Ireland’s rich and vibrant oral tradition of storytelling captured the hearts and minds of generation upon generation of Irish people going back centuries, who passed the long cold nights by the fire absorbed in these tales. While it is easy for us to view them as just stories through a modern lens and dismiss them as simple superstition, they had a much more profound effect on the people of the past. Many of these stories would have originated as an explanation of events and phenomenon that people would not have had at the time such as inexplicable illnesses and features of the landscape such as ringforts. While even back then some would havedismissed them as make believe, many seen them as truth which sometimes ended in a disastrous outcome. This was ultimately the outcome with the case of Bridget Cleary in 1895 where the belief in fairy changelings culminated in the torture and death of the young woman at the hands of her husband Michael and a number of other people including a local herb/fairy doctor Dennis Ganey. The storytelling tradition was instrumental in the outcome of this tragedy and it is evident in the common motifs often found in changeling stories that pop up in this case such as; the attempts to banish the “fairy” (including the use of fire), the administering of herbs, the inclusion of the priest and also in the manner that Michael Cleary believed he could rescue his wife from the fairies. Jack Dunne’s presence and prestige as someone knowledgeable in fairy lore was also pivotal to the outcome of the incident. Another notable point was the proximity of the house to a Rath, often called fairy forts, and believed to be the abode of the “the good folk”. Changeling stories are very common and were described by Emily Lyle as “being among the most commonest of the tales of the Fairies” (Bourke, 1999: 37).
The use of fire in this case is very important as it is a common element in the stories concerning banishment of changelings. It is a method that pops up many times in the national folklore collection. Although in all the documented cases of changeling burning, Bridget Cleary is the only one that involves an adult victim (Bourke, 1999:
38). Many other reports can be found throughout the 19th century of children being placed on red hot shovels, drowned or mistreated and only 11 years before this event a case was reported less than 15 miles away from where the Cleary’s lived that involved a red hot shovel. One of the witness statements at the court case that followed stated that at one point Bridget had a burn mark on her forehead administered by her husband with a red-hot poker (Bourke, 1999: 79). He also used fire after he knocked her to the floor while trying to make her eat and also when he doused her in lamp oil to burn the body while saying “she’s an old deceiver left instead of my wife, you will see her go up the chimney”. This method can be seen time and time again for scaring away fairies such as a story where a man took a red hot tongs out of the fire saying “I’ll scald you first and burn you afterwards” upon which the child turned into an old person in front of them and left, only for the real child to be returned (Gafty, 1862). Another story features both a fairy man and also the use of fire where a changeling is banished when the “wise man” threatens to catch its nose with a tongs causing it to leave (Kennedy, 1886: 90-92). It also occurs in the story “Garret Barry and the changeling” where a fairy child talks to the piper after hearing him play the bagpipes. The outcome of this is the same whereby the fairy departs up the chimney after being threatened by a reddened shovel taken out of the fire (Lenihan, 2003: 296).
As mentioned, Jack Dunne had a very important part to play in the events that unfolded and was no doubt the impetus for the gross mistreatment of the young woman from the moment he uttered the words “That is not Bridgie Boland”. (Bourke, 1999: 62) This could be alluding to her change in appearance due to sickness and in many of the stories we find that the physical appearance of people who had spent time ‘away with the fairies’ would be somehow different (NFC 437:104-105,Wexford, 1945) . He also mentioned that one of her legs was shorter than the other. This was also a feature of a story shared by Eamonn á Búrc. Dunne’s knowledge of herbs and his insistence of Michael seeing the herb doctor, Dennis Ganey, was what caused Michael Cleary to abandon the idea of using real medicine in favour of using what they later called in court “fairy quackery”. A herb often associated with fairies foxglove (often called fairy thimbles), are the most attested and heavily documented herb in relation to fairies and a witness was even asked if lús mór (foxglove) was used. The fact that the herbs were boiled in new milk or beestings (Bourke, 1999: 78) as it is known is also important as new milk is often seen as being attractive to the fairies. In a quickly modernising world where people like Dunne, with his esoteric knowledge, were quickly losing the prestige and respect that they would have once had, then it is no doubt that he would have taken every opportunity to exert his dominance in the situation. Michael Cleary himself had said in court that were it not for the insistence of Jack Dunne he would not have done it.
