Bridget Cleary: “The Last Witch Burned in Ireland” – Podcast Script

This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!

Photo by Nihal Demirci on Unsplash

A quick warning before I begin this episode – this is definitely the most graphic of my witch episodes, so please bear this in mind if you are listening with children, or would rather not listen to some strong language and violent scenes.

Welcome to Unreal – the season of the witch.

For the last few weeks, I have been talking about witch trials in Ireland, beginning with Alice Kyteler, and ending with Ireland’s last and largest civil witch case, in Islandmagee in 1711.

However, Ireland’s long and lurid history of superstition and the supernatural did not end when witch trials did. In the years and decades that followed, hushed into small, catholic communities in the Irish countryside, fear of the supernatural was growing – with zeal and fury. The panic in Ireland at the time of what it meant to be different, to be seen as vulnerable and dependent or strange and unnerving, led to acts of terrifying brutality, and loss of life in the most appalling ways. For in Ireland, perhaps, the only thing more dangerous than the fairies and demons believed to roam the earth, was the violent superstition of those who believed in them. I’m Ruth Atkins… and this is Unreal.

The witch trial at Islandmagee that I spoke about in my last episode ushered in an end to the spate of puritan and Presbyterian witchcraft accusations that had taken place in Ireland and Britain in the 17th and early 18th century. For the next 200 years, there were relatively few accusations reported in courts and media. Particularly among the upper classes, people had entered a more literate, enlightened age – turning to science for explanations of the world, rather than putting their trust solely in religious thinking and the cultures of fear and superstition it instilled.

But among the poorer, less educated, Catholic communities of Ireland, the fear and superstition still remained, and was growing. The second half of the 19th century was a turbulent time – in the years following the mass death and emigration of the great famine, Irish people began to agitate ever more strongly both for land rights and Home Rule, the  right to govern their own nation, rather than continue to be subjected to the whims of the British parliament. The oppression that Irish labourers and tenants faced under British Rule contributed to how isolated, poor and uneducated their communites became, which in turn allowed dangerous beliefs and superstitions to flourished unchecked.

Irish superstitions of fairies have always painted these beings as highly dangerous, violent and vindictive. If you did something to upset the fairies you were in for a very rough time, and there were all kinds of charms and counter-spells to protect against them. These quaint traditions and superstitions made Ireland and the Irish people a source of intrigue and entertainment in more developed communities in Britain and America. Writers described the Irish as “the backward people who still hear the fairies in the breeze and the rustling corn and get anguish in their waking hours from the threats of demons about them.” In some ways it was a vicious cycle – oppressed and with no easy access to other ways of thinking, ordinary Irish people grew ever-more isolated and superstitious, while stories of their superstitions and quaint ways were read widely in Britain and the rest of the world, influencing people’s opinions and contributing to further oppression in turn.

Right from the middle of the 19th century, the harmful impact of these superstitions could already be clearly seen. In 1850, newspapers reported briefly an incident that had happened in Tipperary, where a six-year-old girl was believed by her family to have been “fairy struck,” and subjected to violent counter-spells over several days leading to her death. But it was not until 45 years later that the most infamous execution of a suspected fairy took place in Ireland – the burning of Bridget Cleary in County Tipperary.

Bridget Cleary was born Bridget Boland, and she lived with her husband Michael Cleary and her father Patrick in Ballyvadlea, near Clonmel in county Tipperary. The family was industrious – Bridget worked as a seamstress while her husband worked as a cooper making barrels, and they also sold eggs. Because of this, the couple were reasonably well off for their station in life– Bridget wore gold earrings, they had at least £20 in their home. In 1895, when our story begins, Bridget was about 26, Michael 35, and they had been married for 8 years. They had no children.

