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The Burning of Bridget Cleary
Five Years in Ireland, 1895-1900
by Michael J. McCarthy, 1901
“Novalis said of Goethe: Let him engage in any task, no matter what its difficulties or how small it’s worth, he cannot quit it till he has mastered its whole secret, finished it, and made the result of it all his own. This surely is a quality of which it is far safer to have too much than too little.” –Carlyle
THE cases dealt with in this and the succeeding chapters are, so far as the public know, quite exceptional cases in Ireland. But the number of people more or less involved in two of them, and the apparent acquiescence of entire localities in some or all of the proceedings, raise them far above the category of ordinary crimes. These cases were hushed up and cloaked, or only partially reported, by the nationalist press of Ireland; and, furthermore, no public condemnation has issued in reference to them from either the pulpit, the press, or the platform–or from the oracle at Maynooth. That is not right. There are thousands of “good, moral, industrious” peasants in country localities in Ireland, who, if they do not firmly believe the superstitions which led to such horrible results in these cases, do certainly border on those beliefs. If these dreadful cases are not indicative of any general condition of intense superstitious depravity in Ireland, but are more or less isolated cases, then our note of condemnation should be all the more distinct and unequivocal. They are cases which occurred during the five years reviewed in this book, and, therefore, come within its purview. Perhaps I attach more importance to them than they deserve. But, at all events, I have come to the conclusion that they afford food for reflection; and that if they are to be narrated at all, they must be narrated in full. Let the reader skip this and the next chapter, if he or she pleases; they do not affect the tenor of the book.
I sincerely pity all the people connected with these tragedies, but I pity still more intensely the many peasants who border upon, if they do not firmly entertain, the beliefs expressed in these two cases. This latter feeling is the gadfly which urges me on, as it urged Socrates of old, to do what little I can to crush out those remnants of savagery which should by this time be as extinct as the snakes in this so-called “Island of Saints.
The earliest knowledge we have of the Ballyvadlea case was what occurred on Wednesday, March 13, 1895. It was on Thursday the 14th that the brutal tragedy began, so far as the public will ever know, and it was consummated on the night of Friday the 15th, and in the small hours of the morning of Saturday the 16th. Let the reader picture one of those new labourers’ cottages, erected at the expense of the locality, and let by the guardians at a nominal rent, standing in its half-acre of ground close to the public road in the townland of Ballyvadlea, in the county of Tipperary. The district is far from the railway but is well peopled. It is in the parish of Drangan, and, I believe, in the Cashel archdiocese, and all the people connected with the tragedy are Catholics. Father Ryan, the curate, tells us that the Cleary’s were “members of his congregation and under his spiritual charge,” and that he knew them for four years and a half.
Michael Cleary, described to me as “a clever fellow”, and by trade a cooper, and his wife, Bridget, were living in their new labourer’s cottage, then, along with Mrs. Cleary’s father, Patrick Boland. Mrs. Cleary, from all the accounts I can gather, was a handsome young woman, twenty-six years of age, who had been married for some years to Cleary, and had had no children. In the words of Judge O’Brien, she was “a young married woman, suspecting no harm, guilty of no offence, virtuous and respectable in all her conduct and all her proceedings.” Another witness says, “She was nice in manners and appearance.” Cleary’s own words, “She is too fine to be my wife,” point to her physical beauty also. One who had frequently seen her, before this dreadful business, on his way to hunt with the Tipperary hounds, tells me she was distinctly “good-looking.” We have it that she wore gold earrings, and it leaks out accidentally that there is a canister with £20 in it in the house.
On the Wednesday, then, which we shall call the first day, Dr. Crean called to see Mrs. Cleary at her house. He had been summoned on the 11th, and “was not able to go till the 13th.” He found her suffering from nervous excitement and a slight bronchitis. She was in bed, but the doctor “could see nothing in the case likely to cause death.” Dr. Crean then gave her some medicine. He “had no anxiety about the case,” left the house, and never saw her alive again. We, in the light of subsequent events, can well understand her “nervous excitement,” although we are given no clue to anything that happened previous to this, the first day. She herself never uttered a word of complaint to doctor, to priest, or to neighbour, or to a living person, about the agonies she was subjected to–tortures that equal some of the heinous doings of the Inquisition. Or, as the coroner, Mr. J. J. Shee, J.P., to his lasting credit, put it at the inquest, “Amongst Hottentots one would not expect to hear of such an occurrence.”
