On 15 March 1895 Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband. She has been popularly described as “the last witch burned in Ireland”. Bridget Cleary became seriously ill with, it is thought, TB or pneumonia a few days before her murder. A doctor and a priest, who gave her communion, had visited two days before her death.
The illness may have caused febrile ramblings. These ramblings caused her husband Michael and her friends to believe she had been taken by fairies and a sickly changeling left in her place.
Michael forced her to drink a folk remedy of a mixture of herbs boiled in milk which was thought to drive out the changeling. Three to four pints of urine were poured over her – again to rescue her from the fairies. By this time, it was late evening, and it was thought that if Bridget wasn’t released from the fairies by midnight, she would be lost forever to them.
The burning of Bridget Cleary
When these remedies failed to cure her rambling, she was taken over to the fire place and Michael threatened her with a piece of burning wood and her clothing caught fire.
He then threw lamp-oil over her. Her husband is said to have shouted “It is not Bridget I am burning.” He claimed he was burning the changeling.
(Michael also suspected Bridget of having an affair – and, it was thought, that was another reason he was so violent).
Bridget Cleary’s burnt corpse was found in a shallow grave on 22 March.
A witness at the trial testified:
“I saw Cleary throw lamp-oil on her. When she was burning, she turned to me (imagine that face of woe) and called out, ‘Oh, Han, Han!’
“I endeavoured to get out for the peelers. My brother William went up into the other room and fell in a weakness, and my mother threw Easter water over him. Bridget Cleary was all this time burning on the hearth, and the house was full of smoke and smell.
I had to go up to the room, I could not stand it. Cleary then came up into the room where we were and took away a large sack bag. He said, ‘Hold your tongue, Hannah, it is not Bridget I am burning. You will soon see her go up into the chimney.’”
Michael Cleary was found guilty of manslaughter, and was sentenced to 20 years’ penal servitude. He was released after 15 years and emigrated to Canada. The judge ‘was by no means convinced that all the talk of fairies was not a cloak for ordinary murder – he felt the evidence more consistent with murder than manslaughter.’ Eight friends were found guilty of wounding.
Bridget Cleary’s death remains famous in popular culture. Below is an Irish nursery rhyme;
Are you a witch, or are you a fairy
Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?
Note; it was thought at the time that the Cleary cottage was built on the site of a fairy ringfort.