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In 1895, Bridget Cleary, a strong-minded and independent young woman, disappeared from her house in rural Tipperary. At first her family claimed she had been taken by fairies-but then her badly burned body was found in a shallow grave. Bridget's husband, father, aunt, and four cousins were arrested and tried for murder, creating one of the first mass media sensations in Ireland and England as people tried to make sense of what had happened. Meanwhile, Tory newspapers in Ireland and Britain seized on the scandal to discredit the cause of Home Rule, playing on lingering fears of a savage Irish peasantry. Combining historical detective work, acute social analysis, and meticulous original scholarship, Angela Bourke investigates Bridget's murder.
Laborers, Priests, and Peelers
The winter of 1894/95 was exceptionally hard, with February 1895 the coldest yet recorded in many parts of Ireland and Britain. Farm work was seriously delayed, and agricultural laborers in Ireland were facing unemployment and destitution. In mid-March, though, both weather and economic prospects improved. It was a time of record keeping and centralized bureaucracy. At Birr Castle Observatory in King's County, as Offaly was then called, Robert Jacob kept scrupulous twice-daily weather records, which he entered by hand on large printed sheets supplied by the Meteorological Office in London. On April 2, 1895, in accordance with instructions printed on the form, he folded his March return four times to make a letter-sized packet, stuck on a red halfpenny stamp showing the head of a younger Queen Victoria, and sent it off. The back of the form had already been printed with the address: 63 Victoria Street, London. It arrived there on April 4, postmarked "Parsonstown 6.50 Ap 2 95."
According to Jacob's records, the temperature at Birr Castle at nine o'clock in the morning, Wednesday, March 13, had been 37.4 degrees Fahrenheit; twenty-four hours later it had risen to 50.5. By 9 o'clock on Thursday evening the weather was still mild and dry, with a temperature of 46.8. Fifty miles away, on a farm at Kishogue, near the village of Drangan, County Tipperary, Michael Kennedy asked his employer, Edward Anglin, for his wages, and set out on a three-mile walk along dark roads to give the money to his widowed mother. Mary Kennedy lived in atiny, mud-walled, thatched house beside Ballyvadlea bridge, where Michael and his brothers and sister had grown up. When he got there, however, she was on her way out. Her twenty-six-year-old niece Bridget Cleary had been ill for several days, and Mary Kennedy was going to visit her for the second or third time. Michael Kennedy decided to follow his mother to his cousin's house, across the bridge and up the hill. Bridget lived only half a mile away, with her husband, Michael Cleary, a cooper, and her father, who was Mary Kennedy's brother.
The Clearys lived in a slate-roofed laborers' cottage, built a few years earlier; though modest, it was a much better house than Mary Kennedy's, or indeed than many others in the area. When Michael Kennedy arrived there on the night of Thursday, March 14, it was full of people and activity. His cousin's illness seemed to have reached some kind of crisis. In the kitchen, where a group of neighbors waited, some green stumps of whitehorn were burning slowly in the fire grate, and a large oil lamp stood on the table. Just off the kitchen, Bridget Cleary lay in the front bedroom, where the only light came from a candle. Her bed almost filled the tiny room, but several men were standing around it, holding her down; another was lying across her legs.
Most of the men in the bedroom were Bridget Cleary's relatives, among them Michael Kennedy's brothers, Patrick, James, and William. The others were her husband Michael, her father Patrick Boland, and a cousin of his called Jack Dunne. A teenage boy, William Ahearne, was with them, holding the candle. The men were trying to make Bridget Cleary swallow herbs boiled in new milk—Michael Cleary was holding a saucepan and a spoon—but she was resisting them. Again and again, as though they doubted her identity, they demanded, in the name of God, that she say whether or not she was indeed Bridget Cleary, daughter of Patrick Boland and wife of Michael Cleary. The men were shouting as they questioned her and forced the mixture into her mouth. Eventually they lifted her out of bed and carried her through the door to the kitchen fire, about twenty feet away. There they questioned her again, holding her over the smoldering wood as they demanded that she answer her name. The neighbors who were in the kitchen heard them talk about witches and fairies.
