VEILED WOMEN SERIES:The Burning of A Faerie Wife – Bridget Cleary

Art by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.

The Burning of A Faerie Wife:

Bridget Cleary – Veiled Women Series



My name was Bridget Cleary and they made a Faerie out of me! But ’twas a false thing they said – that I were a changeling. A Faerie wife. A witch! ‘Twas a falsehood and a wicked one at that. But for all the lies and the deception I have to say perhaps the Faerie folk were involved after all, for ’tis much like their work to play such tricks. Though, hand on my still and lifeless heart I promise ye they did not swap places with me. Oh Lord, I wish that they had! For if that were the case, I would now be supping upon the sweet food of the Faerie rather than feeding the writhing worms that sup upon my poor bones.


He feared me and called me ‘witch’ and so I was given a witches death.


He said “She’s an old deceiver!” and told them all that I was not his wife. He who had been wed to me for many a year. How could he not know me? How could he not? But I saw the wild look within his eyes and I knew what he feared and why.


Ye see, my husband was a godly man but his Mam had given herself to them Faerie-folk when she were younger. For two nights she had been with them and known their pleasures – I know this for she told me so! And it made him afeared that I would go with them too. He trembled to think that I may know their ways and would run from him into the Rath, ne’er to be seen again. Or that I would cast my own Faerie magic upon other men. An Enchantress. I had bore him no young – my poor womb had been barren. And it worried at his head that there were something wrong. It gnawed at the edges of his mind like a rat at a wheat bag, so a last it spilled its contents and took him beyond brink of madness.


And I was fair of face, back when life still ruddied my flushing cheek and breath warmed my sweet pink lips. A handsome woman, so they said. Don’t judge me ill that I say so, for it did me no good in the end. Like many a woman of beauty, I suffered for it. And I know that my husband thought I was too fair for him, he said so often enough. Fair of face and quick of wit, that was me. And modern. But that is not something a woman should be, at least not in Ballyvadlea – the place where I lived and died. Maybe that was my power – a sort of magic that I held? For men to desire me and yet fear my mind and my tongue. If so,  perhaps I was deserving of the name witch? Either way ’twas my downfall, for a woman needs no more magic but that which is between her legs and between her ears for men to want her and yet be afeared of her. That is a potent power she holds right there.


So perhaps that is what terrorised him the most, my husband – not Faerie magic but womanly power?


But this be the Green Fair Isle and the home chosen by them Faerie-folk. And here in Ireland we walk closely with them – the veil being thin between our worlds. We know the stories and the tales off-by-heart for they are spoken on dark nights around warm, crackling hearths. We know of the Kingdom beyond – some call it the Otherworld. And we know of the Faerie Kings and Queens who would take a fancy to a mortal and keep one of us for their own and how after seven full years, on the night of Samhain they would use our mortal blood to pay their tithe to hell. So it is said; and so we believe it! And I know that some who live elsewhere will say ’tis nought but superstition and old-wives tales. Foolishness regarded by no-one but peasants and poor-folk. But there is power enough in our beliefs of the Faerie to strike fear in the heart of a clever-man. A skilled man. A reading man, as my husband was.


That power of belief made him trust old Jack Dunne when he said: “That is not Bridgie!” and it riled up my husband when old Jack said: “It is not your wife in there.”


Aye, there is power enough in our belief in the Faerie to burn a woman alive for it. And call her “Witch!” and “Changeling!” and “Deceiver!” Though perhaps that was a too convenient reason after all? Can ye really use the faith we had in the Faerie folk as a reason for such crimes against me? Does womanly-power make anyone a witch? Does the turn of her fine ankle or the curve of her lips when she laughs make her witch? Does her clever words or her playful ways make her such? And does the glint in the hungry eyes of another man, as he looks a woman’s way warrant her a witches death? Or was my husband a jealous man, green-as-nettles with envy and full of resentment? That I cannot tell ye for we ne’er knew a cross word between us.


Not until those few nights.


This is what I do know, though. I know what he said, my husband – as my head was wrung with pain, and my eyes with tears. He said I were a changeling wife, but I vow that was a lie. For it were no more than a chill that I caught. ‘Twas no more than a creeping illness that had taken over me, I swear to ye from the depths of my cold and silent heart. ‘Twas the shivers from the rain and the wind in the air when I were delivering eggs in Kylenagranagh. I swear that I had not been kidnapped by them Faerie-folk at the Faerie Rath there – no matter what old Jack Dunne said. Aye, I liked to visit the Rath but ne’er once did the Faerie steal me away nor possess my mortal body.  Ne’er once did I sup upon their food nor taste their wine. And I ne’er knowed their other, sweeter pleasures, neither – more’s the pity.


And it weren’t a priest that could help me, though one was called many times over. Could Father Ryan remove my sharp mind? My swift tongue? My pretty face or comely figure? Could he ward away the demon in my husband’s head that whispered darkly to him that other men desired me? That I was too much for him – That he wasn’t enough for me? Was it a priest that could rid him of the devilish notion that I must be of Faerie-kind, for no mortal woman could be as I was?


No! What could a priest do? So like a good woman, I made my confessions but my confessions could not save me. For when such a demon had twisted my husband’s heart and mind, what could possibly have saved me from his abuse?


And nor was it herbs bought as a Faerie-cure from old Denis Ganey that I needed. Only rest and another visit with the doctor from Fethard could have soothed my aching head and body. It was not herbs boiled in new milk that would do me any good. And I didn’t want it neither; for I had not gone anywhere at all, but was right there with them all in my cottage. I were no changeling – even though they said I was. And I told them so! But they forced me to take their Faerie-cure. They held up an iron poker glowing fury-red. They held it up and right close to my face until I took their cure, for iron drives the Faerie away. The faeries cannot stand it. And so twice they forced their herb-cure into me with the furious heat of the cruel poker biting into my skin.


