Irish Women and Death Series: The Last Witch Killing in Ireland in 1895

When we think of the women murdered for being witches, we often associate these killings with events that happened hundreds of years ago – the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 usually come to mind for example, or the reign of terror committed by the ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins in the middle of the 17th century. However, it was in 1895 the last ‘Witch killing’ was committed in Ireland. Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband and members of her family/community in County Tipperary, Ireland. The trial of her murderers was a media sensation at home and abroad, coinciding with the debate surrounding Home Rule in Ireland at the time. The murder of Bridget is not an isolated incident of a woman murdered for being different at the hands of a man. Religion, superstition, oppression, and patriarchy are key themes surrounding the incident as well as post-mortem bodily integrity. In this blog post, I intend to tell the story of Bridget’s murder, as well as the links between her murder and the death folklore that was prevalent in Ireland at the time, some of which still lingers today. We also see an amalgamation of pagan superstition and the Catholic religion – both were used as a weapon of oppression that justified her death to the man who committed the murder, despite the fact they are often thought to be separate entities and that the Catholic church condemned the old oral mythological stories. The killing of ‘witches’ in the past usually stemmed from a fear of the women accused, with the topic of women and death often unsettling, and provocative.

Bridget (Boland) was born in a small village in rural Tipperary in the late 1860’s. She became a dressmaker, and eventually married her husband Michael Cleary in 1887. Michael worked as a cooper, and the couple lived comfortably as Bridget also independently ran a small business selling eggs as well as dressmaking and hat making. The slate roofed cottage they lived in was modest, but in comparison to other homes in the area at the time it was very comfortable. Angela Bourke’s excellent book ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story’ tells us a little more about Bridget’s personality. Many described her as sexually attractive and stylish, with a very strong personality. Her attire was commented on – instead of wearing the traditional shawl around her head like many 19th century Irish women, Bridget wore a black straw hat adorned with ribbon and feathers. Bourke also attests to the fact that hen keeping may have caused men to feel resentment towards independent women, with the henwife or ‘cailleach na gCearc’ in oral stories depicted as wise and cunning, with strong associations with the supernatural. Interestingly, ‘cailleach’ is also used to refer to a ‘witch’ in the Irish language. On top of Bridget’s eccentricities, she was also childless. Herself and Michael had been married for seven years when she was murdered, and it was unlikely they were childless by choice – many who believed in fairies often stated that women who went with them often returned infertile.

Bridget Cleary

One week in early March in 1895, Bridget caught a chill whilst out collecting payment for eggs. She took to her bed, likely suffering from pneumonia or bronchitis. A local storyteller and avid fairy believer by the name of Jack Dunne visited her at home. Dunne and Michael in conversation with each other likely allowed for the development of the fairy and witchcraft narrative. The location at which Bridget had caught a chill was close to a local ringfort or fairy fort, an archaeological dwelling that was often avoided in Irish society as it was thought to house the Fae who should not be antagonised. Dr Crean was the local medical doctor, and he treated Bridget for bronchitis and ‘nervous excitement’ often associated with women. A priest was also called to administer last rites and deliver communion as concern mounted for her health. However, her family became increasingly convinced her deposition was associated with the fairy folk or the work of the devil, and a local ‘witch doctor’ was consulted by Michael and the adamant Dunne. The ‘witch doctor’ was Denis Ganey, and he provided herbs to be administered. It was now the belief that Bridget was no longer herself, rather she was a changeling who had taken her place as the real Bridget had been taken by fairies. A group of male relatives held Bridget down in bed and force fed her the herbs boiled in milk. They were reported to have screamed ‘Take it you, witch!’ as Bridget resisted the mixture. Her face was burned with a hot iron poker to force her to swallow the ‘medicine’ and the contents of a chamber pot were thrown on her. Both iron and urine were thought to deter fairies and other supernatural beings. The men shook her and held her down, shouting and asking, ‘Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?’ Interestingly, the dousing of urine, aggressive shaking of women by men, and the involvement of fairies, were often associated with difficult childbirth and death in labour. Bridget’s ordeal suffered for days, and it was evident that religious elements were also part of the driving force behind the violence. As well as local superstition entangled in the narrative, prayers were also said, and holy water was also used to douse her body. Bridget was both devil and fairy, witch, and woman – a manifestation of all things feared at the time. Things escalated the night of the of 15th/ 16th March when Bridget was finally dressed and out of bed. A small crowd had gathered in the house consisting of relatives and locals. Although it seemed the ‘fairy illness’ had passed, Bridget was still weak from bronchitis. When she did not answer her husband straight away when he questioned who she was, he pushed her to the floor, accused her once again of not being his wife, and tried to force feed her bread. Holding his knee on her chest, he stripped her clothing down to her chemise and stockings – Bourke attests to the sexual elements of the violence against her. Michael then held a hot poker to her face before her chemise went up in flames. It is here where things are a bit hazy. Either Michael knocked his wife unconscious by hitting her head or initially setting her alight with the poker rendered her unconscious from shock. This may have killed her, but after she initially lost consciousness (whether dead or not) Michael doused her in oil numerous times and set her alight again. She may have been burned alive (immolated) or she was already dead when set alight with the oil (likely kerosene). She was 26 or 28 years old at the time of her murder.