The proximity of the fort and also the way in which Michael thought he could still
“rescue” his wife following her death is also a conventional motif in fairy abduction stories. These forts were commonly referred to in the locality as places where fairies lived (Bourke, 1999: 11) and oral tradition marked the particular fort near their house as not being linked to normal human behaviour. (Bourke, 1999: 17). The association with the forts and the fairies is well attested and widespread and even Lady Gregory on her travels while collecting stories mentioned that they are always fairy haunted and are identifiable to the locals as such (Bourke, 1999: 47) Roads quite often avoid them and calamities often befall those who tamper with them or are in any way disrespectful to them. In regards to the rescue of Bridget, a witness Johanna testified in court that she had heard Michael talking specifically about the fairies and that his wife was up at Kylenegranagh fort and that they would go up Sunday night to rescue her. There he expected to find her on a horse and that if he cut the cords she was tied with that she would stay with them (Bourke, 1999: 16). He was later seen with a crowd of people with a knife to retrieve her. Two stories collected in the book “Meeting the Other Crowd” echo this. The first features Corbally fort where a man spotted a woman on a white horse being led by a group of fairies. The man was able to rescue her by pulling her off the horse. This story also mentions something left in her stead (Lenihan, 2003: 278). The second is the story of a brother that dreamt of his sister who had being “carried”. She could also be rescued if her feet touched the ground (Lenihan, 2003: 276). Another interesting story concerning a wife being stolen can be found in the national folklore collection. This specific story is interesting because it contains a few elements that are found in the Bridget Cleary case. The appearance of the wife had changed (“An ugly auld yoke instead of her”, as the husband put it) and the man visited a fairy doctor. He had administered herbs although in this case it was to enable the man to see the fairies. He was to go to a specific place at a certain time and he could pull his wife off the horse. As soon as he had retrieved her the thing in the house disappeared (Carroll, 1945: 105).
Many might look at Michael Cleary’s explanation as simply an excuse to cover up the mistreatment and murder of his wife but I think we have seen there are many elements that show how a clearly superstitious man under severe psychological stress got caught up in the events that unfolded. Even though they lived in a quickly modernising world, the stories still told at the fireside would have greatly influenced their world view. The interference of a man who would have commanded some respect due to his esoteric knowledge of the supernatural world (however waning this respect now was in the new world that was emerging) was central to the outcome of the case. Charlotte Dease says that the best place to find a mixture of ancient traditions mixed with modern is to look to the more rural areas of Ireland (Dease,1918:46). I think this was ultimately the case for Bridget Cleary.
Bourke,A (1999). The Burning of Bridget Cleary, London, Pimlico, pp.1-111.
Dease.C, Religious Traditions Of Gaelic Ireland, Irish monthly, Vol.47, No.567 (Jan 1918),pp.45-50.
Gafty,A.(1862), A holiday in Ireland in 1861, Dublin, Bealoideas 3, pp.368.
Hedderman, B.N. (1917), Glimpses of my life in Aran, Bristol, John Wright and sons Ltd.
Kennedy,P. (1866), Fictions of the Irish Celts, London, MacMillan and Co. pp.90-92.
Lenihan,E. and Green,C.(2003), Meeting the other crowd, Dublin, Gill and macmillan.
National Folklore Collection, Iml 437,Page 104, Mrs.John O’Carrol, Wexford, Thomas O’ Ciarda, 1945.
National Folklore Collection, Iml 48, pp16-22, Micíl Uí Fionnagáin,65, Priónseas ó Ceallaigh, Cork.