The Peculiar Case of the Burning of Bridget Cleary

Ireland’s last witch-burning

In 1895, poor Bridget Cleary was the last woman in Ireland to be burned as a witch. Her story is a sad and terrible one, which I could only deal with writing about in small doses. She endured so much suffering through no fault of her own, was gruesomely murdered, and in the end was not even allowed a Christian burial. I think she deserves to be remembered.

Unusual woman

Bridget was only twenty six when she died. She was unusual for a woman of her time; she worked as a seamstress, and did well enough that she could afford to dress herself in all the latest fashions. She also kept a flock of hens and sold eggs to raise additional income. Thus she was a financially independent woman of means who stood out from the other women in her rural community.

Unusual Marriage

Her marriage was also unusual; she met Michael Cleary in Clonmel in August 1887, where they were quickly married, after which she returned to live with her parents in Ballyvadlea, County Tipperary. He remained in Clonmel where he was employed as a cooper (making wooden vessels bound by metal hoops, such as barrels). Bridget continued to support herself and live as an independent woman in control of her own finances.

After some years, Michael joined her, and they set up home in a labourer’s cottage, which they shared with Bridget’s elderly father, Patrick, following his wife’s death. Despite being married for eight years, the couple remained childless, but whether it was due to chance or choice is not known. However, women of that era were expected to produce a family, and so this was something else which also marked the couple as unusual in their community.


Depressed teen girl sits and cries


Belief in the fairies

In the nineteenth century, belief in the fairies was still rampant in rural communities. Folklore and memory along with Christian doctrine had inspired a fear of the supernatural and their malevolent nature. The fairies were believed to be anti-Christian, demons and witches.

When Bridget became ill in early March, Micheal became obsessed with the notion that Bridget had been consorting with fairies, and that they had abducted her and left a changeling (a fairy replacement) in her place.

On March 13th, a doctor was called, and a week later, a priest was summoned to administer the last rites. Michael told him that he had not dosed her with the doctor’s medicine, as chillingly, he believed “People may have some remedy of their own that might do more good than doctor’s medicine.”

One man’s remedy is a poor woman’s torture

Michael’s ‘remedies’ amounted to little more than horrific abuse. He had her held over a fire while forcing her to confess ‘in the name of God’; he threw the contents of a chamber pot over her; he burned her with a hot poker; he force fed her dry bread while she was pinned to the ground with his knee pressed against her throat, and another time forced her to drink milk laced with unidentified herbs while she was being held down by five men.

On the night of Friday 15th March, the torture culminated in stripping her to her undergarments, throwing lamp oil over her, and setting her alight, all in the presence of ten witnesses, who did nothing to stop him or help her.

fairy lore – a convenient explanation

According to the Irish Times, “Michael reportedly said while she burned. “I am not going to keep an old witch in place of my wife… It is not Bridget I am burning… You will soon see her go up the chimney.”

Folklore dictated that the death of a changeling  would free the abducted person to return to her family, riding a white horse. Michael’s words indicate that perhaps he expected something like this to happen. But then again, perhaps he was cleverer than that.

It is interesting to note that only women and children appear to have been susceptible to fairy abduction and changeling lore. I wonder how many other women besides Bridget were abused and murdered, accused of being swapped for fairy changelings, when their husbands no longer wanted them.

cover up

So Bridget died a cruel and agonized death at the hands of her own husband with an audience of ten people which included members of her own family, none of whom lifted a finger to help her, or stop him. How could this have happened?

It seems that Michael convinced them all to cover up the horrible violence they had been party to by concocting a story of Bridget’s disappearance. However, the police eventually discovered Bridget’s badly burned body in a shallow grave not far from the house. A coroner’s report confirmed the death was caused by burning. All those present at her death were arrested.

sensational court case

The trial was widely reported and caused a sensation. Cleary himself was reported as ‘having a wild look’ in his eyes during the proceedings, and ‘was prone to outbursts’ in which he accused the other witnesses of colluding against him. It’s certainly possible; they had proved themselves capable of colluding with him during and in the days following the wicked event itself, why not against him later if it reduced their sentences?

Interestingly, the charge against Cleary was dropped from murder to manslaughter, for which he was sentenced to twenty years of penal servitude (imprisonment with hard labour). After fifteen years, he was released from Portlaoise prison on 28th April 1910 and went to Liverpool, from where he emigrated to Montreal on 30th June.

His accomplices were convicted of ‘wounding’, and received sentences varying from six months penal servitude to five years.

