The following is a chapter from the book “Murderous Minds: Stories of Real Life Murderers That Escaped the Headlines (Vol 4)”
‘Are you a witch
Or are you a fairy
Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary’
An old Irish children’s rhyme can still be heard on playgrounds across Europe, but the story behind the silly song is no matter of lighthearted fun.
In March of 1895, a religious, law-abiding Irish man murdered his wife in front of their family and friends. The man, Michael Cleary, did not believe he was committing murder. He did not believe he was in any way harming his beloved wife, Bridget.
To Michael, his actions were the last effort in saving his wife from a terrible fate. He believed, against the advice of doctors and priests, that the creature he was killing was not his Bridget. He believed it was a fairy—a changeling masquerading as Bridget—while the real Mrs. Cleary remained trapped in another realm.
In the days leading up to the brutal attack, the Cleary home had dissolved into chaos. Bonds of trust between family, friends, church officials, and medical professionals were pushed to their limit. Michael Cleary became a startling example of what can happen when religious vigor, old-world superstition, and evolving ideas about the roles of women collide.
To understand Michael Cleary’s crime, you have to understand what fueled his impossible beliefs. The world was changing for Ireland in 1895, and that terrifying frontier of progress broke apart a young couple’s marriage and a community’s trust.
Bridget Boland married cooper Michael Cleary in August of 1887. She was a bright, lovely, talented young woman with charm enough to win her any husband she wanted. The man she wanted, Michael, was a working-class man and devout Catholic.
As a cooper, he made barrels, wooden casks, and other goods created from local timber. Michael had been trained as an apprentice to make his wares by hand, a skill that was quickly becoming overshadowed by the industrial boom and more efficient means of creating and distributing products.
Even so, it seems Michael did not have a difficult time making a match with the vibrant Bridget Boland. Their marriage was one of mutual love—Bridget seeing a worthy and loving partner in Michael and Michael seeing a sweet and virtuous girl in Bridget.
From all accounts, the early days of their marriage were normal. Michael was a hard worker with a determination to provide for his beautiful new bride and make a name for himself.
While Bridget had a good deal of care and respect for her husband, she was not satisfied with the traditional “woman’s work” in the home. Bridget took up work as a dressmaker’s apprentice, a decision that kindled a small bit of friction between the couple.
Working women may have been more common at this time than they had been in decades past, but it was a concept still shunned by more conservative households. This was especially true for the traditional Catholic families of Ireland. Michael was not making enough to support him and Bridget in the way he wanted, but he was still adamant that a wife should stay home—not worry herself with a career outside of the home. This notion was problematic. Bridget’s skill as a dressmaker offered a possibility for the family to live comfortably, if not very well off. She had no intention of letting her abilities go to waste in the interest of satisfying her husband’s old-fashioned sensitivity.
Not long after their marriage, Bridget returned to her parent’s house in Ballyvadlea. Michael stayed behind in Clonmel, to finish up his current affairs as a cooper. Michael wanted desperately to prove to Bridget he was capable of fulfilling the long-accepted role as a husband and sole breadwinner. Unbeknownst to him, Bridget had expanded her career since leaving Clonmel. She continued her dressmaking after purchasing a Singer sewing machine.
At the time, the Singer model was state of the art. It offered women a chance to produce quickly and venture into the world of business. The same technological boom that was making men like Michael obsolete, was giving their wives more opportunities outside of the home. Michael wasn’t the only man in Ireland bothered by the uptick in women’s professions, but the prospect of not having to scrape by in poverty seemed to win out in many households. Unfortunately for Michael, dressmaking was not the only job Bridget had taken on.
She bought and kept her own flock of chickens, and made decent money selling the eggs to friends and neighbors. This meant taking long walks in rain or shine across the moors to customers.
If there is a defining detail to mark where the tables began to turn between Michael and Bridget, her daily trek across the moors sparked the fire that would turn into a full-on blaze of superstition. The Irish moors, much like the English moors, were thought to be more than just vast empty wetlands. These flat expanses of fog and marsh were the subject of centuries of Irish folklore. Thought to hide entryways into the realm of the fairies, these desolate spaces were filled with tales of dangerous creatures and mischievous tricksters.
Irish children were raised to be wary of them. Those that held tight to the old Irish superstitions and folk beliefs thought it possible for someone to disappear into the fog and be spirited away by unnatural creatures. Michael Cleary was one of these believers.
