Fire, Fairies and Folklore—The Murder of Bridget Cleary

(Bridget and Michael Cleary c. 1887, via National Archives of Ireland)




A witch? A fairy? Who was the murdered wife of Michael Cleary?


Mr. and Mrs. Cleary


The strange and bizarre events leading up to the death of Bridget Cleary, as well as the court trial a few months later, are well known in the British Isles, especially Ireland, where the grisly event took place in 1895. Outside Britain and Ireland, however, the story is less well known. This article is dedicated to all of the history enthusiasts who were never introduced to this truly macabre tale. Without further ado—here is the story of Bridget Cleary, a woman murdered by her husband for being a fairy changeling at the end of the 19th century.


(Cleary Home c. 1895, via National Archives of Ireland)


Bridget lived with her husband, Michael Cleary, in a comfortable cottage in the region of Tipperary, in southern Ireland.  They lived within a day’s walk of the towns of Fethard and Drangan. In terms of wealth, the Cleary family was above the local average. Bridget was a seamstress and her husband was a cooper. These professions were profitable, and Bridget further increased their income by selling eggs. They also had no children (which was unusual for their time and place). Though their lives may seem dull and bleak by modern standards, they were living a privileged life in 19th century Ireland.


(Region of Tipperary, Ireland, via Google Maps)



On March 4th, 1895, events began to fall in place that would escalate throughout a 5-month period of time. On the 4th, Bridget Cleary was out and about selling surplus eggs to neighbors in the vicinity of the Cleary home. While she was making her rounds, she fell ill, or an already existing illness took a turn for the worse. She may have picked up a terrible cold or flu, but some historians hypothesize that she may have had tuberculosis or pneumonia. Whatever the cause, by March 5th, Bridget was bedridden in her home.

By March 9th, after four days of being confined in the Cleary home, Patrick Boland (Bridget’s father) was concerned enough about his daughter to walk to the town of Fethard to elicit the medical aid of Dr. William Crean. The doctor proved to be an evasive man, and when Crean still had not seen to Bridget by March 11th, Michael Cleary walked to Fethard in his own attempt to gain the doctor’s attention. Despite Bridget’s father and husband pleading with the doctor to examine Bridget, it was not until March 13th when Dr. Crean made an appearance. By then, Bridget so ill that a local priest, Friar Cornelius Ryan, was called to administer the last rites for the very sickly Bridget.

With Dr. Crean’s aid in short supply, Michael Cleary turned toward a different sort of remedy. He found a folk medicine man named Denis Ganey who gave Michael various herbs to be mixed with boiled milk. Bridget was supposed to drink this unpleasant-sounding concoction—a potion seemingly meant to deal with fairies and changelings. At times, Bridget was uncooperative with her husband’s medicinal methods, so he force-fed her on multiple occasions. Her mouth and throat were damaged enough to be recorded in the post-mortem examination.


(Cleary bed c. 1895, via National Archives of Ireland)


By the 14th of March, while Michael Cleary was still ‘treating’ his wife with this folk remedy, he (along with some neighbors and other family members) unbelievably used fire-related ceremonies to induce a confession from Bridget—presumably of her being a fairy changeling. One of the ritualistic treatment methods tried by Michael and the others was to hold Bridget over a kitchen fire.


While these strange treatments were happening, Bridget Cleary was understandably becoming angry. According to reports, she deliberately acted out some of the characteristics of fairies and changelings, which only increased Michael’s paranoia. In her illness, and anger, she began to constantly mock her family—Michael being the main target.  Was her annoyed behavior understandable? Most certainly. Should she have complained about her treatment without fueling Michael’s fears? No doubt about it. Analysis of Bridget Cleary’s behavior aside, all of the blame for her death falls on Michael.

By March 15th, Bridget felt well enough to walk around her house, but she was still confined to the Cleary home. Friar Ryan made a return trip to the house to hold mass for Bridget and the family members attending her during her sickness. When the friar and other well-wishers dispersed, Michael again began the folk medicine practices. That day, Michael repeatedly interrogated Bridget, demanding to know if she was a fairy or changeling. Bridget’s cousin, Johanna Burke, heard the Cleary couple arguing about fairies, and multiple witnesses saw Michael knock Bridget to the ground and threaten her with a burning stick.


