Was Ireland a land of witches and sorcery? Bob Curran, author of A Bewitched Land retells the story of the last Irish woman who was burned as a witch.
“To the Catholics, their fairies and the Protestants, their witches,” ran an old saying in the North of Ireland at one time. This would, on the face of it, suggest that Ireland was fairly rife with instances of witchcraft and that it occurred in largely Protestant areas of the country. This is not wholly true. In fact, according to the records, there appear to have been very few formal cases of witchcraft in Ireland. Compared with areas such as Essex in England, the recorded material regarding witchcraft trials is very scarce indeed.
This, of course, does not mean that there was no witchcraft in Ireland. It could mean one of two things – first, that evidence concerning instances of witchcraft and trials of alleged witches has been lost or (more likely) that few formal instances of witchcraft were ever brought to trial in Ireland. Witchcraft certainly existed throughout the country, but one suspects it was regarded quite differently than it was in England or Scotland.
Witchcraft and the Law
Witchcraft was viewed in different ways depending on the country concerned. In England it was viewed as maleficium (evil doing), a crime against society, and treated as a felony under civil law. Historians such as Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic, and Alan MacFarlane in Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England have shown how English witchcraft was rooted in social disputes, individual envy, communal injustices and interpersonal dislike, coupled with a changing social ethos.
The idea of witchcraft seemed to spring from spite and hatred of one’s neighbours – an ill-wishing against those who were socially better or socially different – and English law reflected such thinking: few alleged English witches were burned, all were hanged, the traditional punishment for a felony.
On the Continent and in Scotland, however, the position was different. Here, the notion of witchcraft was fundamentally religious and involved the complicity of Satan, the Enemy of All Mankind. In return for earthly powers, witches were considered to have thrown in their lot with diabolical forces – usually at the expense of their immortal souls – and had turned upon the servants and followers of Christ. In doing so, they had renounced Christ’s salvation and rejected His love. They were beyond help and would ultimately burn in Hell.
Under Continental law, then, witchcraft was heresy – an offence against the laws of both Man and God – and those who practised it were to be burned. This view made its way to Scotland with Protestant clerics and Reformers around the end of the 1500s. Scotland became one of the few parts of the British Isles where old women were placed on blazing tar barrels or burnt at the stake in village squares. Ireland, it would appear, stood apart from these persecutions which sporadically afflicted its neighbours. Or did it?
What particular form of behaviour constituted witchcraft? What set the alleged witch apart from his or her community? And did this sort of behaviour appear in Ireland? As with England and Scotland, the answer lay in the context of local community relations.
There is some evidence to suggest that both versions of the witch-belief – English and Continental – prevailed in Ireland as well. In many parts of the countryside there were people (mainly women) who displayed both skills and knowledge which were considered to be beyond the capabilities of ordinary mortals. Such people may have had a knowledge of herblore, a way with livestock or a highly intuitive ability to foretell the future.
However, although these ‘powers’ were usually acknowledged as being supernatural, such people were not necessarily deemed to be witches – rather they were referred to as ‘wise women’ or ‘fairy doctors’ by their community. Indeed, they were regarded as integral members of society – often acting as doctors and midwives in areas where no formal medicine existed or as ‘advisors’ in the years before a communal counselling service came into being.
Nevertheless, it was generally agreed that because of their alleged powers, it was unwise to cross them and that some misfortune would ensue if the wise woman or fairy doctor ‘took against’ a person. Farmers knew that if they spoke rudely to some old woman living alone on the edge of their property or if they refused her charity, their crops could fail, their cattle might fall ill, or worse – a member of their family might die. Such people were to be treated with respect.
Protection for the Vulnerable
In many cases, a reputation like this was sometimes the only way in which the old or the particularly vulnerable could obtain any sort of status in their communities. In a chauvinistic rural society, a widow woman, perhaps with no man to provide for her or to look after her, was especially susceptible to hardship. However, if the other members of the community feared her, they would treat her with caution and provide for her when she asked.
Thus, as elsewhere, vulnerable people encouraged such beliefs about themselves by deliberately adopting and developing eccentric and independent ways. For women this was especially easy. Many male-dominated communities demanded certain behaviour patterns from the women in their midst. These were enforced by another male-dominated organisation – the Church. Therefore, it was not hard for independent women to outrage the forces of social morality by behaving in non-acceptable ways.
And the way in which some women did this was to behave like a man – thus some women smoked, drank to excess and played cards, just like their male counterparts. Such behaviour drew attention to them and through it they acquired a reputation. If this behaviour was linked to alleged supernatural powers, then the person in question was deemed to be a ‘wise woman’ or in some other cases ‘touched by the fairies’. From their pulpits, the clergy denounced such people – women especially – as being outside the Church and ‘in dire need of salvation’.
It was a small step in certain localities from such denunciations towards a more ‘Continental’ viewpoint. Such women were not only flouting Church teachings, they were deliberately courting the Devil.
The North of Ireland, in particular, had been strongly influenced by Calvinistic Protestant doctrines introduced by Scottish settlers. In areas steeped in such strict religious views, the Devil was everywhere, seeking to lead God’s people astray. What better way to do so than to enlist the help of these women and mould them for his own purposes by offering them earthly power?
Thus, the fiercely independent man or woman with ‘arcane’ knowledge and odd ways became an instrument of the Evil One and those who consulted them were placing their immortal souls in danger. At least, so ran Church teaching. Nevertheless, so-called witches continued to enjoy status and reputation in many communities. Those forbidden to consult with them did so secretly, adding to the mystery. And the Church continued to fume against them.
Occasionally such accusations did spill over into formal trials. These occurred particularly in areas of Ireland that had become heavily Anglicised – like Youghal in County Cork or Carrickfergus in County Antrim – and may have reflected a more ‘English’ view of the matter. The case of Florence Newton, for example, reflects many of the characteristics of English witchcraft cases recorded in places such as Essex.
But there were Continental influences in some of the trials too, especially in areas settled by those espousing religious doctrines derived from Continental Calvinism, most notably the Presbyterians of Ulster. At least one witchcraft trial in the North of Ireland – the Islandmagee case in the early eighteenth century – bears all the hallmarks of the Salem experience in 1692, which occurred in a New England community heavily influenced by Calvinist beliefs.