Although the main events of Bridget Cleary’s story take place in the spring of 1895, her husband Michael Cleary had been growing suspicious for several months beforehand that there was something supernaturally wrong with his wife. It’s not known for certain why this was. Bridget was known to have been very beautiful, and the fact that she was earning an income suggests that she was an independent woman, and may not have been easily swayed to obey her husband’s every wish. It’s hard to know how much of Cleary’s growing suspicions were genuine, and how much was influenced by his distrust and dislike that his wife was not acting in the way that he believed wives should.

In early March of 1895, Bridget became ill. She had brought eggs to her neighbour Jack Dunne on March 4th, and caught a cold which developed into what was probably bronchitis. Bridget’s condition worsened after a few days, and her father walked to Fethard, four miles away, to urge Dr. Crean to come to their home and examine her. By March 11th, Michael Cleary went to call the doctor too. But he asked for the priest to pay a visit as well as well.

The following day, a woman called Mary Kennedy was sent for by Michael Cleary to go down and see Bridget. When Mary visited, Bridget was complaining about a pain in her head. Bridget also told Mary that she thought her husband was “making a fairy of her,” and, most unsettlingly, that he had tried to burn her three months ago.

It’s important to mention here I think, that Cleary and the people who helped him did not think that Bridget was a witch, exactly. They thought that Bridget had been carried off by the fairies, and that the woman lying in bed was not actually Bridget, but a fairy imposter. As I mentioned in my episode on old Irish cures, women, children, and those with disabilities or deformities, were particularly vulnerable to accusations of being “fairy struck” – that they had been bewitched by fairies as punishment, or sometimes carried off to become brides or nursemaids in the supernatural realm. So, the superstition was slightly different to the witchcraft trials of previous centuries – but the impact was the same, or possibly even more harmful.

The local curate, Father Cornelius F. Ryan, visited Bridget on Thursday March 13th, as did Dr. Crean, who recorded her symptoms to be “a slight bronchial catarrh and nervous excitement.” The priest found Bridget’s conversation to be “quite coherent and intelligible,” though she seemed nervous and frightened. Other than the clear distress she appeared to be in, Bridget made no sign, and gave no complaint at this time of her treatment by her family and neighbours. Father Ryan bestowed Extreme Unction or the Sacrament of the Sick on March 13th, said there would be no need for him to see her again so soon, when he was asked to return to the house the following day. As for Dr. Crean, that one visit and quick diagnosis was the last time he would ever see Bridget Cleary alive.

Michael Cleary was not convinced by reassurances from priests or medical doctors. As the condition of his wife continued to worsen, so too, it appears, did his suspicions grow.  Bridget’s cousin Jack Dunne, the one she had delivered the eggs to, was an old man, and well-versed in superstion and folklore. His warnings encouraged Cleary further along this line of thinking.  Upon seeing Bridget sick in bed, Dunne told Cleary “It is not your wife there. You will have enough to do to bring her back.”

Most of the information we have now about the exorcism itself comes from the testimony of Bridget’s first cousin and neighbour, Johanna Burke, and her young daughter Kattie. On the night of Thursday March 14th Johanna and Kattie walked to the Cleary household, to see if they could provide any assistance to Bridget.

When they had arrived, they met William Simpson, a local caretaker, and his wife outside the house. The door to the Cleary Household was locked, and Michael Cleary refused to open it, so the small group stood at the shuttered window, listening. Inside, they could hear a commotion, and a person was shouting “Take it, you bitch, you old faggot, or we will burn you!” A little while later, shouts were heard: “Away she go! Away she go!” At this point the door was thrown open, to permit the fairy spirit to leave the house. When the Simpsons and Johanna and Kattie Burke entered the house, they saw Jack Dunne and three of the Kennedys holding Bridget down on the bed by her hands and feet. Bridget was on her back and Michael Cleary stood beside her with a saucepan, forcing her to sup herbs and milk from a spoon as they held her down. Several times, Cleary asked his wife: ‘Are you Bridget Boland, the wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?’

Michael Cleary called for Mary Kennedy, the elderly neighbor, to bring in a saucepan of liquid.  This was a vile concoction that the local healer Denis Ganey had given him – most likely it was a mixture of mix of strong urine and hen’s excrement, which was believed to have curative properties.

