Killing the Changeling (Part 1 of 3)

Ireland in the 1890s was a country in turmoil.   Along with a population still devastated by the Great Famine just a few decades previously and the smaller famines that followed,  political tension was increasing with anti-English feeling  on the rise.   Though the Troubles and the fight for Irish independence were still years away, the people of Ireland had little love for Queen Victoria or her government.     That was especially true for the bailiffs who  frequently evicted farmers from land they had worked on for generations after falling into debt.  Independence groups such as the Fenians were already pushing for a separate Irish state and every new incident of English indifference meant change was coming.

But with that need for change, many of the Irish people living in the countryside remained deeply rooted in the past.   Faith in the old pagan traditions, including belief in the fairies was strong despite attempts by the Church to root it out.   While the Church attempted to act as a moderating influence on the Irish people,  stories of fairies still flourished and cases involving "changelings" were still being reported to the local authorities.

According to folklore, changelings were the offspring of fairies or elves who were left in the place of human children abducted into fairy lands.    Though belief in changelings was hardly limited to Ireland,  it was still an Irish tradition that children believed to be changelings needed to be burned.    Throughout the last half of the 19th century, death registries covering rural areas showed numerous entries describing "accidental" deaths of young children which the coroner rarely, if ever, questioned.    Since changelings feared fire, burning was usually the last resort when other forms of exorcism were tried and failed.   It was only by killing the changeling that the "true" child could be retrieved from fairy captivity. 

And it was not only children who were taken.  Young women of childbearing age were also believed to be a favourite target for fairy abductions.   Though women went missing from time to time, the possibility that they had been stolen by 220px-83_b_bartol_2_wick[1]fairies was often raised though authorities dismissed it as local superstition.  

When 25-year old Bridget Cleary was reported missing in March, 1895,  the exact circumstances of her disappearance seemed bizarre enough.   Both she and her husband Michael were fairly well-off.   Not only was Michael a cooper (barrel-maker) with a good living but Bridget was a skilled tradeswoman with her own egg business.    Living in a well-kept cottage in the town of Ballyvadlea, in the heart of  County Tipperary, they both seemed progressive enough except for Michael's persistent belief in fairies.     That belief seemed reinforced by the location of their cottage which was very close to a rath (or ringfort) that had the reputation of being a fairy dwelling.    Though Michael insisted that Bridget keep her distance from the rath, she reportedly had a fascination with the place and often visited it.   

According to what he told police investigating her disappearance, Bridget had been ill for several days and he had arranged for one of the local women to tend her while he was working.    After Bridget went missing, the woman tending her would later insist that she had been "drawn away" and Michael would tell police that she had been taken by the fairies.   The story became the talk of the countryside as police failed to turn up any trace of the missing woman.   The local newspaper, the Channel Chronicle would have fun with the story which was titled, "Gone With The Fairies" when it came out on March 20.     The story also became popular with Unionists who viewed it as proof of Irish superstition while Nationalists viewed it as a political disaster.  

Police also began investigating Michael Cleary but could find no evidence of any real problems between him and his wife.  Though they were both known to have strong personalities and differences of opinion,  the only remarkable thing about their marriage was their not having children after eight years together.    What gave Bridget a reputation for being "a little queer" was that she seemed to enjoy her childless status (which definitely set her apart from the other country women).    That, along with her fascination with Ireland's fairy lore and her tendency to look men straight in the eye,  meant that she was becoming more independent than her husband found comfortable.   There were even  rumours that she snuck off to the ringfort to meet a lover though no real proof of this was ever found.

Whatever Bridget thought about fairy lore, there was no question that Michael Cleary believed.    His own mother had disappeared for a time and was rumoured to have visited the fairies and returned.  That she was also named Bridget made him think that history would repeat itself with his wife.    On March 6, Bridget visited the rath and returned stating that she was feeling unwell.    Friends and neighbours would later report that Bridget was showing signs of "fairy-induced illness" including general aches and chills.   She also had difficulty remembering familiar faces.   According to Irish folklore,  Bridget's symptoms suggested that she was experiencing a "fairy stroke" due to having been abducted.   

That she didn't seem like herself was a disturbing sign and Michael also decided that her physical appearance had changed.  As he would later insist, the woman who had returned from the ringfort was two inches taller than his wife.    That, combined with her general listlessness and irritability led him to conclude that she was actually a changeling who had been sent by the fairies in place of his wife.    Bridget's father, aunt and cousin agreed with him and various visitors came to a similar conclusion.   That Bridget might have simply been ill with bronchitis or influenza seemed not to have been considered (despite the fact that her mother had died of influenza the year before). 

On March 16, 1895, Michael Cleary and two family members walked two miles to the Catholic church in Drangan and spoke with the parish priest, Father M'Grath and the curate Father Ryan.   All three men were in a distraught state but Michael Cleary was especially agitated.   According to later reports, he began "tearing his hair and behaving like a mad man" before demanding confession.    The priest refused to provide confession given Cleary's state of mind but he was able to persuade him to tell what had happened.    Though Michael Cleary was largely incoherent, it was the man with him, John Dunne, who told the priests that Cleary had burned his wife to death.   At that point, Michael insisted that he had not done it alone and that others had taken part in killing Bridget Cleary.    Dunne, for his part, insisted that he had not taken part in the killing but wanted to arrange a Christian burial for Bridget.

Little explanation was really needed by the priests since they both knew about fairy lore and the rumours that Bridget had been replaced by a changeling.    Both priests had been called in several times to see Bridget during her illness and to confer the sacraments on her.   There had certainly been burnings of suspected changelings before in that parish despite attempts by the Church to stamp out "pagan practices".  For whatever reason, neither priest contacted authorities though Michael Cleary was escorted off the church grounds.   Under Church law, anyone taking part in paganism would be denied Catholic rites.  

Which was definitely a blow to Michael Cleary who was obviously hoping for the Church's help in getting his real wife back from the fairies.   According to Irish tradition, priests had the power to compel fairies to return abductees provided they acted in time.   Instead, Father Ryan sent for a police officer to take Michael's statement.   He said nothing about the confessed burning, only that Bridget Cleary was missing and that foul play was suspected.   Still, Michael was furious with the priest and refused to issue any statement to the police except that his wife had disappeared. 

It was Constable Patrick Egan who saw Michael Cleary and John Dunne back to Ballyvadlea.  Though the rumours about Bridget Cleary's apparent fairy abduction were already known by just about everyone in the area,  that the "changeling" had been burned was something Michael had no interest in sharing with the police.  Not that Constable Egan wasn't already aware that something had happened to make the priests turn their backs on Michael Cleary.    When the cooper continued to insist that his wife had gone missing, the constable organized a police search while continuing to focus on his chief suspect.

To be continued






















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