In County Tipperary, in the early morning of March 16, 1895, the young seamstress Bridget Cleary, ill with bronchitis or influenza, was burned to death in her fireplace by family members after undergoing a “fairy trial” that might well be characterized as three days of torture. Her husband, Michael, a cooper by trade, told a local Catholic priest, Father Cornelius Ryan, that Bridget had “gone with the fairies” while he was asleep. Father Ryan in turn reported to authorities that the cooper’s wife was missing, without adding that Michael Cleary had also admitted burning her. After an investigation, eleven people were arrested and nine ultimately brought to trial to determine their guilt or complicity in her death.
The Cooper’s Wife Is Missing was originally subtitled The Ritual Murder of Bridget Cleary, a phrase that was wisely changed to less sensational wording, for this book is not merely the account of a gruesome murder (or manslaughter, as the court eventually ruled). Historians Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates show how Bridget’s death links the political, socioeconomic, and religious history of Ireland with an unwavering belief in fairies and folklore. Hoff held the Mary Ball Washington Chair at University College, Dublin, in 1993-1994 and later was director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University.
In 1895 the Irish, especially in rural areas, anticipated supernatural intervention in everyday life, whether by pagan spirits or Christian saints. Even Christian homes taught proper respect for Irish fairies, who, unlike their English or European counterparts, were truly dangerous. Bridget Cleary’s death resulted from the belief that she was a changeling—that her mortal body was possessed by a spirit after she had been carried off by fairies.
Bridget Boland had attended a convent school and was trained as a seamstress. When she married Michael Cleary, they moved with her parents into a small leased cottage in Ballyvadlea Townland near her aunt, Mary Kennedy, and several cousins. Bridget obtained a sewing machine and started her own egg business. After eight years of marriage, she remained childless.
An independent, high-spirited woman, she encountered problems with her husband because of her interest in the old fairy faith. She often visited the nearby raths, or fairy forts—ancient earthworks where fairies lurked—on Kylnagranagh Hill, possibly to meet a lover, possibly to mourn the recent death of her mother. Michael Cleary, fearing she would be taken by the fairies if she continued these visits, had already threatened to burn her. He knew that fire would drive away any evil spirit, especially in women and children.
On March 6, Bridget started toward Cloneen village to deliver eggs. She claimed that she stopped at the cottage of her uncle, John Dunne, but the authors believe she went again to the fairy forts.
She returned a changed woman. Her cousin Johanna Burke, who testified at the subsequent trial, reported that Bridget “took like a tremblin” as if a fairy spirit controlled her body. Her symptoms were those of fairy possession: sudden illness, chills, aches, a change in personality. In addition, Michael claimed that she became two inches taller.
As Bridget grew progressively sicker, Johanna Burke was brought in to help her. First Bridget’s father, Patrick Boland, and then Michael himself sought out Dr. William Crean in Fethard, but the irresponsible doctor, an alcoholic, did not come to examine Bridget for five days. He finally diagnosed her illness as bronchitis. Meanwhile, Father Ryan had been summoned; he administered the last rites of the Church to Bridget, which Michael understood to mean that she would die unless he could drive the changeling from her body.
In her last three days of life, Bridget Cleary underwent the rituals of two “fairy cures” (involving strong herbs, new milk, and urine, all purifying agents) but could or would not complete them, reinforcing the belief that she was possessed. She was attended by four male Kennedy cousins and their mother, Mary Kennedy, John Dunne, and various neighbors. All else having failed, on March 14 Bridget was, with the help of family members, forcibly held on the grate over the fireplace and was slightly burned; she then seemed calmer. Johanna Burke stayed with her that night. On the following night Michael desperately repeated the ritual exorcism, but again his wife could not...
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