Historical Notes: Tipperary woman `abducted by fairies'

MEDIA MANIPULATION is supposed to be a 20th-century phenomenon, but in March 1895, when a young woman called Bridget Cleary died in rural Tipperary, her story was spun into newspaper reports that may have helped to bring down a government.

William Gladstone had retired a year earlier, after the defeat of his second Irish Home Rule Bill, and the Earl of Rosebery was Prime Minister. Rosebery was ill, however, and rumoured to be about to resign. More damaging still, his name was being mentioned in connection with the Oscar Wilde scandal. The Marquess of Queensberry was on trial for criminal libel. His hostility to Wilde's relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, had been fuelled by the death in suspicious circumstances of Douglas's older brother, Viscount Drumlanrig, the previous October, for Drumlanrig had been Rosebery's private secretary, and, some said, his lover.

John Morley, Chief Secretary for Ireland, was attempting to introduce a new Land Law (Ireland)Bill. From its first reading in the House of Commons on 4 March, nationalists looked forward to its passing as a liberation and coming of age. For years, Conservative governments had used "coercion" legislation to suppress unrest among Irish tenant farmers whose demands for fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale were still resisted by their landlords. Morley was sympathetic to the tenants' cause, however, and had suspended the Crimes Act. Agrarian "outrages" had all but ceased, but unionists seized every opportunity to paint lurid pictures of the danger of relaxing the law.

Bridget Cleary died when her husband Michael knocked her to the floor in the presence of several of her relatives, and set fire to her clothes. With her cousin, Patrick Kennedy, he buried her body that night, and swore the others to secrecy. News of her disappearance spread, however, and rumours that had circulated during her 10-day illness crystallised into an astonishing narrative.

Relatives and neighbours said that Bridget Cleary had left her home at midnight on Friday 15 March, wearing only her nightdress, and walked across the fields in the company of two men, strangers. She had told her family, they said, that she was going to the ringfort on nearby Kylnagranagh Hill, but that she would ride out of it on a white horse at midnight on Sunday. If her husband could cut her free and hold her, she would stay with him.

Kylnagranagh ringfort was known in local storytelling as the place where the fairies lived. As Bridget Cleary lay feverish with bronchitis, her father's cousin had declared that she was not herself: Bridget had been taken away, he insisted, and replaced with a changeling.

Such a diagnosis could be simply a way of commenting on a disturbing change in someone's appearance, but it could also be a powerful instrument of social control. Legends of fairy abduction are told mostly about women and children, and most enjoin conformity. Bridget Cleary was better looking, better educated and more prosperous than most of her neighbours; she and Michael had no children; she was rumoured to have a lover. The night before her death, she had been dosed with herbs, threatened with fire, and interrogated about her true identity. This ordeal was supposed to have the effect of banishing the changeling and bringing back the "real" Bridget Cleary: a kind of shock treatment, designed to change behaviour.

When Bridget Cleary died the following night, and her neighbours spun their own story, unionist newspapers seized upon it. "How could such a savage people," they asked throughout the weeks that followed, "be trusted to govern themselves?" On 21 June, Lord Rosebery's government resigned, defeated by seven votes on the question of the supply of cordite, and Morley's Land Bill was abandoned.

Angela Bourke is the author of `The Burning of Bridget Cleary' (Pimlico, pounds 10)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor