When the Kilkenny essayist Herbert Butler came to write about the burning of Bridget Cleary in 1960 he acknowledged that Slievenaman was always known for its mysterious past. Looking across the Tipperary border from his fields, he described it as ‘a pale blue hump with the soft, rounded contours of ancient hills whose roughness have been smoothed away by time. Finn MacCool lived there as did Oisin and Oscar, and 50 beautiful maidens, who gave it its name The Mountain of Women.’ In Bridget Cleary’s time, it was also the home of Denis Ganey, the local herbal doctor, and a man respected and feared for his knowledge of fairylore. It was to this house that Michael Cleary ran to on the afternoon of Thursday March 14 1895. He pleaded for a cure for his wife whom he believed had been taken by the fairies, and replaced by a woman that was not the Bridget Boland he had married.
When he returned to his cottage at Ballyvadlea, with the hill of Tullowcossaun behind it, the house was full of people along with his sick wife. There was her father Patrick Boland, her aunt Mary Kennedy; her four cousins Patrick, Michael, James, and William Kennedy, William Aherne, and the man who first pronounced that Bridget was a fairy ‘changeling’, Jack Dunne.
No one knows what was in the bottle that Michael brought back from‘ Ganey over the mountain.’* The author tells us that in the archives of the Irish Folklore Collection human urine, mixed with a lot of unmentionable filth, is frequently recorded as the antidote in the struggle to wrest a human back from the spell of the fairies. Iron and fire are also well-known weapons in such a battle.
Michael mixed Ganey’s concoction with ‘new’ milk (the first milk given by a cow after calving ), and calling out:‘ In the name of God, are you the Bridget Boland the wife of Michael Cleary?’ forced his wife to drink it. She found it too bitter and spat it out. She struggled to keep her mouth from the cup. Her cousins held her down, one lying across her legs. She screamed and fought them as best she could. The mixture was spilt over her, and over the bed. She was soaked through. The men all shouted together: ‘Away with you; come home, Bridget Boland, in the name of God!’ Her father asked her: “ Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?” She replied: “ I am Dada, I am.”
This went on all night until news reached the house that Michael Cleary’s father had died. At about six am most of the men left to pay their respects to the dead man’s family. But Michael refused to go. Instead he went again to the priest’s house and told Fr Con Ryan that his wife had been taken by the fairies, and that he must come back to help her. Whether Fr Con believed him or not, he came later that morning, and said Mass in Bridget’s bedroom.
‘An old deceiver’
After the Mass, some sense of calm descended on the scene. Neighbours came and went during the day. There was a feeling that Ganey’s ‘cure’ had worked. In the afternoon Bridget felt well enough to get dressed. Neighbours helped her into a navy jacket and skirt. A shawl covered her shoulders. She sat by the fire. When the men returned from Michael’s father’s wake, they said they were delighted to see that she was better. Tea was made. Michael prepared some bread and jam, cut into three pieces. Before he gave them to her he asked once again: “Are you Bridget Cleary, my wife in the name of God?”
Bridget did not answer.
Michael seemed to snap. He went berserk. He struck his wife, and threw her on the floor. One of the neighbours, Johanna Burke, called out to leave her alone: “Don’t you see that it’s Bridget that’s in it.” But Michael wasn’t listening. He stood over her, pulled off her clothes, burnt her leg on the hot fire grate, and finally threw the contents of the oil lamp over her, and set her ablaze. Neighbours shouted: “ For the love of God!”
Michael replied: “ She’s not my wife. She’s an old deceiver sent in place of my wife. She’s after deceiving me for the last seven or eight days, and deceived the priest today too, but she won’t deceive anyone any more. As I beginned it with her, I’ll finish it with her! You’ll soon see her go up the chimney.”
The fire grotesquely distorted poor Bridget’s body. The house was filled with ‘smoke and smell’.
Three night vigil
When Michael saw his wife’s contorted body he kept shouting to the horror struck people in the room that this was not his wife, but a substitute foisted on him by the fairies. It must be got rid off. He kept throwing oil on the remains in the hope that it would burn away. He was wild with despair, and rambling. He produced a knife, and made everyone swear that what they saw would remain a secret until his real Bridget would return. Seeing that the corpse would not disintegrate further he insisted that Patrick Kennedy would help him bury it. He warned everyone to remain indoors. They put the body on a sheet and pulled it outside. When they returned Mary Kennedy said there were stains, like grease, on his clothes. She asked him whether they were the stains from his wife’s body? “Oh Mary,” said Michael, “She wasn’t my wife, and we’ll go tonight to Kylenagranagh Fort, and we’ll cut the ropes and bring her home.”
Taking his knife, Michael ran off to Kylenagranagh Fort fully expecting to see his wife riding out on a white horse. He intended to cut the ropes that tied her to the horse and bring her home. For three nights he kept vigil at the fort.
By now, of course the whole neighbourhood was alarmed and deeply disturbed by the happenings at the Cleary home. Rumours spread, and the whole countryside was apprehensive and divided whether it was by fairy power or murder that took the life of Bridget. Had she been ‘swept’ by the fairies? Whatever people thought, the police began to search for a body.
The remains of Bridget were found on Friday March 22. Eleven people, including Michael Cleary, and Jack Dunne, who added fuel to the whole incident by proclaiming that Bridget was replaced by a ‘changeling’, and Denis Ganey, who prescribed the so called ‘cure,’ were arrested. On Saturday March 23 the local coroner, John J Shee, of Abbeyview, Clonmel, opened the proceedings by addressing the jury as follows: “ If what I have heard about the case is true, it is one of the most fearful things that has happened in this country for years. Amongst Hottentots one would not expect to hear of such an occurrence.”
Those arrested were sent for trial in Clonmel the following July.
Next week: Unionist newspapers seized upon the Bridget Cleary case, and the Oscar Wilde trials, which had coincided, as proof that the Irish were unfit for Home Rule.
*I am leaning heavily on a lecture Prof Angela Bourke gave at the recent Autumn Gathering at Coole, and her book: The Burning of Bridget Cleary, published by Viking Penguin in 2000.