On March 22, 1895, constables found the charred remains of a woman’s body in a shallow grave in the corner of a boggy field near Ballyvadlea near Clonmel in Southern Tipperary. The torso was severely burnt and naked, except for a few remaining scraps of cloth from the victim’s undergarments- and her black stockings. However, her head was covered with a sack. When they removed this, the police found themselves face to face with the undamaged face of missing cooper’s wife, Bridget Cleary.
Bridget had vanished from her home in the middle of the night some days earlier. However, over a period of some weeks, the pretty and forthright twenty-six-year-old dressmaker had been suffering from a severe chill that had kept her confined to bed. However, unusual stories about Bridget and her illness were circulating in the district. For many people were murmuring that Bridget Cleary was with the fairies.
Several members of Bridget’s family- including her husband and father- were charged with her ill-treatment and murder. The subsequent trial revealed a story of changelings and fairy abductions. The question is, was Bridget Cleary, the tragic victim of superstition? Or was there another motive for her murder?
The Life of Bridget Cleary
Bridget Cleary lived her whole life in Ballyvadlea, a small townland near Clonmel in Southern Ireland. By 1891, the little settlement consisted of just nine dwellings housing a population of 31. Like many of the residents, Bridget’s father, Patrick Boland was a local farm laborer. However, he and his wife, who was also called Bridget ensured that their only daughter and youngest child acquired a good trade- and means to support them in their old age. So, after an education with local nuns, the young Bridget Boland was apprenticed to a dressmaker in Clonmel, eleven miles away.
Bridget’s occupation was a good one for a woman of her class and time. It was well paid and allowed the already pretty teenager to stand out amongst her peers in terms of independence- and style. Bridget’s looks and individuality meant she attracted plenty of jealous looks – but also plenty of male admirers. So it was some surprise when Bridget elected to marry at a very early age to a most unlikely man. For in 1887, just as she had completed her apprenticeship, the eighteen-year-old married local Clonmel cooper, Michael Cleary.
Cleary seemed a strange match for Bridget. For a start, he was nine years older than his young bride. Then there was the difference in their characters. For Bridget was lively and independent, while, Michael was rather dour and sullen. More unusual still was the fact that for some years after the marriage, the couple lived apart, only seeing each other on weekends. Instead of living with her husband in Clonmel, Bridget moved back in with her parents in Ballyvadlea. These unusual living arrangements may have been because Bridget’s mother was ill and she was needed to help nurse her. However, by the early 1890’s Cleary had made a move to Ballyvadlea – rather than have his wife come to him.
In 1891, the Clearys and Bolands took a step up in the world when they moved into a new laborer’s cottage not far from the house of Bridget’s paternal aunt, Mary Kennedy and that of her cousin, Mary’s daughter Johanna Burke. The slate-roofed cottage was a far cry from the homes of the Burke’s and Kennedys. There was just one problem: it was built on the side of an old rath, a fairy fort.
Even in the late nineteenth century, rural Irish rural communities maintained strong beliefs in the fairies that provided a way of rationalizing life’s misfortunes. People believed that illness and misfortune would visit anyone who offended these invisible neighbors. Fairies would even go so far as to steal away adults or children and leave in their place a facsimile of the missing person; a changeling. These changelings were often sickly and vague and often died soon after their appearance. Living on a rath was likely an odd choice, as it was the location for fairy gatherings. It was rumored that the previous tenants of the cottage had been driven away… by local fairies angry that anybody dare trespass on their territory. So would the Clearys fare any better?