(Cleary hearth and room c. 1895, via National Archives of Ireland)


At some point during that night, after Bridget was knocked to the ground, her chemise-style gown caught fire. Either Michael’s burning stick or the kitchen hearth was the likely culprit. The fabric Bridget was wearing proved to be highly flammable, for she was quickly engulfed in flames. The testimonies conflict about whether Bridget died quickly or in a long agony.  Either way, Michael helped the flames consume Bridget Cleary—he doused her with oil. Some sources claim that he applied the oil only after it was apparent that she was dead. Others claim he kindled the fire with oil while she was still alive. Either way, Michael’s next action was suspicious—he buried Bridget’s charred and blackened body in a shallow grave.


(Approximate location of Bridget’s water-filled shallow grave c. 1895, via National Archives of Ireland)



The next day, Michael, and other family members, acted as if nothing had happened. They went on a trip to Drangan to seek out advice from some priests. The police quickly became suspicious, however, and a search for Bridget Cleary began on March 16th. Claiming that his wife had been taken by fairies (as he assumed Bridget was replaced by a changeling), Michael spent the next 3 days (March 17th– 19th) camped out near Kylenagranagh Fort. He claimed to have been waiting for his real wife to ride back to him on a white horse. Most likely, he was just hiding and hyperventilating over what he had done to Bridget.

While Michael was awaiting the miraculous return of his murdered wife, the police were obtaining statements from witnesses of Bridget’s last moments. Johanna Burke and another neighbor named William Simpson gave detailed statements of Bridget Cleary’s last hours of life. By the time Michael returned to his home—still without his wife—the police had accumulated enough evidence to compile a list of suspects. On March 20th, just as local newspapers were beginning to write articles on Bridget’s case, the police issued arrest warrants for 9 men, including Michael Cleary.


(Michael Cleary mug shot c. 1895,via National Archive of Ireland)


After the warrants were issued, the police moved quickly. On the 21st, arrests were made and suspects were taken into custody. On the 22nd, the police found and exhumed Bridget Cleary’s body from the shallow grave where Michael left her on the night she died. On March 23rd, the coroner examined the body (which had been buried for 7 days before police found the grave) and concluded that she died by burning. The coroner also found other signs of trauma, including the earlier-mentioned mouth and throat wounds. By the time the police gave Bridget Cleary a proper burial on March 27th, more witnesses had come forward to give testimony, and Dublin newspapers were beginning to cover the murder. The New York Times also published an article on the Bridget Cleary case around March 31st.

When April arrived, the trial for the case of Bridget Cleary’s murder was speedily arranged. The state announced that Michael Cleary would be put on trial for willful murder, and four others present at the time of Bridget’s death would be tried for the crime of wounding. From this point, the sense of urgency dropped dramatically. In the months of May and June the only event of note was the resignation of Dr. Crean from his position as a doctor in Fethard.


By July 3rd, a Grand Jury was selected, vetted and sworn in for the trial of Michael Cleary and the others involved in Bridget’s death. Johanna Burke appeared in court to testify again on July 4th and 5th. When Johanna’s second round of testimony was done, the jury was able to quickly pass its judgment. The four bystanders were all found guilty of wounding charges. Michael Cleary, however, was not found guilty of murder; instead, he was found guilty of manslaughter. Before March 5th had ended, Michael Cleary and the others all had quarters prepared for them in the Mountjoy Prison of Dublin.

The trial of those responsible for Bridget Cleary’s death was a landmark case. It was the last criminal trial in Ireland that considered witchcraft and magic in a legal defense. The case was strange enough to be captured by Irish folklore—the case even spawned a new nursery rhyme; “Are you a witch or are you a fairy? Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”


(Michael Cleary release mug shot c. 1910, via National Archives of Ireland)


Michael Cleary only served 15 years for his manslaughter charge. Shortly after his release in 1910, he left Ireland for a new life in Montreal, Canada, where he slipped out of the public eye. For Canada’s sake, hopefully, no fairies followed him on his journey.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Sources and links:

  • Angela Bourke. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

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