On March 15, 1895, Bridget Cleary, the 28-year-old wife of a cooper, went missing from her cottage near Clonmel in County Tipperary. Days later her body was found in a shallow grave, burned to death by her husband and family members who suspected her of being possessed by a fairy.
Cleary, called “the last witch burned in Ireland,” was the victim of dangerous superstitious beliefs. Her story has become part of Irish folklore, and her tragic tale has been immortalized in the children’s rhyme “Are you a witch or are you a fairy, Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”
Books have been written about her and filmmakers are currently trying to raise funds to make a movie loosely based on her story.
Cleary and her husband Michael, were a well-off but childless couple. Bridget was a dressmaker who make additional independent income from keeping hens. According to accounts, she caught a cold that possibly developed into pneumonia or she may have had tuberculosis.
As her condition worsened, her husband and her uncle, Jack Dunne, began to circulate the story that Bridget had been taken by fairies and the woman in the bed was a changeling. According to Irishidentity.com, herbal cures were forced down her throat and she was held over the fire while being asked repeatedly if she was a changeling. Several family members assisted and neighbors were present the evening before her death as more tests were conducted on her.
On March 15, her husband set fire to her nightgown and threw lamp-oil on her.
“She’s not my wife,” he said. “You’ll soon see her go up the chimney.”
He forced one of her brothers to carry her to a shallow grave. Some time afterwards, it was reported to the local priest that Bridget had been burned to death by her husband and other family members. The priest went to the police who found her charred body and arrested nine people, including Bridget’s family members, neighbors and friends, in connection with the murder. Michael Cleary served 15 years for the crime after which he emigrated to Canada.
According to the New York Times, the case was used as a weapon against Irish Home Rule, asking how could a people who still believed in fairies and spirits be trusted to govern themselves in the modern world? Two books, both published in 2000, “The Burning of Bridget Cleary” by Angela Bourke and “The Cooper’s Wife Is Missing” by Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates, have examined the newspaper coverage of the Cleary case and look at Bridget’s death in the context of what was happening in Ireland at the time.
In 2014, filmmaker Neil O’Driscoll raised funds for a new movie that uses the Cleary case as the backdrop of a modern psychological thriller. According to Fundit.ie, the film, called ‘Waking the Witch,’ is about Marianne, “a teenager killing time on her summer holidays by accompanying her uncle on a research trip, delving into the life and death of Bridget Cleary, the last witch burned in Ireland. Marianne is also dealing with the memory of a traumatic incident, and the effort of repressing it is causing psychological schisms.
“Marianne, instead of confronting her problems, immerses herself in preparations for the midsummer festival. She's intrigued by the bohemian lifestyle of her uncle and his friends, and captivated by a young artist she encounters. As the fractures in reality increase in frequency, she starts to sense that she has more in common with Cleary than she'd like.”
Here is the trailer for the film: