“Are You a Witch? Are You a Fairy? Are You the Wife of Michael Cleary?”

Holly Black and Ted Naifeh’s graphic novel The Good Neighbors: Kin came out a few months ago, Holly’s first foray into the medium but not into the subject of fairies with attitude. As I’d expect from the author of Tithe and Ironside, the creatures in Kin are familiar from ballads and folktales: girls with wings, swanmaids, a sprite called Tam, even the nickname “the good neighbors.” They are capricious and high-handed, but bound by strict rules of conduct, just as British Isles fairy lore would have them. When Holly’s character Rue starts seeing these fairies around town, she wonders how much more she can take—after all, her mother disappeared not three weeks ago, and now her father has been implicated in the crime. Kin isn’t precisely a happy story, but Rue still has it pretty good; when I saw Holly speak in November, she said that her jumping-off point for Kin lay in a real-life murder case.

In March of 1895, in rural County Tipperary, Ireland, police found the badly burned body of 26-year-old Bridget Cleary in a shallow, wet grave. The story of the ordeal that lead to Bridget’s death and the court case that followed is told in two books, Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary and Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates’ The Cooper’s Wife is Missing.

The books agree on the bare facts of the case:

March 4 – Bridget Boland Cleary walks from Ballyvadlea to Kylenagranagh on an errand and complains of a headache when she returns home.

March 5 – Bridget is confined to her bed, ill.

March 13 – After being asked several times, Dr. William Crean finally calls on Bridget and pronounces her condition not serious. He leaves some medicine. Father Cornelius Ryan also calls and administers the Last Rites (just in case). This is a lot of activity for one little cottage, and a crowd of neighbors and relatives gathers. That night, they assist Michael Cleary in giving Bridget some herbs that are supposed to act against fairies, threatening her with a poker when she is reluctant.

March 14 – Michael Cleary walks to Kylatlea to get more herbs against fairies. Along with Bridget’s father and four of her cousins, he forces her to drink the herbs boiled in new milk, and asks her three times if, in the name of God, she is Bridget Cleary, the wife of Michael Cleary. Bridget’s father asks her three times if, in the name of God, she is Bridget Boland, daughter of Patrick Boland. It is unsure whether she answers “yes” each time or if her answer at some point fails to satisfy them. They feed her more herbs, which she tries to refuse. They shake her, slap her and throw urine on her, and then they carry her into the front room and put her on the fireplace grate—but this is not the scene of her fatal burning. Later, Bridget’s cousin Johanna Burke would testify that the fire was low, too low to even boil water; Bridget’s nightgown is later found with only a small scorchmark on it. Even the threat of fire, however, was supposed to make a possessing fairy spirit give up its host body, or make a changeling reveal its true form and fly out the window or up the chimney. Neither happens, but the men bring Bridget back to the bedroom anyway. Word comes that Michael Cleary’s father has died, but he does not walk the eight miles to the wake.

March 15 – Father Ryan comes to the Cleary cottage again to say Mass. That evening, Bridget gets up, dresses, and goes into the front room to have tea with Johanna Burke and her cousins, the Kennedys. Michael Cleary refuses Bridget anything to drink until she has eaten three bites of bread and, with each bite, said that she is Bridget Boland Cleary. When she refuses the third bite, Michael knocks her to the floor and strips her clothes off except for a chemise; he grabs a log from the fireplace and holds the brand in her face, telling her she must eat the third bite or he’ll force it down her throat. A spark catches her chemise on fire.

Michael throws paraffin oil on her, yelling at her cousins that it’s not his Bridget and they mustn’t leave the house until his Bridget comes back. The door is locked, the key in Michael’s pocket.

Bridget is dead. Michael threatens to stab Patrick Kennedy unless the young man helps him wrap the body in a sheet and bury it. They take a shovel, later found by a policeman with an oily handprint on the haft, and carry the body to the corner of a nearby field. Michael Cleary maintains that the real Bridget will meet them at the Kylenagranagh fairy fort three nights hence, riding a gray horse.

***

There are innumerable Irish folktales that deal with fairy changelings and how to ward off fairies. Bridget’s walk to Kylenagranagh on March 4th may have taken her near its fairy fort, or ráth, the raised round foundation of an ancient building believed to be a favorite haunt of the fairies. The fact that she came back and fell ill is another changeling belief: when they take a human, they leave a sickly or old fairy in its place, which is why children with birth defects were often thought to be changelings. If someone went missing and was then found dead, it might be a dead fairy or bundle of sticks enchanted to look like the missing person; Ted Naifah’s drawing of this is one of my favorites in Kin.