Despite all of this, Bridget was denied a proper Christian burial, and ended up being buried on church grounds in secret by police at night.

psychotic behaviour

I find it incredible that one man held so much power over so many others. What was the nature of Cleary’s hold over them? Did they really believe his stories of fairy witches? Whether he believed it himself or not, I think there are some interesting clues as to his motivations in this story.

It’s interesting that Michael is quoted as saying of Bridget that ‘she is too fine to be my wife’. There is clearly some resentment here. She was a woman of independent means; she was said to be attractive, well dressed and fashionable… she did not need him in the way that most wives needed a man in their lives. She gave him no children; was this a source of conflict between them?

He was obviously capable of inflicting violence on a defenseless human being in cold blood. He apparently locked everyone in the house with Bridget’s burned body while he went out looking for a suitable site to bury and hide her body. He showed no remorse or grief that his real wife was not returned to him by the fairies. He acted out the part of a concerned husband after Bridget’s alleged ‘disappearance’ by joining search parties. He convinced everyone to lie for him to the police, then accused them all of colluding against him in court. He had several episodes, or outbursts during the trial.

We cannot know for sure, and I am speculating here, but I would suggest this man had issues with anger management and aggression, perhaps also mental illness, and that he was possibly a controlling, violent and abusive man. His unusual independent wife stripped him of his manly authority, and in a superstitious and rural community still governed by religious fear, folklore and old wives tales, his changeling story gave him a valid excuse for his actions, whether he believed it himself or not. Certainly, this story seems to echo similar stories of domestic violence we have all heard many times, and that still go on today.

political manipulation

Bridget’s death and the subsequent trial of her murderers was set against the backdrop of the struggle for Irish home rule, inflaming the debate in London over whether the Irish were actually fit to govern themselves, and endorsing the generally widely accepted perception that the Irish were savage, superstitious, and uneducated. The role of Catholicism was also brought into public scrutiny; already accused of supporting Irish nationalism, it was seen in this case to turn a blind eye to the moral actions of its parishioners.

Summing up English attitudes at the time, one contemporary writer claimed…


“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.”

Five Years in Ireland, 1895-1900 by Michael J. McCarthy, 1901


R.I.P Bridget Cleary

Headstone in Cemetery


Sources:
Five Years in Ireland, 1895-1900 by Michael J. McCarthy, 1901
The story of the last ‘witch’ burned alive in Ireland – The Irish Times
Bridget Cleary – Wikipedia


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79 Comments on “The Peculiar Case of the Burning of Bridget Cleary

  1. My God what a horrendous story. The poor poor woman! 😶 I’m proud to be Irish but reading this makes my skin crawl! Very interesting though Ali!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh Ali, what a heartbreakingly tragic story. Thank you for remembering Bridget. I believe it is incredibly important to share stories like this, even if they are very hard to hear. . BTW Michael sounds like a psychopath, kind of reminds me of Trump. I wish I understood why such horrible things happen to good people, and what makes some people act so cruelly. I don’t understand either. Especially after what happened in Los Vegas, the way some people inflict violence on other human beings is incomprehensible to me. There are other words but I’m not finding them. Thanks for posting this.

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    • The tragedy in Las Vegas, on top of all the recent natural disasters, is truly shocking. And yet Trump is saying it’s not the guns which are the problem. If that guy had had skin a couple of shades darker, he would have been branded a terrorist. Because he was a white male, he was excused as being ‘mentally ill’. I’m sure Trump’s prayers and empty condolences helped those who lost loved ones, or suffered horrendous injuries… not. Less guns on the street = less massacres. Fact. That’s why most other countries in the world with proper gun laws don’t have the same problem with shootings. Violence will never be eradicated completely, but a lot can be done to reduce it. Anyway, this post is about Bridget, not Trump, but I hope she of all people wouldn’t mind me hijacking her post to speak out about bullying and violence.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. oh how tragic!! Like my story of poor Jenny Horne in Scotland, betrayed by her neighbours and in Bridget’s case, family! However, even in this more enlightened(?) day, women still suffer at the hands of their insane mates to this day and in horrible ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is so true, Cybele. These stories were shocking at the time, which indicates perhaps that such beliefs were not common and cannot be used as excuses for men perpetrating violence on women. It’s no different now, except that no one bothers to look for an excuse.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That poor woman! My heart bled for her – you are right to remember and share her story, echoes of which can be seen in modern cases of cruelty. Over a century later I hope she is resting in peace

    Liked by 1 person

      • Just awful. That poor woman. It was all it took, wasn’t it? To be different, to be successful, to be independent – no wonder it is taking us so long to reclaim equality, after all the years of being punished simply for standing out.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes. Looking back at her story, as far as we can know it, it seems clear to us now. It’s good to remember her, but in a way I’m glad we don’t know too much detail, so her private business isn’t plastered all over the public domain. She deserves her privacy and her rest.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. such a very sad story , and sadder because it truly happened to a very young innocent girl. i hope her soul is at peace, i will light a candle and remember her. thanks for sharing this story ali.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Beautifully and touching retold. Religion is not necessary for cruelty, it’s has been engaged in from the year dot by humans for a multitude of reasons . The famous atheist Sam Harris maintains evil is a part of human nature and he makes out a good case the truth of this statement.
    Remember the other side of the coin no religious training excludes cruelty from a community.