The next actor on the scene is Father Ryan, who visited Mrs. Cleary on the same Wednesday afternoon. She was in bed. He says that “she did not converse with him, except as a priest, and her conversation was quite coherent and intelligible.” He, also, left her on that day without, apparently, receiving any clue to the persecution and hellish misery of which she was the victim. If an unpierceable brass wall stood between this confessor and penitent, the confessor could not have been further away from the truth as to her condition. He, too, then walked out from that house, on that spring afternoon, as ignorant of and as out of touch with her and those people of whom “he had spiritual charge,” as if he were a marionette.
That is absolutely all we know about Wednesday the 13th. The doctor saw her, thought her illness trivial, prescribed, and left. The curate heard her confession, gave her extreme unction, and left–out of touch with the poor sufferer, who had no friend on earth to whom she could open her inmost heart, and thereby escape from the hideous doom which awaited her. There was no kindly human being in the locality to smell out this nest of horrors, no sharp, sympathetic eye to pierce beneath the surface and probe out her miseries.
We now come to Thursday, the second day. On the morning of Thursday the 14th, Father Ryan says “he was called to see Mrs. Cleary, but he told the messenger that having administered the last rites of the Church on the previous day, there was no need to see her again so soon! He did not consider her dangerously ill.” The priest knew nothing at all, I hope and believe, about what was the matter with her. She, poor thing, was yearning for some one to speak to, but could not get the words out. No need to see her again so soon! A professional ceremony then, it seems, had exhausted the whole duty of the clergyman; a professional ceremony in which, as is proved in this case, nothing vital, nothing essential can have been revealed. The Rev. Father Ryan did not go to see her, then, on the second day. How the forenoon and afternoon of this second day passed will never be known; but it is now our task to narrate the horrors of the evening. “It appears almost incredible,” said Judge O’Brien afterwards at the trial, “that there could be such a degree of human delusion, that so many persons, young and old, men and women, could be so incapable of pity or sympathy with human suffering.” He added that the crimes of that night “had spread a tale of horror and pity throughout the civilised world.”
But, if we are ignorant of the day’s events, as we are of the events of the many previous days during which she must have been suffering persecution, our information as to the evening’s and night’s proceedings are explicit enough. William Simpson, a near neighbour of the Clearys, living only 200 yards off, accompanied by his wife, left their own house between nine and ten o’clock that evening to visit Mrs. Cleary, having heard she was ill. When they arrived close to Cleary’s house they met Mrs. Johanna Burke, accompanied by her little daughter, Katie Burke, and inquired from her how Mrs. Cleary was. Mrs. Burke, herself a first cousin of Mrs. Cleary’s, said, “They are giving her herbs, got from Ganey, over the mountain, and nobody will be let in for some time.” These four people then remained outside the house for some time, waiting to be let in. Simpson heard cries inside, and a voice shouting, “Take it, you b—-, you old faggot, or we will burn you!” The shutters of the windows were closed and the door locked. After some time the door was opened and from within shouts were heard: “Away she go! Away she go!” As Simpson afterwards learned, the door had been opened to permit the fairies to leave the house, and the adjuration was addressed to those “supernatural” beings.
In the confusion Simpson, his wife, Mrs. Burke, and her little daughter, worked their way into the house. From this forward we know some, at any rate, of the doings of the incarnate fiends and cowards assembled within these walls. Simpson saw four men — John Dunne, described as an old man, Patrick Kennedy, James Kennedy, and William Kennedy, all young men, “big, black-haired Tipperary peasants,” as they were described to me by one who had to do with the case from start to finish, brothers of Mrs. Burke and first cousins of Mrs. Cleary, “holding Bridget Cleary down on the bed. She was on her back, and had a night-dress on her. Her husband, Michael Cleary, was standing by the bedside.”
Cleary called for a liquid, and said, “Throw it on her.” Mary Kennedy, an old woman, mother of Mrs. Burke, and of all the other Kennedys present, brought the liquid. Michael Kennedy held the saucepan. The liquid was dashed over Bridget Cleary several times. Her father, Patrick Boland, was present. William Ahearne, described as a delicate youth of sixteen, was holding a candle. Bridget Cleary was struggling, vainly, alas! on the bed, crying out, “Leave me alone.” Simpson then saw her husband give her some liquid with a spoon; she was held down by force by the men for ten minutes afterwards, and one of the men kept his hand on her mouth. The men “at each side of the bed kept her body swinging about the whole time, and shouting, ‘Away with you! Come back, Bridget Boland, in the name of God!’ She screamed horribly. They cried out, ‘Come home, Bridget Boland.’