When Bridget Cleary's death was being investigated in the weeks that followed, Michael Kennedy claimed not to remember much about the events of that evening. In Clonmel Prison, seven months later, it was noted that he had been tubercular ("phthisical") for years. He may also have had epilepsy, for he told the court that he was susceptible to fits, and that he had lost consciousness in the crowded and noisy house. When he woke up, he said, he was lying in bed in the second small bedroom at the back of the house, where his uncle, Patrick Boland, usually slept. He believed he had been unconscious for at least half an hour.
The house was quiet again by the time he woke. Bridget Cleary was in bed, and apparently resting, but at some point during the evening word had come that her husband's father had died. Michael Cleary was not from Ballyvadlea, but from Killenaule, about eight miles away, and several of the men were preparing to walk there to attend his wake. Wakes were all-night affairs, and major social events for the rural working class, with storytelling, games, and other amusements; they were prime occasions for the exchange of terrifying legends about ghosts and fairies, and for young men and women to meet. Patrick, James, and William Kennedy had wanted to go earlier—they had spent part of the evening shaving each other in the back bedroom in preparation—but Michael Cleary had delayed them by demanding that they stay and assist him with his wife's treatment until after midnight. Michael Cleary himself might have been expected to go to Killenaule, if only to see his bereaved mother, but he insisted on staying at home with his wife. Old-style wakes were increasingly frowned on by respectable society, and Michael Cleary was better educated than most of his wife's relatives; still, his decision not to attend his own father's wake was surprising.
Michael Kennedy's older brother Patrick was thirty-two, Michael himself was twenty-seven, James was twenty-two, and William twenty-one. All were farm laborers and unmarried, and only the younger two could read or write. They left the house in Ballyvadlea together at about one o'clock in the morning to walk to Killenaule. Eight miles was a considerable distance, but the night was fine and men of their class were used to walking. The moon had been full three nights earlier, and had been up for over an hour by the time they set out, so they would have had no difficulty in finding their way. Several women and a few of the other men remained in the house for the rest of the night, carrying drinks to Bridget Cleary as she called for them. It was not unusual for people to stay up very late like this, talking and swapping stories, when they visited neighbors: the Irish word airneán, which has no precise equivalent in English, means just this sort of gathering.
The moon was high in the sky at about three in the morning when the Kennedys arrived at the wake. Their sixty-six-year-old uncle, Patrick Boland, joined them there even later. After a few hours, he returned to Ballyvadlea, where his daughter still lay ill, but the four Kennedys stayed all the next day in Killenaule. They walked back together as far as Drangan on Friday evening, then Patrick, James, and William continued home to their mother's house at Ballyvadlea bridge, while Michael returned to Anglin's farm at Kishogue.
Saturday, March 16, was warm and sunny, but as Michael Kennedy walked from Kishogue back into Drangan village, a shock awaited him. Thirty-six hours earlier, he had seen his cousin Bridget Cleary ill in bed in Ballyvadlea, but now he was told that she had disappeared from her home. More disturbing still was the suggestion that she had gone across the fields with two men in the middle of the previous night, wearing only her nightdress. Some people were even saying plainly that the fairies had taken her away.
Despite his protestations about having fainted in his cousin's house, Michael Kennedy must have known something of the treatment she had received on Thursday evening. According to the kind of stories often told at firesides and at wakes, certain illnesses were supposed to be the work of the fairies, who could abduct a healthy young person and leave a sickly changeling instead: herbal medicines and ordeals by fire were both said to be ways of banishing such a changeling.
In Drangan, Michael Kennedy spent a while outside Feelys' grocery shop and spoke to two men named Burke and Donovan, but he could get no further information. He had begun to walk back toward Anglin's farm when he met the two men most likely to know the truth, Michael Cleary and Jack Dunne. Dunne had been one of the men gathered around Bridget Cleary's bed on Thursday night. He was Mary Kennedy and Patrick Boland's first cousin, and lived near Ballyvadlea, in the townland of Kylenagranagh.
