The most notorious story of a changeling may be the sad tale of Bridget Cleary, who was murdered by her husband Michael in 1895 after he became convinced that his 26-year-old wife had been abducted by the fairies, with a changeling left in her place. This became a scandal, with international implications, during the period when Ireland’s yearning for control of its own political destiny was being bitterly contested.
The Clearys lived with her elderly father in a home near Cloneen, Co. Tipperary, reportedly built on the site of an old fairy fort. The young Mrs. Cleary was being treated for a “nervous complaint” for some years before these events transpired. When she became bedridden with a bad cold, the local doctor diagnosed a “slight bronchial catarrh and the usual nervous excitement.” But the parish priest opined that she was suffering from “the beginnings of mental derangement.” The woman did not improve, and her husband became despondent over the inability of neither medical science nor his religion to bring a cure to his wife.
He soon became convinced that she was “too fine” for him and must have been substituted for a changeling. He believed that she had become “two inches taller than his real wife.” He consulted with folk healers who prescribed a particularly noxious treatment, and then used the threat of a hot poker to force her to swallow it.
[Michael] Cleary walked about the house making charms and the sign of the cross before administering the herbs, which were boiled in milk from a saucepan. She cried out and screamed when forced to take the herb mixture. At intervals over a period of ten to twenty minutes a liquid concoction of water, urine and hen’s excrement was thrown upon the unfortunate Mrs. Cleary…While this was taking place [her father] and Michael Cleary questioned her. Her father asked her: ‘are you the daughter of Pat Boland? Answer in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.’ She answered, but they were not satisfied with the manner in which she did so. They shook her then, saying: ‘Away with you, Away with you. Come home Bridget Cleary, in the name of God.’8
Ultimately the poor woman was unable to further respond to their questions. Her inquisitors then carried her from her bed down to the kitchen fire. She was too weak by that point to struggle as they held her over the fire in a desperate attempt to make her answer their questions. Her final words before she succumbed to the flames were reported to be, “Are you going to make a herring of me?”
The charges of willful murder against her husband were ultimately reduced to manslaughter, as the court concluded that her husband had no wish to see his wife dead, only to rid the unfortunate Bridget Cleary of the malevolent spirit they were convinced had replaced her.