Bridget Cleary, Sex, Death, Fairies and Other

Bridget and Michael Cleary

Bridget and Michael Cleary

This is the third in a series of posts about fairies as other. I promised, in my first post, to concentrate on fairies as other, particularly in the context of sex and death, because, as MacAllister Stone notes “other is all about sex and death.” Last time I looked at the tragic death of Bridget Cleary, burned because her husband Michael thought Bridget was the victim of a fairy abduction. This time I want to look at the story of Bridget Cleary in the context of sex and death.

In Bridget Cleary we have a woman who is seen as other, an outsider in her community because of her differences, differences which are particularly marked for a woman in nineteenth century Ireland where an assertive, opinionated and financially independent woman without children is very much seen as an anomaly. In the March 29, 1895 >Cork Examiner special report on her death, the reporter, having interviewed locals, describes Bridget as

“a bit queer” in her ways, and this they attribute to a certain superiority over the people with whom she came into contact . . . Her attire . . . is not that of every woman in the same social plane (Bourke 2000, 43).

Bridget was perceived as an outsider, “a bit queer,” even by another outsider.

The attention paid to Bridget Cleary’s clothing and body in the descriptions of her “cure,” in the careful details about the extent of her clothing in the court testimony (presumably, as Bourke suggests, to remove any thought of sexual impropriety) underscore the sexual subtext of the situations. Bourke observes that despite the “prudery” in the eye witness accounts

the violence meted out to Bridget Cleary before her death has an unmistakeably sexual character. On Thursday, when he used a metal spoon, and again, on Friday, when his weapon was a burning stump of wood, Michael Cleary’s actions amounted to a kind of oral rape. On both occasions Bridget Cleary was pinned down and prevented from struggling free, while a substance was forced into her body. . . . [the inquest revealed signs of injury to her mouth and throat] The violence used in holding Bridget down was certainly not sufficient to kill her, but its scale and ferocity would have been enough to terrify her, and to show her and anyone watching just who was master (Bourke 2000, 120).

Michael Cleary may very well have felt he needed to assert himself, not only against the uncanny malice of fairies, but as a man with an assertive, financially independent wife, a wife who may well have had a lover. Most of all, he may have felt it was imperative to assert himself given community pressure regarding his relationship with a wife who had not born him any children, which would have been very much seen as a failing by the community. One reason Bridget was taken by the fairies might have been her childless state; the unvoiced assumption being that since she had no children, that there was some sort of sexual failure, a situation that wasn’t helped in the least by the fact that Michael was nine years older than Bridget and that they spent most of the first few years of their marriage apart except on weekends (Burke 2000, 96).

The standard academic way to refer to fairies taking mortal women is to call it fairy abduction, or, more commonly, fairy rape, particularly in medieval texts. Corinne Saunders, writing about Middle English romances that involve fairy abductions and rapes points out that “What is most striking in all these works is the association of the otherwold with sexual violence or desire for possession of the woman’s body” (Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. 233).

Both Bridget Cleary and Heurodis are perceived as victims of a fairy rape.The fairy king threatens to tear Heurodis limb from limb if she doesn’t come willingly, and tells her that she’ll be taken to the otherworld even if they take her in pieces. Bridget is mistreated physically, dosed with “cures,” verbally abused, then doused with human urine before being burned. The overt physicality of the way Bridget Cleary was treated, the man-handling of her, is an inversion of the customary fairy threat to a mortal victim; with Bridget Cleary, we see mortals abusing what they think is a fairy changeling, though she is a mortal woman—her sex is a huge part of the reason she is treated his way.

Women who are assertive, and independent, who dress better than their peers, women who are financially independent, women who have no children, forthputting women who approach men, fairy mistresses and otherworld women like Rhiannon, these are other. They are potentially dangerous to the community, because they disrupt the natural order, or the perceived natural order. These women who like Heurodis are in the right place and the right time, and who, like Bridget, go to the forbidden liminal areas, are just as disruptive as the ostensible external agency, the fairies, who take them. It’s bad enough to have a child or lover taken by the otherworld, but what’s worse for those left behind are the mortals who go off with their fairy wooer, quite happily, and the abducted mortal women who choose to stay in the otherworld, rather than return to their mortal husband and children.

