The Changeling in Black Stockings

They steal children and leave a withered fairy, 1000, or maybe 2000, years old instead. At times, full-grown men and women have been taken. Near the village of Colonie lives an old woman who was taken in her youth. When she came back, at the end of seven years, she had no toes, for she had danced them all off. ~ William Butler Yeats

According to European folklore, a Changeling is a kind of fairy that is basically a human substitute-A stand-in. And they were a convenient explanation for many misfortunes in the 18th and 19th centuries. If a child was born with birth defects, sickly, or ill-tempered, they were often thought to be a Changeling, left behind when the Fae stole the family’s real child. If an adult went missing or were found mysteriously dead, people would often assume the body was really a bundle of sticks enchanted to resemble their loved one. Signs of an adult Changeling included mood swings, argumentative, and lost interest in friends and family. Changelings were also blamed for draining luck away from a home – leaving a family cursed to struggle with poverty and misfortune.

It was speculated that when a human was swapped, the Changeling could be driven from the house in various ways, and the kidnapped human child or adult would be returned unharmed. One trick involved holding the suspected child over a fire, while another recommended forcing the child to drink tea brewed with foxglove, a poisonous flower. It was thought that as the person’s body expelled the toxin through whichever orifice, the changeling would be forced to return to the Fairy Realm.

In July of 1826, a woman named Anne Roche from Tralee, County Kerry, was caring for a four-year-old boy named Michael Leahy. She testified that the boy could not walk, stand or speak. Convinced that he was a Changeling, she bathed him in icy waters three times in a row to force the fairy out. The boy drowned. The court tried her, and they found her not guilty. In 1851, a man in Ireland roasted his child to death because he believed the boy to be a Fairy. 

There are many stories like these, but the most famous is the story in the small village, Ballyvadlea. 

In the late 19th century, the government built laborer cottages to help those who had lost their land to the recent famine. They were hoping to alleviate some of the homelessness and poverty in Ireland. One cottage Ballyvadlea was built on a rath, a low, earthen ring. Archaeologists say they are remnants of an Iron Age fort, but for many Irish, they are thought to be “Fairy Rings,” portals into another realm.  

Fairy Mound Ireland

Fairy Mound Ireland

The first family awarded this cottage reported odd and unsettling things happening inside the home: Cries at night, unidentifiable noises, and constant feelings of dread. Unfortunately, those first folks didn’t last long in their new home. 

In 1895, the next occupants moved in: Patrick Boland, his adult daughter Bridget and her husband, Michael. Bridget was considered “unusual” by Victorian social standards. Even though her husband had a stable job – Bridget had her own hustle. She was a hired seamstress and sold the eggs from the flock of hens she raised. She also had a reputation for being clever and flirtatious – a charming independent woman – she must be possessed by dark forces. 

On March 4th, 1895, Bridget Cleary left home to deliver eggs to her father’s cousin, Jack Donne. It was a short walk, but the weather turned sour while she was out. She spent the next day in bed with a debilitating headache and chills. Cousin Jack stopped by a few days later and found Bridget still in bed. He took one look at her and declared, “That’s not Bridget.” Cousin Jack declared Bridget was a changeling. 

On March 9th, five days after Bridget’s walk in the cold, her father walked four miles to the nearest doctor and asked him to come help. Two days later, still no doctor, so Michael went looking for the doctor. Two more days, and eventually, the doctor arrived unexpectedly. He did his typical house call check-up, prescribed some medicine, and left. 

Bridget wasn’t getting any better; on March 13th, the family called for a priest to give her last rights. Later, neighbours and relatives took heed to Cousin Jack’s declaration and gathered to administer Fairy medicine – an herbal tincture. Bridget refused the treatment. So they held a red-hot poker in her face until she complied. 

Cousin Jack started running his mouth and told the villagers she was taken by the Fae and replaced with a Changeling. The local Fairy doctor Denis (yes, that’s a doctor of fairies), visited Bridget. Bridget was slapped and held in front of the fireplace while her husband demanded that she state, “before God and family,” that she was indeed Bridget Cleary. She answered, “yes, I am Bridget Cleary,”  but the crowd didn’t believe her.

The Fairy treatments continued late into the night. Finally, friends and family began asking to leave, but Michael yelled that no one was leaving until Bridget came home. He locked the door and placed the key in his pocket. If they could “just get this right,” he told them, if they could “just drive the Fairy out and be done with it, his Bridget would come home.” 

She was asked again to declare her identity, and Bridget refused. Her silence infuriated Michael. He stripped her down to her undergarments and pushed her to the floor. “Come home, Bridget, in the name of God,” was cried over her as she lay near the fire. “She’s not my wife; you’ll soon see her go up the chimney!” Michael screamed. He doused Bridget with lamp oil and grabbed a log from the burning fireplace to ignite the oil. 

Bridget Cleary burnt to death on the hearth of her kitchen fireplace in front of her husband, father, cousins, and friends. She was 26 years old.

Michael forced one of Bridget’s cousins by knifepoint to help wrap her body in a sheet, then he carried her to a field and buried her in a shallow grave. 

Michael spent the next three consecutive nights waiting on Kylenagranagh Hill for the Fairies to return his true Bridget. At any moment, he believed, she would come galloping through the ring fort on a white horse. He’d cut her free, and they’d return home together.

A short time later, some of the neighbours told the local priest that Bridget Cleary had gone “missing.”

Are you a witch or are you a fairy

Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?

When the priest found Michael Cleary praying in the church the next day, he asked, “Is your wife alright? I heard she’d been sick”.  “I had a very bad night, father,” Michael told him. “When I woke up, my wife was gone. I think the Fairies have taken her.” But he was convinced she would return. 

Michael Cleary

Michael Cleary

The priest called the police, and a massive search began. On March 22nd, two constables found her body in the shallow grave her husband had dug just days before. She had been badly burnt and lay in the fetal position. Because her face had escaped the fire, a cloth sack was placed over her head. All that remained of the little clothing she had been wearing was a pair of black stockings. 

The police arrested eight people for their involvement in Bridget’s death. After a highly publicized two-day trial in July 1895, Michael was charged with manslaughter. Jack Dunne, Patrick Boland, and four of Bridget’s cousins were also found guilty.

Bridget and Michael Cleary

Bridget and Michael Cleary

Perhaps it’s Bridget that so many see roaming the forests of County Kerry.  Ghost of Bridget Cleary