Superstitions are basically harmless, right? Not walking under a ladder, knocking on wood, tossing salt over your shoulder, avoiding black cats … they may not actually help anything or anyone, but neither do they do any real harm … right?

There’s a true story out of 1890s Irish history that shows that some superstitions, if believed and acted upon, can do much harm indeed. If Bridget Cleary were here, she’d verify that.

She’s not here, though, in that she died in 1895, but her story lingers in old Irish court records and newspaper accounts, and also in a rhyme Irish children sometimes chant when jumping rope: “Are you a witch or are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”

If that has a vaguely creepy ring to it, it should. The story of the real wife of Michael Cleary shows how dangerous it can be to blindly accept ideas without analyzing them.

At the root of Bridget Cleary’s sad, stunning story is the old Irish belief in fairies, particularly malevolent ones, and in the fairy-associated way certain circular landscape features in rural Ireland were explained.

As described in an online article on Bloomberg.com, Ireland is dotted in some areas with “circular mounds, ditches, and earth markings found in great volume across Ireland (and some parts of Britain as well). Some are faint, scarcely visible scrapes on the terrain; others are large enclosures marked with mounds, ditches, and rings of trees. Depending on their size, these may be remnants of actual forts, tombs, old animal enclosures, or stockades that once protected homesteads. They’re believed to have been created at any time between the Iron Age and the early years of Ireland’s Christian era.”

In Irish folk belief, though, those circles, along with mushroom circles that appear naturally on certain types of ground, were “fairy circles” or “fairy ringforts.”

When you think of Irish fairies, forget Tinkerbell and Disney. Irish rural folk viewed fairies as tricky and often hostile entities, sometimes helpful to humans and other times doing harm. Calling fairies “the good folk,” as was often done, has been described as an attempt to flatter the fairies and, it was hoped, avert them from mischief.

Irish countryside people tended to blame fairies (also spelled “faeries,” and sometimes collectively called “the fay”) for such things as milk going bad or cows going dry, livestock dying, accidents occurring, and so on. One of the more serious evils supposedly involving fairies, though, can be found in the concept of “changelings.”

What is a “changeling?” The old Irish believers in such believed changelings were a kind of fairy that would be substituted for a particular human being, with the real human carried off into the fairy realm. Most often newborn babies (particularly ones not yet baptized by a priest) were considered at highest risk of being replaced by changelings, but their mothers and other adult humans could fall victim as well.

How would such a notion arise? It was psychologically easier, perhaps, for a parent to explain, for example, why a baby was failing to thrive, or beginning to reveal signs of developmental disabilities and the like, by declaring the child in the cradle or crib was not the true offspring at all, but a flawed substitute put there by wicked fairies.

This superstition opened the door to tragedy. The Galway (Ireland) Advertiser newspaper quotes a modern professor who says that the belief in changelings “was sometimes used to rationalize the exposure, abandonment, and even the killing of children born with disabilities (and probably of some born to unmarried women), as well as death by sudden illness, suicide, or other misadventure; it could be invoked to justify cruel punishment of children or adults, but it also contained that proviso of compassion for those who were temporarily ‘not themselves’.”

“Not themselves.” Interesting that even now we will sometimes use such residual, derivative phrases as “I’m just not myself today” to express that we are having an off day. Who knew that such a phrase, in some places and past eras, was intended to be interpreted literally!

Bridget Bolan, born around 1869 in County Tipperary, Ireland, in August of 1887 married one Michael Cleary, a cooper (a maker of casks, barrels, tubs and other wooden containers and implements). Michael was several years older than Bridget. They remained childless in a culture in which it was common and almost inevitable that fertile couples would generate several children.

Bridget was a trained seamstress and dressmaker, and possibly a hatmaker as well. She was enterprising, owned an early-model Singer sewing machine, and supplemented the household income with her seamstress work and an additional sideline of selling eggs around the community.

She was self-confident and bold and considered somewhat unusual by neighbors. Women who were assertive and possessed useful skills were considered to be at higher risk of being taken by fairies and replaced with changelings than were less “clever” women.

Bridget, though, didn’t mind being clever and standing out. She sometimes was seen in a “red or striped petticoat, grey or green stays, a navy-blue flannel dress or a navy-blue cashmere jacket, a white knitted shawl, black stockings and boots.” Her ears were pierced, and she wore gold earrings.

When she walked about to sell eggs or deliver a completed garment or work of millinery, she often would pass near a particular purported fairy ringfort in the area, Kylenagranagh Hill, and rumors arose that she possibly was meeting an illicit lover there, entering the fairy fort to do so – a dangerous thing to do, according to the folk beliefs.

Furthermore, the house she and Michael occupied, and shared with Bridget’s widower father, Patrick Boland, was said to have been built on a fairy ringfort site.

