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Behind the Scenes: The Murder of Bridget Cleary

There are few Irish crimes in the nineteenth century that captured more attention than the murder of Bridget Cleary in Ballyvadlea, near Clonmel, County Tipperary in March 1895.

Examinations of the religious, political and sociological attitudes surrounding the case were to uncover Ireland’s attitude towards women, religion and the supernatural, an often sentimentalised aspect of Irish history.

Contemporary newspaper reports of the murder case of Bridget Cleary gauge the political reaction at a time of unrest. The unionist Dublin Evening Mail drew comparisons between the death of Bridget Cleary and the Home Rule question contending that the people of Ballyvadlea were lawless and considered the law of the land an English one, to be ignored. The Freeman’s Journal distanced itself from the crime reporting on ‘the strange death in Clonmel’.

Bridget Cleary was twenty six years old in 1895. A talented dressmaker and egg seller, she was married for eight years to Michael Cleary and without children. Her cousin Johanna Burke would later say in court that the couple were on good terms, she “never saw them quarrel or dispute.” [Crown and Peace Office Crown files at Assizes 1895]

Bridget’s husband Michael Cleary, who was 35 years old at the time, was a cooper from Killenaule, Co Tipperary. The Clearys had met when both worked in Clonmel and had returned to the area where Bridget grew up. With significant income in comparison to their neighbours they were known to be well off, with Bridget owning her own sewing machine.

Bridget had become ill with a cold in the days prior to her death. She had been delivering eggs in Kylenagranagh, the site of a fairy ring, according to local folklore. Over the coming days her house would be occupied by a number of relatives and neighbours amid a growing concern that there was a supernatural element to her illness.  Trial records were later to suggest that this idea may have been put forward by John Dunne, a neighbour who was known to be more aligned with old faery traditions that were dying out in Ireland. [Crown and Peace Office Crown files at Assizes 1895]

Relatives of Bridget Cleary were to become more convinced as the days passed that there was a faery changeling in the house. A faery changeling was a duplicate put in the place of a real person – often a woman or child – after they had been abducted by faeries.

There were several attempts to have the doctor and the priest visit the house, as well as an herbal doctor. As the days passed Bridget’s fever did not improve. By Friday 15th March 1895 tensions were running high in the small cottage with Michael repeatedly asking his wife who she was. She angered him by asserting that his mother had gone off with the faeries. She also stated that she could see the police at the window in an effort to be left alone.

Michael repeatedly attempted to get her to say her name while getting her to eat three slices of bread. When she did not reply to the third time of questioning, he stripped her, doused her in oil and set her alight. He shouted that it was not his wife but a witch he was burning.

There was confusion after the event as members of her extended family were locked inside the house by Michael Cleary.  Later that night he got help from Patrick Kennedy in removing the body from the house. Bridget Cleary’s remains were to be found in the days that followed in a shallow grave close to the house.

National Archives of Ireland hold a number of records relevant to the case, which throw significant light on events in the days leading up to Bridget’s death.

All ten people who had been in the house in the days surrounding the murder were arrested but only the men involved were given sentences ranging from six months to twenty years. Court records from the trial give remarkable detail from those who became witnesses, including Bridget’s cousin Johanna Burke and her ten year old daughter Katie. Court records show Michael Cleary was sentenced to twenty years for his part in the murder and on his release went to Liverpool and then onto Canada.

A significant body of evidence lies in the Crown and Peace records. Originally two separate offices the courts of Crown and Peace were amalgamated in 1877 and were administered by a Clerk of the Crown and Peace, an office similar to the modern County Registrar. Within the Crown and Peace records are the records of the Courts of Assize. The Courts of Assize were the precursor to the High Court. They dealt with the most important civil and criminal matters and sat on circuit twice a year.

Crown and Peace Office Tipperary South Riding Crown files at Assizes 1895 includes evidence and statements of Katie Burke, Alfred J Wansborough, John Dunne, Johanna Burke, Patrick Boland, Denis Ganey, Patrick Egan, Mary Simpson, Thomas Smyth, Henry St Jones and the Rev Cornelius Fleming Ryan, all witnesses to events in the days surrounding Bridget Cleary’s death.

General Prisoners Board records date from 1852-1946 and include minute books, annual reports, penal servitude registers and penal records. These records include the penal records for Michael Cleary, Patrick Kennedy and John Dunne, their neighbour who had been convicted for his role in spreading the faery lore which was to kill Bridget.

Penal records were held for prisoners in the nineteenth century prison system. They hold evidence of the convict throughout his or her incarceration, their record sheet and medical history sheet. Michael Cleary’ penal servitude register (GPB/PEN/1910/28) gives significant detail on his incarceration, including three photographs. John Dunne’s penal record (GPB/PEN/1897/110), includes medical history and his petitions sheet. The penal record for conviction for Patrick Kennedy (GPB/PEN/1899/27), includes two photographs of the prisoner.

The records of the Chief Secretary of Ireland’s Office constitute one of the most valuable collections of original source material for research into Ireland in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The registered papers mainly comprise incoming correspondence of the Chief Secretary’s Office ‘registered’ by a clerk in that office. The correspondence consists of letters, petitions, memorials, memoranda, affidavits, recommendations, accounts, reports, and returns.

The Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers (CSORP) Police and Crime Division holds a report on the case (CSO/RP/1895/6694). This report includes a letter from a magistrate in Clonmel to the under-secretary detailing the inquiry and a necessary adjournment.

A second report from the CSORP Royal Irish Constabulary Office (CSO/RP/1895/6695), includes telegrams from Clonmel detailing the case.

The CSORP Crime Branch Special papers hold a file with accompanying five photographs of the crime scene (CBS/1895/9617/S). The photographs detail the outside of the Cleary house, the room where Bridget slept the kitchen of the house, the second bedroom and the area where Bridget Cleary’s body was discovered.

There is a further file in this series (CBS/1895/9786/S) stating there was a photograph in evidence of the scene of outrage but no photograph has survived. There is only one document on the file.

Petitioning the Lord Lieutenant was the only real hope of obtaining a commutation of sentence in the nineteenth century. Petitions, also known as memorials, were prepared by the convict or by a representative and referred directly, in the first instance to the Lord Lieutenant. He then referred them, via the Chief Secretary’s Office, to the trial judge, the local constabulary and sometimes to the governor of the local gaol to confirm statements made by the convict protesting innocence, age, size of family, or state of health as mitigating factors. All petitions were investigated thoroughly.

The accumulations of documents which gathered as investigations progressed are known as Prisoners’ Petitions and Cases (PPC), from 1778 to 1835, and as Convict Reference Files (CRF), from 1836 to 1853. The convict reference file for Michael Cleary (CRF/1910/Misc/1619) details his petitions for release over the years of his incarceration. This file also includes the petitions filed for Patrick Kennedy, Michael Kennedy and John Dunne.

Records from these collections are used to research crimes throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Ireland. As a research topic the murder of Bridget Cleary is an excellent example of the variety of records the National Archives hold in relation to nineteenth century crime.



Patricia Fallon, Archivist

Kindly reproduced courtesy of the Archives and Records Association, Ireland

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