Bridget Cleary was perceived as dangerous and engaging in risky behavior; Michael Cleary objected to her going to the rath, and did all he could to “bring her back.” Underlying his frantic, desperate efforts, almost certainly, was the fear that Bridget might not want to come back. In court testimony from Johanna Burke, Bridget is said to have told her husband, shortly before he set her on fire, “Your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them.” Michael Cleary asked Bridget, “Did my mother tell you that?” She said, “She did; that she gave two nights with them” (Folklore 1895, 375). There’s a very definite sexual connotation to “she gave two nights with them,” particularly given the numerous references to fairies taking mortal lovers in medieval literature and folklore.

Otherworld folk are not shy about making sexual conquests. Rhiannon is very much seeking Pwyll as her spouse when she comes to the gorsedd in the first branch of the Welsh Mabinogi, Pwyll Pendeuvic Dyfed. The fairy queen in Thomas of Erceldoune is more than willing to take Thomas as her lover, keeping him mute but with her in the otherworld for seven years, before returning him to the tree where she found him, saving him from becoming a human sacrifice. She leaves him with an unwelcome gift, the ability to prophesy, thus converting him from dangerous other, to magical other with a redemptive gift for the community.

In Sir Orfeo, Heurodis returns from the fairy otherworld because Orfeo rescues her, and both return to Orfeo’s kingdom. At the end we are told Orfeo leaves the kingdom to his faithful steward since Heurodis has no children and Orfeo has no heir. We rarely hear or read of otherworld folk having progeny, and when we do hear about fairy offspring, say the child of the Grey Selchie, the offspring are the result of liasons between mortals and fairies, or other otherworld residents, and the children usually come to a bad end. Pwyll’s otherworld bride Rhiannon is scorned by Pwyll’s people because she is childless. Later, when Rhiannon has a child, the child mysteriously disappears. Rhiannon is typical in being less than fecund; otherworld folk are seemingly sterile, and, perhaps consequently, obsessed with taking fertile mortal women, and young children. Just as with other Others, say Gypsies, or whatever a given community’s racial/ethnic minority is, or queers, in stories about fairies and otherworld intruders it’s a case of “They want our women, and our children, and our women want sex/more sex/better sex, and so they voluntarily go with these Others, and leave us, and sometimes, they refuse to come back.”

I think that fear—the fear that Bridget wants to be with the fairies, with the other, is what’s underlying the Bridget Cleary horror. It’s interesting to note, as Bourke does, that in the spring of 1895 that the Irish papers, and some of the English papers too, were carrying stories about the “witch burning” in Clonmel, Oscar Wilde was on trial for sodomy. It’s also the date of the first attested use of “fairy” to mean queer. Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang cite the following reference from theAmerican Journall of Psychology as the first use of fairy to mean queer, or as the OED has it ” A male homosexual”:

“The Fairies of New York” are said to be a similar secret organization. The avocations which inverts follow are frequently feminine in their nature. They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian, requiring the dressing in female attaire, and the singing in imitation of the female voice, in which they often excel” American Journal of Psychology VIII (1895): 216.

I’ve been looking at the connection between fairy and queer for a long time, and I think there are a couple of reasons for fairy being used to mean queer. First, I think it works because there’s an association between fairies and an absence of progeny despite their overt eroticism, and the assumption, for many, that being queer has to do only with sex, that it’s all about sex, and that it’s sex without fear of progeny, just like real fairies.

Next time, I’m going to look again at medieval fairies as ways of dealing with other, and sex, and death.

Here are some references to match my citations.

