Fairy Witch of Clonmel (1894) A young woman
named Bridget Cleary, of Clonmel, County Tipperary,
who was tortured and burned to death because her husband
believed the fairies had spirited her away and substituted
in her place a witch changeling.
Changelings are sickly fairy infants that fairies leave
in the place of the human babies they are said to kidnap.
However, many stories exist of fairies kidnapping mortal
men and women—especially women—to be spouses of
fairies in Fairyland.
Sometime in March 1894 Michael Cleary, a man who
may have suffered from mental disturbances, began to
think something was strange about his 26-year-old wife,
Bridget. She seemed more refined. She suddenly appeared
to be two inches taller. Cleary, whose mother had acknowledged
going off with fairies, immediately suspected
foul play by the “little people.” He confronted his wife
and accused her of being a changeling. When she denied
it, he began to torture her with the help of three of her
cousins, James, Patrick and Michael Kennedy; her father,
Patrick Boland; her aunt, Mary Kennedy; and two local
men named John Dunne and William Ahearne.
The townsfolk of Clonmel noticed that Bridget was
missing for several days. Hearing that Bridget was sick, a
neighbor, Johanna Burke, tried to pay a visit but found the
door to the house barred. She encountered William Simpson
and his wife, neighbors who also were attempting to
pay a visit but were not admitted to the house. The three
looked in a window and eventually convinced Cleary to
let them in.
The neighbors were aghast to see Bridget, clad only in
nightclothes, held spread-eagled on the bed by the Kennedy
boys and Dunne, while Boland, Ahearne and Mark
Kennedy looked on. Michael Cleary was attempting to
coerce his wife into drinking a mixture of milk and herbs
(probably a fairy antidote), saying, “Take it, you witch.”
Cleary repeatedly asked her, “Are you Bridget Boland,
wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?” Bridget kept
crying, “Yes, yes,” but Cleary did not seem to believe her.
Dunne suggested holding her over the kitchen fire, which
Cleary and Patrick Kennedy did, while Bridget writhed
and screamed and begged the visitors in vain for help. In
fairy lore, setting fire to someone is considered a failproof
way to expose changelings and induce the fairy parents to
return the stolen human.
Bridget continued to insist that she was Bridget Boland,
wife of Michael Cleary, and finally was put to bed.
Everyone except Cleary seemed satisfied that Bridget was
not a witch changeling.
The next day, Cleary approached William Simpson
and asked to borrow a revolver, explaining that Bridget
was with the fairies at Kylegranaugh Hill, a fairy fort, and
he was going to go “have it out with them.” Cleary also
claimed that Bridget would ride up to the house at midnight
on a big gray horse, bound with fairy ropes, which
had to be cut before she could return as a mortal. Simpson
told Cleary he had no revolver. Later, he saw Cleary heading
for Kylegranaugh Hill, carrying a big knife.
That night, Johanna Burke returned to the Cleary
house to find Bridget sitting by the fire talking to Boland,
Cleary and Patrick Burke, Johanna’s brother. Cleary flung
his wife to the ground and forced her to eat bread and jam
and drink tea—fairies do not have to eat mortal food—
and threatened her with more punishment if she did not.
He again demanded to know her true identity, and she
insisted she was Bridget, not a witch changeling.
Cleary’s rage increased. He tore off her clothes and
grabbed a hot brand from the fire and held it up to her
mouth. He refused to let anyone out of the house until
he got his wife back. Then he threw lamp oil over Bridget
and set her afire. Later Burke described what happened:
She lay writhing and burning in the hearth, and the
house was full of smoke and smell . . . she turned to me
and screamed out, “Oh Han, Han.” . . . When I came
down Bridget was still lying on the hearth, smoldering
and dead. Her legs were blackened and contracted with
the fire. . . . Michale [sic] Cleary screamed out, “She is
burning now, but God knows I did not mean to do it. I
may thank Jack Dunne for all of it.”
Cleary and Patrick Burke put Bridget’s remains in a
sack and buried them in a shallow grave about a quarter
of a mile away. The remains, with the legs, abdomen, part
of the back and the left hand nearly burned away, were
found on March 22. Witnesses came forward. Cleary, Boland,
the Kennedy boys and aunt, Ahearne and Dunne
were charged with willful murder. In the investigation,
two more men were charged: William Kennedy, another
cousin, and Dennis Ganey, an herb doctor. The trial lasted
A jury found all defendants guilty of manslaughter, a
lesser charge, and the judge sentenced all to jail. Cleary
received the harshest sentence: 20 years of hard labor.
Even as he was sentenced, he still believed the fairies had
stolen his wife and left a changeling witch in her place