On Monday March 4 1895, Bridget Cleary, walked up a hill to Kylenagranagh, the home of her father’s cousin Jack Dunne, who lived with his wife Kate, to sell eggs. The Dunne’s house, less than two miles from her slate-roofed labourer’s cottage at Ballyvadlea, Co Tipperary, was near an ancient circular mound of earth, or a ring fort, still known in rural Ireland as a ‘fairy fort’. Maybe it was because of the location of his house, or because of his skill as a story teller, a ‘Shanachie’, and that he had a limp, that Dunne had the reputation for being ‘an old man who is fairy-ridden’. People believed the local legend that he was once ‘chased up to his home by a man in black, and a woman in white’. He had knowledge of incantations, charms, and spells, and was sometimes consulted for a cure for animal or female sicknesses.
Bridget was a young married woman, 26 years old who, like most country women with their own home, had the egg money as her own. It was a cold, bright day. There was snow on Slievenamon. As she returned she again passed the ‘fairy fort,’ and caught a chill. She woke the next day with a ‘violent headache.’ She had fits of shivering, became increasingly unwell, and for the rest of the week was unable to leave her bed.*
When Bridget was no better the following Monday, her father, Patrick Boland, who lived with his daughter and son-in-law Michael, walked the four miles into Fethard to ask Dr William Crean to call. The doctor, who turns out to have been a drunkard, did not show up. Later that same day Bridget’s husband Michael walked into Fethard again to summon the doctor. On Tuesday the doctor still doesn’t visit Bridget who is steadily getting more feverish. On Wednesday the doctor calls, and later testifies in an off handed way that ‘Bridget was perfectly healthy. She had a body of good physique and was well nourished. The only thing that I can say is that she was awfully nervous’.**
Bridget and Michael Cleary were unusual in that they were both working and earning money. Bridget was a trained dressmaker, and kept hens, selling both eggs and fowl. She was regarded as a stylish young women, walking the roads wearing 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.
Michael worked as a cooper in Clonmel. The couple met when Bridget was just 18 years of age, and was in the same town learning the dressmaking trade. For the first four years of their marriage, Michael continued to work in Clonmel coming home at weekends. Again this was an unusual arrangement for the time. The fact that both husband and wife were working and earning money, and had unusual living arrangements, did cause resentment and jealousy among some of their neighbours. At his trial three months later, Michael shouted that one of the witnesses against him, would go behind his back and tell Bridget at home that “ Ah! It’s seldom he will come home to ye now. He have plenty of women where he lives.”
The author also suggests that there was some domestic difficulty between husband and wife. They had no children, which could have been regarded as a slight on Michael’s virility. In those days infertility was rarely considered to be the husband’s difficulty. The woman was to blame. Michael may have blamed Bridget for not getting pregnant.
Again at the trial an interesting insight was gleaned. Bridget’s father had asked his sister, Mary Kennedy, to come and look at Bridget.
‘ So I went up then and went into the room, and asked her what way she was. She said she was very bad, with a pain in her head, and in her temples. I said it would be nothing with the help of God.’
“I don’t know,” she said, “I’m very bad. He’s (Michael ) making a fairy of me now, and an emergency.”
I said, “Don’t mind him.”
“Oh,” she said, “he thought to burn me about three months ago.”
I said, “Don’t mind, and it will be nothing by and by.”
Work of the fairies
On that Wednesday that the doctor called Michael walked back into Fethard to get the doctor’s prescription, some medicinal wine, and a ‘herbal mixture’ that he got ‘from some woman’. But Michael was to have no faith in the mixture. In the meantime the curate, Fr Con Ryan, called. He had heard that Bridget was unwell, but seeing her he did not think she was dangerously ill. However, he thought that whatever ailed her could get worse later on, and possibly develop in a brain fever or something of that kind. He decided to administer the last rites of the church.
When Michael returned he sent for Jack Dunne, and asked him what should he do. The two men stood at Cleary’s front door. Michael and his father-in-law, with the help of Mary Kennedy and a neighbour Joanna Burke, had nursed the feverish Bridget for over a week, watching her condition deteriorate. The doctor was useless. The priest had given her up for dead.
Dunne said he believed that Bridget’s illness was the work of the fairies. He said forget about the doctor’s medicine. The only man who could help her now was Denis Ganey, the fairy doctor, who lived on the northern slopes of Slievenamon.
Then Dunne came into the bedroom and saw Bridget in distress and feverish. He stared at her, and in a dramatic voice called out : “ THAT IS NOT BRIDGIE BOLAND!” He looked at her body, and pronounced that the woman in the bed was a fairy. She was marked by having one of her legs longer than the other.
With Dunne’s frightening remarks the whole fairylore machinery tripped into overdrive.
Michael Clearly ran off to Denis Ganey’s house.
Next Week : ‘The house was filled with smoke and smell’.
NOTES: * I am taking this from Prof Angela Bourke’s interesting book , The Burning of Bridget Cleary, published in 2000. The original ‘burning’ tragedy provoked such widespread controversy both throughout Ireland and England, that the newspapers of the time vied with each other for the details of the story, and followed its subsequent inquest, and trial with great interest. The author suggests that Bridget developed pneumonia from the chill she caught on March 4. There is also some evidence that Bridget was being treated for a mild tuberculosis over a period of years.
**Complaints about Dr Crean were passed from the Cashel Poor Law Guardians to the Dispensary Management Committee. Dr Crean resigned on May 10.