Cleary and Dunne were both agitated when Michael Kennedy met them in the street, a little after midday. In fact Michael Cleary seemed distraught. He was wearing a suit of light gray tweed—jacket, waistcoat, and trousers—and a navy-blue cap, but his clothes had greasy marks and hung loosely, as though they were too big for him, and when Kennedy spoke to him he made no answer. Ignoring the younger man's questions, he kept on walking toward the large Catholic church in the center of the village, while Jack Dunne limped along behind. Dunne, according to his own later account, was gravely concerned about Cleary. Cleary had been talking wildly about strange men, and burning, and had threatened to cut his own throat, so Dunne had persuaded him to come to Drangan to talk to the priest. When Michael Kennedy could get no reply from either of the men, he turned and followed them, and together the three entered the chapel yard.
Drangan is a quiet village in the beautiful and fertile green rolling farmland of County Tipperary's South Riding, about fifteen miles northeast of Clonmel, and seven from the medieval walled town of Fethard. When the census was taken in 1891, it had 34 houses, and a population of 127. The village has one street, which begins where the road from Fethard enters from the southwest. Mullinahone is four miles to the east, but the main road between the two towns passes farther south, through the village of Cloneen. Drangan lies surrounded by hills, on the edge of the Slieve Ardagh range, roughly at the center of a quadrangle of major roads whose northern corners are at Killenaule and Ballingarry. It is a natural meeting place for a scattered rural population, at the head of a small valley which runs down to Mullinahone, but its importance is strictly local.
By far the most imposing building in Drangan is the chapel, as Catholic churches are usually called in rural Ireland. It stands on the north side of the main street, squarely in the center of the village, surrounded by graves dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. High iron railings and gates separate it from the street outside, and a plaque announces its dedication in 1850 to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.
In the years following Catholic Emancipation in 1829, "big chapels" like this one steadily replaced the humble buildings in which Catholics had previously worshipped. The earliest were rectangular and strictly functional, but by 1895, large, costly, and elaborately decorated cruciform buildings in towns and villages proclaimed the social and economic importance of the Catholic Church and its clergy. Drangan chapel was built of cut stone between 1850 and 1853, and Drangan, whose shops and houses flank it and look up to it, is a classic example of what has been called a "chapel-village," where the construction of a big chapel in the countryside in the nineteenth century generated the growth of other services, including the state apparatus of police station and post office.
When Michael Kennedy, Michael Cleary, and Jack Dunne entered the chapel yard at about one o'clock, Michael McGrath, the fifty-nine-year-old parish priest of Cloneen and Drangan, was in the church. The Synod of Thurles in 1850 had laid down rules for the administration and regulation of Catholic practice in Ireland, reinforcing the Church's control of its members' daily lives. The Synod was the first formal meeting of the Irish bishops since 1642, and many of its prescriptions were designed to centralize religious activity in church buildings, and put an end to the tradition of administering the sacraments in private homes. The Synod had decreed that confessions should be heard regularly in all churches, and the faithful encouraged to attend the sacrament weekly; so on March 16, 1895, Fr. McGrath was hearing confessions. His curate, or coadjutor, Cornelius Fleming Ryan, known as "Father Con" was also in the chapel. Not only was this the day before St. Patrick's Day, it was a feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, to whom the building was dedicated.
Jack Dunne went into the building alone. Like Michael Kennedy and his brothers, he was a farm laborer. A short, fat, gray-haired man who walked with a pronounced limp, he was described in contemporary accounts as old, although records show that he was fifty-five in 1895. The same pattern emerges again and again among the documents of this story, as people in their fifties and sixties, if they belong to the laboring class, are described as "old." Accounts of their physical appearance reflect the hardships and privations of working-class life in nineteenth-century Ireland, especially for those born before the Famine of 1845-49. Jack Dunne could read, but not write. He was missing several teeth; his eyesight was poor, and a fracture had left his right leg shorter than his left.