Fairies of old Irish mythology were not kind, flower-wearing creatures who sprinkled magic dust and granted wishes. Irish fairies were tricksters, kidnappers, instigators, and monsters. In some legends, fairies destroyed homes and crops when they felt insulted. In others, they would spirit away young virgins to corrupt their purity.
The most famous fairy lore was much more frightening. The story of the changelings was a very real concern in old-world Ireland. Legend claimed that if a loved one, adult or child, began to behave out of character, it was likely they were not their loved one at all. These changes indicated the presence of a changeling—a fairy sent to take the place of a human while the real human was kidnapped to the fairy realm.
Changeling trials were, for a time, a popular branch of witch hysteria in old Europe. It was believed these creatures were evil, and casting them out of the community was the only way to restore virtue and balance. Unfortunately, the methods for removing a changeling were often violent and dangerous. Suspected changelings could be beaten, burned, held over fire, or underwater, and in some cases poisoned by concoctions of deadly plants such as foxglove.
By the 1890s, much of Ireland had turned from belief in these horrific methods. The Catholic Church even began to dissuade followers from giving in to the hysteria of such superstitions and the dangers they could bring. Still, some refused to let go of the fairy realm.
There were still men and women believed to be “fairy doctors”—individuals skilled in providing medical treatment when a supernatural creature or ailment was the cause. Bridget’s own cousin, Jack Dunne, was one of these so-called doctors. Those who believed in the dangers of the fairy realm relied on men like Dunn for help, but also kept an arsenal of old folk protections on hand to circumvent the possibility of a supernatural attack.
There were safety precautions one could take to avoid the misfortune of fairies. Many learned to leave them bowls of milk and sugar to keep them satisfied. Others would leave out small gifts and offerings in hopes of appeasing the fairies and avoiding their ire. You could also adorn your home with iron objects, as the belief that fairies were repelled by iron was commonly accepted.
Above all these things, the most important way to avoid a tangle with the fairies was to stay out of the moors, and far away from the fairy rings. Fairy rings were circles made of natural items and thought to function as a doorway to the fairy realm. A naturally occurring circle of mushrooms, trees, or even rocks was thought to be a dangerous place. Many avoided them altogether, but some brave souls went to the fairy rings on purpose in hopes of summoning the creatures to ask for a favor, or more morbidly, speak to the dead.
Some of the supposed fairy rings had much more explainable and logical origins. Many were later proven to be the remnants of long-forgotten man-made structures that had eroded over time to resemble circular imprints of stone and other leftover material. Ballyvadlea had many of these old circles, which slowly, little by little, townsfolk had begun to disregard.
When Michael eventually left Clonmel to join his wife in Ballyvadlea, he was horrified to learn of Bridget’s professional advancement. The realization that her new business also took her on frequent trips through the dreaded moors shook Michael to his core and planted a seed of paranoia that had not existed in their marriage before.
To make matters worse, after the death of Bridget’s mother, the couple assumed care of her elderly father, Patrick Boland. Once a laborer, Patrick was able to provide the family with fine accommodations in a labor village. It was said he acquired the nicest house in the village for his small family. But it wasn’t cunning or luck that afforded Boland the lovely new home. The other families in the village had no interest in the house, many rejecting the opportunity to live there. The aversion came from a widely accepted local legend—the Boland house was built on the site of a fairy ring.
The labor village was full of older and less educated families, making it a community still primed for fear in the old legends. This information haunted Michael. His wife’s differing views were difficult to accept, but their proximity to dangerous fairy rings gave him the perfect excuse for Bridget’s behavior. It is likely that Michael began to suspect their fairy folk were to blame for his troubles from the moment he arrived in Ballyvadlea.
His firm belief in the superstitious legends of old and devout Catholicism made him feel as though he were a champion of righteousness in a world clouded by dark forces. These beliefs grew stronger as Bridget flourished, mixing with his mounting frustration of not finding steady work while his wife became more successful, a deadly storm was brewing inside Michael Cleary.
In March of 1895, Bridget went out to make her normal rounds delivering to customers. She intended to check in on her cousin, Jack Dunne, who lived across the moors when her work was done and return home afterward. Michael was in a foul mood that day. Still struggling to find work, as well as jealous and confused by his wife’s success, it is believed that Michael and Bridget fought that morning over baseless accusations of adultery.
Michael had a lot of time on his hands, and most of it was spent tormenting himself over what his wife was up to when she was out of the house. He worried about the fairies and became enraged and embarrassed that Bridget was effectively the family’s provider.
