On Thursday, March 14, 1895, Mary Kennedy bundled up to visit her ailing, 26-year-old niece, Bridget Cleary. It was a quick, half-mile walk over the bridge and up the hill to the Cleary’s cottage in Ballyvadlea of County Tipperary, Ireland. But as Kennedy approached the house that evening, she heard shouting and, when she opened the door, saw six men holding Bridget to her bed.

“Are you [Bridget] Boland, the wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?” Michael yelled at his wife as five others, including three of Kennedy’s sons and Bridget’s own father, restrained her.

Michael held a saucepan filled with fresh milk and herbs, and was forcing his wife Bridget to swallow the bitter concoction. Again, he asked if she was his wife. She replied, in God’s name, that she was. But Michael was unconvinced. To him, the woman before him was not Bridget. She was an evil fairy, a changeling, that had taken his wife’s form. And within the next 24 hours, he would kill her.

Michael’s murder of his wife made international front-page news in 1895. In England, the case—described in detail in contemporary accounts and a number of books since, including Irish historian Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary—was proof of Ireland’s backward ways, a place where superstition ran rampant, with fatal effects. But in Ireland, Bridget’s murder spoke to something more sinister—what happened to women who stepped outside society’s expectations.

When Bridget ventured out to deliver eggs on March 4, 1895, a dusting of snow still covered the dirt roads of Tipperary.
When Bridget ventured out to deliver eggs on March 4, 1895, a dusting of snow still covered the dirt roads of Tipperary. IrishFireside/CC BY-SA 2.0

Born in 1869, Bridget Boland was intelligent, beautiful, and independent. In many ways, she fit the definition of the late 19th century’s “New Woman,” says literature scholar Kristin L. Bone, who wrote about Cleary’s murder in Women and the Abuse of Power. Bridget was a dressmaker and milliner, and also sold eggs, largely supporting herself.

The Clearys stood out among their neighbors. Both Bridget and Michael were literate and relatively well-off. While many lived in windowless, mud-walled houses with thatched roofs, the Clearys had a stone cottage with a pitched, slate roof and glass windows. Despite eight years of marriage, the pair didn’t have any children—yet another distinguishing factor. “Definitely they were different,” says Henry O’Connell, a psychiatrist who examined the case in the Irish Journal of Medical Science. “They both had means, and she was relatively independent, so that was unusual.”

Many neighbors considered Michael and Bridget’s marriage a happy one. The pair had met 15 miles away from Ballyvadlea, in Clonmel. At the time, 18-year-old Bridget was a dressmaker’s apprentice, an unusual vocation for a girl of her age and modest means. Michael, then 27, worked as a cooper, constructing barrels and other goods. In August 1887, the couple married in a small, stone Catholic church. They lived apart for much of that following year: Bridget in Ballyvadlea, perhaps caring for her ailing mother, and Michael in Clonmel.

Even after Michael and Bridget moved in together, “She often did things like making home deliveries on her own,” says Bone. “A lot of reports say that her husband didn’t like that very much.” But that didn’t stop her from venturing out on March 4, 1895, to deliver some eggs to her father’s cousin, Jack Dunne. The three-mile walk would have been familiar to Bridget, so she likely thought little of the medieval earthen ring fort on Kylenagranagh Hill she passed along the way—a place known to many as a “fairy fort.”

There are an estimated 32,000 medieval ring forts, or fairy forts, such as this complex one in County Roscommon, scattered across Ireland today.
There are an estimated 32,000 medieval ring forts, or fairy forts, such as this complex one in County Roscommon, scattered across Ireland today. West Lothian Archaeological Trust(Jim Knowles, Frank Scott and John Wells)/CC BY-SA 4.0

Even as Ireland modernized in the late 19th century, superstition continued to thrive. In the early 1900s, one Sligo man told an anthropologist, “Nothing is more certain than there are fairies.” Known as the Aos Sí or the “Fair folk,” they are, according to Irish folklore, human-sized mythical beings that live in a hidden world. Like humans, they can be generous, bestowing good favor on those who treat them with respect. Or they can be evil and vindictive, spoiling milk and damaging crops. Often, if something went wrong in 19th-century Ireland, it was the fairies’ doing. And fairy forts, like the one Bridget passed that Monday morning, were said to be where they lived.

Throughout early medieval Ireland, protective earthen and stone ring forts were often constructed around settlements. But as they were abandoned over time and the settlements within disappeared, the ring walls became home to folklore. Today, the forts still dot the Irish countryside, and continue to be associated with misfortune. In 2017, an Irish politician even blamed road damage on nearby fairy forts.

In 19th-century Ballyvadlea, locals believed, “If you walked too close to a fairy circle, you might get snatched by a fairy,” says Bone. They would often take young children or pretty women. “It was believed that fairies had trouble producing children on their own sometimes, so they would take pretty mortals to embolden their line,” Bone adds. In their stead, fairies left behind a changeling, a fairy made to resemble the stolen person. Often, a changeling could be identified by their strange actions, falling sick, or looking slightly different from the human they had replaced.

“A lot of [those accused of being changelings] were more educated women. They were successful women. They were empowered women,” says Bone. “It could be women who didn’t necessarily fall in line with their husbands.” Bone sees similarities between women accused of being changelings and those accused of witchcraft. “The changeling and the witch are just another branch” of the same idea, she says. Both were a means of punishing women who stepped outside societal norms—women like Bridget Cleary.

