Remarkably, and that is a word already used in this drama, the court accepted Michael Cleary’s plea of manslaughter. He was charged with the murder of his wife Bridget by burning her to death, but the jury accepted that Cleary had really believed that his wife had been transformed into a ‘changeling’ by the fairies; and it was only a concoction of herbs and fire that would release her from its spell.
It was an emotional and an intense two-day trial which opened at the Clonmel assizes on Thursday July 4 1895. Enormous crowds gathered to watch the prisoners being brought from the prison to the courthouse. The prisoners included the neighbours who were in the house the night Bridget died, her father Patrick Boland, Jack Dunne, the man who declared that the sick wife ‘was not Bridgie Boland’, and Patrick Kennedy who helped Bridget’s husband bury the remains. The crowd watched in silence. Held back by a large cordon of police officers, it strained to see the faces of the accused.
The acceptance of the manslaughter plea reduced the seriousness of the charges against the others. Most of them were let go free. Patrick Boland, Bridget’s father, pathetically asked to be allowed home: ‘I want to go home for because I am losing my sight. The sergeant can see me every day, because I am only half a mile away from him, and could you see your way to be decent towards me? I would be very grateful to you.”
He was allowed home.
Patrick Kennedy was sentenced to five years hard labour for ‘the secret removal and burial of the body’, while Jack Dunne got two years.
All eyes then rested on Michael Cleary*. He ‘wore a haggard appearance’ throughout his time in court. He loudly denied that he had burnt his wife. He tearfully refuted the evidence from the others that he had ‘placed his wife on the fire’. “ I would sooner put myself on the fire than put her on the fire.” He accused the witnesses of trying to injure him, and of trying to ‘destroy his life’, as they had tried during the years of his marriage. He declared that “ I threw no paraffin oil on my wife”.
Justice William O’Brien was not impressed. He spoke, ‘amid a scene of painful silence’ directly to Cleary: “ Your wicked hand sent her 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.” He sentenced Cleary to 20 years hard labour.
The Clonmel Chronicle reported that Michael Cleary ‘wept bitterly while his lordship was speaking, and when being removed from the dock shouted out that he was innocent’.
This time when the prisoners were being marched through the streets back to jail, the crowds “groaned and hooted vehemently”.**
‘sharp tongue and cleverness’
A short article by Lady Gregory appeared in the Spectator on April 20 during the height of the Cleary sensation. She confirmed that “Here in the West the belief in fairies, always of a malevolent sort, is still very deeply rooted”. She told a story that when once out walking with her husband, they met an old man who had pointed out a ‘ring-shaped- rath saying that is “where the fairies do be”. The man was on his way back from “burying his first cousin’s wife”, but seemed resigned at his loss, as she was from the county Clare, and “the Clare women are a great deal cliverer than Galway women, and that makes them and great deal crosser”.
Professor Angela Bourke said that this is a recurring theme: “cross” women - those whose anger or assertiveness made them difficult for men to deal with - were often the ones said to be away with the fairies, as were those “clever” ones whose special skills set them apart.
In the same year, 1895, the American folklorist Jeremiah Curtin published his Tales of the Irish Fairies. On page 158 he mentioned an old man who believed “his afflicted daughter” was a creature substituted by fairies for his own daughter, His daughter was a “quiet honest girl,” but this one had “the tongue of an attorney!” In Lady Gregory’s example, sharp tongue and ‘cleverness’ are expressly linked, as they seem to have been, in the remarkably strong-willed Bridget Cleary.
‘If you are unkind’
The poet WB Yeats, always fascinated by the belief in fairies, told a story about meeting a Kildare woman in London about this time. She told him that in her village there was a girl used to be away with ‘them’, ... “ you’d never know when it was she herself that was in it or not until she’d come back, and then she’d tell she had been away. She didn’t like to go, but she had to go when they called her. And she told her mother always to treat kindly whoever was put in her place, saying: “ If you are unkind to whoever is there, they’ll be unkind to me.”’
Professor Bourke said that this story tallies perfectly with all that we know from Irish oral tradition about ‘changeling’ belief. It was sometimes used to rationalise 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”.
Was the killing of Bridget Cleary the result of marriage dissatisfaction, committed by a deeply superstitious man where ‘changeling’ belief was accepted as a real possibility? But all was not lost for Michael Cleary. He would rescue her. At midnight on Sunday she would ride a white horse out of the fairy fort of Kylenagranagh, and he would be there, with a black-handled knife.
Are you a witch or are you a fairy,
Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?
(South Tipperary children’s rhyme. )
* I am leaning heavily on Professor Angela Bourke’s lecture at the recent Autumn Gathering at Coole; and on her book The Burning of Bridget Cleary. A new edition of the book has just been published by Pimlico Books, now on sale at Charlie Byrnes’ at €11.
** Michael Cleary was releaced on license from Maryborough Prison on April 10 1910. He went to Liverpool. His gratuity on release amounted to £17 13 4d, less than what his wife kept in the trunk under their bed 15 years earlier. Cleary emigrated to Montreal, Canada. There is no further record of him.