In rural Ireland, however, wise women and fairy doctors, like Biddy Early in Clare and Moll Anthony in Kildare, continued to ply their trade. While a number of Witchcraft Acts were passed in England, supposedly to limit the influence of such practitioners, in rural Ireland they seem to have had little effect. Moreover, many of these alleged ‘witches’ were steadily acquiring a reputation far beyond their own localities.
Biddy Early, the famous ‘wise woman of Clare’ was well-known even as far away as the Isle of Man. And as the reputation of these people grew, so did the legends about them, sometimes to wild and improbable heights. Biddy Early was said to have a magic bottle in which she could foresee the future, spy on her neighbours or pin-point the location of lost objects. Maurice Griffin, a legendary ‘fairy doctor’ of Kerry, was supposed to have received his powers by drinking milk from a cow which had been overwhelmed by a supernatural cloud.
A formal belief in witchcraft by the authorities seems to have declined around the beginning of the eighteenth century, mirroring developments in England where witchcraft trials began to die out at around this time. Informally, however, ‘wise women and fairy men’ continued to practise right up until the twentieth century and some may still practise in the remoter regions of the countryside even today.
The Irish witch, then, is a complicated figure, comprising a number of functions (midwife, healer, mischief worker) and a number of strands of belief (Celtic, English, Continental). In many instances it is extremely difficult to untangle these in order to get a clear picture of what was really going on. The overlap between traditional notions of witchcraft and the widespread Irish vernacular belief in fairies resulted in a distinctively Irish ‘take’ on witchcraft.
Bridget Cleary: ‘The Clonmel Witch Burning’ (1895)
Although nowadays we tend to think of witchcraft as being something that belongs to some distant and more barbarous time – usually the medieval or dark ages – the last ‘witch burning’ in the British Isles was much more recent than that. And it happened in Ireland. The burning of Bridget Cleary in Ballyvadlea, near Clonmel in County Tipperary, occurred as recently as 1895 and was widely reported in the newspapers of the day.
The case, which provoked widespread interest at the time (the noted writer, E. F. Benson, author of the celebrated Mapp and Lucinda books, wrote an article on the incident in the highly influential journal The Nineteenth Century) is a curious amalgam of folk-belief, local fears and fairy lore. A belief in witchcraft, fairy abductions and malign powers was still deeply rooted in the local mind, and this was to have terrifying and fatal results.
The notion of fairies being involved with alleged witches was not unique to southern Tipperary. Indeed, in many parts of rural Ireland, the two were inextricably linked. Wise women and ‘fairy doctors’ (rural healers) it was believed, had received their knowledge and skills from the Little People (fairies) and maintained close links with them.
It was also believed that fairies intervened more frequently in human affairs than was commonly supposed. From time to time, it was said, they might even spirit individuals away to live with them for a time and ‘teach them things’. In some cases a representation of the person – a ‘stock’ – might be left in their place in order to trick the community into believing that the person concerned was actually still amongst them. Small children and newborn babies were particularly at risk of such abductions until they were baptised, but even adults who had perhaps committed some sin might be ‘taken away’ as well.
The physical appearance of those who had been ‘taken’ often changed. This change was very apparent in babies and the very young – children who had been healthy-looking the evening before were often found thin, wrinkled and wasted in the morning. In many cases, the notion of being changed for a ‘stock’ often helped to explain the sudden onset and effects of infant tuberculosis. At one time, during an epidemic of the disease in the Burren region of County Clare, the physical appearance of the victims was put down to the fact that they’d been stolen by fairies or evil entities.
Adults, too, could be stolen and a formerly healthy individual could be replaced with a withered, moaning thing. This was a central aspect of the Ballyvadlea witchcraft burning, where the victim was believed to have become possessed by a malevolent fairy or demonic presence.
Superstition & Murder
The incident itself should be seen in the context of a spate of Irish ‘changeling’ incidents that spanned the nineteenth century. In 1826, The Morning Post reported the following from Tralee Assizes:
“Ann Roche, an old woman of very advanced age, was indicted for the murder of Michael Leahy, a young child, by drowning in the [River] Flesk. This case turned out to be a homicide committed under the delusion of the grossest superstition. The child though four years old could neither stand, walk (n)or speak – it was thought to be fairy struck – and the grandmother ordered the prisoner and one of the witnesses, Mary Clifford, to bathe the child every morning in that pool of the River Flesk where boundaries of three farms met; and on the last morning, the prisoner kept the child under the water longer than usual… Upon cross-examination, the witness said that it was not done with intent to kill the child but to cure it – to put the fairy out of it.
The court returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict at the judge’s direction, revealing the depth of belief in changelings within the community. Yet the countryside around Glenflesk was not the only region in which such superstitions manifested themselves.
In 1888, Johanna Doyle appeared at Assizes near Killarney on a charge of child murder. She was charged with butchering her own mentally retarded son, Patsy, with a hatchet, aided by her husband and three of her other children. During her trial she insisted that thirteen-year-old Patsy had been ‘a fairy and a devil’, having been ‘changed’ by the fairies. The family had been dogged by strange events in recent years and this had been put down to Patsy’s influence.
Such incidents were not confined to County Kerry. A series of changeling-related incidents occurred in County Tipperary around the mid-to-late 1800s. There are, for example, several alleged instances around Roscrea in the north of the county which seemingly took place around the 1860s but no definite information on them has been recorded.
But it was in the south of the county that the most serious instances seem to have occurred. The Daily Telegraph dated 19 May 1884 notes an arrest of two women in Clonmel, on the suspicion of having harmed a three year- old child named Philip Dillon. In court, Anastasia Bourke and Ellen Cushion stated that they believed the child, who didn’t have the use of his limbs, to be one of the fairy kind left in exchange for the original infant.
Whilst the mother was absent, they entered the house and, seizing the unfortunate child, placed him naked on an iron shovel, holding him over a hot fire (a common way in rural areas to drive out malign creatures and spirits). They hoped to ‘break the charm’ and destroy the changeling’s powers. The boy was badly burnt and the newspaper reported him to be in a serious condition. The prisoners were remanded in custody to stand trial but no further account exists. During the hearing they were hooted and sneered at by locals.