From these proceedings Simpson gathered that “they thought Bridget Cleary was a witch,” or had a witch in her, whom they “endeavoured to hunt out of the house by torturing her body.”
Some time afterwards she was lifted out of the bed by the men, or rather demons, and carried to the kitchen fire by John Dunne, Patrick, William, and James Kennedy. Simp-son saw red marks on her forehead, and some one present said they had to “use the red poker on her to make her take the medicine.” The four men named held poor Bridget Cleary, in her night-dress, over the fire; and Simpson “could see her body resting on the bars of the grate where the fire was burning.” While this was being done, we learn that the Rosary was said. Her husband put her some questions at the fire. He said if she did not answer her name three times they would burn her. She, poor thing, repeated her name three times after her father and her husband!
“Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?”
“I am Bridget Boland, daughter of Patrick Boland, in the name of God.”
Simpson said they showed feverish anxiety to get her answers before twelve o’clock.
“They were all speaking and saying, Do you think it is her that is there? And the answer would be ‘Yes,’ and they were all delighted.”
After she had answered the questions, they put her back into bed, and “the women put a clean chemise on her,” which Johanna Burke “aired for her.” She was then asked to identify each person in the room, and did so successfully. The Kennedys left the house at one o’clock “to attend the wake of Cleary’s father,” who was lying dead that night at Killenaule! Dunne and Ahearne left at two o’clock. It was six o’clock on the morning of the 15th, “about daybreak,” when the Simpsons and Johanna Burke left the house after those hellish orgies. There had been thirteen people present in Cleary’s house on that night, yet no one outside the circle of the perpetrators themselves seems to have known, or cared, if they knew, of the devilish goings-on in that labourer’s cottage.
At one time during that horrible night, the poor victim said, “The police are at the window. Let ye mind me now! “But, alas, there were no police there!
We now come to the third day, Friday, 15th of March. Six o’clock on that morning found Michael Cleary, the chief actor, Patrick Boland, and Mary Kennedy in the house with the poor victim, when the two Simpsons and the two Burkes were leaving. Simpson says, “Cleary then went for the priest, as he wanted to have Mass said in the house to banish the evil spirits.” This brings us back again to the Rev. Father Ryan, who says, “At seven o’clock on Friday morning I was next summoned. Michael Cleary asked me to come to his house and celebrate Mass: his wife had had a very bad night.” Father Ryan, apparently as completely estranged from those members of his flock as if oceans rolled between, suspects nothing, sees nothing, knows nothing. Cleary “asked him to come to his house and celebrate Mass,” for the celebration of which he was entitled to a fee, and he at once assented to that proposal. Father Ryan arrived at the cottage at a quarter past eight, and said Mass in that awful front room where poor Bridget Cleary was lying in bed. He was the medium through which the miracle of transubstantiation was performed there and then, yet he had no glimmering of the atmosphere of hell in which he stood!
“She seemed more nervous and excited than on Wednesday,” he says, and adds, “her husband and father were present before Mass began, but I could not say who was there during its celebration.” He had no conversation with Michael Cleary “as to any incident which had occurred,” because he suspected nothing. “When leaving,” he said, “I asked Cleary was he giving his wife the medicine the doctor ordered? Cleary answered that he had no faith in it. I told him that it should be administered. Cleary replied that people may have some remedy of their own that could do more good than doctors’ medicine.” Yet, Father Ryan left the house “suspecting nothing.” “Had he any suspicion of foul play or witchcraft,” he says, “he should have at once absolutely refused to say Mass in the house, and have given information to the police.” We have no personal censure for him. He too is a victim–the victim and the product of a system as rigid as iron, to discuss which would require a separate book.