‘Twas a morning. The year of our Lord 1895 and the fifteenth day of March. I had spent many days amongst my family and neighbours in my cottage, living as a Faerie-wife. Living as a changeling. Perhaps Bridget had gone? Perhaps they were right? For I did not feel at all myself that morning as I took up from my bed and dressed. So I sat quietly at my hearth, hoping my shivers and aches would leave me.


They called me by name, so they did. They asked me to tell them if I were myself.


“Are you Bridget Boland, the wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?” they cried out, but they did not heed my answer.


What other answer did I have to give but the true one? And I gave them my truth more than once. But they had the devil in them and they did not want to believe me. They had the word ‘witch’ in their minds and I did not give them the answer they wished for. So they fed me on bread and jam and they asked over and over again, and in the end I had mind to press my lips together in silence – for if they would not hear the truth nor would I speak their lie for them.


And they held me down, so they did! Old Jack Dunne with his sinister stories, four of my cousins and even my own husband. They grasped at my ankles and wrists as if I were possessed, and perhaps I seemed so. Aye perhaps I did. But so what if I fought back as I did, can ye blame me? I beg that you give me some sympathy, for what would ye have done? Would ye have laid stock still while they screamed in your face, holding a poker to your skin so it sizzled like bacon in a skillet? Would ye have held quiet as they flung you upon the ground, pressing a knee into your chest so breath could not come easy? And would ye have laid still as a church-mouse when they pressed food down your throat? Or would ye have fought? I wager not. I wager ye would have had more fire in your belly than that!


And so I fought as he forced the Faerie-cure between my lips – that man who called himself my husband. But by then I was weak. He pinched my nose hard until I couldn’t breathe, until my lungs burned and my face grew as purple as a berry. Then I must open my mouth to breathe in. He screamed at me, his face screwed in rage.


“Take it you bitch!” he screamed and thrust the spoon forward so it clacked hard on my teeth, dropping the mixture onto the back of my tongue so it clogged in my throat. Making me gag.


“Take it you witch!” he bellowed at me as he threw his own bitter juices upon me from his chamber pot, dousing my face in his filthy waste.


Jack Dunne, he liked the flame. He encouraged them further, wicked as it was. “Hold her over the fire, and she will soon answer.” he cried and I saw that his eyes bright and fevered as he spoke his gleeful words, as if he himself were possessed.


And I did try to tell them. I spoke aloud to them all, vowing upon Our Lord God:

“I am Bridget Boland, daughter of Pat Boland in the name of God!”


Aye, I told them. But telling them weren’t enough. Not for them. Not for him, Michael Cleary – for my truth was not his. He knew me not as his own Bridget – a seamstress, an egg seller and his wife of eight years, no! Not by then for he saw me only as a wicked imposter. A Faerie thief. A witch! And that demon of hate had wrung at his mind so far that I were all twisted like a dish-cloth wrung dry, so he could not see me at all – even though I was there right in front of him.


“It is not my wife,” that is what he said of me, my husband. He said in front of them all, though they begged him not to burn me.


“I am not going to keep an old witch in place of my wife, so I must get back my wife,” he said as he stripped me of my clothing. Stripped me of what dignity I had left. Stripped me of my self-respect. And so all that was left upon my shoulders was my calico chemise and my shame, for I was ’Witch’.


I screamed as I fell upon the hearth and my head struck upon the ground. Can ye imagine my fear? My pain? My betrayal? And so I lay still, I did. Still as death; just as he had wanted me to before as he held the poker to my face – at last beaten into submission. I admit thatby then there was no more fight left within me. No more spark. What was there left to fight for, I ask ye? What was there left for me? He had stripped me away to nothing but a chemise and shame. Naked humiliation.


“It is not Bridget I am burning,” he said about me. About his own wife, who lay upon the ground. “As I beginned it with her, I will finish it with her!’” and end it he did.


My skin was slick with lamp-oil as he held a burning stick toward my spittle-kissed lips. He would drive the spirit out of me once and for all. He would feed the Faerie-wife with flame. He would let those flames lick hungrily at her flesh, as a lover would. The changeling wife would be destroyed by the heat of the passionate blaze. He would listen with rapture to her harrowing screams. He would watch her writhing body to the climax of her demise, as he choked in ecstasy upon her smoke. She deserved no sympathy and no respect. She deserved no love and no regard for she was ‘witch’ and deserved her witches death.


Aye, my name was Bridget Cleary and they made a Faerie out of me. But I tell you this from beyond the grave – my spirit did not fly up the chimney to its freedom and nor were there was any grey horse for me to return upon. I was not like one of the tales that I knowed so well. Aye, Tam-Lynn may have been saved by his Janet, but there was no-one that could save me. There was no comfort to my ending and no happy-ever-after. There was nought left for me but a make-do shroud and a shallow grave to cradle my blackened remains. Nought left of me but charred flesh flaking from brittle bones.


So that is my story, though it may not be pretty. The last witch burned in Ireland. And though it ain’t much but I have one thing for ye to remember me by. It’s foolish thing really – a wee trifle for they didn’t even give me my name. Perhaps ye know it? I have heard it sung in playgrounds full of bairns with chapped lips, ruddy cheeks and grazed knees. They sing it with laughter and happiness as they skip with their ropes – Lord knows, I hope they don’t know the truth of it!


Are you a witch or
Are you a fairy?
Or are you the wife
of Michael Cleary?



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In 1895, Bridget Cleary was burned alive by her husband because he believed she was a fairy