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)