Michael Kennedy stayed in the yard with the still-agitated Michael Cleary, while Dunne went into the chapel. Cleary, bearded and balding, looked older than his thirty-five years. He was easily the most educated of the three, able to read and write, and possessor of a skilled trade, for he was a cooper, a maker of the casks and barrels in which commodities of all kinds, both wet and dry, were stored and transported. Before coming to live with his wife and her father, Michael Cleary had worked for several years in Clonmel, and he had built up a lucrative trade of his own since moving to Ballyvadlea. As he waited outside the chapel, however, he was weeping and distressed. Michael Kennedy stood awkwardly beside him.
In the chapel, Jack Dunne made his way to where Fr. McGrath was hearing confessions. When Fr. McGrath had listened to Dunne's story, he told him to send Michael Cleary in at once to speak to him.
Michael Cleary, still crying, went into the chapel, but instead of going to speak to Fr. McGrath, he approached the altar. There the younger of the parish's two priests, Fr. Con Ryan, found him kneeling, tearing out his hair and, as he put it later, behaving like a madman. Cleary seemed to be suffering, Fr. Ryan said, from remorse for something he had done, and wanted to go to confession, but the curate did not think he was "in a fit state to receive the sacrament" and asked him instead to come into the vestry. Fr. Ryan began to feel afraid of him then, however, and coaxed him back out into the yard, where Jack Dunne and Michael Kennedy were waiting. Cleary was still crying loudly.
Fr. Ryan moved toward Dunne, gesturing to Michael Cleary to leave him. "Go on," he said, according to Dunne's memory; "'tis this man I want to be talking to." Throughout the evidence given later to the magistrates at Clonmel Petty Sessions, and again before a judge and jury at the summer assizes, witnesses who could not write told their stories with considerable dramatic use of direct speech.
The priest addressed Jack Dunne as Michael Kennedy took Cleary aside. "What's up with him?"
Dunne told him that Cleary had claimed to have burned his wife the previous night, and that three or four people had buried her. "I've been asking them all morning to take her up and give her a Christian burial."
Fr. Ryan had visited Bridget Cleary in her home only the day before. He was horror-struck: "How could three or four of them go out of their minds simultaneously?" he wondered in his evidence. His impression, he said, had been that Michael Cleary's mind was going astray. "He's in a bad way," he told Dunne. "It would be better to see after him [to do something about him]. We'll see the parish priest."
Fr. McGrath had come out of the chapel into the yard, and the younger priest went to speak to him. Jack Dunne watched the two priests talking, then both he and Michael Kennedy saw Fr. Ryan cross the street and go into the constabulary barracks.
In 1895, as now, Drangan's architecture proclaimed the importance of Catholicism in the life of rural Ireland, its centrality in the village, and the authority of its priests. In 1895, it also demonstrated the delicate balance between the church and a very different, equally centralized authority.
The "Peelers," called after their founder, Sir Robert Peel, lived and worked in the Royal Irish Constabulary barracks in Drangan. RIC men were the eyes, ears, and often the arms, of the British administration, based in Dublin Castle. Their training and discipline were military and, unlike other police forces in the United Kingdom, they were armed. They were engaged in surveillance of known or suspected subversives, but also had considerable civil and local government responsibility, to the extent that by the end of the nineteenth century their duties had become "more akin to house-keeping than to peace-keeping" and they rarely carried firearms. Their position could still be ambiguous, however: their work did not endear them to the tenant farmers and shopkeepers, who constituted the increasingly nationalist Irish Catholic middle class, even though over 70 percent of the men recruited to the force after 1861 were Catholic. In the 1880s, members of the RIC were boycotted in County Tipperary, especially during the operation of the repressive "coercion" legislation, during and after the Land War of 1879-82.
