Wednesday 11 December 2019

The man who burned his wife to death 'for being a witch'

Damian Corless on a Tipperary horror story played out on the cusp of the 20th century that has been adapted into a play

Victorian justice: Michael Cleary's prison photo - he received 15 years in prison for manslaughter
Victorian justice: Michael Cleary's prison photo - he received 15 years in prison for manslaughter
Bridget and Michael Cleary- he burned her to death on suspicion of being a witch

Last summer the Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae raised titters when he insisted that a dip in a road which resisted all attempts at repair was caused by magical fairy forts. In 2007, as Kerry County Council discussed a dip in another road, he'd tabled a motion asking: "Is it fairies at work?"

No, said the council's road department, it's due to an "underlying subsoil/geotechnical problem".

Healy-Rae's enemies, on both occasions, taunted that he was "away with the fairies".

But there have been times when the charge of being "away with the fairies" was no laughing matter. Indeed, as Ireland stood on the cusp of entering the 20th century, the accusation served as the context - some believe the pretext - for a barbaric witch burning that boggles the modern mind.

Bridget and Michael Cleary- he burned her to death on suspicion of being a witch
Bridget and Michael Cleary- he burned her to death on suspicion of being a witch

In March 1895, a young woman called Bridget Cleary was set ablaze by her husband to die writhing in agony as her brothers and neighbours looked on, entranced in a delirious frenzy. Her tormentors were caught up in the sort of group hysteria expertly captured by Arthur Miller in The Crucible, which dramatised the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s.

But Miller's tale never nears the sheer shocking brutality of the events in Tipperary 300 years later. Irish playwright Margaret Perry has disinterred the shallow grave where Bridget Cleary was hastily dumped. Perry's new play, Porcelain, runs at Dublin's Abbey Theatre from mid-February. The harrowing events of 1895 provide the backdrop for a modern-day thriller concerning another young woman in peril.

The most reliable account of the Tipperary horror story - the one held most reliable by the judge - was that of Bridget's cousin Johanna Burke. Hearing that Bridget was ill, Johanna called to visit. There she found her 26-year-old cousin being held down by five men attempting to force a mulch of herbs and milk down her throat. The five were her husband, Michael, three of her brothers, and an elderly neighbour John Dunne who was immersed in the old-time religion of fairies, witches, potions and magic spells.

Bridget had been under house arrest for some days. A priest had been sent for and a doctor had visited, but her minders had binned conventional medicine in favour of a witches' brew supplied by local shaman Denis Ganley. Bridget's husband Michael claimed that his wife was no longer his wife, that she was a changeling. The belief that evil fairies kidnap babies and adults and replace them with avatars is, or was, common to folk cultures around the globe. Michael, egged on it seems by John Dunne, seemed determined to prove that Bridget had been duplicated and replaced, Stepford Wives fashion.

Some suspected that Michael's true motivation may have been jealousy or hatred. The couple had been living largely separate lives. She had moved back in with her parents and had become something of a career woman, investing her earnings from a successful poultry enterprise into buying a state-of-the-art Singer sewing machine and upscaling into dressmaking.

Whatever the true motivation of her tormentors, Bridget's success story was to have an ending so grisly that it made shock-horror headlines around the world. Her cousin Johanna told the court that as he forced the herbal potion into her mouth, husband Michael yelled: "Are you Bridget Boland, the wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?" She answered yes twice, but when she failed to answer a third time, she was wrenched up and forcibly held in an agonising sitting position over the scorching embers of the kitchen fire.

Utterly exhausted and broken by her ordeal, Bridget was put back to bed for the night. The next day she was dressed and brought into the kitchen where her husband began tormenting her afresh. At one point she talked back: "Your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them."

Michael then made up three slices of bread and jam, and told his wife she must eat them all, while thrice confirming that she was really herself, before he'd let her drink a cup of tea. She ate two, but fell silent at the third. At this point her husband flung her to the floor, kneeled on her chest and tried to shove the last piece into her, shouting "Swallow it!"

He stripped her down to her chemise, doused her with oil from a lamp, and set her alight with a burning stump of wood. As she thrashed on the floor in searing agony, he told his accomplices: "It is not my wife. I am not going to keep an old witch in place of my wife. It is not Bridget I am burning. You will soon see her (the changeling) go up the chimney."

In the Ireland of the time, there was a widespread acceptance that Cleary honestly did believe that his wife had been swapped by malevolent fairies. The charge of murder was downgraded to one of manslaughter. After serving 15 years, he fled Ireland for Canada.

In many ways, it suited Ireland's colonial rulers to accept that Cleary had acted in earnest. The coroner who examined Bridget's corpse remarked haughtily: "Amongst Hottentots one would not expect to hear of such an occurrence." In other words, in the patriarchial worldview of the world's greatest Empire, the infantile native Irish were no more capable of ruling themselves than the 'backward' peoples of Africa, America or, indeed, anywhere due south of the Isle of Wight.

For those who'd successfully opposed the Irish Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1893, Bridget's grisly fate was proof positive that the wild Irish still needed parental guidance from the grown ups next door. It fed into a prejudice still fuelling arguments against Home Rule well into the 20th Century, with a 1909 edition of the London Journal claiming to expose how "the Evil Eye" exerted "a dread terror for the more ignorant Erse (Irish) population".

Porcelain by Margaret Perry runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, from February 16 - March 10

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