Even if Bridget suggested Michael join her on the delivery route, he refused. To Michael Cleary, the only thing worse than staying home while your wife worked was working with her in a business she created. Michael believed Bridget was changing. He may not have been completely wrong.
Reports from some who knew the couple claimed he criticized her hours away from home, methods of prayer, and choice in clothing—even taking issue with the undergarments she chose to wear. Michael’s idea of a proper wife was set in stone, and there was no room for a woman looking to change and progress.
Difficult as their home life was becoming, there is no evidence to suggest that Bridget was interested in anything other than finding balance with her troubled husband. She was an evolving independent woman, yes, but she still held tight to her Catholic faith and believed in the sanctity of her marriage. Bridget decided not to back down and bend to Michael’s will. As far as she was concerned, he was more than welcome at her side. If he would prefer to sulk at home all day, that was his choice.
In the days leading up to her murder, Bridget had fallen ill. She was suffering from a sore throat and terrible coughing fits that were made worse by long treks through cold wetlands. Still, illness would not keep Bridget from her work. The day she set out to visit Jack Dunne, Bridget’s symptoms seem to have escalated. She became disoriented while wandering through the moors and was said to have been lost for several hours before stumbling home.
Her father and Michael were present when she finally arrived. Her father was concerned and urged her to get to bed, but Michael was completely horrified at her condition. The sick woman was confused, fevered, and clearly in need of medical attention. The stuttering, sickly woman struggling to stand up on her own did not resemble the Bridget Cleary Michael knew.
To most, these would be clear signs of a severe illness. To the frustrated and suppressed Mr. Cleary, the symptoms were signifiers of something else. If Michael had been harboring any deep desire to harm Bridget, this had given him the perfect excuse.
Michael and Patrick sent for a doctor, though Michael believed he already knew what was wrong with his wife. The woman had returned from known fairyland, acting strangely and almost inhuman. This couldn’t be Bridget. Without input from Patrick, Michael sent for another person to diagnose Bridget’s condition—her fairy doctor cousin, Jack Dunne. There are conflicting reports as to whether or not Michael initially sent for a medical doctor in the first place, or simply told his father-in-law he had.
At this period in Ireland, most villages had few, if any, doctors. If someone fell ill, a doctor had to be sent for. The journey could take precious days, which it did in Bridget’s case. Some neighbors believed Michael had sent for Jack instead, only relenting to call for a real doctor at the anger and insistence of Patrick.
In either case, Jack Dunne arrived and examined Bridget. His diagnosis confirmed Michael’s superstitious fears. The woman in his home was not even a real woman; it was an evil fairy changeling.
Jack and Michael got to work planning folk cures to dispel the changeling. If Patrick was skeptical at first, the urging of both his nephew and son-in-law eventually swayed him. Within a day, he had decided to help the other men with their nonsensical mission. Patrick would claim he truly had begun to believe Bridget was in danger.
The medical doctor arrived days later and diagnosed Bridget with a severe case of Bronchitis. He noted the woman to be in terrible condition and took note of the tense atmosphere within the Cleary home. He prescribed medication for Bridget and gave her husband strict instructions on how to administer it. She was ill enough that a priest, Father Ryan, was called to the home to deliver communion and last rites.
The decision may have seemed like a normal precaution in a devout Catholic community, but it would later serve as key evidence to how badly Bridget was treated and how seemingly intentionally her sickness had been allowed to progress.
During the later trial, Father Ryan testified that when he arrived at the Cleary home, Bridget was conscious, alive, and agitated. Michael explained to him that though the doctor had prescribed her medicine to treat the Bronchitis, he would not give it to her. He told the priest, “People may have some remedy of their own that might do more good than doctor’s medicine.”
Father Ryan was unsettled by Cleary’s words and encouraged him to follow the doctor’s orders and not be overcome by fairy mythology. Ryan believed that medical care, not magic, was in Bridget’s best interest. Michael did not agree. Father Ryan left the home that evening, having been unable to convince Michael.
According to changeling mythology, once a loved one has been taken, there are only nine days to save them. If left un-rescued past the ninth day, they are the fairies forever. This meant that Michael was on a deadline if he ever wanted to see his wife again. Doctor’s orders and the priest’s urging meant little to him. Michael believed that these other treatments were wasting time, allowing the unholy creature to exist longer in his wife’s place.
