Bridget Cleary was Ireland’s last person to be burned as a witch – in 1895! ANDREW GARVEY reports…
The memory of a gruesome crime in Clonmel, South Tipperary lives on in a traditional Irish children’s rhyme (‘are you a witch or are you a fairy / or are you the wife of Michael Cleary’).
The burning to death on 15 March 1895 of Bridget Cleary by her husband Michael, father and a gang of helpers that included an aunt and several cousins, shocked late 19th century Britain and Ireland.
Given the crime’s bizarre, almost medieval motive and its sheer brutality, it’s not hard to see why.
Report of Bridget Cleary witch burning
Reporting on the magistrate’s investigation at Clonmel’s courthouse, the 3 April 1895 edition of the York Herald reported that having already been force fed herbs while her husband shouted “take this in the name of God”.
Four people held her down while she was “asked certain questions and when she did not answer satisfactorily one of the prisoners called out ‘make good a fire and we’ll burn her and make her answer’.”
Those questions, so important to Bridget Cleary’s husband, father, aunt and cousins were about whether the clearly unwell young woman (modern theories on her illness include pneumonia and tuberculosis) really was Bridget.
Her husband had seemingly convinced himself, she was a fairy changeling who had possessed or replaced the poor woman.
When the nine indicted defendants went to trial in July, five were charged with murder and wounding while four faced only the lesser wounding charge.
Leading the prosecution, Mr. W. Ryan Q.C. laid out the Crown’s case in chilling detail.
His words, summarised by the 5 July 1895 edition of the Belfast Newsletter are worth quoting at length:
“Deceased was then carried out of the bed in her nightdress, and laid just in front of the fire, while she was being interrogated as to who she, in the name of God, was. After a while she was lifted on the top of the fire, despite her feeble protestations that she was not a fairy… All that night she raved in delirium, which appeared to confirm the belief of her relations that she had been bewitched. Next day tea was made for her, and she ate two small slices of bread, and on refusing to eat a third piece the prisoner [her husband Michael] threw her to the ground, and clutching her by the throat forced the bread into her mouth. She then became insensible, and prisoner went for the oil cans and pouring the fluid on her set her alight. She then opened her eyes for a moment, and closed them again, probably for ever.”
Husband and helpers sentenced
At the end of a short trial, Michael Cleary was sentenced to 20 years penal servitude for manslaughter (he served 15 and on release emigrated to Canada).
The rest of the gang received verdicts that ranged from an immediate discharge to five years in prison.
Bridget’s father was sentenced to six months.
Horrific as their crime was, many, including the prolific English writer E. F. Benson argued that the gang who killed Bridget deserved some leniency.
His reasoning was laid out in an essay entitled ‘the Recent “Witch-Burning” at Clonmel’ wh,ere he argued that the guilty men and women had acted for what they sincerely believed were the right reasons and that it was simply a terrible shame that these “peasants… were acting strictly in accordance with a primitive and savage superstition”.
In the years that followed the case widely known as the last witch-burning in Ireland, many theories have been put forward.
Was Bridget Cleary Possessed?
Some have suggested that Bridget Cleary herself believed she was possessed and that her husband and his helpers were genuinely trying a very primitive, violent sort of exorcism.
Some have suggested that Michael planned her murder, perhaps as punishment for an extra-marital affair she was having and he convinced the rest she was possessed so they would help him.
Whatever their motives, Bridget Cleary died a hideous, painful death and those responsible were let off extremely lightly because they apparently believed in malevolent fairies.