“Throw it on her,” Cleary said. The liquid was dashed over Bridget Cleary several times. Bridget struggled on the bed, crying out. She was held down by force by the men for ten minutes, and made to swallow some of the liquid. One of the men kept his hand on her mouth, so that she couldn’t spit it out. The men “at each side of the bed kept her body swinging about the whole time, and shouting, ‘Away with you! Come back, Bridget Boland, in the name of God!’ Bridget screamed. But the people around her just cried out still louder, ‘Come home, Bridget Boland.'”

I think it’s important to make clear just how many people close to Bridget were involved in her exorcism. There were twelve or thirteen people in the room while this was going on: her husband Michael, father Patrick, her aunt Mary Kennedy and the three Kennedy sons who were her first cousins. Her cousin Jack Dunne was also there, goading Michael Cleary on, and the Simpsons and Burkes had just entered the room too. It was a terrifying, traumatic situation – and the violence of the exorcism excited the people involved, so suspicions were running high. “The house is full of fairies” Cleary said to William Simpson. With the door still open to allow the fairies to leave, Cleary remarked that it was not just one fairy going out of the door, but several.

The men began to question Bridget again, though they still weren’t satisfied with her responses. They were deeply anxious to make her talk before the clock struck 12, as they believed that midnight, sometimes called “the witching hour,” held great supernatural power. ‘Hold her over the fire,’ Jack Dunne said. ‘She will soon answer.’

Dunne, Cleary and Patrick Kennedy then lifted Bridget off the bed. They carried her towards the grate, where the fire was burning. Then, they began to threaten her with the red-hot poker, to make her talk, and take their medicine. Bridget was terrified, Johanna Burke later testified. She seemed wild and deranged, and her agitation grew as they threatened her. She was wearing only her nightdress and chemise. But the men just kept on repeating the question: “Are you Bridget Cleary, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?”

Finally, Bridget broke down and answered: ‘I am Bridget Boland, daughter of Pat Boland, in the name of God.’ Then she screamed and cried out to Johanna.

It was 11 o’ clock by this time, and finally the men were satisfied for the night. The women went to Bridget, dressing her in a clean chemise, which Johanna Burke had aired out. The group was still a little suspicious of, but after she was able to identify each person in the room by name, she was allowed a respite from the torture for the remainder of the night. The Kennedys, Jack Dunne and William Ahearne left soon after, while the Simpsons and the two Burke women stayed on until the following morning. Bridget did not go to sleep at all that night. She quite understandably seemed nervous and agitated, and when she spoke, she did not seem to be making much sense.

On Friday morning, March 15th, shortly after the Simpsons and Burkes finally left, Father Ryan was once again summoned to the Cleary Household, this time asked to say mass. Bridget had had “a very bad night,” Michael Cleary told him. Father Ryan arrived at the cottage at quarter past eight in the morning, and said mass at Bridget’s bedside in the front room. Before he left, Father Ryan asked Michael Cleary was he giving his wife the medicine the doctor ordered? “I have no faith in it,” Cleary answered, “and my people’s own remedy might do more good than doctors’ medicine.” This was actually a common superstition at the time – “dearthair don bás fios a chur ar an dochtúir” – sending for the doctor is a brother to death. Despite these ominous words, and having said Mass right beside Bridget, Father Ryan left the house and the family without trying to intervene in any way. Now it’s hard to know whether the priest quietly supported what was being done to Bridget, or whether he just turned a blind eye and considered it a community matter that wasn’t his business. Either way, he did nothing to help, and later claimed to have had no suspicions as to what was really going on. Somehow, I find this pretty hard to believe.

All throughout the day, a steady stream of neighbours visited Bridget. Their visits, however, were brief, and nobody seems to have questioned Bridget’s distressed appearance or attempted help her. Johanna Burke, and her daughter were there for most of the day. She described Bridget’s mental state as being “in her right mind, only frightened at everything.” Johanna made some milk for Bridget, and when Michael Cleary paid her for doing this, she showed Bridget the coin. Bridget took the coin, put it under her blankets, and returned it.