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    • Thank you. Yes, that is true, humankind have always engaged in cruelty, its a kind of domination. It certainly seems to be part of human nature, although not in everyone’s nature, thankfully, but the minority who do, cause enough suffering as it is.

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      • I think it is in all our natures which of us has never done anything we are ashamed of? The church call it original sin or the propensity we all have towards evil. In some poor unfortunate people it is accentuated by terrible circumstances when they are driven to extremes. Many of these are redeemed by the kindness and goodwill of others who help them.

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        • Of course there is a darkness in all of our nature’s, but we control it. We know what’s right and wrong. But some people think they are above the rights and wrongs of everyone else, that the rules don’t apply to them. Causing such extreme suffering, and taking life, how can there be any redemption for That? Expressing regret and repentance only encourages people who wish to do evil to actually do it… there are no consequences to put them off.

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          • You are referring to psychopaths like the carnage in Los Vegas. Robert Hare is a well known expert in that field , such people have no consciences. I do not take the Christian view that redemption is possible even for the vilest offender but for many who fall into evil ways there is a road back and it is not by imprisonment or cruelty but by loving kindness. You speak of control as if we are always capable of control but that is plainly not the case. Different people have a different fuse point and men are more prone to violence than women.

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            • I know that Kertsen, but saying men have a shorter fuse to anger and losing control is handing them an excuse. I don’t believe that. Like all decent human beings, they have a duty to control themselves and treat others with courtesy and respect. Men are more prone to violence historically because they have been raised to believe it’s allowed for them, that it’s a viable solution, and that is the result of the conditioning of a patriarchal society. Personally I’m not convinced that murderers, rapists and and paedophiles deserve loving kindness, but nor do I believe that they should be brutalized in return… that would make the rest of us as bad as they are. But they know what they are doing is wrong, and still do it, so they must face the consequences for their crimes as law dictates. I don’t believe that everyone who does bad things is a psychopath, either, so I’m not referring just to psychopaths. But I do understand that vulnerable people get manipulated into horrific situations by stronger, more violent people, and we need to find a way to protect those people.

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            • I suppose we can all excuse ourselves in many ways : My father beat me , my mother never loved me , I was bullied at school , I inherited a violent streak from my dad, I never had a chance of a higher education, I glossed my first job after two weeks etc etc. The law does take circumstances into consideration it may have been a crime of passion not a cold blooded murder. Can we really call all these things excuses and say we must not lose control ? Do we always fulfil our duty which is considered to be different for us all in different circumstances?
              Do we always turn out how we are raised? Is historical tendency passed down genetically ?
              We are only responsible to a limited extent for our actions they depend on our character which is formed from nurture and nature.

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  7. That’s awful! He probably had started showing evidence of abuse before which prompted her to return to her parents’ house, not that it did her much good in the end.

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    • Perhaps. It certainly looks that way, but I guess we’ll never know. Poor woman! Imagine having all those people in the room watching your ‘punishment’ and suffering, people you had known and trusted all your life, and no one tried to help you.

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  8. What a ghastly story and incredible that it happened so recently. Sympathetically and insightfully written. Have you read The Good People by Hannah Kent – a fictional account based on a real event of a little boy being drowned in an attempt to take the fairy out of him.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It is tough reading but viewed from the point of view of the grandmother of the little boy, a servant girl and the ‘cailleach’. Again, a violent man seemed to have persuaded everyone else to think and do the worse.

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  9. That is a horrible story. I would go with severe mental illness, but the fact that ten others including family members let this happen is very creepy. Domestic violence is nothing new – I’m not surprised that women and children were the only ones abducted by fairies. Ugh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know. It’s very strange how he managed to gain control over so many people. One of them was Bridge’s father, another was her cousin. It’s such a strange story. I guess we’ll never know the truth, but I’m sure there must be more to it.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Absolutely. And to think he was released from prison and emigrated in the 20th century, the century I was born in, it’s incredible to believe that belief in the fairies was still so strong in such recent times.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The English of the time were very good at throwing stones at Johnny foreigner. I seem to remember that not very long ago there was a flutter in the English media about the women who were dying in English towns from mysterious burns to the head and upper body. Turned out they had been held over the gas rings by mother-in-law, husband, anyone in fact who was ‘disappointed’ in the new wife. I never heard that there was much of an outcry. Just local customs that had to be respected.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well that’s just vicious and vindictive, isn’t it Jane? Women of the past sure had it tough, and to be honest, for many women it’s not improved much, even here in the ‘civilised’ West.

