Analysis: the criminal trial following the 1895 torture and murder of the Tipperary woman was a media sensation home and away

By Ciara Breathnach, University of Limerick and Andrew Sneddon, Ulster University

Recent research has shown that many Irish people believed in the supernatural even in the early 20th century. Modernity, marked by technological, medical, communication and scientific advances, did not halt belief in witchcraft, magical healing, divination or ghosts. In fact, it helped people negotiate a changing and uncertain world.

In 1895, Bridget Cleary was burned to death by her husband and family members, who claimed that they had done so to force fairies to return Cleary, whom the family believed had stolen and replaced with a changeling. A sensation at the time, it is a case seared into the public consciousness since. Access to digitised newspapers and reports about her coroner's inquest reveal new elements of the case and how its public appeal was cleverly orchestrated by early mass media.

Cleary has been the subject of considerable scholarly discussion, notably in works by Angela Bourke, and popularised more recently in music, documentaries and newspaper articles. Lesser known are the full particulars of her inquest held before John James Shee, Coroner for the County of Tipperary.

From RTÉ Archives, Joe Ambrose and Eamon Carr discuss the Bridget Cleary story on The Late Late Show in 1983

Apart from the administrative detail, the five-page document contained three other reports: one from Constable Samuel Somers of Cloneen, another from Dr Crean of Fethard in his capacity as local dispensary doctor (he attended to her at her house on March 13th for "nervous excitement" and prescribed medicine for "slight inflammation from the tubes of the lungs") and a joint post mortem by Drs Heffernan and Crean.

Cases of fire being used to inflict grievous bodily harm were highly unusual and deaths by fire or scalding coming before the coronial courts usually detailed wounds of a more superficial nature. The verdict of the 12-man jury on March 23rd 1895 was that death "was caused by extensive burning". Rather curiously, it added the rider "how or by whom caused we have no evidence to show". The "whom" was a criminal matter, but "how" was part of the remit of the coroner’s inquiry and in evidence.

The doctors found her right side was so badly burned that "her internal organs were protruding through the burned aperture". Paradoxically, they also commented that "there were no great marks of violence on the body". They concluded "no living subject could exist from the same burns of the abdomen … we say death occurred soon after the burns". Cleary's hands were "charred and contracted" and her overall wounds were consistent with someone who was forced to burn but, in the face of irrefutable evidence, the jury could not fathom "how" she sustained such serious injuries.

From RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta's An Saol ó Dheas, a discussion about Angela Bourke's book The Burning Of Bridget Cleary

While this clinical summary of her violent death made no reference to the supernatural or social context in which it occurred, the press were only too happy to do this. 19th-century Ireland saw the rise of provincial newspapers, an increase of professional journalists and an expansion in circulation. Hungry for copy to fill their pages, tales of witchcraft and fairy belief were immediately seized upon and syndicated around the world. So numerous were changeling attacks and murders involving sickly or disabled children in 19th-century Ireland that they did not have much newspaper selling power.

By contrast, the criminal trial following Cleary's burning was a gripping news story. It featured an attractive young woman, hints of infidelity, echoes of witchcraft, a violent death; a culprit in her own husband, a family conspiracy and a cast of supporting supernatural characters such as herb women and "fairy doctors".

Local journalists reacted to news of the case quickly, even poking around the house after her husband Michael’s arrest. From July to December 1895, over 60 reports appeared in British, American and Irish newspapers. A Mexican newspaper, La Voz Del Pueblo, even ran a story on July 13th 1895. A remarkable element of the newspaper coverage is that large sections of the inquest report were published verbatim, which provides an impression of the public appetite for gore.

Linking the Cleary case to the burning of witches during the early modern period was a clever journalistic ploy to attract readers

The Cleary case also fed into a protracted journalistic campaign to denounce continued belief in witchcraft and fairies. Although Irish newspapers, both nationalist and unionist, made money from reporting these cases, they also wanted to challenge the popular beliefs of the poor. At a time when members of the Irish elite were beginning to engage with the vogue for ritual magic, séances and the like, newspapers argued that the perpetuation of such belief was regressive for the lower orders and reflected a superstitious and barbarous past.

Across the political divide, there were differences in tone and content in reports. Some British and American newspapers used anti-Roman Catholic or anti-Irish headlines or text such as "Gross Ignorance Amongst the Irish Peasantry" (the Southern Echo, England, July 11th 1895) or "Darkest Ireland" (The Anderson Intelligencer, South Carolina, July 10th 1895). 

Although this was a changeling case where fire was used in a ritualistic way, the newspapers referred to it as a witch burning. Linking the Cleary case to the burning of witches during the early modern period was a clever journalistic ploy to attract readers. In the popular imagination, witches were always burnt to death, just as Cleary had been. "Witch burning Case" (Glasgow Herald, July 5th 1895) was far more catchy for international headlines and by-lines than "fairy burning". For such reasons, her story has endured and still captures the popular imagination today. 

Dr Ciara Breathnach is a lecturer in history at the University of Limerick and an Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Andrew Sneddon is lecturer in International History at the School of Arts & Humanities and a researcher at the Arts and Humanities Research Institute at Ulster University

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