Killing the Changeling (Part 3 of 3)

Continued from Part Two    

Though the priest would deny it,  Joanna Burke and others would swear that Bridget spat out the wafer which proved that she was a changeling.   After the priest left and the men who had conducted the fairy trial continued to argue whether Bridget was a changeling.    Micheal Cleary grew increasingly desperate since the nine days were almost up.   As midnight approached on March 15, he decided to resume the fairy trial and, when she failed to respond as he believed his real wife would, became physically abusive.   After throwing her to the ground, he tried to force bread down Bridget's throat.   That there were three grown men watching this ordeal along with Joanna Burke who did nothing to defend Bridget Cleary would be used against them in the later trial.  

Realizing that she was unresponsive, and likely dead by that time, Michael Cleary then grabbed a can of oil and poured its contents on Bridget's body before setting it on fire.  Despite efforts by Joanna Burke to stop the burning, she was pushed aside.   None of the others made any effort to stop Michael and Bridget was apparently already dead given that she failed to react to the burning.    Though several of the others tried to leave, Michael had locked the cottage to prevent the fairy from escaping.    He insisted that the body he was burning was not his wife and nobody tried to overpower him despite the body burning for more than thirty minutes.   After the flames died down, Michael had the men help him lift Bridget's body onto the fireplace.   

After thirty more minutes, the people present watched Bridget's body burn and nobody attempted to leave despite the smoke.   As the body burned, Michael Cleary kept up the ritual to drive the changeling away.    After the body cooled, the men wrapped the charred body in a bedsheet to be buried by Michael Cleary and one of the other men.   They then established the cover story that Bridget had "run off" and all the ones present, including Joanna Burke and Bridget's father, 51-7oLC65hL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_[1]were made to swear oaths not to reveal what had happened.

Afterward, John Dunne (who had not been present at the burning) convinced Michael to go to the priests and request their help.   When the priests refused, Michael and a large group of Bridget's friends and family went to the ringfort in an attempt to get the "real" Bridget back.   Michael refused to admit that he had killed his wife (who he still insisted was a changeling) and insisted that Bridget would be there according to fairy lore.  Despite several long vigils, no sign of Bridget or the fairies were ever found.   All that was left to them was a body that the police would later find and the later arrest of ten men for Bridget's brutal death.

The arraignment of the ten men involved in the "Tipperary Witchcraft case" became major news across the United Kingdom, both for the lurid details of Bridget's murder and as an indictment of Irish fairy lore.    Autopsy results showed that Bridget Cleary had been burned to death and doctors ruled out the possibility that the fairy herbs she had been forced to consume might have played a role.   That exonerated Denis Ganey who had supplied the remedy that Michael had given Bridget.   The others were not so fortunate.   After less than an hour of deliberation, the magistrates ruled that all nine men were liable in Bridget Cleary's death and bound all of them over for a later trial.

Awaiting trial, the nine men were held at the Clonmel gaol where they faced an odd predicament.   Despite their numerous ties to the community, they were also regarded with some contempt for the disgrace they had brought to the entire area.  Held over until July 1895, the men finally went on trial for Bridget Cleary's murder.  As expected, the British government used the trial as an opportunity to not only prosecute the men but to serve as a general indictment of Irish superstition and the Catholic Church as well.   Michael Cleary refused to plead guilty for his wife' murder and the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter in his case.   As for the others,  eight were found guilty as charged (one was acquitted because of his youth).    They were given varied sentences ranging from five years to six months hard labour.  Mary Kennedy, the only woman among the defendants and the mother of Joanna Burke, was allowed to go free.

As for Michael Cleary, who was judged to have the primary reponsibility for his wife's murder, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison.  The community reaction to the sentencing was muted but someone obviously felt outraged.   Not long afterward,  Mary Kennedy's cottage was burned although the Cleary cottage was left untouched.   Media reaction to the sentencing fell along predictable political lines with defenders insisting that Michael Cleary's sentence was too harsh (since he genuinely believed his wife had been replaced by a changeling) to others insisting that Michael Cleary's sentence needed to stand as an example for other people contemplating "witch burning."     William Simpson was reprimanded for operating paid tours of the Cleary cottage (he had been entrusted with a key which was promptly taken away from him).   Rumours that the Madame Tussaud Museum in London was planning to buy the cottage never panned out either.  For the most part, the people of Clonmel hoped that the entire matter would be forgotten and they largely got their wish.

Michael Cleary served fifteen years of his twenty-year sentence in three different prisons before being released on parole in 1910.   Part of the basis for that parole was his admitting that he had changed his mind about fairies and changelings.   In his repeated parole applications, he placed most of the blame on his relatives for convincing him that his wife was a changeling and that he was a victim of their "superstition of sorcery."   He also blamed the murder on his poor mental state stemming from his lack of sleep while caring for his ailing wife.    After his release, he never returned to Ireland but instead emigrated to Montreal, Quebec.   What happened to him afterward appears lost to history.   As for the others prosecuted for Bridget Cleary's murder, they all served their full sentence but many of them were left homeless following their release from prison.   Even Joanna Burke suffered considerably in the years following the trial since many family members condemned her for testifying for the prosecution. 

While the murder of Bridget Cleary was prime political fodder at the time, there seems to be little evidence that it had much of an effect on delaying Home Rule in Ireland.    It was the only "fairy killing" of its kind to gain international publicity but, ironically enough, a similar case occurred only a year after Bridget Cleary's death.     In a town in western Ireland,  a shoemaker named James Cunningham was bludgeoned to death by family members after he reportedly attacked his father claiming that there were "fairies at his throat."   According to the subsequent police investigation, James had also been in the habit of visiting a nearby fairy fort and developed "evidence of mental affliction."   Though his family attempted to have the priests provide last rites due to James' illness, the priest refused and the family believed that he had been touched by evil spirits.   After James' bloody death, a number of people were taken into custody including James' father, three brothers, a sister, and several neighbours (who had burst into the house during James rampage and had helped subdue him). 

While the family members were held in the local jail, they became convinced that evil spirits had followed them and that another Cunningham brother, Patrick, had also become possessed.   The five men in the cell broke out and attacked the six policemen on duty before being restrained.  But that wasn't all.   While held in another jail awaiting trial, the entire family became involved in a violent brawl.  That included James' sister, Lizzie, who attacked her father trying to "draw the fairies out of his throat."  While Patrick Cunningham was acquitted, two other Cunningham brothers and Lizzie were committed to asylums.   From that point on, cases of "fairy possession" were treated as signs of mental illness.

Though that was the last real "fairy" trial in Ireland,  fairy lore continued to be part of Irish culture but pagan practices larely faded as the Catholic Church's hold became stronger and people turned to more political matters.   Despite occasional lip service to the old fairy practices, hardly anyone in Ireland would publicly admit to believing in them by the dawn of the 20th century.    The only surviving physical evidence of Bridget Cleary's life and death are the parish records, her unmarked grave, and the abandoned cottage where she had lived with her husband.    While reports indicate that is was still standing as recently as 2000, I could find no further mention after that. 

Whatever fascination Bridget Cleary had for the long abandoned ring fort near her home, she eventually paid for it with her life.   That her murder trial would generate international news would likely not have given her much comfort.



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  • Killing the Changeling (Part 1 of 3)
  • Killing the Changeling (Part 2 of 3)
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