Things stayed calm during the day. But at 8 o’clock, Johanna and Kattie were told to call the neighbours to the house  – Thomas Smith and David Hogan. Michael Cleary forced his wife to drink holy water, and Johanna helped Bridget to dress in a frock and shawl. The Kennedy family also returned, so that besides Bridget there were eight in the house. Everyone in the house came together beside the fire. It’s hard to imagine this scene – you have to wonder what they talked about, sitting there with the woman they had threatened and tortured the night before, who they still believed was dangerous.

In any case, the time for polite conversation was short. Soon the talk began to darken and turned to pishogues, or charms, and suspicion fell on Bridget once again. Michael Cleary began to swear that his wife had rubbed Johanna’s coin to her leg, using it for magic purposes. Bridget, was still strong enough to put up a fight, and she accused her husband’s mother in turn, saying that Mrs Cleary had given two nights with the fairies, suggesting that that was why he was so bent on finding fault with her.

At this, Michael Cleary jumped up and took three pieces of bread and jam. He asked her again, three times, “Are you Bridget Cleary, my wife, in the name of God?” and with each repetition, he forced Bridget to eat a piece of bread, refusing to give her anything to drink. Bridget was unable to swallow on the third piece, and Michael flung her on the ground. He put his knee on her chest and one hand on her neck, and threatened her by bringing a glowing stick from the nearby fire up to her mouth, eventually forcing the bit of bread and jam down her throat.

Johanna Burke attempted to protest, but her efforts were unsuccessful. Michael’s mood had turned murderous. In front of the crowd, he undressed his wife down to her chemise. Kattie Burke, Johanna’s young daughter, reported watching Michael Cleary as he picked up his wife and brought her towards the open fire. I won’t go into the detail of what happened, but this time, it wasn’t a threat.

Johanna Burke claimed that she tried to escape from the house and call the authorities to stop what was happening, but Michael had locked the door, and still had the key in his pocket, swearing that nobody could leave until his real wife was returned to him. One of Johanna’s brothers, William Kennedy became faint at the sight of what was happening, and had to be revived by his mother with Easter water. Johanna too could soon bear it no longer, and ran to the upstairs room.

Michael Cleary called up to her. ‘Hold your tongue, Hannah.” He said. “It is not Bridget I am burning. You will soon see her go up in the chimney.”

Shortly afterwards, Bridget was deaad.

Johanna looked down to the kitchen from the room where she had retreated. Bridget’s body was lying face-down on a sheet on the floor.

The people in the house, now that the madness of the last two days was over, seemed at last to understand the seriousness of what they had done. ‘In the name of God,’ said Mary Kennedy, ‘It was the devil that whispered it into his ears.’

By now it was daylight on Saturday morning, the 16th of March. Michael Cleary’s actions after his wife’s murder were methodical.  Johanna Burke watched as he washed the trousers of his light tweed suit. One of Bridget’s gold earrings had been left behind, and Michael destroyed it, lest it should be used as evidence against him. He looked for a sack to cover Bridget, left boiled herbs around the house as Jack Dunne had instructed him a few days earlier.

Cleary then left the house. He locked the door behind him, shutting in his guests. Then, he went in search out a place about a mile away where he felt he could safely bury Bridget, and collected Patrick Kennedy to help. When they returned to the house, Cleary told the others what was to happen. Johanna Burke, he said, must say that she had prepared Bridget a drink. That she had met Bridget at the door upon her return, and that Bridget had spat at her and ran out into the night, without saying where she was going. As for himself, Cleary said he would go to Cloneen in the morning, and pretend that he was mad.