With a history of nationalist politics and agrarian conflict, County Tipperary's South Riding had the highest police presence of any county in Ireland in the 1890s: 47 per 10,000 of population, compared with the lowest figure of 12 each in the northern counties of Derry and Down, or 34 and 38 in North Tipperary and Meath respectively. According to the census of 1891, 7 district inspectors, 10 head constables, and 454 sergeants, acting sergeants, and constables comprised the force in South Tipperary.
A road guide published in 1893 for the use of members of the constabulary gives a flavor of the world in which the RIC was operating. The agrarian disturbances and "outrages" that had characterized the Land War and its aftermath had largely ceased, although occasional incidents were still reported. Members of the constabulary had leisure to become proficient riders of bicycles: a new sport and mode of transport until recently available only to the gentry. The author acknowledges the help he has received from all ranks of the RIC, including "the junior constable, who, perhaps an enthusiastic cyclist, did his utmost to place his local knowledge at the service of the public." The book includes, among advertisements for corn cures, fishing tackle, insurance, and whiskey, several for bicycles, pneumatic tires, and cycling clothes, as well as for publications devoted to cycling. Intended for "the overcoat pocket, or the hand-bag of the tourist," this work was undertaken "with the view of supplying a great want of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and of kindred public services; and also of providing a `Road Book' of a reliable and comprehensive character, for the use of cyclists and tourists, of Irish travellers and others of the public who may desire to travel through our beautiful island."
"Each Police Barrack in Ireland," the guidebook begins, "is the centre of a circle of `Circumjacent' Stations. Each Police Station has sent in a return, on identical lines, giving similar information as regards itself and circumjacent neighbouring Police Barracks which are printed in uniform style and sequence." Reduced to a system of abbreviations, each entry details the facilities available in the vicinity of a barracks: post, telegraph, and money-order offices, with their opening hours and times of delivery and collection; horse-drawn "post-cars" for hire; nearest railway station; markets, court sittings, and places of interest or beauty, if any. (None is listed for Drangan or Cloneen, although Fethard has several.) Directions to each of the "circumjacent" stations are given as part of every entry, with distances calculated to within a quarter of a mile. Every road mentioned is classified from A ("level broad roads, on which two four-wheeled vehicles can trot abreast") to D ("up and down hill, and narrow"), with a description of its condition, ranging from G[ood] or F[air], to I[ndifferent] or R[ocky and rutty].
Standardization and uniformity were hallmarks of nineteenth-century official thinking, gradually imposed throughout the countryside: police officers, soldiers, railway employees, and postmen wore uniform clothing, which immediately identified them; works of literature were published in identical bindings in uniform editions; administrators at every level of society filled out printed forms and returned them by post to central offices for filing; trains ran according to printed timetables, and standard time was gradually adopted even in the most remote areas. In Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, these were the symptoms of profound cultural change. As the English language replaced Irish throughout most of the country during the same period, oral tradition gave way to print. A whole world of wakes, herbal cures, stories of kings and heroes, and legends of the fairies—the culture of those who had not learned to read and write—became increasingly marginal. Jack Dunne, Michael Kennedy, his older brother Patrick, and several others in this story, were among those people. They still lived in a symbolic universe very different from the one mapped by the RIC: centralization and uniformity had little relevance to their daily lives.
Even priests wore uniform in late-nineteenth-century Ireland. By decree of the Synod of Thurles, and partly as a strategy for safeguarding clerical celibacy, black clerical garb, including the Roman collar, had become standard for Catholic priests, who were also ordered to avoid undue familiarity with women. The Catholicism the priests propounded in the towns and chapel villages of County Tipperary was modern minded, outward looking, literate, and essentially middle class. It sternly opposed attendance at wakes, and had no time whatever for stories about fairies. Highly centralized, with priests reporting to bishops, and bishops reporting to Rome, the church in Ireland was strongly influenced by Continental practice, especially the Marian devotions favored increasingly by the papacy in this period. The dedication of Drangan Chapel to the Immaculate Conception, four years before Rome defined that doctrine as dogma, was typical. Since 1870, the church hierarchy's authority had been strengthened by the declaration of papal infallibility, but such teaching had little effect on the landless, or on their oral culture. Folk religion was centered on holy wells, local saints, the kin-group, and the home, rather than on church buildings, and its teachings were transmitted through traditional prayers, songs, and stories, not through printed catechisms. Well into the twentieth century, this kind of uncentralized Catholicism, which sat more easily with unofficial traditions about a fairy supernatural than the official version could, was still strong in places where Irish was spoken.