After Father Ryan had said his Mass and left, she remained in bed. Simpson saw her there at midday and never saw her afterwards. His excuse for his presence and non-interference on Thursday night is that “the door was locked, and he could not get out.” We find the names of still more people mentioned as having visited her this day. Thomas Smith, a farmer, of Ballyvadlea, was ploughing in one of his own fields, adjoining Cleary’s house, on this day, and “hearing that she was ill, went in to see her.” He only remained ten minutes, and went home. Other names are also mentioned as having been in the house that day–Meara, Tobin, Anglin, Leahy, who called to see her also. Yet not to one of them did she utter a complaint, let us hope, about the persecution she was undergoing; nor do they seem to have noticed anything strange in what they must have seen and heard in that house. She seems, judging from the number of visitors, to have been extremely popular. Johanna Burke seems to have been in the house the greater part of this day. At one time she tells how Cleary came up to the bedside and handed his wife a canister, and said there was £20 in it. She, poor creature, took it, tied it up, “and told her husband to take care of it, that he would not know the difference till he was without it.” She was “in her right mind, only frightened at everything.” No wonder. Her brain must have been a particularly good one not to have become unhinged.
At length the night fell upon the scene; and, at eight o’clock Cleary, who seems to have ordered all the other actors about as if they were hypnotised, sent Johanna Burke and her little daughter Katie for “Thomas Smith and David Hogan.” Smith says, “We all went to Cleary’s, and found Michael Cleary, Mary Kennedy, Johanna Meara, Pat Leahy, and Pat Boland in the bedroom.” The husband had a bottle in his hand, and said to the poor bewildered wife, “Will you take this now, as Tom Smith and David Hogan are here? In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!” Tom Smith, a man who said “he had known her always since she was born,” then inquired what was in the bottle, and Cleary told him it was holy water.
Poor Bridget Cleary said “Yes,” and she took it. She had to say, before taking it, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” which she did. Smith and Hogan then left the bedside and “went and sat at the fire.” Cleary told them that his wife, “as she had company, was going to get up.” She actually left her bed, put on “a frock and shawl,” and came to the kitchen fire. The talk turned upon pishogues, or witchcraft and charms. Smith remained there till twelve o’clock, and then left the house, leaving Michael Cleary (husband); Patrick Boland (father); Mary Kennedy (aunt); Patrick, James, and William Kennedy (cousins); Johanna Burke, and her little daughter Katie (also cousins), behind him in the house. Thomas Smith never saw Bridget Cleary after that. According to Johanna Burke, they continued “talking about fairies,” and poor Bridget Cleary, sitting there by the fire in her frock and shawl, wan and terrified, had said to her husband, “Your mother used to go with the fairies; that is why you think I am going with them.”
“Did my mother tell you that?” exclaimed Cleary.
“She did. That she gave two nights with them,” replied she.
This shows us that Cleary had drunk in superstition with his mother’s milk. Johanna Burke then says that she made tea and “offered Bridget Cleary a cup.” But Cleary jumped up, and getting “three bits of bread and jam,” said she would “have to eat them before she could take a sup.” He asked her as he gave her each bit, “Are you Bridget Cleary, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?” The poor, desolate young woman answered twice and swallowed two pieces. We all know how difficult it is, when wasted by suffering and excited by fear, to swallow a bit of dry bread without a drop of liquid to soften it. It, in fact, was the task set to those in the olden days who had to undergo the “ordeal by bread.” How many of them, we are told, failed to accomplish it! Poor Bridget Cleary failed now at the third bit presented to her by the demon who confronted her. She could not answer the third time.
He “forced her to eat the third bit.” He threatened her, “If you won’t take it, down you go!” He flung her to the ground, put his knee on her chest, and one hand on her throat, forcing the bit of bread and jam down her throat.
“Swallow it, swallow it. Is it down? Is it down?” he cried.
The woman, Burke, says she said to him, “Mike, let her alone, don’t you see it is Bridget that is in it,” and explains, “he suspected it was a fairy and not his wife.”
Let Burke now tell how the hellish murder was accomplished: “Michael Cleary stripped his wife’s clothes off, except her chemise, and got a lighted stick out of the fire, and held it near her mouth. My mother (Mary Kennedy), brothers (Patrick, James, and William Kennedy), and myself wanted to leave, but Cleary said he had the key of the door, and the door would not be opened till he got his wife back.”
Wanted to leave! Cowards, dolts!” They were crying in the room and wanting to get out.” This crowd in the room crying, while Cleary was killing their first cousin in the kitchen.