The most notorious case, however, also comes from the Clonmel area and concerns Bridget Cleary, who has been ignominiously dubbed ‘Ireland’s last witch’. The horrific events that surround her death have been recorded as the ‘last witch burning in the British Isles’ and have often been cited by English writers as evidence of profound ancient superstition still existing in the Irish countryside during the late nineteenth century.
Bridget’s Local Community
Bridget Cleary was born and died in remote Ballyvadlea, near Clonmel. She was only twenty-six at the time of her death in 1896. According to The Cork Examiner, she was a pretty woman of medium height and had a strong, independent mind. Her parents, Patrick and Bridget Boland, poor Catholic rural labourers, were devoutly religious and extremely superstitious. This was not surprising, considering the area in which they lived.
Ballyvadlea was steeped in folklore and tradition. All through the area, the remnants of ancient earthen forts and tumuli hinted at ancient lore and secrets. From the road running through the district, travellers could see the distant slopes of Slievenamon – the fairy-haunted mountain once said to be the stronghold of the Fenian knights – where all manner of supernatural creatures were said to dwell.
Between its lower slopes and Fethard town, many ‘slieveens’ lived. They were the ‘fairy doctors’ or ‘cunning men’ who were familiar with the ways of the Little People and displayed skills verging on the supernatural. These were men like Denis Ganey, who resided in a thatched cabin on the mountainside, or John (Jack) Dunne, a limping, toothless man who tramped the streets of both Clonmel and Fethard, telling tales of fairies and ghosts.
There were fairy-haunted sites everywhere. At certain times of the year, Slievenamon itself was reputedly frequented by witches and enchanters from all over Ireland. Close to where the Bolands lived rose the brooding bulk of Kylenagranagh Hill, which was topped with a fairy fort or rath – reputedly a ‘sheehoguey’ place (a site of supernatural dread) where the Sidhe or the fairy host held court and plotted mischief against the humans who lived around them. Local people avoided the place – beliefs connecting such sites with supernatural dangers ran very deep amongst them.
Although a strong-willed and opinionated young woman, Bridget Boland does not appear to have felt the need to move away from her narrow rural environment. Always good at sewing and stitching, she became a self-employed dressmaker, working from home. Indeed, as her father was to state later, she became one of the first women in Ballyvadlea to own a new Singer sewing machine, which she kept in her bedroom.
Her new business venture seems to have been popular throughout the local community and soon Bridget Boland was relatively prosperous, which added to her desirability amongst the young men in the surrounding townlands of Ballyvadlea, Cloneen and Mullinahone. She could have had her pick of any of them.
A stylish young woman by all accounts, it appears that she was noticed by one of the local landowners who, on his way to hunt with the Tipperary Hounds, had been so struck by her attractiveness as she passed him on the road that he had asked who she was and later claimed that the memory of her had stayed with him into old age. Her prettiness had also turned the heads of many of the young labourers in the area.
However, the man she chose as her husband came as a surprise to the entire community. He was Michael Cleary, a dark, brooding character, almost ten years older than herself.
It is thought that Bridget and Michael met in Clonmel town. He was a dark and sullen man who reputedly had never bothered much with women and was highly superstitious. He was, for example, wary of his wife’s mother, Bridget Keating, who had been seen as a ‘fairy woman’ who had been ‘taken’ several times.
Michael was an unlikely partner for the independent Bridget. Even so, they were married in August 1887. Bridget was eighteen, nine years younger than Michael and unusually young to be married. The marriage was even more strange because for some time after the wedding Michael continued to live in Clonmel while Bridget returned home every evening to her parents’ house near Ballyvadlea Bridge. Perhaps Bridget was needed at home to look after her ill mother (who died around 1893) but there were other rumours too.
Some suggested that Bridget might be seeing someone else and the general consensus was that her neighbour, William Simpson, was the man. If the affair existed (and there’s absolutely no evidence that it did), there were good reasons for keeping it quiet. Simpson was married and lived with his wife and children in a farmhouse a few hundred yards from the Clearys.
William and his family occupied a farm from which the landlord, his employer, had evicted the previous tenants some years before. But there was something else – the Simpsons were Protestants and, in a conservatively Catholic area, the idea of a young Catholic girl consorting with a married Protestant was scandalous.
There was probably no truth at all in the rumours but it fit well with what some locals considered to be Bridget’s ‘high and mighty’ attitude. If the stories about his wife ever reached Michael Cleary in Clonmel, he appeared to take no heed of them.
A little while after Bridget’s marriage, the Cashel Poor Law Guardians erected a new cottage in the district under the 1883 Labourer’s (Ireland) Act. Designed to suit a labouring family, it was built about half a mile up the hill from Ballyvadlea Bridge in the townland of Tullowcossaun. From the door and front window it had a direct view across the countryside to distant Slievenamon.
It was a fine, modern structure with a slated roof and a chimney at each gable and, as such, was considered much grander than the cabins roundabout. There was one drawback, however. It had been built on the site of an old fairy rath and the immediate area was widely regarded as a supernatural site. Such a reputation deterred many locals from applying for its tenancy.
Nevertheless, in the late 1880s, Bridget and Michael Cleary applied for tenancy of the new cottage. They were unsuccessful and the place was given to another labourer. Shortly after he moved in, the place fell vacant again, allegedly due to ‘certain problems’. It is unclear what these ‘problems’ might have been but it was said that the fairies had taken exception to the occupancy and has disturbed the man with unearthly cries and shrieks. He quickly moved out.
Once again, the Clearys applied for tenancy of the cottage and this time they were successful. It is suspected that their move created some local resentment – after all, compared to many of their neighbours the couple were regarded as reasonably well-off, and furthermore Bridget was thought to have ‘airs’ about her. The new cottage reflected their supposedly ‘grand’ status in relation to their neighbours.
Making Ends Meet
Despite Bridget’s airs, the family soon fell into rent arrears – not uncommon in the district, but puzzling given the Clearys’ relatively prosperous status. In fact, they were so badly in arrears that the Poor Law Guardians forbade any repair work to be carried out until the debt was cleared.