Bridget’s downfall began when she became ill after exposure to some cold weather. Her illness is believed by some who have studied her story to have been pneumonia or tuberculosis.

Her sickness worsened ever more and didn’t seem to improve despite visits from a doctor and attempted folk remedies. She grew so ill she was given last rites by a priest.

The notion entered Michael Cleary’s mind that the ailing woman in his house was not his “Bridgie” at all, but a fairy changeling sent to replace her. This belief was amplified by the influence of a local man, Jack Dunne, believed to be an authority on such things.

The “treatments” attempted for the woman took a disturbing turn as Michael and Dunne tried to make the “changeling” go away so the real Bridget could return. This return, folk belief had it, would have to occur within a certain period of time, or the real Bridget would be lost forever to the fay.

Following the relevant beliefs about dealing with changelings, they threw urine on her. They force-fed her concoctions of this and that. When they tried to make her drink, she asked for milk … not a prudent request on Bridget’s part, given that fairies, including the changeling variety, were said to particularly like milk.

Eventually Bridget vanished a few days. Her bed was empty. When asked about her absence, Michael Cleary declared his wife had been carried off by the fay and the woman who had been ailing in the Cleary house had been a changeling. With the changeling gone, he hoped to see his real wife return.

Bridget did return, in the form of a burned female corpse found buried nearby in a shallow grave in a boggy area. The truth, known by several in the neighborhood, began to emerge and reached the ears of the local constabulary. That truth would lead Michael Cleary to the dock of a courtroom and then to prison.

Cleary, investigation revealed, had attempted a far more dramatic remedy than urine, etc., to drive away the changeling: fire. Folklore had it a changeling could be ousted either by making it laugh, or through torture. (It makes one wonder what tiny babies born with imperfect forms or features suffered at the hands of superstitious parents.)

It was learned that, with several others, including Bridget’s own father, present, the helplessly sick woman had been conveyed to the hearth and there exposed to devastating heat and threatened with a red-hot poker. It was never fully clear whether her clothing was set on fire purposefully or caught accidentally, but testimony in later court action declared that Michael Cleary poured flammable “paraffin oil” from a lamp onto his wife after her clothes flamed up, then sat in a chair and watched her burn.

Whether Bridget was dead before she was burned was never fully established, though a physician who had studied her corpse believed she had died from immolation.

Michael, purporting himself to be a true believer in fairy folklore (though some have speculated his belief was deliberately exaggerated), claimed he had anticipated that the real Bridget would return to him astride a white horse once the changeling was ousted. No horse, with or without Bridget, ever showed up.

Trial of the case began on Thursday, July 4, 1895, and drew rubbernecking crowds who wanted to lay eyes on Michael Cleary and several others accused of complicity in Bridget’s death.

Among those facing charges, besides Michael, were – astonishingly – Bridget’s own father Patrick Boland, who had not intervened to save his daughter and perhaps even helped her husband torture her; Jack Dunne, and a man named Patrick Kennedy who helped Michael dig her shallow grave.

Michael Cleary was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, which spared him the death sentence that would have resulted from a murder conviction.

Michael Cleary denied that he’d poured fuel on his burning wife, and held that he’d not slain his wife at all, only a changeling that had taken her form.

The court didn’t agree with either claim. The person Michael had burned had been his spouse, no fairy substitute, and he indeed had burned her deliberately.

The magistrate said to a weeping Cleary: “Your wicked hand sent (Bridget) to another world in the very prime of her life. The young woman confided to you her affections and her love, and you most wantonly and cruelly and bitterly betrayed her. You demonstrated a degree of darkness in the mind.”

Sentenced to 20 years of hard labor, Michael Cleary was released after 15 years, moved to Liverpool, and from there to Canada, leaving Ireland behind and vanishing into obscurity.

The bizarre case gained some attention in Ireland’s quest for “home rule.” British detractors used it to try to paint the Irish as backward and unsophisticated, not yet ready to rule themselves.

Bridget was only in her mid-20s when she was murdered. Her death incorrectly has been called “the last witch-burning in Ireland,” though she never was accused of witchcraft, merely of having consorted with malevolent fairies.

Testimony in court revealed that she was heard to scream “Give me a chance!” before she died.

It was a chance, sadly, that she never was granted, not because she was a witch and not because she was a fairy, but only because she was the wife of Michael Cleary.

Cameron Judd is a lifelong Tennessean born and raised in Cookeville, and a Greene County resident since 1982, when he first joined The Greeneville Sun staff. He also is an extensively published author of western and frontier fiction, having worked with several major publishing houses. He currently works as a feature writer and columnist with the Sun. He and his wife, Rhonda, live in Chuckey and have three grown children and three grandchildren.

Recommended for you