“I saw Cleary throw lamp-oil on her. When she was burning, she turned to me” (imagine that face of woe!) “and called out, ‘Oh, Han, Han!’ I endeavoured to get out for the peelers. My brother William went up into the other room and fell in a weakness, and my mother threw Easter water over him. Bridget Cleary was all this time burning on the hearth, and the house was full of smoke and smell. I had to go up to the room, I could not stand it. Cleary then came up into the room where we were and took away a large sack bag. He said, ‘Hold your tongue, Hannah, it is not Bridget I am burning. You will soon see her go up into the chimney.’ My brothers, James and William, said, ‘Burn her if you like, but give us the key and let us get out.’ While she was burning, Cleary screamed out, ‘She is burned now. God knows I did not mean to do it.’ When I looked down into the other room again, I saw the remains of Bridget Cleary lying on the floor on a sheet. She was lying on her face and her legs turned upwards, as if they had contracted in burning. She was dead and burned.”
Cleary next asked Patrick Kennedy to assist him in burying the body “until such time as he could lay her beside her mother.” According to his sister, Mrs. Burke, Patrick Kennedy at first refused. His own account, when charged before the magistrates, was that he went with Cleary to bury her “for fear he would be killed.” He had nothing to do, he said, with the actual burning on that night; he “heard a roar” from the room in which he was, that was all; adding, “I am cracked after it for to see my first cousin burned.” James Kennedy said, in court, that “on the second (Friday) night he asked Cleary for the love of God not to burn his wife; and he added that they had gone three nights to the Fort at Kylenagranagh, but did not see anything.
As this is the first mention of the word “fort,” let me say at once that it means a ring fence, or double ring fence, of simple earth, thrown up in ancient times by the Danes, or other settlers in Ireland, after the manner of a Zulu kraal. The South of Ireland is studded with them; and though they are often most inconveniently situated on tillage land, and though their destruction presents no features of difficulty whatever, beyond merely levelling the fence, they have been preserved, from a superstitious dread of ill-luck to anyone who ventured to destroy them. I am informed that people in Ballyvadlea believe that a person being near this fort at night is liable to be struck with rheumatism, paralysis, and so forth! Those accursed, unlovely, and useless remains of barbarism should be levelled to the ground by every man who wishes to see Ireland prosper. I myself know a score of farmers who have these forts on their land: all farmers of the best class, comfortable, rational, hospitable, intelligent, keen men of business; yet, not one of them has the courage to remove these nuisances from their holdings, although they continually grumble at the inconvenience they cause.
Observe, now, the cool generalship displayed by Cleary. William Kennedy says that “when he came out of the room he saw Bridget Cleary blazing; he asked Cleary what he was doing. Cleary said it was nothing to him. He asked to be let out. Cleary wouldn’t let him.”
No! But “Cleary himself then went out and locked the door after him,” and left those four male and three female human beings in the house with the burned body. Out into the night with him, searching, no doubt, for a trusty, secret spot in which to put the body. The hiding-place he selected was over a mile distant from the cottage! “When he came back he got Pat Kennedy to go out with him,” and they buried her! Yes, and so well selected was the spot, that the body was not found for six days afterwards by the police.
Now, behold Cleary and Patrick Kennedy returning again to the house, having got rid of their horrible burden, after an absence of two hours. Johanna Burke says, “My mother, my two brothers, Pat Boland, my daughter, and myself were made prisoners till they came back.” Cleary had locked the door on the outside! Cleary then, on his return, confronted Johanna Burke, and she says, “He told me to say that I went to prepare her a drink, and, when returning, met her at the door, and that she spat at me and went out of the door, and that I could not say where she went to.” That was the story to be concocted to explain her disappearance. Cleary said that “he would go down towards Cloneen and pretend he was half mad.” Then he said to Johanna Burke, “Hannah, it is hard to depend on you; but if you were to be kept in jail till you rot, DON’T TELL.”
Johanna Burke then says, “I went down on my knees and declared before God and man that, until the day I died, I would never tell, even if she was found.” Cleary next faced his father-in-law, and, including Johanna Burke in his glance, said, “I dread the two of you.” Old Boland said, “Now that my child is burned, there is no use in saying anything about it; but God help me in the latter end of my days!”