At Tullowcossaun, they were surrounded by relatives. Mary Kennedy, Bridget’s aunt, lived a short distance away at Ballyvadlea Bridge. Mary’s sons Patrick, James and William, lived with her. Mary’s daughter, Johanna (known as ‘Han’ or ‘Hannie’), lived nearby with her husband Michael Burke and their children. Bridget had been Johanna’s bridesmaid and the two were reasonably close.
From the time she came to live at Tullowcossaun, Bridget continued to show a strong and independent spirit. Michael was still working in Clonmel and it was up to her to run the house and provide for her widowed father. She still did some dressmaking, although not as much as before, but she now had another source of income – she kept hens.
Hens were an important source of income and they gave Bridget some financial independence. She sold eggs ‘on tick’, collecting the money for her produce around the start of each month. There were some problems with this arrangement, however, as not everybody was willing or able to pay when she called; some of her neighbours ran up large bills.
The winter of 1894/95 was severe. Snow, ice and hard frosts delayed farm work long after Christmas, and many labourers found themselves without wages. It was not until late March that the weather picked up and working conditions improved. For the Clearys, the situation was not so desperate because Michael was not dependent on seasonal work. For Bridget, however, it meant payment from eggs already sold would be hard to come by.
The Trouble Begins
On 4 March 1895, Bridget walked from her home across Ballyvadlea Bridge towards Kylenagranagh Hill. It was here that ‘fairy man’ Jack Dunne lived with his wife Kate, and Bridget was calling to collect outstanding money for eggs.
Dunne’s dwelling was empty. Jack and Kate Dunne had no children and spent much of their time in the local pubs. Bridget waited for a while, feeling the cold penetrating her clothes – for winter still had a firm grip on the land – and then walked home, entering her own house shivering. She tried to warm herself at the fire but, according to her cousin Johanna, it was no use. She had caught what the country people called a ‘founder’, a severe and penetrating chill.
The shivering fit hadn’t passed by the next day, and Bridget now complained of a severe headache. Great attention was paid to the place where she had received the ‘founder’ and her reasons for being there. Living near the sinister Kylenagranagh Hill, Jack Dunne was said to be ‘well in’ with the fairies, and was widely regarded as a seanachaí and a custodian of ancient lore.
Jack claimed to have seen fairies on numerous occasions playing hurling near his door in the evening light. He frequently complained of back pain, which he said occurred one night when the fairies lifted him out of his bed and threw him into the yard. He claimed to know the fairies intimately and had even been up Kylenagranagh Hill with them.
Such talk often secured drinks for Jack and his wife. H was treated with a great deal of respect – to demand money from a man so friendly with the fairies might invite disaster. Maybe that was what Bridget Cleary’s ‘founder’ was all about.
Bridget the Changeling
Bridget went to bed but her condition grew worse. It’s possible that she had caught pneumonia but she remained untreated. Doctors were few and far between – and very expensive. Far better to fetch the ‘fairy doctor.’ And so it was that Jack Dunne made his way to Tullowcossaun.
Although able to sit at the fire, take some food and walk around a little, Bridget was certainly not her former self. Dunne sat with her for a while. Squinting in the smoky light, the old man looked at the young woman. His words were to have a dramatic effect on subsequent events.
‘That is not Bridget Boland,’ he whispered. In other circumstances this remark might have been taken differently, but coming from the lips of a ‘fairy man’ it had a particular resonance. Jack was articulating what some were thinking anyway – the real Bridget had been spirited away and replaced by a ‘stock’ or ‘pattern’ of herself. This was no longer a woman but a ‘sheehoguey’ that had come down from Kylenagranagh Hill to take her place.
Bridget had a number of enemies amongst her neighbours – the envious, the suitors she had snubbed and those who considered her too ‘high and mighty.’ Some remarked on how this proud, independent woman had suddenly turned into an invalid. The reason for such sudden and rapid deterioration had to be a supernatural one. There was one other indication that this might be the case – although married for over seven years, Michael and Bridget were childless, a sure hint of fairy involvement.
Dunne was asked to look at the invalid more closely. Upon doing so, he suggested that she was indeed a fairy. One leg, he stated, was longer than the other, a sure sign that she was ‘fairy-struck’. Whilst he was measuring Bridget, Michael Cleary arrived at the house to find him there. He paid close attention to everything Jack Dunne had to say, taking the old man’s opinions to heart.
‘This is not my wife at all. This is not Bridget,’ Michael muttered to himself. ‘It’s a fairy-creature from Kylenagranagh Hill.’ But although he was suspicious, he did nothing about it.
Bridget’s Illness Grows Worse
Bridget’s condition worsened over the next few days. By Saturday 9 March, she was barely able to stir herself from her bed. Her cousin Johanna Burke believed that she’d caught a fresh chill or that the ‘founder’ had got a real hold on her.
Despite the ‘consultation’ with Jack Dunne it was considered that a trained medical doctor should be sent for. Patrick Boland walked the four miles to Fethard to ask Dr. William Crean to call at the house and look at his daughter. On his journey to the doctor’s surgery, he stopped at the house of one of the Poor Law Guardians to get the ‘red ticket’, which entitled Bridget to a medical examination under the Poor Law scheme. He then walked to the Dispensary in Fethard and asked Crean to visit the house.
The weekend passed and the doctor still had not come. The weather was changing – gales were blowing and the days were dull and wet; the road into Ballyvadlea was muddy and covered with blown-down branches and leaves. Perhaps Crean didn’t fancy travelling into that remote area on what he might have considered to be a ‘charity case’; perhaps he was busy elsewhere. There were also stories that the good doctor was a bit too fond of the bottle for his own good and that he attended to his medical duties in a haphazard fashion.
