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By Angela Bourke.

Are you a witch?
Are you a fairy?
Are you the wife
Of Michael Cleary?
—Children’s rhyme from Southern Tipperary, Ireland

So goes a children’s verse recited today in Tipperary, Ireland. But like many nursery rhymes, these playful lines mask a dark event.

Bridget Cleary’s life ended in March 1895 in Tipperary County when her husband, Michael, and some of her relatives — among them her father, aunt and four cousins — burned her to death and buried her body in a makeshift grave.

Family members claimed they had not burned Bridget, who had fallen ill with bronchitis, but only a changeling (an ugly, sick fairy being) left behind when the fairies abducted her.

Bridget & Michael Cleary

Bridget & Michael Cleary

At first Michael had sought medical treatment for his wife, but before long, convinced that Bridget had “gone with the fairies,” he’d consulted a fairy doctor for guidance.

Authorities maintained that Bridget had been tortured and murdered. In a widely publicised trial, Michael Cleary received a 20-year sentence, the other defendants lesser prison terms.

In her far-ranging study, Angela Bourke, an expert in the Irish oral tradition, presents some interesting observations about the young woman’s death and Michael Cleary’s prosecution. The Burning of Bridget Cleary, with 25 pages of notes and a huge cast of characters to sort through, offers a well-drawn portrait of rural Ireland at the dawn of the 20th century. Court transcripts, newspaper accounts and prison records reconstruct the period and events.

There is much to learn in Burke’s book about customs and social conditions, including wage rates for various occupations, prices of goods, dress styles, floor plans of houses, the intricacies of kinship relationships, activities of local police forces and the role of the Catholic Church in rural life

Short excerpt from The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story by Angela Burke

Domestic violence or witchcraft?

Bridget Cleary was murdered just over 100 years ago in a patriarcial society in rural Tipperary
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