      Liked by 1 person

        • No. That’s true. Doing a course on Feminist, Gender and Sexuality theory at the moment. One guy, a student, complained to our lecturer that we already had equality for women, so why were we doing this? Lol! I think he left the course!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Pillock. I heard a newly appointed (female) head of radio being interviewed this morning by a woman journalist. The journalist asked how , with two children, she managed with the gruelling hours. The woman said that it was funny that male journalists didn’t ever get asked that question. The interviewer agreed. Strange, they said, and left it at that. I held my breath, but that was it. They thought it was odd. End of story. And that’s women. Imagine how men see equality of treatment. Laughable.

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            • Yeah, but she still asked the question, even though she knew what she was doing. As women, we are conditioned into and complicit with the patriarchy which governs our society. I remember in job interviews being asked if I planned on having children. I never knew a man who was asked that question. Our biology has no bearing on our ability to do a job. If men did their fair share of the childrearing and childcare, it wouldn’t be an issue in the first place. Makes my blood boil! I could go on… but won’t. As for the guy who complained to my lecturer, clearly he has a big chip on his shoulder if he feels threatened by the discussion of feminism.Men who feel threatened by feminism are afraid women will steal their power and dominate them, because that is what they do to us… they don’t seem to understand that women don’t want to be men, or even be like them, because they can’t contemplate what equality looks like.

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            • I think you’re right. It’s fear that makes men want to dominate. It maybe goes back to the very earliest times when women (probably) called all the shots because what they did ie produce children, female AND male, get crops to grow, know which plants kill ans which heal, and control the religious/sacred mumbo jumbo that terrified the wits out of the community, was what kept the men in second position.

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            • And we are the creatures which mysteriously bleed (every month) yet don’t die. No wonder they were afraid!

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            • Quite wrong in those early tribal times before technology men had to hunt because they were faster and stronger and more violent. Life was about strength and power and the strongest and most powerful led the tribe. This predominance of the male was maintained throughout history until the present times when strength no longer played such a big part in life. Today the only predominance of men is in physical sports but there is some argument that men have predominated in musical masterpieces since there are many more men composers. Darwin in the Descent of Man declares the superiority of man in many endeavours it is a passage rarely quoted by the evolutionists as they tend to worship the ground Darwin walk upon.

              Liked by 1 person

            • I think what you’re describing is more medieval society. We have very little evidence for earlier than that, and don’t forget that assumptions have been made by historians, archaeologists and scholars based on how our modern patriarchal society operates today and projected onto the past. That is perhaps unavoidable, but is certainly being challenged today. Men are physically stronger, Yes, but that does not necessarily go hand in hand with violence and power unless you choose to let it. All the many images of the mother goddess type figures constantly dug out of the ground around the world indicate there may once have been widespread respect and reverence for the female… Men in those times may have used their strength and power to protect rather than to violate. To say that only men hunted is an assumption; graves of females with weapons and tools of war such as war chariots have been discovered, so if there were women fighting, there would probably have been women hunting too. Now, these graves are rare, but traditionally, graves with weapons were automatically considered male, and graves without were considered female, and consequently, the bones themselves were not analysed, another assumption of our patriarchal society. In science, isn’t one supposed to leave their personal beliefs and values at the door, and work on evidence and Fact? Or does this not apply when it comes to gender? You say today the only predominance of men is in sports, which is an incredible statement! Society favours men in all spheres today, particularly white heterosexual men. We have a looooong way to go before we can make claims like that. Btw, yes I’m a feminist, but I’m not anti-Men… people often somehow seem to get the two confused! 😊

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            • I did not make myself clear what I meant is the predominance in sport is the only one that I personally recognise the rest is due to history

              Liked by 1 person

            • I’m not sure that we know exactly how the societies of the earliest people were organized. I have read theories that the very earliest societies were not necessarily warrior dominated. That comes later when land and the conquering of space became important. Earlier groups would have simply defended themselves and the main work of feeding the tribe would have been collaborative, with all able-bodied members taking part in a hunt, but the main food source would have been fruits and grains. The Hellenes who were heavily warrior oriented despised many other tribes they found around the Mediterranean (like the Etruscans) because women took part in the decision-making process alongside the men. Male domination became inevitable when war-making became accepted as a way of life, and that hasn’t changed yet.