From late Sunday and all through Monday, it rained very heavily, nearly flooding the roads, but as the evening wore on, it began to ease. There was still no sign of Dr Crean but, all the while, Bridget’s condition appeared to grow steadily worse. Johanna Burke was convinced that she now had a fever and that a doctor must be brought as a matter of urgency. On Monday afternoon, Michael Cleary himself walked all the way to Fethard to remind the doctor, but still Crean didn’t come. Nor did he come on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, 13 March, Michael Cleary again walked the four miles to Fethard to see if the doctor would come, and he also sent a message to Drangan chapel to ask Father Cornelius Ryan if he would come to attend to his wife who was dying. This did the trick, and on Wednesday afternoon Dr Crean finally called at the Cleary home. His examination may have been a cursory one and the diagnosis swift and perfunctory. Bridget was suffering from ‘nervous excitement’, coupled with a slight bronchitis. He prescribed a medicine and went back to Fethard.
Later, at Michael Cleary’s trial, he would reveal that he didn’t know if the family had actually obtained the medicine, nor could he give any cause for the ‘excitement’. But he would reveal that Bridget had been attending his surgery in Fethard for ‘about six to eight months’, although he didn’t say why. The popular belief was that she had a tubercular condition and that she had been attending the TB clinic in Clonmel.
Bridget’s illness was now beginning to have an impact on the immediate family – Michael Cleary was sinking deeper and deeper into depression and Patrick Boland was becoming increasingly worried about his daughter’s condition. He asked his sister, Mary Kennedy, to call on her and she said that she would bring Johanna Burke who lived nearby at Rathkenny.
When Han Burke arrived, both she and Bridget got into an earnest conversation and Johanna was of the opinion that there was some sort of marital difficulty between Bridget and her husband, but this remained unspecified. ‘He’s making a fairy of me,’ complained the invalid. In local parlance, this meant that Michael Cleary was distancing himself from her for some reason. Johanna Burke also knew that Michael Cleary had had frequent disagreements with his mother-in-law and that he thought that the ‘fairy woman’ had passed on some of her rumoured arcane powers and skills to her daughter, making the brooding and superstitious man nervous of his wife.
Even with these visitors and the almost forced merriment going on in the house, Bridget’s condition didn’t improve. If she was taking Doctor Crean’s medicine, it had no apparent effect on her. As he looked from his doorway to distant Slievenamon, Michael Cleary wondered what he should do about his wife. He had tried to bring Doctor Crean to the house no less than three times and when he finally did come, his diagnosis had been unsatisfactory.
The Fairy Man
There was another option of course – Jack Dunne had suggested that the family consult with Denis Ganey, a ‘fairy man’ over in Kylatlea on the lower slopes of the mountain. And so, on Thursday, 14 March, Michael Cleary set out for Slievenamon.
According to contemporary accounts, Denis Ganey was a middle-aged man, rather tall and with a heavy beard. Like Jack Dunne and several other ‘fairy men’, he walked with a limp, having one leg shorter than the other. According to Michael Cleary, Ganey listened very attentively, asking several questions about Bridget’s condition and then handed over something ‘with nine herbs in it’ which, he claimed, would drive the fairy out of Michael’s wife.
The meeting with Ganey had a powerful effect on Cleary and he returned home in a highly agitated state. It is reasonable to suppose that the ‘cure’ that he’d obtained from ‘Ganey over the mountain’ probably contained lusmore (foxglove) which was supposed to ‘burn the entrails out of any fairy or unearthly creature’. It had to be mixed with the ‘beestings’, the first milk drawn from a cow directly after calving into a bucket in which a silver coin had been placed.
If the charm did contain a substantial amount of foxglove, then it was poisonous, and would only have worsened Bridget’s condition. But Michael Cleary, who apparently believed in charms and ‘fairy potions’, was determined that she should have it. After the meeting with Denis Ganey, he was now more convinced than ever that Bridget was a changeling and that, if not dealt with, she would work a malign influence on him and his family. Perhaps it was Ganey who had put the notion in his head, but he was now convinced that the real Bridget Cleary had been abducted by the fairy kind and was now being held prisoner somewhere beneath Kylenagranagh Hill, having been replaced by some awful supernatural Thing that had to be driven out.
That same evening, a crowd of neighbours, including the Burkes and the Simpsons, called at the Cleary house to see how Bridget was. As they approached the building, they heard a man’s voice from inside shout angrily: ‘Take that, you rap!’ Pausing outside the place, a couple of them tried to look in through the window but the shutters were drawn and they could see nothing. They knocked on the door, but from inside Michael Cleary’s voice told them that they couldn’t come in yet.
A Brutal Scene
For some minutes, the neighbours waited outside the door whilst voices inside the house screamed and shouted. They heard snatches of a heated conversation – ‘Take it, you old bitch!’ or ‘Take it, you witch!’ Then, to everyone’s surprise, the door suddenly flew open and from somewhere inside a man’s voice cried: ‘Away she go! Away she go!’ Michael Cleary came to the doorway, apparently bathed in sweat, and invited his neighbours in. They looked at him strangely and he explained that he had kept the door closed because the house had been full of fairies.
One of the first through the door was Johanna Burke and, she was to say later, the scene that greeted them was one of brutal horror. Patrick Boland was sitting in the kitchen by the light of a large oil lamp, but everyone else was in the bedroom. Bridget Cleary was lying on the bed with Jack Dunne (who was not a sturdy man), forcibly holding her head down by the ears. Her cousin Patrick Kennedy was on the far side of the bed, gripping her right arm, whilst his brother James held her left. The younger brother, William, lay across her legs to prevent her from moving them and from trying to get up. They were forcing her to take something on a spoon from a small black saucepan which Jack Dunne called ‘a pint’.
Later, a report in the Irish Times, covering Michael Cleary’s trial, stated: ‘Cleary was giving her medicine – some herbs on a spoon. Bridget Cleary was trying not to take it. She said that it was too bitter. When Cleary put the milk into the mouth, he put his hand on her mouth to prevent the medicine coming up. He said that if it went on the ground that she could not be brought back from the fairies. Cleary asked her was she Bridget Cleary or Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary in the Name of God. He asked her more than once. She answered three times before he was satisfied.’
It seems that Michael Cleary succeeded in forcing at least some of the herbal mixture down his wife’s throat. In fact, he managed about three doses of the stuff while his neighbours were there and is said to have made her swallow a further three before they arrived. When this was done, all the men who were present shouted: ‘Away with you! Come home Bridget Boland in the Name of God!’ Then they clapped their hands and slapped her.