Most Catholic priests in Tipperary in the late nineteenth century were drawn from the increasingly prosperous class of English-speaking tenant farmers. Many held leases on farms of their own, and lived at least as well as the better-off farmers to whom they ministered. Although the five, seven, or more years they spent in seminary training could not be described as a liberal education, it equipped them to take the lead in a society where schooling and literacy were steadily advancing. Many were involved in the politics of the Land League (1880-81), and of the Irish National League that succeeded it: most of the National League's ninety-six branches were centered on Catholic chapels.
The RIC monitored the activities of the Land League and the National League, and reported regularly on the movements of the many priests known to be politically active. By 1895, the political power of priests was less than it had been, and land agitation had died down, but Michael McGrath, parish priest of Drangan, had a history of political involvement, and his activities were still of interest to the members of the constabulary stationed across the street from his church.
Family Tree: Clearys, Bolands, and Kennedys
Chronology: March-July 1895
1: Laborers, Priests, and Peelers
2: Fairies and Fairy Doctors
3: Reading, Sewing, Hens, and Houses
4: Bridget Cleary Falls Ill
5: "Take It, You Witch!"
6: "Bridgie Is Burned!"
7: "Amongst Hottentots...": The Inquest and Inquiry
8: A Funeral, Some Photographs, More Fairies
9: Two Courtrooms
10: Trial and Imprisonment
Epilogue: When Does a True Story End?
Acknowledgments and Sources
Posted April 20, 2010
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I ready this book for a class on the folklore of ireland as a method of looking into the role of fairies in Irish society. This book creates a great overview and a balanced look at the different roles of the people who contributed to the death of Bridget Cleary, a woman between the lower class and the upper class.
The book is a bit repetitive, it could be a few chapters shorter by better combining the information, however, Angela Bourke does an excellent job of providing many different sides to the story and also of questioning the validity of the information. By writing this book only recently, we have access to information about Michael Cleary (who murdered his wife) post-trial and into his time in jail.
Overall, this is an interesting story of the tail of a young independent woman murdered by her husband and the family relationships that occurred surrounding the murder. As to what the role of the fairy belief was in this murder, the conclusion is uncertain. Was it an excuse or a genuine belief? Draw your own conclusions based on the abundant evidence collected and retold by Angela Bourke.
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Posted December 9, 2008
In early March 1895 in Tipperary, Ireland, twenty-six-year old Bridget Cleary catches a nasty cold and is bed ridden from her illness. Not to long after becoming ill, Bridget disappears without a trace. Most of the townsfolk in this isolated, rural village believe that the fairies claimed Bridget as one of their own. The few that did not believe that felt that something possessed Bridget¿s body and that the real Bridget would soon reappear. <P>Amidst all this superstition, the real Bridget lies in a grave, having been burned to death by her husband, Michael and nine of his friends and neighbors. All ten of them strongly felt a demon had taken control of Bridget¿s body. Michael is arrested for killing his wife and ultimately sentenced to twenty years in prison. <P> THE BURNING OF BRIDGET CLEARY is an excellent taut recounting of a real event that shook Europe towards the end of the nineteenth century. Spin doctors in England and Ireland used the brutal murder and the superstitious beliefs of the co-conspirators to political advantage in the debate over a free Ireland. Showing a deft touch for historiography, author Angela Bourke provides a nineteenth century look into why a village killed one of their own and how that seemingly remote case impacted twentieth century events in Ireland and England. This non-fictional book is worth reading by fans of historical novels as well as those readers who enjoy a real chronicled event. <P>Harriet Klausner
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