As days ticked by, Bridget was defiant as ever. Being close to death did not stop the willful young woman from standing her ground. No matter the torture, she refused to admit any wrongdoing.
Michael’s methods of “treatment” became more severe, an observation which began to disturb some of the friends and family who visited the house in those days. Patrick was among the disturbed, eventually believing the changeling must be gone and Bridget already returned.
Sadly, there was little the loving but frail father could do to help his daughter. The old man was no match for Michael, whose anger, frustration, and tension had come to a boiling point. To make matters worse, Jack actively fueled Michael’s mounting paranoia, offering another extreme “cure” each time one seemed to fail.
During these supernatural treatments, the sick woman was held down and forced to drink a tonic of urine. When that did not yield results that satisfied Michael, he tormented her with items heated by the fire. As Bridget struggled, Michael shouted at her to submit and confess to being a changeling. Bridget held her ground, even as the consequences became more deadly.
Bridget’s attending loved ones assisted Michael in many of the initial attacks. Both her father and cousin were reported to have helped hold her down when the urine tonic was used—despite the horrified woman was screaming and pleading through a Bronchitis-riddled throat.
By the time Bridget was a few days into her illness, her family had begun to doubt there was a supernatural cause at all. It became difficult to justify the cruelty, especially when the victim was a person—at least physically—they had known and cared for. It is unclear exactly why her family did not put a stop to Michael’s behavior.
On the final day of Bridget’s life, Michael is reported to have demanded that she admit to being a fairy impostor one last time, a deadly amount of anger rising within him. Bridget, though badly beaten and still sick, refused. No matter how much Michael screamed and threatened, Bridget was determined to stand her ground.
In a fit of rage, Michael lifted Bridget by her neck and threw her onto the stones in front of the fireplace. He then poured lamp oil over her and set her nightgown on fire. Bridget’s father and other family members witnessed the event. The poor woman, who was still recovering from her real sickness, was burned in front of an audience whom she had once believed loved her.
Whether or not Bridget was burned alive is still a point of debate. The court was unable to determine if Bridget died when her head hit the stone floor or if she was killed by the fire, but the result was clear—Bridget Cleary had been murdered in cold blood at the hands of her husband.
Witnesses gave varied reports as to what happened next in the Cleary home. Authorities could confirm that Michael and Jack took Bridget’s burned corpse out of the house and buried her in a shallow grave nearby.
They reported the death to no one. Bridget’s family recalled Michael keeping vigil on the property. He was seemingly waiting for his wife to arrive back home, saved by his valiant defeat of the fairies.
On March 22, 1895, her body was discovered in a shallow grave after neighbors reported she had been missing for several days. Ten people were arrested for the crime, including Michael. Of the ten, all but Michael were freed of the charge of murder, but four were convicted of “wounding.”
The trial gained international attention, prompting the media to dub Bridget, “the last witch burned in Ireland.” Some news outlets used the case as justification for terrible Irish stereotypes.
As if the tragic end to her life was not enough, Bridget became a cautionary tale meant to insult her own people. The media claimed that her murder was proof of the Irish being an uneducated and backward people incapable of governing themselves without descending into superstitious chaos. The coverage added insult to injury, and more often than not, failed to give any respect to the young woman that had been senselessly cut down in the prime of her life.
Michael showed no remorse for the killing. Those present at his trial were horrified to hear witnesses claim that even as her body burned, he continued to shout it was only a changeling, and the creature’s death would bring his wife back to him. The arresting officers would testify that Michael was incredulous during his arrest.
He seemed completely certain Bridget would step back through the fairy ring any day now and the entire mess would be cleared up.
Fairies, magic, the evil beyond the veil, were all real to Michael Cleary. He was convinced he had done his community a favor by dispelling a dangerous force. With or without fairy lore, that is likely exactly what Michael believed.
Michael Cleary spent fifteen years in prison on the charge of manslaughter. There is no evidence he ever apologized for, or admitted, killing his wife.
After his release, Michael is recorded to have immigrated to Canada where he disappeared from public record. What happened in the Cleary home during that terrible spring of 1895 will never be completely revealed.
Why did Bridget’s family go along with Michael?
Why did they stand by for so long?
How did one man murder his wife in front of a group of people who supposedly cared for her, without significant challenge?
The answers are long gone, laid to rest with Bridget, but perhaps the answer lies in belief. Horrific things are possible if you can sway others to believe in impossible things.
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