However, one of the neighbours who had just come in paid close attention to great burn marks across the invalid’s forehead and it was later discovered that she had been threatened with a red-hot poker in order to make her take the herbs. Hearing the voices of the visitors in the kitchen, Bridget screamed loudly. Then Michael Cleary asked his wife again: ‘Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary in the Name of God?’ Bridget seemed to make no answer or else her reply was so weak and faint that nobody in the room could actually hear it. Turning to her husband, Jack Dunne said: ‘Make a good fire and we will make her answer.’
The fire had already been burning quite well in the open hearth, even though no fuel had been added to it. Gathering around her, the men lifted Bridget bodily from the bed, ‘winding’ her in the bedclothes, and carried her to the grate. Jack Dunne took her head and James Kennedy her feet, Michael Cleary following with the spoon and saucepan. According to Johanna Burke, Bridget seemed fully conscious and well aware of what was going on.
With a little effort, the men held her over the steadily burning flames. With desperation edging his voice, Patrick Boland asked: ‘Are you the daughter of Patrick Boland, the wife of Michael Cleary?’ Bridget, clearly terrified, struggled a little. ‘I am, Dada,’ she answered clearly. The men continued to hold her over the flames for at least ten minutes before carrying her back to bed. After subjecting her to this ‘ordeal by fire’ it may have been that they felt temporarily convinced that they had driven the witchlike creature out.
The Priest Calls
At about 7.00am on Friday, 15 March, Father Cornelius Ryan was called from the parochial house at Drangan to visit Bridget. The priest had actually called on her two days before, as requested, and was told that she was dying. He had given her the last rites of the Church, but he refused to come when called upon that Thursday. Now Michael Cleary turned up at his door once more and asked him to come. Somewhat reluctantly, Father Ryan did so.
He arrived at the house sometime after 8.00 am, said Mass in Bridget’s bedroom and gave her Holy Communion. Bridget, however, was reputed not to have swallowed the Sacred Host (according to the testimony given later by her cousin Johanna) but to have surreptitiously removed it from her mouth with her fingers – something expressly forbidden by Catholic teaching. If this indeed happened, the action may have sealed her fate because it was well known that neither witch nor fairy could bear the touch of the Blessed Host on their tongue. As well as that, both witches and evildoers often used the Wafer in the preparation of pishrogues (charms or spells) and in dark magics.
Whether this was communicated to Michael Cleary isn’t known but, if it was, it would have undoubtedly strengthened his belief about his wife. Father Ryan asked him if he was still giving her the medicine that Doctor Crean had prescribed but Cleary said that he had no faith in it. The priest seemed to concur as he spoke of William Crean as being ‘always drunk’.
During the afternoon, an argument of some kind appears to have developed between Johanna Burke and Michael Cleary about payment for the milk which the former alleged she had sold to Bridget. According to the evidence given later by Johanna Burke, ‘Mrs Cleary asked her husband if I was paid for the milk. I said yes, and showed her the shilling, which she took and put under the blankets and gave it back again in a minute.’
This incident later seems to have the source of some trouble between husband and wife, for Michael Cleary withheld milk from Bridget when she asked for it later in the day. It seems that he later accused his wife of having rubbed the shilling on her leg when she put it under the blankets, and interpreted this as a sinister action on her part, as if she was making a spell or ‘pishrogue’. The incident also highlights Johanna Burke’s possibly ambivalent attitude towards her cousin, of whom she may have disapproved or been jealous.
That evening, some neighbours called to see how Bridget was progressing. In tightly knit country communities this was to be taken as ‘good neighbourliness’, but they may have been motivated to come by curiosity as well. They sat in the kitchen and later Johanna Burke joined them, making them some stirabout (porridge).
Because there were visitors, Cleary got his wife out of bed, had her dressed and brought her in amongst the company. One of the visitors, Tom Smith, asked how she was keeping and she replied that she was ‘middling’ but that her husband was ‘making a fairy of her’. She referred to the fact that her husband would not allow her to drink any of the milk that Johanna had bought and that she had never asked for milk without buying it.
Later that night, Johanna Burke’s brothers (Bridget’s cousins) Patrick, James and William, arrived back from Michael Cleary’s father’s wake which had been held in Killenaule eight miles away (Michael Cleary’s father had died the day before, but his son had not attended the wake owing, apparently, to his wife’s illness). Towards midnight some of the neighbours left, so that now only the immediate members of the family were left – Bridget and her husband, her father Patrick Boland, her aunt Mary Kennedy, her cousins and her cousin Johanna’s young daughter Katie.
As Bridget was being handed a cup of tea, Michael Cleary got three pieces of bread and jam and insisted that she eat them before she drank the tea. He suddenly asked: ‘Are you Bridget Cleary, my wife, in the Name of God?’ He asked this three times and she answered him twice, and ate two of the pieces of bread and jam. When she didn’t answer a third time, he rose from where he’d been sitting and forced the third piece of bread and jam down her throat, shouting: ‘Swallow it! Is it down? Is it down?’ He then struck her across the face, flinging her from her seat and onto the earthen floor of the cottage.
Desperately, Bridget called on her cousin to intervene – ‘Oh Han! Han!’ – but Mrs Burke did nothing. Perhaps she was frightened of the violent Michael Cleary who now, in a fit of even greater rage, tore off most of his wife’s clothing, leaving her in her chemise in front of the men. Taking a burning stick from the grate, he brandished it in front of her face, as if trying to ram it down her throat. Then, taking the house key, he crossed to the door and turned it in the lock, effectively locking everyone in the cottage.
At this point, clearly terrified by his demented behaviour, Mrs Burke withdrew into the bedroom. Her role in the events, and failure to come to her cousin’s aid when she was in mortal danger, seems unclear; perhaps she felt unable to intervene between husband and wife because local propriety forbade that. A few of the others who remained – Johanna’s mother, Mrs Kennedy, for instance – had also earlier gone into the bedroom for a bit of a doze.
Johanna heard Bridget shout, ‘Give me a chance!’, then she heard her head strike the floor and heard her scream. The kitchen must have been a scene of total chaos. Michael Cleary was now apparently standing over his wife with the still-burning stick, jerking it at her and threatening her. He jerked it close to her body and it took only a minute for the calico chemise to catch fire.