It was now daylight on Saturday morning, the 16th of March, the fourth day; and Johanna Burke “saw Michael Cleary washing the trousers of his light tweed suit that he had on him. There were stains like grease on it, and he exclaimed, ‘Oh God, Hannah, there is the substance of poor Bridget’s body!'” He also picks up one of his wife’s earrings and destroys it, lest it should be evidence against him. John Dunne, who was not present at all on the Friday night, now reappears upon the scene. He is the man who is said to have suggested holding her over the fire on the Thursday night; but, in extenuation, he says “they did not burn her that night; they only held her over the fire!” On this Saturday morning he came up to Cleary’s house, and “found her gone.” Cleary, in explanation of her disappearance, told him the story which he had already concocted for Johanna Burke, adding that “he thought she was gone with the fairies.” Dunne offered to search for her, and Cleary accepting his offer, the two men set off for Kylenagranagh fort, and searched it, and the whole neighbourhood near it.
Cleary said, “She used to be meeting an egg-man in the lower road about a mile and a half away.” The peasant women, living in the by-roads, used to come out with their eggs, to meet this egg-man on the main road. A proof of Bridget Cleary’s thrift, Cleary now insinuates to Dunne that he thought it possible that she actually had gone to meet the egg-man!
Having searched everywhere in vain, Cleary could not keep up the self-restraint any longer, and he burst out, “She was burned last night!” Ignorant and deplorable a human being as Dunne may be, there is some spark of energy and manliness in his character, and I believe his story.
“You vagabond,” said Dunne, “why did you do it?”
“She was not my wife,” replied Cleary; “she was too fine to be my wife. She was two inches taller than my wife.”
But Dunne brushed him aside, and said, “Go now and give yourself up to the authorities and to the priest. You will have no living on earth.”
Cleary replied, “Well, I will if you’ll come along with me.” Dunne consented, and they went towards Drangan. They met Michael Kennedy on the road, and he went back to Drangan with them. He had not been present at the Friday night’s doings either. There are various versions of how the communication was made to the priests. Father Ryan says “he saw Cleary kneeling near the altar, very nervous, and asked him into the vestry;” that Cleary “suggested going to confession, but I would not allow him, as I did not think him fit to do so! I coaxed him into the yard. I began to feel afraid of him.” Not fit to do so! Is not repentance the only cure for agony of mind? Michael Kennedy took away Cleary from the precincts of the chapel without confession.
John Dunne says he told the Rev. Father Ryan that “they had burned her to death last night and buried her; and that he had been asking Cleary all the morning to give her Christian burial.” Christian burial; wait until you hear the sequel of the case! Father Ryan says “he was horror-struck, and could not remember what reply he made; his only thought was, How could three or four of them go out of their minds simultaneously!”
Suffice it to say, the priests only told the police that “they suspected there was foul play,” and, with this vague direction, blind-folded Justice was started on the track.
John Dunne says he told the Parish Priest, whose name has not been allowed to appear in print in connection with the case, and which I shall not mention either. Dunne says that as they walked home from Drangan they saw a policeman following them. Justice, in the person of Acting-Sergeant Egan, met Cleary later on in the day “on the road near Cloneen,” where Cleary said he would go, “and pretend to be half mad,” you remember. Acting-Sergeant goes to Cleary’s house with him, asking him questions about his wife. Cleary tells him “she left home about twelve o’clock last night,” and mentions that “Johanna Burke had been at the house last night,” and also that his father-in-law had slept in the next room. The two people whom Cleary had coached, you remember, in the morning. Not much madness here, only the pretence of madness, which he foretold in the morning he would assume. Pat Boland is also there, and in reply to a query, cries and says, “My daughter will come back to me.” The restless Acting-Sergeant goes off; but returns at ten o’clock at night, and finds the house deserted and doors locked–like some hellish theatre after the tragedy had been performed! Gets himself in through the window, and finds a burned night-dress. Where Cleary and Boland were we do not know. Simpson does not appear to have seen Cleary at all on this day, Saturday.
Johanna Burke is taken in hands by the police, and deposes: “I was at the house on the night of the 15th. Bridget Cleary was raving. After some time she got up and dressed, and sat at the fire. She afterwards went to bed. I went out for some sticks. When I returned I met her at the doorway, going out in her night-dress. I endeavoured to hold her and failed. Since that night I have not seen her. Her husband followed her some time and returned. He did not see her. She is missing ever since, and they made search for her.” Simpson also deposes what he knows of Thursday night’s doings, before quoted, and says “he heard she was missing since Friday night.”