  • “The ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel.” Folklore. Vol. 6, No. 4. (Dec., 1895): 373-384. JStor link.. This is an anonymous article that reprints the newspaper coverage of the court testimony.
  • Thomas of Erceldoune. Scroll down to the Appendix for the text as printed by Francis Child, as part of the versions of Child Ballad 57 “Thomsas the Rhymer.” You can find Murray’s 1875 edition of the romance here.
  • Ford, Patrick K. trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
  • Bourke. Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. This really is the best study; there’s another slightly more recent book that’s vastly inferior.
  • Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001.
  • Sir Orfeo with text and ms. page images from the Auchinleck ms.
  • Anne Leskaya and Eve Sedgewick’s annotated Middle English edition of Sir Orfeo.
  • A .pdf of a lightly modernized Sir Orfeo from the Norton Anthology of English Literature

Bridget Cleary: Fairy Intrusion in Nineteenth Century Ireland

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

I promised in my first post on fairies as other to look at a fairy intrusion in nineteenth century Ireland, specifically, the fairy burning of Bridget Cleary.

Bríd Ní Chléirigh/Bridget Cleary

Bríd Ní Chléirigh/Bridget Cleary

In March of 1895 Bridget Boland Cleary (Bríd Ní Chléirig) was a trained seamstress, with a good eye for fashion, who owned her own Singer sewing machine. She lived with her husband Michael Cleary and her father Patrick Boland in a small cottage in Ballyvadlea, Tipperary, Ireland. Michael, like his wife, was atypical in that he could read and write; he worked as a cooper. In 1895 they’d been married about eight years; Bridget was 26, and Michael was 35. On the fifteenth of March, Michael Cleary, believing his wife Bridget had been taken by the fairies and that they had left a changeling in her place, having spent three days in various rituals that were intended to force the changeling to leave and bring his wife back from where the fairies had taken her, set fire to her. He and nine others of Bridget Cleary’s relatives and neighbors were tried for her death.

On Monday March 4, Bridget walked to the house of her father’s cousin, Jack Dunne, to deliver some eggs. It was an extremely cold day, and Bridget caught a cold. She spent the next day in bed, and complained of “a raging pain” in her head, and shivers and chills (Bourke 2000, xi, 65). A few days later Jack Dunne came to visit, and, upon seeing the markedly ill Bridget in bed, said “That is not Bridgie” (Bourke 2000, 70). Jack Dunne was well acquainted with fairy folklore, and tales of fairy abductions and changelings, and the remedies and protections against them— as was Bridget’s own mother. By March 9, Bridget’s condition had worsened, and she told her cousin Johanna Burke that she thought she’d caught another cold. Despite the rain and cold, Bridget’s father Patrick Burke walked four miles to the doctor’s and asked him to come (Bourke 2000, 71). When the doctor hadn’t come by the following Monday, March 11, Bridget’s husband Michael walked four miles to Fethard and requested that the doctor come, and then, again, with a more forceful summons in hand from the local health authority, he made the trip again on Wednesday March 13. He also requested that the priest visit. While Michael Cleary was out, the doctor arrives and examines Bridget; he describes her as “nervous,” and prescribes some medicine. The priest gives her the last rites, just in case.

Michael Cleary, in the meantime, concerned, perhaps even despondent over his wife’s condition, has gone back to the doctor. On his way back, he purchases some herbs from a woman in Fethard that were said to be efficacious as a fairy remedy. At the trial Bridget’s cousin Johanna Burke testified that when Michael Cleary told Jack Dunne that he’d purchased herbs as a remedy against fairies, Jack Dunne said: “It is not your wife is there. You will have enough to do to bring her back” (Bourke 2000, 82).

The next day, Thursday March 14, Michael Cleary went to another herbalist; this time, to the locally known “fairy doctor” Dennis Ganey. He purchased more herbs as a “fairy cure.” Traditionally a remedy for someone “taken” by fairies is to boil specific herbs in “new” milk (new milk has properties associated with purification), and then the mixture administered to the patient, which Michael Cleary did. According to the testimony of Johanna Burke, she and William Simpson, and his wife Minnie, met outside of the Cleary’s door that evening.