In the bedroom beyond, Mary Kennedy was hardly more than dozing when she heard her son William cry out from the kitchen: ‘Mother! Mother! Bridgie is burned!’ She rose up and both she and Johanna Burke shouted, ‘What ails ye?’ Michael Cleary met them at the bedroom door and with a solemn face turned to Mrs Burke and said, ‘I believe she’s dead!’ Then, walking over to the window, he took down a lamp and, unscrewing a cap, poured paraffin all over the prone body on the floor.
There is no doubt that he was now out of control, and as he attempted to set fire to Bridget he was stopped by Mrs Kennedy whom he pushed away. ‘What are you doing with the creature?’ cried the old woman as she reeled back. ‘Is it roasting her you are?’ Michael Cleary suddenly darted forward and set fire to his wife’s paraffin-soaked body, which was ablaze in an instant. The recklessness of this act was underlined by the fact that he could easily have set the whole house on fire and all of its occupants.
‘For the love of God, Michael!’ James Kennedy, who had risen from Patrick Boland’s bed where he’d been sleeping, had come to the bedroom door and had witnessed the horror. ‘Don’t burn your wife!’ Half-turning, Cleary looked at him blankly. ‘She’s not my wife’, he answered in a low, flat voice. ‘She’s an old deceiver sent in place of my wife. She’s been deceiving me for the last seven or eight days and deceived the priest today too, but she won’t deceive me anymore. As I begined with her, I will finish it with her. You’ll soon see her go up the chimney!’ By this he referred to the traditional escape route for a changeling.
Seeing that the man’s wits were clearly gone, William Kennedy, who had come down to the Cleary house with his mother, asked him for the house-key so that they might go, but Cleary only drew a knife and told him that the door wouldn’t be opened again until the real Bridget had been returned to him from her imprisonment under Kylenagranagh Hill. Waving the weapon at William, he threatened to ‘run him through’ if he attempted to leave. The boy fainted clean away.
Turning to the rest of the family, Cleary warned them: ‘If you come out any more, I’ll roast you as well as her.’ Everyone withdrew into the bedroom, leaving Cleary alone with his burning wife. Still holding the lamp, he threw oil on her three times, before sitting down on a chair to watch the flames rise. Some of the others peeped out of the bedroom and Cleary turned towards them shouting: ‘You’re a dirty set! You’d rather have her with the fairies in Kylenagranagh than have her here with me!’
Patrick Boland came out of the room and informed Cleary that if there was anything that he could do to save his daughter then he would do it. Cleary answered him that he could bury her with her mother who had also been ‘of the fairy’. He further told him that next Sunday, he (Cleary) would go to Kylengranagh Fort where the real Bridget would come riding to him on a white horse and that if he could cut the golden straps that bound her to the animal, she would be free and would be his once more. This, apparently, was what ‘Ganey over the mountain’ had told him, although he would later declare that Bridget had told him it herself. As he spoke, Johanna Burke later told the court, the house filled with smoke and flames crackled around Bridget’s body.
Later, under duress, Patrick Kennedy went with Michael Cleary to bury the body at a ‘secret spot’ nearby, the rest of the family remaining locked in the house by Cleary. Once the body had been buried, Cleary made all who had witnessed the atrocity kneel down and swear on the Holy Name not to reveal it to a soul. He would subsequently tell those who asked that Bridget had simply ‘gone away’.
The next day, Saturday, 16 March, Jack Dunne, badly agitated, accompanied Michael Cleary and Michael Kennedy to Drangan village to attend confession in the chapel there. Although Father Ryan was the parish priest – and he seems to have been largely sympathetic towards Michael Cleary, on the surface at least – it was the curate, Father McGrath, who took confession that day.
John Dunne went into the box first and spoke quietly to the curate who told him to send Michael Cleary (who was in the chapel yard) in to see him. Cleary came in and, weeping, spoke to Father McGrath, although what was said remains under the seal of the Confessional. The curate, however, deemed that he was ‘in no fit state to receive absolution’. He went to fetch Father Ryan and the three of them talked for a long time. All the while, Michael Kennedy remained outside in the chapel yard. Eventually Father Ryan emerged and walked straight across the road and into Drangan police barracks.
Again, nobody knows what was said by the parish priest to Acting Sergeant Patrick Egan inside the barracks, but it was enough to arouse police suspicions. Egan was well known in the locality and he had already probably heard the weird stories that were circulating about Michael Cleary and the mysterious disappearance of his wife. However, he couldn’t investigate without a formal complaint being lodged, especially in a tightknit rural community like Ballyvadlea.
Taking another policeman with him, Egan followed Michael Cleary along the Fethard road and, as he stopped at Mary Kennedy’s cottage, the policeman approached him and asked him about his wife. Sticking to his original story, Cleary informed him that she had left home ‘about twelve o’clock last night’ although he hadn’t actually seen her going as he had been in bed at the time, asleep (adding that he hadn’t slept for about eight nights previously). Egan walked home with him, repeating his questions from time to time.
Cleary always answered that Bridget was gone but he didn’t know where. As he left the house, Egan heard a distressed Patrick Boland shout from inside, ‘My daughter will come back to me!’ The old man would insist right up to his trial that his daughter was alive and well and was living ‘elsewhere’ (with the fairies). Despite Michael Cleary’s assurances, Egan was suspicious and asked for more police from Clonmel to be drafted into Ballyvadlea. Their mission was to look for Bridget.
A Lover’s Revenge?
Shortly after these men arrived there was a formal complaint made against Michael Cleary. The name of the complainant has never been disclosed but it is thought to have been William Simpson, long reputed to be Bridget Cleary’s lover. Simpson was to claim that Michael Cleary had approached him for the loan of a revolver (which Simpson was known to keep about him) so that he could go up to Kylenagranagh Fort and ‘bring back his wife’.