Now, blindfolded Justice, double-bandaged, what are you to do? You can arrest the five Kennedys, mother and sons, and John Dunne and William Ahearne and Cleary and old Boland, or watch them like a cat watching wicked rats; and keep your Burke and your Simpson, your mainstays, close in hand. All of which things are well done. These rats, then under surveillance of the cats of justice, are allowed to play for a day or two.
Sunday, the 17th of March, St. Patrick’s Day, now dawns. Moore’s words, associated with this national holiday, are inappropriate in Ballyvadlea to-day:
“Though dark are our sorrows, to-day we’ll forget them,
And shine through our tears like a sunbeam in showers;
There never were hearts, if our rulers would let them,
More formed to be grateful and blest than ours.”
Our rulers cannot well be blamed for this sad business in Ballyvadlea, our political rulers!
Simpson saw Cleary on this Sunday morning, and Cleary told him that “his wife left home at twelve o’clock on Friday night.” Between seven and eight that evening, Simpson saw him again, and Cleary asked him for a revolver, saying “that these parties who had convinced him about his wife would not go with him to the fort”–that execrable fort at Kylenagranagh Hill. “It appeared to me,” says Simpson, “that they had convinced him that his wife had gone with the fairies. The fort was supposed to be a fairies’ habitation. He said she would be riding on a grey horse. She told him so. And he said they should cut the ropes tying her on the saddle, and that she would then stay with him, if he was able to keep her.” Simpson refused to give him the revolver. What a pity Simpson had not got his revolver with him on the Thursday night! Simpson afterwards saw Cleary going to the fort with a big table-knife in his hand, to cut the ropes and set her free from the grey horse, presumably! Did he think of suicide, or was he still keeping up the pretence of madness?
During the interval that now elapses between the 17th and the 21st of March, the police are busily searching for the body, assisted by Michael Kennedy, who was not in the house on the Friday night. The police, thus set upon a false scent, under that able young man, District – Inspector Wansbrough, who certainly deserves to rise high in the Royal Irish Constabulary, proceed to search and scour the entire countryside. Railway stations are watched; farmhouses and outhouses are searched; fields, woods, glens, and brakes are tried in all directions; ponds and rivers are dragged! Neither priests nor participators give any assistance to the police.
At length, when, after several days, no trace is discovered of this woman who had left her house at midnight, arrayed only in her nightdress, District-Inspector Wansbrough rightly concludes that she must be dead. If Bridget Cleary’s body was not discovered, no further effective proceedings could be taken. No crime whatever could be laid to the charge of those people. It seemed a hopeless quest that the police now entered upon. Hundreds of square miles of country to search for one poor half-burned body lying in a few square feet of earth! No assistance, no clue, though so many people around them knew everything!
All the parties — Cleary himself, Boland, Dunne, the five Kennedys, and William Ahearne–were arrested. The neighbourhood was astir with the mystery of the missing woman. On the 21st the prisoners are brought before the magistrates, in open Court, at Clonmel; Simpson’s depositions and Johanna Burke’s false Cleary-concocted story being the only basis on which the prosecution has to work. Denis Ganey, who is said to have supplied the herbs, is arrested, but afterwards released. There was no case against him whatever. His herbs were, perhaps, as good as much of the stuff called doctors’ medicine. Nothing was elicited to elucidate the mystery. Cleary, Pat Boland, Pat Kennedy, and his mother and two brothers, all kept their secret well. Old Boland goes so far as to say from the dock, “I have three more persons that can say she was strong the night she went away; she got up and dressed.” This would go to prove, you see, that what they had done to her on the Thursday night–which was all they were charged with so far–had inflicted no serious injury on her, was, in fact, a fatherly kind of curative treatment! Their ‘cute-ness is the most astonishing thing about all this gang of people. Their appearance, under arrest, in the streets of Clonmel, was greeted with “yells, hisses, and groans”; but their demeanour in the dock is described as “unconcerned: they chatted and exchanged pinches of snuff with each other.”
But, notwithstanding all their cunning, discovery was at hand. After the Court had adjourned, and the prisoners were remanded to jail, District-Inspector Wansbrough directed the police at Cloneen, Drangan, and Mullinahone “to make a deliberate search” once again for the body. It was next day, Friday, 22nd March, that Sergeant Rogers, keen on the scent, when crossing some furzy ground, noticed “some broken thorn bushes freshly cut from a hedge in an angle of a field.” And there, under a shallow covering of clay, only a few inches deep, the body of poor Bridget Cleary was discovered at a spot considerably over a mile from the cottage. It presented “a most terrible appearance,” back and lower part all burned, but head preserved and “features perfect!” Marvellous preservation. There was no clothing on the body, except the stockings. Her head was enveloped in a sack, and in her left ear was one of her gold earrings. Her limbs were cramped up, and her arms folded across her breast. Constable Somers, who knew her for three years, identified her “by her features — they were perfect.” He had last seen her about a month or six weeks before.