Perhaps this plan, might have worked, weak though it was, had it not been for Jack Dunne. Jack had not been at the house on Friday when Bridget was murdered, and before Cleary could carry out his plan to go to Cloneen, Jack arrived at the door. The people inside told Jack that Bridget was missing and Cleary tried out the story he had just concocted, and he hinted to Jack that he thought his wife had left magically, and gone to be with the fairies. Not understanding what had truly happened, Jack Dunne offered to help Cleary search for Bridget. Both men headed to Kylenagranagh fort, searching the neighbourhood near it. Eventually however, Cleary could no longer manage to keep up the deception. He suddenly confessed everything to Jack: “Bridget was burned last night!”

Surprisingly, although Jack Dunne had been one of the most superstitious people, and on Thursday it had actually been him who suggested holding Bridget over the fire, he claimed that he was shocked to hear Cleary’s confession, and tried to get more details from Michael Cleary about what had happened. But Cleary stuck to his story. The woman he had burned had not truly been Bridget. “She was not my wife.” He said. “She was too fine to be my wife. She was two inches taller than my wife.”

Dunne urged Cleary to give himself up to the authorities and confess to a priest, so together they walked to the chapel at Drangan. But Fr Ryan refused to hear Cleary’s confession. The priest claimed later that because Cleary seemed so agitated, he was not in a fit state to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Instead, Fr Ryan coaxed him outside so that Michael Kennedy could collect him. It seems impossible that the priest wouldn’t have known, or at least suspected that something very serious had happened here. Probably, by refusing to hear confession Fr Ryan was simply attempting to prolong his blindness to what had happened, and how little he himself had done to stop it. In any case, he didn’t remain long in his ignorance. Jack Dunne went up to Fr Ryan, and told him everything: that they had burned Bridget Cleary to death last night, and buried her in unconsecrated ground.

Even after hearing this, Fr Ryan and the parish priest still did not send the whole information on to the local police. All they said was that they suspected there had foul play.

Still, although they had little to go on, the peelers were quick to take on the case. Walking home from Drangan, Cleary saw a policeman following him. The Acting-Sergeant in the area was a man called Egan, and he met Cleary later on in the day, and accompanied him to his house to question him. Cleary continued to maintain that Bridget was missing, rather than dead. He told the authorities that Bridget had “left home about twelve o’clock last night.” Bridget’s father Pat Boland, still in the house, was tearful. “My daughter will come back to me,” he repeated, over and over again. Johanna Burke, kept up the deception too, telling the police what Cleary had told her to say – that Bridget had spat at her, and ran out through the front door into the night.

Without much to go on, Sergeant Egan left the household. He returned later, however, at ten o’clock at night, and found the house deserted. The doors were locked but Sergeant Egan managed to let himself in through a window in the house. There, he found Bridget’s burned night-dress.

All the people who had been involved in Bridget’s murder and the cover-up — Cleary himself, Patrick Boland, Jack Dunne, the Kennedys and Burkes, and William Ahearne–were arrested. They were brought to Court, at Clonmel on March 21st. At this stage though, nobody had confessed. The prosecutors had only William Simpson’s depositions and the false testimony Johanna Burke had given on Cleary’s instructions. At this point, all that the group could be charged with was wounding Bridget on Thursday night, through the first exorcism that which Simpson had witnessed. Denis Ganey, the herbal doctor who had supplied Cleary with the “medicine,” was arrested also, but as he had not actually forced them to use his concoctions, and had no direct part in the exorcism on either night, he was released shortly afterwards.

It’s a really interesting development that in this case in 1895 the people being tried in the civil court were not the accused witches or fairies, but rather the people who had done the accusing. The mystery of the missing woman had gripped the locality, but Bridget’s husband father and cousins continued to keep their silence on what had truly happened to her. Her father Patrick Boland even said from the dock “I have three more persons that can say she was strong the night she went away; she got up and dressed.” When led through the streets of Clonmel, the arrested group was greeted with yells and hisses; in the dock though, they did not seem concerned – they chatted together and exchanged pinches of snuff with each other.