Michael was anxious to have Father Ryan come see Bridget; the priest made two visits but was asked two or three times more than that. Even though official Church policy was that there was no such thing as fairies, priests were known to encourage people to turn to the Church when they feared fairy involvement.  The mass, holy water, the eucharist, the sign of the cross and priests themselves were good fairy deterrents.  The Cooper’s Wife is Missing includes the story of the priest who was suddenly surrounded by fairies on his way home one night. They asked him if they would have a share in the Kingdom of Heaven, and said that if they didn’t like his answer they would tear him to pieces. He said, “All right, but first let me ask you a question—do you believe wholeheartedly that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and died for all our sins?” At the question, the fairies shrieked and tore off into the night, and priest continued home. 

The first night Bridget’s family tried to drive the fairy out themselves, they drew on fairies’ fear of fire and cold iron and brought a hot poker into the room. With the same thought they carried Bridget to the fire grate, and according to the stories, when the changeling left, it would fly out the chimney or the windows, but it could come back in the door if they weren’t careful. Fire, faith and cold iron could drive them away, as could urine, hen’s dung and certain plants.  The loved one might return at once or might need to be rescued, as in the ballad “Tam Lin,” from a procession of mounted fairies.  Michael told the Kennedy brothers that Bridget needed them to wait at the Kylenagranagh fairy fort, and when she rode by, bound to a gray horse, they must cut her down with black-handled knives and hold on to her.  He took his tale from various stories, a couple of which are related in Cooper, and he and the Kennedys did go and wait at the fort.

The Irish peasantry was afraid of fairies. They were mischievous, destructive and jealous of mortals; their curses stuck and their gifts turned sour. They were supposed to be able to rub any object on their bodies and produce a magic shilling, which sometimes disappeared overnight and sometimes returned to its owner’s pocket. Both Johanna Burke and Michael Cleary report that, while Bridget was ill, she asked to see a shilling that Johanna had. When Johanna gave it to her, Bridget put the hand with the coin under her blankets and looked as though she rubbed the coin on her leg. She denied it when they asked about it. Both Johanna and Michael might have been lying about the incident, but Bourke thinks it may have happened.  She raises the question of why Bridget would have teased them so but has no answer.

***

It was a shocking and bewildering crime, no less in 1895 than it is now. In an attempt to make sense of Bridget’s murder, both The Burning of Bridget Cleary and The Cooper’s Wife is Missing address the prevailing issues of the day: rural evictions and unrest, the Catholic Church’s efforts both for and against Irish nationalism and the widening gulf between the “old Irishry” and the British model of a modern citizen.

The contextual chapters in both books are mostly interesting, although sometimes they spend a long time for relatively little payoff in relevance. The Cooper’s Wife is Missing is guiltier of rambling, although its section on the subsequent trial is well filled-out and includes details of the prosecution’s tactics that I found interesting; at first, they were trying to discredit all fairy lore and even implicate the Catholic Church in Bridget’s death for closing its eyes to pagan superstitions. That tack got ix-nayed quickly, however. I also like that The Cooper’s Wife is Missing includes fairy folklore, providing a richer framework in which to try to understand the stories that shaped Michael Cleary’s beliefs; The Burning of Bridget Cleary is rather sparse in that direction. On the other hand, Cooper sometimes takes its style too far. I nearly put the book down several times after encountering passages like this:

A similar thought that Bridget may have willingly gone off with some fairy prince disturbed the jealous husband even more. Bridget Cleary was his wife and belonged to him. Only he had the right to possess her, and he’d be damned in hell before he allowed some fairyman to be riding off with his wife.

These thoughts must have obsessed Michael Cleary as he paced back and forth in front of the fireplace (244).

Cooper authors Hoff and Yeates get swept away by parts of the story, sometimes telling it from the inside. I wasn’t always sure what to believe, and I would have floundered even more if I hadn’t gotten a solid idea of events from Bourke, whose conjectures are sociological rather than narrative and more clearly separated from what she can prove. She has access to what people said at the trial and what newspapers wrote, and even though it’s counterintuitive to explore such a personal crime from the distance of Church, state, and history, those are also matters of record more than what we really want to know—what was Michael thinking? What were any of them thinking? That’s gone forever, and maybe it’s because I read Bourke’s Burning first, but I felt like her detachment is out of respect for Bridget and even Michael and the minor players. She writes,

The kitchen in Ballyvadlea was another crucible: a microcosm of a larger world in which political and economic issues exerted inexorable influences on the lives of individuals. Like the people of…Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, the people of Ballyvadlea in 1895 were playing out a drama whose larger parameters were not of their own making. (234)

Look—there is no excuse, no reason, for Bridget’s murder, whether or not she was having an affair with the egg man or visiting fairy forts, and there were many men like Michael Cleary who managed not to kill their wives, no matter what fairy beliefs they or their neighbors still held. Still, it happened, and we can look back and try to understand why without glamorizing the violence just because it was done in the name of something mysterious and romantic. And the fairy lore is interesting. In her graphic novel, Holly Black wonders, what if it were true? What if Bridget did get taken by the fairies? But she gives that plot to her protagonist, Rue, and lets Rue research Bridget Cleary at the library. “I think about Bridget Cleary,” Rue says. “I think about how we all think we’re safe with our families.”

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