The cottage where the murder took place

Immediately following her death Michael was adamant it was not his wife he had just killed, stating she was a fairy imposter or a witch, and that his real wife would return to him on a white horse from the fairy fort. Cleary allegedly threatened those in the house at the time with a knife, making them swear to secrecy and help him bury the body of the ‘changeling’. She was wrapped in a sheet and buried in a shallow grave near the home before being discovered by police a week later after rumours began to circulate that she had gone missing or was ‘away with the fairies.’ Ten people were arrested in connection with the murder, many of whom were her own family members – Michael Cleary was eventually sentenced to 20 years hard labour (for manslaughter, not murder), with the others accused serving sentences between 6 months and 5 years. During the trial Home Rule was brought up as part of the narrative, and the case was used as a means to comment on the ‘barbarism’ of the Irish ‘peasantry’ (The Cleary’s were far from peasants), arguing the Irish could not possibly govern themselves when they committed atrocities such as the ‘burning’.

The post-mortem integrity of Bridget’s body should be noted in this case. Bridget was laid out for display in an outhouse under police guard as she was viewed by members of the jury. Her body was severely burnt in the lower half, with her intestines protruding along with her bones. Her face was unburnt but held a ghastly expression according to those who viewed her. The post-mortem examination concluded that she died from her burns. Although it was deemed necessary to ‘display’ her body for viewing, it still seems unsettling and a concern for her bodily integrity in death – children tried to crawl over the walls near the building to catch a glimpse of her exposed corpse.

With death and funeral culture being such a huge part of Irish heritage, it is extremely telling to learn that Bridget’s funeral was boycotted by locals and the parish church despite the fact she was an innocent victim. To not partake in assisting a Christian burial in Ireland was the grimmest form of boycott, with religious ceremonies and funerary traditions such as keening and ‘wakes’ a huge aspect of Irish society. Four police constables assisted in her burial which was done at night by the light of a lantern. A very simple, crude coffin was provided by the Poor Law Union and no hearse was used. Today, the exact spot in which she is buried is not marked by a headstone with intact writing. Her exact spot is often under dispute, but she is in a particular quadrant of the old graveyard in Cloneen marked with some sort of weathered stone near the grave of her mother. Bridget is both forgotten and remembered as her case was an international media sensation, but the fact her exact burial spot is not marked is also telling. Today, the cottage the murder was committed in is still standing and a children’s rhyme is still spoken…

‘Are you a witch or are you a fairy, or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’    

The case of Bridget’s death has several themes to unpick, with witchcraft, sexual attraction, patriarchal control, post- mortem integrity, femicide, infidelity, death culture, infertility, lunacy, hysteria, religion, folklore, and superstition all featured in the reporting associated with the case in historical and modern sources. Her death has complexities and has numerous multi layered interpretations but will remain an infamous story of a young woman and her untimely death. Today, you can leave a virtual flower on her grave (link in sources) as a touching tribute to an innocent young woman.

Area in the graveyard Bridget may be located
Another area in the graveyard Bridget may be located

Sources

Bourke, A., 1995. Reading a woman’s death: colonial text and oral tradition in nineteenth-century Ireland. Feminist Studies21(3), pp.553-586.

Bourke, A., 2010. The burning of Bridget Cleary: a true story. Random House

Coleman, S., 2006. Bridget Cleary Speaks!. Irish Journal of Anthropology9(1), pp.35-36.

Hogan, M., 2021. The Murder of Bridget Cleary. Tipperary: Unpublished essay.

https://www.lexico.com/definition/henwife

https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/1025/1085544-darkest-ireland-and-the-burning-of-bridget-cleary/

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/21034944/bridget-cleary

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/offbeat/the-story-of-the-last-witch-burned-alive-in-ireland-1.2880691

https://www.theirishplace.com/heritage/brutal-murder-or-a-faery-killing-the-slaying-of-bridget-cleary/

https://library.ncirl.ie/items/12011

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