrick were openly denouncing the poor woman as a Changeling as she remained sickly. The herbal and folklore ‘cures’ being administered were becoming more frequent and more brutal. More family and neighbours were now involved and Bridget was subjected to force feeding, urine being thrown upon her as well as being verbally and physically abused. On 14th March she was finally carried by all present to the fireplace whereupon it was demanded she recite her name three times to prove she was not a Changeling, whilst being held over the fire.
On 16th March Bridget Cleary was reported missing.
Michael Cleary stated his wife had been taken by the Faeries and they were seen to be holding a vigil for her safe return. Following intervention from the local priest, after five days Bridget Cleary’s corpse was found, buried in a shallow grave, charred and burned.
The horror of her final moments was revealed in court. Nine people in total, with Michael Cleary being the main accused were charged with her murder and/or wounding. Bridget had been subjected to torture and torment, finally being burned alive in her nightdress in front of the kitchen fireplace, screams of agony ignored by the silent that stood before her.
That silence continued until arrests were made and the trial began. The evidence brought out at trial was horrific, particularly the post-mortem findings including exposed bones, strangulation marks and burning. Cleary’s argument? “She was too fine to be my wife and two inches taller.” On this basis he deduced she was a Changeling and should be slain.
In total five people were convicted, four of wounding and Michael Cleary of the Manslaughter of his wife, Bridget Cleary, for which he served 15 years in prison after which time he emigrated.
Was this a clever, jealous husband who convinced his neighbours and family to commit atrocities through mass hysteria? Did Michael Cleary genuinely believe his wife had been taken by the Faeries? The outcome of the trial points to the former, yet we will never know. All we know is that poor Bridget will forever be remembered as the victim of Ireland’s most bizarre and controversial murder trial.
Bridget Cleary’s legacy is a nursery rhyme that epitomises the complexity of the circumstances surrounding her death:
Are you a witch or are you a faery?
Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?