After the Court had adjourned, and the accused parties were sent to jail, District-Inspector Wansbrough directed the police at Cloneen, Drangan, and Mullinahone “to make a deliberate search” once again for Bridget’s body. The following day, Friday, 22nd March, Sergeant Rogers, noticed “some broken thorn bushes freshly cut from a hedge in an angle of a field.” And there, under a shallow covering of clay, only a few inches deep, was Bridget’s body.

Bridget was unclothed, save for her stockings. Her head was enveloped in a sack, and one gold earring hung from her left ear. Although she had been severely burned, her facial features were preserved, and the police knew instantly that it was Bridget they had found. After an inquest in a vacant house nearby, the police buried her, by the light of a lantern, in Cloneen churchyard.

Once her cousin’s body had been discovered, Johanna Bourke broke with her part in the deception, and finally told the full story of what had happened on that fateful Friday night. The prisoners were returned for trial to the Clonmel Assizes in July, after a prolonged investigation. Michael Cleary was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, Patrick Kennedy to five, and Jack Dunne to three years. William and James Kennedy received the lighter sentence of eighteen months, while Patrick Boland (Bridget’s Father) and Michael Kennedy received just six months.

Addressing the jury, Judge O’Brien described Bridget as “a young married woman, suspecting no harm, guilty of no offence, virtuous and respectable in all her conduct and all her proceedings.” He remarked of the case that it “demonstrates a degree of darkness in the mind, not of one person, but of several, a moral darkness, even religious darkness, the disclosure of which had come with surprise on many persons.”

Indeed it had. News of the case had spread all across the globe, reaching the Pall Mall Gazette and the New York Times. People around the world read with horror the lurid details of what had occurred in a small Irish village, an act regarded by many at the time as one of deepest savagery. The case also came to feature highly in British discussions of the Home Rule Question. How could this country, remarked British politicians all too eager to keep Ireland in their charge, govern themselves when acts of this nature still occurred? This was not a place of peace or enlightened thought, they said.

Bridget Cleary’s murder was the most infamous case of supernatural exorcism occurring in Ireland, and she is commonly called “The Last Witch Burned in Ireland” by historical accounts. But her death was actually not the last of its kind. Just a year later, a man called James Cunningham from Athlone was beaten, tortured and killed by his father and brothers who believed that his mental impairments were a sign that he was similarly supernatural or demonic. And around the world today, family exorcisms and accusations of witchcraft continue to happen, bringing terrible harm to the people they target, and their communities as a whole.

We have seen over the last four episodes that accusations of witchcraft can take many forms, and have many different results. While cases have similarities, each are unique in their own ways too. But if there is a common thread that unites them, perhaps it is the dangerous power of superstition and belief when left unchecked. Superstitions can be fascinating, and often tantalizingly believable. We want to think that the world conforms to the rules and principles we hold, and that by following certain codes we can protect ourselves from evil and harm. But, as many of these stories have shown, blind belief is a dangerous thing, particularly when it isolates or casts suspicion the most vulnerable people we know. Better ways are possible, and the rituals we put our faith in should not do more harm than they claim to protect. So I think it’s important to hear these stories, to share them, and remember them so that we can put this dark part of our history behind us, and move to the brighter days to come.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal, and for joining me in The Season of the Witch. I hope you’ve enjoyed the episodes – I’ve found it absolutely fascinating to delve into the history of witchcraft accusations and their impact – it’s a fascinating and uncomfortable part of our history, but one that is definitely worth remembering. Unreal is written and created by me, Ruth Atkins. You can find links to the sources and music from today’s episode on my website, The song you are listening to right now is She Moved Through the Fair, by Sláinte. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please do tell a friend or leave a review wherever you get your podcast – thanks to everyone who has done that so far. I’ll be continuing for a few more non-witch-related episodes this season, but will probably move back to a fortnightly schedule for these ones, to give us all a bit of a break. So I’ll be back in two weeks’ time with more stories, and until then, go néirí an bóthar leat.