Cleary, Bridget (1867–95), dressmaker, was born in Ballyvadlea, near Cloneen, Co. Tipperary, daughter, and apparently the youngest child, of Patrick Boland , a farm labourer, and his wife, Bridget (née Keating). This was probably in February 1867, although most contemporary sources give Cleary's age at the time of her death as twenty-six. Her burning to death in the kitchen of her own home on the night of 15–16 March 1895 was widely reported in Ireland and internationally, and became a cause scandaleuse in the context of debates on home rule and of the Irish literary revival, as Irish vernacular narratives, imputing anomalous events and behaviours to fairy intervention, faced the logic of law courts and print media.
Bridget Boland attended the primary school of the Sisters of Mercy in Drangan, some four miles from her home, and was later apprenticed to a dressmaker, possibly in Clonmel. In August 1887 she married Michael Cleary, a cooper, originally from Killenaule, Co. Tipperary. He continued to work in Clonmel, visiting his wife at weekends in her parents’ home, a tiny cottage near Ballyvadlea Bridge, where Bridget seems to have been responsible for nursing her ailing mother. In the early 1890s the Clearys became occupants of a new labourers’ cottage built by the Cashel poor law guardians in Ballyvadlea, under the terms of the Labourers’ (Ireland) Act (1883), and shared the house with her father, the named tenant. Michael Cleary built up a coopering business locally, while Bridget earned money by dressmaking and selling eggs. By 1895 the couple had become conspicuous in their community on several counts. More prosperous than most of their neighbours, they had no children, and their friendship with William Simpson, caretaker of a neighbouring evicted farm, was unpopular; there were reports of an affair between him and Bridget.
When Bridget Cleary fell ill with bronchitis in the days after 4 March, her husband and father summoned Fethard dispensary doctor William Crean and the local curate, Cornelius Ryan of Drangan, who visited her twice and said mass in her house. When Dr Crean delayed for several days, however, they consulted a ‘fairy doctor’ called Denis Ganey (or Gahan), from Kyleatlea, on the northern slopes of Slievenamon. Rumours based on well-known oral legend began to circulate in the area, suggesting that the ‘real’ young woman had been abducted by fairies and a changeling left in her place. Patrick Boland's cousin John Dunne, aged fifty-five, illiterate, but well versed in oral traditions, is named in several sources as their originator.
Ritual interrogation by a group of male relatives and neighbours, designed to effect a ‘cure’, included dousing Bridget Cleary with urine as she lay in bed and carrying her to the fireplace in the adjacent kitchen, where men held her above a low flame until she answered her name. After this ordeal, and dosings with herbs obtained from Ganey, Bridget Cleary was pronounced recovered (from her illness or from the fairies), on the night of 14 March. The following night, however, when the house was again crowded with her relatives, an altercation broke out, during which Michael Cleary knocked his wife to the ground in front of the kitchen fire and violently interrogated her, setting fire to her clothes with a stick from the fire and throwing oil from a lamp over her, so that she burned to death.
With Bridget's cousin Patrick Kennedy, Michael Cleary buried his wife's body in a shallow grave some distance from their home. In the following days, several of those who had been present said they had seen Bridget Cleary leave her house in her nightdress on 14 March and walk across the fields with two men. With others, Michael Cleary kept vigil at the nearby ringfort of Kylenagranagh, saying that his wife would ride out from it among a troop of fairies, mounted on a white horse. This was a theme found in fairy legends and in ballads of the kind being brought to the attention of contemporary readers by students of folklore, among them W. B. Yeats (qv). Rumours of Bridget Cleary's disappearance came to the attention of RIC district inspector Alfred Joseph Wansbrough (b. Somerset, 1857), in Carrick-on-Suir. He instituted an extensive police search, resulting in the finding of the body on 22 March 1895, the arrest of Michael Cleary and eight others, and their trial at the July assizes in Clonmel. Bridget Cleary was buried in Cloneen cemetery on 27 March, under cover of darkness, by members of the RIC, most of her own family being in Clonmel prison at the time.
Newspaper coverage of the story began locally within days of Bridget Cleary's disappearance and extended to the national and international press. Unionist papers used it to portray the Irish as barbarians unfit for self-government, while those campaigning for home rule attempted to dissociate themselves and their readers from fairy legend and belief; a report of the case in the New York Times on 31 March drew on unionist accounts and reflected the growth of anti-Irish feeling in that city.