When Bridget returned from delivering eggs on Monday, March 4, she couldn’t seem to get warm. The next day passed with her shivering in bed, complaining of “a raging pain in her head,” according to Bourke’s account. Over the next few days, her condition worsened and Bridget’s father walked four miles in the rain to fetch the doctor. But he couldn’t come.

Michael tried to fetch him twice more before the doctor finally arrived, nine days after Bridget had fallen ill. He diagnosed her with “nervous excitement and slight bronchitis,” and prescribed some medicine. Later that afternoon, a priest gave Bridget last rites, just in case.

Michael had become increasingly concerned for his wife’s welfare and began to look for a supernatural cause for her illness. According to his later testimony, recorded in the academic journal Folklore, Michael claimed the ailing Bridget was “two inches taller” and “too fine” to be his wife. Dunne, a local storyteller, or seanchaí, well versed in fairy lore, spurred on Michael’s suspicions, telling him, “It is not your wife is there.” At Dunne’s urging, Michael went to the local “fairy doctor,” Dennis Ganey, for a herbal cure.

John Duncan's <em>Riders of the Sidhe</em> (1911) depicts highly stylized fairies in the Irish tradition.
John Duncan’s Riders of the Sidhe (1911) depicts highly stylized fairies in the Irish tradition. Public Domain

That night, as other men pinned her down, Michael forced Bridget to drink the bitter concoction: “Take it, you witch, or I’ll kill you!” To drive the fairy out, they threw urine on her and threatened her with a hot poker, burning her forehead. Again and again, Michael questioned Bridget. She seemed “​​wild and deranged,” according to the testimony of her cousin Johanna Burke. By the end of the night, however, a quiet seemed to settle in the cottage. Michael was satisfied with his exorcism.

In the morning, for the first time in nearly two weeks, Bridget dressed in her typically fashionable clothes “to give her courage when she would go among the people,” Burke later recounted. That afternoon, several relatives came over for tea. But when Bridget asked for milk, Michael’s paranoia reignited; fairies are said to crave fresh milk.

Michael again took up his interrogation. Bridget told him, “Your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them.” Michael grew incensed, forcing Bridget to eat several pieces of bread before throwing her to the ground. He tore at her clothes, then grabbed a hot stick from the fire, and set the fabric alight.

James Kennedy, a relative, yelled, “For the love of God, don’t burn your wife!”

“She’s not my wife,” he replied. “She’s an old deceiver sent in place of my wife.” Later that night, he buried her in a shallow grave about a quarter mile from their cottage.

Michael spent the next three consecutive nights waiting on Kylenagranagh Hill for the fairies to return the true Bridget. At any moment, he believed, she would come galloping through the ring fort on a white horse. He’d cut her free, and they’d return home, together.

But the authorities came first. On Wednesday, March 20, the police arrested eight people for their involvement in Bridget’s death. After a highly publicized two-day trial in July 1895, Michael was charged with manslaughter. Jack Dunne, Patrick Boland, and four of Bridget’s cousins were also found guilty.

Fifteen years after Bridget's murder, Michael Cleary left Ireland for Montreal.
Fifteen years after Bridget’s murder, Michael Cleary left Ireland for Montreal. National Archives/NAI_GPB_PEN_1910_28

Today scholars still wonder whether Michael was really driven by the belief that fairies had taken Bridget. He was literate and relatively well-to-do, Bone says. When his wife fell sick, he initially sought the help of a doctor, and “that kind of seems the actions of somebody who’s less superstitious.” Bridget likewise might not have believed in fairies, says Irish studies scholar Ellen Scheible of Bridgewater State University. Though their community certainly did, “Michael and Bridget probably would not have even participated in that kind of fairy culture or fairy lore.

“You could imagine a lot of resentment and maybe concern about what their role is in this community,” says Scheible, given their status and possible shunning of local beliefs. As Bone points out, there were also known issues between Michael and Bridget stemming from her independence, “which could lead to, he murdered his wife and made up a story to cover up the fact that he did it.”

But Michael Cleary didn’t act alone. The exorcism and murder were the actions of a community—specifically men in that community. Those involved in Bridget’s murder, says Scheible, were trying to “find a way to maybe publically or culturally punish someone like Bridget Cleary who maybe is occupying a more modern space for women than most folks were able to envision in that time in Ireland.”

The psychiatrist O’Connell wonders if Michael, who didn’t undergo a mental evaluation at the time, was suffering from a condition known as Capgras syndrome. “It wasn’t described until 1923, but it’s essentially a disorder of delusion and misidentification,” says O’Connell, where a sufferer believes an imposter has replaced someone they know. “The nature of the delusion can be colored by the cultural context of the time,” whether that be fairies in late-19th-century Ireland or an alien abduction in the 21st.

Bridget’s murder became a “landmark moment,” says Scheible. Ireland was, at the time, modernizing rapidly and fighting for independence from England, while women like Bridget were experimenting with unprecedented freedoms. And yet, Bridget’s murder “shows the immense power that [the changeling] myth held,” says Bone, and how those myths could be weaponized against women who defied society’s mold.