The Death of Bridget Cleary

Bridget Cleary

I’m not going to lie, being a fantasy writer is one of the coolest possible gigs. Not only do I get to spin my fantasies out onto paper, but I get to spend hours researching some very obscure, and very bizarre, stuff.

In writing Across the Darkling Sea my research took a pretty dark turn – as it so often does when researching magic in folklore. I wanted to steep myself in the mythology of the changelings, but I unexpectedly stumbled on some very real world stories of them instead. One of them is the story of Bridget Cleary.  This is a rough story, be forewarned.

Children’s nursery rhymes often have gruesome histories, and the Irish nursery rhyme ‘Are you a witch or are you a fairy? Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’ is one such. On a cold winters day in March of 1895 Bridget Cleary, a 26 year old seamstress married to the cooper Michael Cleary, fell gravely ill. The pair were liked and respected in their village, but they were a bit peculiar. They’d been married for eight years, but they had no children (an oddity at the time). And Bridget was an independent sort – always wandering around town delivering eggs to her customers and stopping for a spell near the old “fairy forts” outside of Clonmel.

Michael summoned a doctor when his wife fell ill, but the man was slow in coming. It took him over a week to get there, and in the meantime, Michael became increasingly convinced his wife had been taken by fairies, the sickly thing left behind a creature of magic and deceit – a changeling.

Michael became obsessed with banishing the changeling. Bridget’s aunt and uncle reported a house full of villagers chanting and performing rituals to try to banish it, while Michael, Bridget’s brother, and a handful of villages forced herbs boiled in milk down her throat, threw urine on her, and held her over a hearth fire – scorching her – in an effort to cast out the evil forces they believe possessed her.

A few days after St. Patrick’s Day Bridget was reported missing. Folks said she’d been taken by the fairies. Others said she’d sought out the fairies in their fairy forts. But a short time later her body was found, badly charred and mutilated, in a shallow grave nearby. Michael denied having killed his wife. Claiming he’d only “driven out the fairy”, and that he would soon meet his real wife at a local fairy ring. He believed she’d ride out on a white horse to meet him there.

This story and nursery rhyme stuck with me. It’s not unique, certainly. Humans are a violent sort, and easily misled by belief in supernatural forces – whether in the form of faerie or the more modern religious variety. History is littered with the bones and dust of those killed in the name of some ‘purity’ ideal.

It’s that nursery rhyme. ‘Are you a witch or are you a fairy? Are you the wife of Michael Cleary?’ The idea of this being chanted by laughing children as they dance about those very same ‘fairy rings’, clueless about grisly nature of the rhyme, ignorant of the agony and heartbreak Bridget must have felt in her last days and hours as her husband, brother, and everyone she knew and loved brutalized her in the name of ‘driving out the demon’ of her illness. It’s as if they summon that darkness in the breaths between their laughter when chanting such things.

Interesting plot bunny – laughing, innocent children summoning darkness into the spaces between their words as they chant nursery rhymes. I’ll leave that for another day. For today, Bridget Cleary and her rhyme have found a place in my novel, on this blog, and in my heart.

If you want to learn a bit more:

*This one may be a trigger warning for some.*