“Are you a witch? Are you a fairy?
Are you wife of Michael Cleary?”
– Children’s rhyme from South Tipperary
In March 1895, 26-year-old Bridget Cleary (née Boland) disappeared from her home, a labourer’s cottage in Ballyvadlea in rural South Tipperary. Locals said she had been taken away by fairies of nearby Kylenagranagh Hill and a changeling – a fairy offspring – put in her place. She was expected to emerge from hill riding a white horse. Instead, her badly burned body was found in a shallow grave.
Bridget’s husband Michael, her father and four of her cousins were arrested and charged with her murder. The case was sensational from start. Even today, Bridget Cleary is known as last witch to be burned in Ireland or at least as subject of last witchcraft trial in Ireland. But Bridget was not a witch, even by beliefs of day. She was not considered to have been consorting with devil, as is usually case in what was perceived as witchcraft. Many believed that Bridget’s husband simply wanted shot of her and invented fairy story as a cover.
The Clearys were different and Bridget especially so. It was not long after Great Famine of 1845-49 and in that part of rural Ireland many families lived in squalor, without security or tenure in unsuitable and tiny unsanitary cabins on small plots of land. Both Bridget and Michael could read and write. Bridget was also an independent business woman making money as a poultry-keeper. She was a gifted milliner (hatmaker) from which she also earned money. She dressed in more fashionable clothes than her female contemporaries and sported a straw hat dressed with ribbon and a feather.
Michael had a good job too. Unlike many of his contemporaries who were farm labourers, Michael was a cooper, an independent artisan. The Clearys did not live in one of small, mud-walled cabins like many other families. They lived in what was considered a decent cottage with decent farmland. Since they both earned money and had no children, Michael and Bridget were also financially better off than most of their neighbors.
Bridget was an attractive young woman who kept to herself. Some considered her a bit haughty and there was local gossip of a possible affair with one of her neighbors. Also, after seven years of marriage Clearys were still childless. This was unusual and perhaps shameful, especially for Bridget’s husband. Ballyvadlea where they lived was a rural townland of just over 272 acres, with nine homes and a population of just 31 in census of 1891. Bridget and Michael, who met in Clonmel, first lived in Bridget’s parents’ cottage. After Bridget’s mother died, she had to care for her elderly father and Clearys were granted tenancy of another labourer’s cottage in Ballyvadlea. This new cottage however was thought to be fairy-haunted because it was built over a rath or fairy fort (see box).