Witness asked for admittance, but Michael Cleary said they would not open the door. While they remained outside they stood at the window. They heard someone inside saying: “Take it, you bitch, or ‘witch.’ When the door was opened, witness went in and saw Dunne and three of the Kennedys holding Mrs. Cleary down on her bed by her hands and feet, and her husband was giving her herbs and milk in a spoon out of a saucepan. They forced her to take the herbs, and Cleary asked her: ‘Are you [Bridget] Boland, the wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?” She answered it once or twice, and her father asked a similar question. Michael Cleary [witness thought] then threw a certain liquid on his wife. They put the question to her again, and she [refused] to repeat the words after them. John Dunnne then said: “Hold her over the fire, and she will soon answer.” Dunne, Cleary and P. Kennedy then lifted Mrs. Cleary off the bed, and placed her in a kind of sitting position over the kitchen fire, which was a slow one. Mrs Cleary had greatly changed. She seemed to be wild and deranged, especially while they were so treating her (Folklore 1895, 374).

This was the third dose of the herbs in milk; earlier, before Johanna Burke and the Simpsons arrive, Bridget had been forced to swallow two earlier doses, encouraged to do so by being threatened with a hot poker, a poker which left a small burn mark on her forehead (Bourke 2000, 91). Fire, particularly applied to iron, is a traditional method of warding off a fairy, or frightening a changeling into leaving so that the “real” person can return. The “certain liquid” was urine, traditionally believed to force the changeling to flee; Bridget was repeatedly doused with human urine. The neighbor, Michael Simpson, testified that after the third dose of herbs, while Bridget was still lying on the bed, the men “holding her arms on both side, and her head, they lifted her body and wound it backwards and forwards” (Bourke 2000, 92).

On the morning of Friday March 15th, Michael Clary fetched the priest, who performed mass in Bridget’s bedroom, where Bridget was lying in bed. That night, according to Johanna Burke’s testimony, Bridget was dressed, and brought to the kitchen, where, Johanna says

Her father, my brother and myself, and deceased and her husband sat at the fire. They were talking about the fairies, and Mrs. Cleary said to her husband, “Your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them.” He asked her, “Did my mother tell you that?” She said, “She did; that she gave two nights with them.” I made tea, and offered Bridget Cleary a cup of it. Her husband got three bits of bread and jam, and said she should eat them before she should take a sup. He asked her three times: “Are you Bridget Cleary, my wife, in the name of God?” She answered twice, and ate two pieces of bread and jam. When she did not answer the third time he forced her to eat the third bit, saying, “If you won’t take it, down you will go.” He flung her on the ground, put his knee on her chest, one hand on her throat, and forced the bit of bread and jam down her throat, saying “Swallow it. Is it down? Is it down?” . . . I said, “Mike, let her alone, don’t you see it is Bridget that is in it” meaning that it was Bridget his wife, and not the fairy, for he suspected that it was a fairy and not his wife that was there. Michael Cleary then stripped his wife’s clothes off, except her chemise, and got a lighting stick out of the fire. She was lying on the floor, and he held it near her mouth (Folklore 1895 373-76).

Johanna Burke testified that she heard Bridget’s head strike the floor, and then a scream. Her chemise, we learn from the inquest and trial, was ordinary calico; it would have caught fire quite quickly. Mary Kennedy, who was in the back bedroom, rushed to the kitchen where she saw Bridget Cleary lying on the hearth, her clothing on fire. According to Mary Kennedy’s testimony, Michael Cleary said “Hannah, I believe she is dead.” It is at this point that Mary Kennedy saw Michael Cleary reach for the lamp from the table, and drench his wife with paraffin oil, until she was consumed with flames.