              Liked by 1 person

            • There are reasons for that. It’s very hard to convince the top dogs to share, and top dogs are very good at creating a past that suits them, like, it’s always been like this, so this is normal.

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            • I’m not at all convinced that women , were they at the helm, would eliminate modern warfare which relies on weaponry not superior strength.
              We must not forget that the wealthier also dominated over the poorer just as they do today. Today the more intelligent also dominate over the less gifted. Pecking orders have not been eliminated from any society or family. They extend into all groups such as the church of the women’s institute , where ever people live together there is an order of wealth and importance. As feminism advances many of the sexual inequalities will go but Pecking order is part of human nature and permanent.

              Liked by 1 person

            • A study in US in 2007 showed that 76% of violent crimes were committed by Men, 20% by women, and the identity of the rest was not proven. So I think it’s quite clear that men are more violent than women. There will always be some exception to the rule. Class structure, the wider society, even the family have all been dominated by male rule.

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            • I had suspected they were more violent it goes hand in hand with physical strength, but I’m surprised it is so marked . The quicker we have an all female government the better but remember power corrupts it may not be as good as I hope.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Lol! I’m not sure an all female government would be good either. We need balance and men and women working together as a team would be fantastic! You are right though, power does corrupt.

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            • Sorry… that comment was unfinished. You’re right that there will always be leaders and followers, and there’s nothing wrong with that in a society based on equality who recognises all the value of all sections of that society, whatever minority they fall into. Unfortunately, we are far from achieving that, because our society is based on dominance of one particular section of society, and suppression of the rest, not equality.

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            • Tell me are you suggesting university graduates should earn the same wages as milkman ? Incidentally I was a milkman at one time long ago , it was tough in the frozen mornings of winter and bottles slip easily from frozen fingers. Money means comfort and lifestyle on a global scale I’m in the top 2% yet in England one of the world’s richest nations I’m below the poverty line. One third of the world survives on $2 per day.

              Liked by 1 person

            • I know, it’s shocking. My brother used to get up at 4am every morning when he was a young teen to do a milk round, I fully understand what you went through. I don’t think it would work to elevate/ reduce everyone to the same level, do you? But I hate to see that the greatest percentage of the world’s wealth is held by the smallest number of people while the majority starve. That should not be allowed to happen.

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            • Has it been allowed to happen or is it a part of the out working of human nature , part of our instinct to survive interpreted into the modern world. It looks very much like it is instinctive since there has always been this enormous inequality throughout history. I do not believe we are entirely governed by a sense of fairness but mixed in and irrepressible is human ambition and it necessitates the trampling of others underfoot. What ever the political ideology you always end up with rich and poor. Religion has not been able to change that it is the most constant thing about history. Jesus Christ knew it was so when he said : ‘ The poor will always be with you .’

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            • I agree with you. We’ve lost the innocence or ignorance of early peoples and we’ve seen how wealth and strength mean power. Some women are as drawn to power as some men and there’s no going back to a hypothetical golden age. Where I disagree is when you say that some things are inevitable because they are part of human nature. ‘Human nature’ is different from one part of the world to another, from one epoch to another, and will continue to change as different ideas are assimilated. The fact that there are ideas of equality and compassion, peaceful sharing and justice means that the world is changing. Slowly, maybe, but in the nineteenth century it was considered justice to transport a child to a prison camp in Australia for stealing a loaf of bread, and before that, it was justice to burn troublesome women alive. Human nature isn’t like dog nature or octopus nature, it has the capacity to change. I’m hopeful anyway.

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  11. Pingback: The Peculiar Case of the Burning of Bridget Cleary | Alison Williams Writing

    • I reckon there was much more to this than was commonly reported. For example, why did he give up his job as a Cooper to move back home? Was he unemployed, if so, what were the circumstances, and did this combined with Bridgets financial independence emasculate him? Today it is well known that some men in such situations will resort to violence against their wife. It would take some digging, and may not even be available. I wonder what his history was after he emigrated.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Another one of those awful things that always make me think there’s a book in there somewhere! I agree there must be more to it. Wonder how you’d go about finding out what happened to him.

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        • I guess there would be a record somewhere of his emigrating, a ticket sale, and then records of him being processed on arrival. After that, I’m not sure. Maybe search for marriage records, if he remarried, church records, prisons, that kind of thing, but it would be a huge time consuming project which might turn up zilch, and I’d rather spend my time on someone I liked!

          Like

    • Hi Karen, it’s the very first sharing button, beside the Twitter button. I’ve just checked, it’s definitely there. How are things with you? Been a long time! 😊

      Like

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