Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Are You a Witch, or Are You a Fairy?

Bridget and Micheal's Wedding Photograph

“It’s not her.  It’s not my wife!”

That’s what Michael Cleary said to his father-in-law, his cousins and various tooth-sucking wide-eyed observers in Tipperary, Ireland that coldest of days in 1895.

“We tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen, so prideful and superior they are. So it’s no fault of ours, this thing that has come about,” they muttered while fingering rosaries and throwing hand gestures in the “old ways” against the dangerous magical beings that caused chaos in life when no other rational explanation will do. “Everyone knows what happens when you take a home built atop a fairy fort.” 
Even in the late nineteenth century, at the height of the Industrial Age when Roentgen was discovering X-rays and the Lumiere brothers invented the Cinematograph, the rural folk around Tipperary still gave a wide berth to the prehistoric grave barrows that dotted the landscape for miles around. To the people, they were homes to wraiths, goblins and banshees and, worst of all, fairies. 

Bridget Boland married Michael Cleary and promptly went home to live with her parents. She was 26, which was a bit long in the tooth in everyone’s opinion for a newlywed. Most girls thereabout were married young and were slavishly yoked to home and hearth by growing broods of children and serving the needs of laborer husbands. With none of that traditional servitude to distract her, Bridget built up her own professional life selling eggs and, as dressmaker and milliner, made most of the hats and dresses in town. 

She had her own Singer sewing machine which was a source of gossip in the pub or over the fence.

Was she putting on airs? Was she thumbing her nose at what should be her station? Bridget was peculiar. 

Michael Cleary

Her groom, 10 years older than she, continued to work as a cooper at a barrel making interest removed from Tipperary by some miles. He was known to be a “clever man” who provided for his wife and kin well. He tolerated Bridget’s penchant for commerce, even though he likely endured mockery about his “working” wife.

When Bridget’s mother died and the couple became responsible for her elderly father and, as such, inherited the right to occupy the best labourers house in Tipperary - The one famously known to have been built atop of an ancient fairy ring fort. As much as it was the nicest cottage around, no one wanted it because it was thought to be infested with fairies.

Everyone knew that fairies wreak havoc for sport.

They moved in anyway. And entered a higher social strata.

Again, peculiar, during 8 years of marriage, God gave them no children.  Whispers amongst the folk blamed the fairies for the problem.

The winter of 1895 was one of the coldest on record.  Rivers froze solid denying commerce from town to town. Livestock died in the bitter blast and crops turned brittle in the fields. Living had become a dire struggle. Devout Catholics, in addition to praying fervently to Jesus Christ, began to turn, for insurance surely, to the old deities in prayer. They called upon ancient forces that still gave them comfort and who perhaps would bestow merciful relief from the cursed frozen spell that was ruining them.   

By March, hundreds had succumbed to pneumonia, and in early March Bridget fell ill. She was seen by a physician who prescribed medicine and suggested calling in the priest to administer last rites.
“Are you giving her the medicine the doctor ordered, Michael?” asked Father Ryan.

“No. I don’t trust it.”

“Why not, for the love of God?”

“People may have some remedy of their own that might do more good than doctor’s medicine.”

The local fairy doctor was consulted. 
“The creature lying here is not your wife.  It is a changeling left behind to fool you when she went to join the fairies. To get her back, there are things you can do to loosen the grasp of the fairies on your wife.”

Michael Cleary then committed to memory the ancient arcane recipe for restoring his wife from the realms of the fairy, and to destroy what he felt was a cruel trick played on him, the presence of a profane effigy of her in his home.

Soon after, with his father-in-law and cousins gathered, he argued his case and methods for retrieving his real wife back from the netherworld. He was so convinced and convincing that the changeling lying there was not his wife, he met with little resistance from the family.  

From her bed, Bridget now helpless with illness but still strong in spirit said, “Michael, the only person I ever knew who was taken by the fairies was your mother.”

Perhaps she should’ve left that unsaid.

He began by pouring urine on her. Yielding no results except exclamations of disgust from on lookers, he then attempted to force feed her herbs and dried farmyard animal dung that had been provided by the fairy doctor to hasten the results of the ritual.  He dropped Bridget down next to the fireplace so when the real Bridget came back, the changeling would rise up through the chimney. “Go up, you witch, go up!” yelled Michael. Witnesses to the procedure claimed that Michael was throwing Bridget around like a rag doll and screaming “Away with you! Bring my wife back! Away!”  

 Her own father tried to interrogate her bellowing “Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary?  Are you she?”  To which she replied, “Yes, dada, I am Bridget!”  She, then, fell too close to the grate and her gown lit afire. As she smoldered on the hearth, Michael held a burning stick to her chest warding everyone else off when they tried to help her. 
Michael, either desperate to get his wife back, or desperate to get rid of her, splashed her with lantern oil and burned her to death in the front room of the best cottage built on a fairy ring fort.

For days following the incident, those coming to call on Bridget were shocked to find she wasn’t there. Michael stood his ground that his wife had gone to the fairies and that he had dealt with the changeling on his own terms. Three days gone, and a burnt body was found in a shallow grave nearby.

Michael and eight of his kin were brought to trial. The case became very popular known as the last witch burning in Ireland.

Bridget's grave.

 Many a rope was skipped whilst children intoned the rhyme - 

Are you a witch or are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?

Great Britain, at the time, was considering granting Ireland home rule but news of Bridget’s horrific murder based on stubborn Irish pagan beliefs in ancient “savage” superstitions cast a shadow on that political movement. Michael Cleary, however, was so convincing at trial that he truly believed his wife would return if he destroyed the changeling, was convicted with a lesser crime of “wounding” and spent 15 years in prison.  He served his time, and even at an advanced age left Ireland for Canada to escape the ongoing attention.
Author’s Note: My grandmother was Clara Frances Cleary.  Her grandfather was John Cleary of Tipperary, a possible cousin of Michael Cleary, and possibly present when Bridget Cleary was killed. I’m not sure I want to dig any further.

Not all family trees have heroes, queens or saints in it. When exploring your ancestry, therefore, be very wary for there may be fairies.


  1. A grand tale, Linnnn. Which are ye?

  2. Oh, I would rather have been a witch and done him in, instead.


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