I shall not give the gruesome description of the doctors who made the post-mortem, how the muscles of the spine were burned and the bones exposed, and so forth, and the deadly purple marks of strangulation, with others too horrible to mention. Suffice it to say, the burns were “the cause of death,” which was all the coroner’s jury wanted to know. The coroner’s jury did not go into the attendant facts, but found that the burns, inflicted by some persons unknown, caused the death of the young, handsome, thrifty, Bridget Cleary. Had not the body been discovered, the world might never have heard of the Ballyvadlea case!
The inquest was held in a vacant house near where the body was found. After the conclusion of the proceedings, not a single human being, male or female, clerical or lay, would lend any assistance to give Christian burial to the body. Horror of horrors! The police had to bury Bridget Cleary’s corpse that night, by the light of a lantern, in Cloneen churchyard. We shall find the Maynooth theologians, in a later chapter, arguing that “the existence of motion proves the existence of a necessary being apart from the world.” Fudge! I tell them that they will have to answer for this case and the Lisphelan case, I hope and pray, when they are confronted with that “necessary being.”
With regard to the police, let me say that it is because of their action in cases like this and the Lisphelan case, now about to be described, that I shall never be found saying a word against the Royal Irish Constabulary, no matter what views I may hold about the expensive character of its establishment. The policemen act like Christians, at any rate; and they stand between us and barbarism in such cases as this.
It was now, after the discovery of the body, on the second day of the magisterial investigation, that all the dreadful facts of the Friday night’s doings were divulged by Johanna Burke. The end draws nigh at last. The prisoners were returned for trial to the Clonmel Assizes in July by the presiding magistrates, Colonel Evanson, R.M., and Mr. Grubb, J.P., after a prolonged investigation, during which “the ‘cuteness and coolness” of the accused were manifested more than once. Addressing the jury, Judge O’Brien, himself a Roman Catholic, and not a nominal one either, said: “This case demonstrates a degree of darkness in the mind, not of one person, but of several, a moral darkness, even religious darkness, the disclosure of which had come with surprise on many persons.” One would hope so! But the leniency of the sentences also, it may be truly said, came with surprise on many persons. The charge of murder was withdrawn by the Crown prosecutor! Cleary was therefore found guilty, not of murder, but of manslaughter, and was sent to penal servitude for twenty years; Patrick Kennedy, found guilty of wounding, “the most guilty of all, except Michael Cleary,” in Judge O’Brien’s opinion, got five years’ penal servitude; John Dunne, the least contemptible of them, got three years’ penal servitude; William and James Kennedy, a year and a half’s imprisonment each; Patrick Boland and Michael Kennedy, six months; and when Mary Kennedy’s turn came, the Judge said tearfully, “I will not pass any sentence on this poor old woman.”
Thus ends this tale of “moral darkness, even of religious darkness, not of one person, but of several,” the events of which took place, not in Darkest Africa, but in Tipperary; not in the ninth or tenth, but at the close of the nineteenth century; not amongst Atheists, but amongst Roman Catholics, with the Rosary on their lips, and with the priest celebrating Mass and administering absolution and extreme unction in their houses.
Ah, my readers, Ireland is not the merry country which people think, which Protestant Irishmen like Lever and Lover have painted it; or the abode of half-humorous, half-contemptible braggarts, as Thackeray saw it. It is a sad, a gloomy, a depressed, a joyless country, for the bulk of its peasantry. Hence it is they leave it. When the heart is sad, and the mind clouded in ignorance, and oppressed by darkest fears and mystery, there can be no humour, no gaiety. There is, I have always believed, more real gaiety of heart in one coster on the Old Kent Road, than in all the Catholic peasants of Munster.
“The wind blows east, the wind blows west,
And there comes good luck and bad;
The thriftiest man is the cheerfulest;
‘Tis a thriftless thing to be sad, sad,
‘Tis a thriftless thing to be sad.” – Carlyle.