James Kennedy testified that when he cried out to Michael Cleary “For the love of God, don’t burn your wife!” Cleary replied:

She’s not my wife. . . . She’s an old deceiver sent in place of my wife. She’s after deceiving me for the last seven or eight days, and deceived the priest today too, but she won’t deceive anyone any more. As I beginned it with her, I will finish it with her! . . . You’ll soon see her go up the chimney! (Bourke 2000, 124).

According to court testimony, at about 2 am the following morning, Michael Cleary asked Johanna Burke’s brother, Patrick Kennedy, to help bury Bridget’s twisted, and partially incinerated corpse. They wrapped the body in a sheet and carried to a boggy area about a quarter of a mile from Bridget’s home. On the 22nd of March, after a week of speculation, newspaper reports, and intensive searching, the Royal Irish Constables discovered the body in a shallow grave. In the intervening time, Michael Cleary, once in the company of his father in law and neighbors, spent three nights at the fairy rath at Kylenagranagh, convinced that he would see his wife emerge on a white horse, at which point he would cut her free, and rescue her from the fairies, much as Janet rescued Tam Lin.

I am absolutely positive that Michael Cleary, and most of not all of the relatives and neighbors who, like Michael, served time for their part in Bridget Cleary’s death, genuinely believed that Bridget Cleary had been taken by the fairies just as Heurodis was taken by fairies in Sir Orfeo. But I think that there are characteristics or aspects of this tragedy that would have provided cause for that belief, in the context of traditional fairy folklore. I’ve already cited MacAllister Stone’s definition of Other as

a term to describe the phenomenon of the outsider, particularly in fiction, who represents some kind of threat to the community—but often, also serves as the agent for the community’s salvation/redemption.

Bridget Cleary very much was an outsider in the tiny community of Ballyvadlea. She was attractive, and forthright, with a reputation for a quick wit, a sharp tongue, and a direct gaze—none of which were common characteristics of young Irish Catholic women in Ballyvadlea. Her wardrobe was much more fashionable than that of her peers, not unreasonable given her talent as a milliner. In addition to her income from sewing, Bridget, like most other women, kept hens, and sold their eggs; egg money, like milk money, was traditionally the property and income of women. Bridget was, then, fairly well off, and hence more independent because of it.

She was known to go for long walks in order to deliver eggs, and to visit the fairy fort at nearby Kylenagranagh. These “fairy forts,” or raths, are remnants of neolithic structures that dot the landscape of Ireland, where they are still seen as dangerous, liminal places, places frequented by fairies in search of mortal game and prey. Moreover, Bridget was married to a man who was nine years older than her, and, at the time of her death, though they had been married for eight years, they had no children; this would be very much seen as odd in an era and culture where women were valued for their fecundity, and men for their ability to get children and hence heirs to work the land in their own turn. In her extremely thoughtful study of Bridget Cleary, Angela Bourke observes “A suggestion that [Bridget] was away with the fairies was a serious reflection on [Michael Cleary] and on their marriage” (Bourke 2000, 96). Bourke builds a careful and well-supported case for Bridget as an outsider in Ballyvadlea, a woman who didn’t know her place, a woman who might even have had a lover, a suggestion that emerged early in the court testimony, but was soon dropped.

In my next post, I’m going to look at the story of Bridget Cleary in terms of fairies as other, and in the context of sex, and death. If you want to read more, and you have access to JStor, here are some references to match my citations.

  • Bourke, Angela. “Reading a Woman’s Death: Colonial Text and Oral Tradition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland.” Feminist Studies. Vol. 21, No. 3. (Autumn, 1995): 553-586. JStor link.
  • Bourke. Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. This really is the best study; there’s another slightly more recent book that’s vastly inferior.
  • “The ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel.” Folklore. Vol. 6, No. 4. (Dec., 1895): 373-384. JStor link. This is an anonymous article that reprints the newspaper coverage of the court testimony.

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