Simpson didn’t lend him the gun but he later claimed to have seen Cleary going up the hill carrying a large table knife. Allegedly, Cleary had waited there a long time for Bridget to appear on a white horse, but he had seen nothing. By now, the situation had become too serious and too complex for the Drangan police station to handle and Patrick Egan passed the case to Inspector Joseph Wansborough in Carrick-on-Suir, who ordered a full-scale search of the area around the Clearys’ cottage.
Police were soon searching the areas of Drangan, Clooneen and Mullinahone. Wansborough visited a number of homes around Ballyvadlea and took copious notes from those whom he interviewed. He soon obtained his first formal, sworn statement. It came from William Simpson and was given on Monday 18 March before W. Walker Tennant, Justice of the Peace.
Simpson stated that he had witnessed Bridget Cleary being ill-treated in her home on the previous Thursday night. He also named at least some of the people whom he knew to have been there and whom he considered responsible. Once again, police swarmed through the area and those whom Simpson had named were questioned. Johanna Burke went separately to Justice Walker Tennant and swore some further ‘information’ in front of him, to the effect that Bridget Cleary had left her home while sick and had ‘disappeared’.
The Justice then asked Wansborough if charges would be brought against anyone. Strangely, given that he now had so much concrete information regarding the case, the first person that Wansborough charged was the slieveen, Denis Ganey. He was charged with ‘causing Bridget Cleary to be ill-treated and great actual bodily harm done to her’. This was bizarre since it is supposed that Ganey had never even met Bridget Cleary, even if his influence on events had been profound. All the same, the police net was beginning to tighten around Michael Cleary.
On Friday, 22 March 1895, officers from the Royal Irish Constabulary, guided by William Simpson, searched an area of boggy ground in the area of Tullowcossaun, near to the Cleary home. Away in a corner of a field about a quarter of a mile from the cottage, Sergeant Patrick Rogers of the Mullinahone Constabulary noticed some freshly turned earth and crushed bushes. Constables Somers and O’Callaghan helped him dig down about eighteen inches where they found a dirty sheet wrapped round what seemed to be a woman’s body.
The corpse itself had been pulled up into a crouching position with the knees almost up against the chin, and the body was very badly burnt. It was naked except for a few remnants of clothing, all badly charred, which had actually been seared into the skin, and a pair of black stockings. The head was covered in a sack and was largely untouched. There was still a gold earring in one of the ears. Tearing away the coarse sacking, Rogers looked at the face and identified it. They had found what remained of Bridget Cleary.
Now that her body had been found, arrests followed swiftly. Police took a number of people from the Ballyvadlea and Tullowcossaun districts, including Michael Cleary, Patrick Boland, Bridget’s father, Mary Kennedy, Johanna Burke, the Kennedy brothers, and Jack Dunne.
All across Ireland and far beyond, interest was suddenly focused on a remote area of County Tipperary as the incident became widely known as ‘The Clonmel Witch Burning’. Soon obscure Ballyvadlea was known halfway around the world as a place of dark superstition and sinister events. Indeed, elements of the British and Unionist press tried to make political capital of the affair by proclaiming it as evidence of the backwardness of the Irish peasantry and their unfitness for Home Rule.
The defendants were arraigned at the Summer Assizes in Clonmel and were brought to trial on 4 July 1895. The judge, Mr Justice O’Brien, paid scant attention to the talk of fairies and ‘witchcraft’ and showed little sympathy for Cleary’s state of mind at the time. All the same, the talk still persisted and was readily seized on by the press. All this rumour had no effect on Michael Cleary’s ultimate sentence – he received twenty years’ penal servitude for the manslaughter of his wife.
Jack Dunne and the Kennedy brothers (who had assisted in forcing Ganey’s poison down Bridget’s throat) were found guilty of ‘wounding’ – Patrick Kennedy was sentenced to five years imprisonment, Jack Dunne to three, and the other two were sentenced to one year each. Patrick Boland and Michael Kennedy each received a sentence of six months but Mary Kennedy was set free by order of the court.
There was some speculation that Mary Kennedy had given information which had helped convict the others, but this is far from certain. Early on, her daughter Johanna Burke revoked the first statement she had made to the police and turned Queen’s evidence: in the trial she became the chief witness for the prosecution and the evidence she provided was crucial.
From the Assizes at Clonmel, the prisoners were taken to Mountjoy Prison. Jack Dunne was later released on licence and returned to Ballyvadlea. His wife Kate had died and he himself is said to have finished his days as a labouring man, broken and unwilling to talk about the incident. The Kennedys too were released on licence and returned home to work as labourers, refusing to say anything. Michael Cleary, however, remained in prison, being shunted between Mountjoy in Dublin and Maryborough (now Portlaoise) Prison in County Laois.
According to some accounts, Cleary learned to work as a tailor and was a rather quiet and withdrawn inmate. He was released on licence from Maryborough on 28 April 1910. It is unclear whether he returned briefly to County Tipperary; some argue that he never returned as ‘he couldn’t show his face in the countryside’. What is known is that in June of that same year, he boarded a ship bound, via Liverpool, to Montreal and vanished from the pages of recorded history. It is possible that when he arrived in Canada he changed his name and disappeared.
The horrors of the ‘Clonmel witch burning’ still lie somewhere deep in the memories of the people who live in Ballyvadlea today and there are few in the countryside who are willing to talk about it. The area remains very close-knit and there are descendants of all the main participants in the case living there still. The community, understandably, wishes to consign the whole affair to history.
Some vestiges of the Cleary house remain, although the original house itself has long been converted into another dwelling and, as such, is not accessible to the public. Kylenagranagh Hill is still there, of course, but much of the fort which once dominated its crown has been cleared away. It still has a sinister reputation and some old people of the area will tell you privately that the fairies still hold court there on certain nights of the year.
Despite the passage of time, the reticence of local people, and the changes to the countryside, the case still holds a fascination for the general public, perhaps because it happened comparatively recently (just over a century ago) and sporadic tours of the ‘Tipperary witch country’ continue to be well subscribed, especially by visitors from overseas.
Bridget Cleary seems ultimately to have been the victim of the eerie superstition that ebbed and flowed through the pleasant Tipperary countryside like a black tide. The local schoolchildren still sing an odd and slightly sinister rhyme as they play their skipping games:
‘Are you a witch, or are you a fairy, Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’