The Killing of the Last Fairy
The 1895 murder of Brigid Boland speaks to the grisly — and readily believed — narrative of the monstrous feminine
Are you a witch, or are you a fairy?
Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary
The Murder of Brigid Boland
Brigid Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, wasn’t like other women, Sady Doyle writes in Dead Blonde and Bad Mothers. Boland was in possession of a singer sewing machine and knew how to use it — Brigid was a milliner, dressmaker, a fine woman, and uncommonly beautiful to boot. She wore fashionable clothes, in part to advertise her skills, and in part to be admired, as anyone who wears fashionable clothes hopes to be.
That sewing machine, a modern invention and gift of her parents, made her a woman of uncommon power too. She was able to maintain a level of independence that was rare for a married woman in the 18th and early 19th century, and Brigid took full advantage of it.
She took her time in moving in with her husband Michael Cleary after they married. Brigid was known to think herself “superior to others”, so much so that the local newspaper commented on her ‘queerness’ in its social pages. And, it was said, she was having affairs.
“She was too fine to be my wife,” Michael Cleary said of the murder in which he purified his unruly, beautiful, wife by fire, expelling the changeling — then ending her life in 1895.
We’ve heard that sentiment before, haven’t we? It’s a fact proven again and again in domestic abuse that men are most lethal when they believe the woman they ‘should’ own is beyond their control: beyond their power. Cleary believed it. As Doyle recounts, Cleary said she was “two inches taller than my wife.”
According to folklore, the fair folk are thought to be taller than us humans. Changelings usually stick to abducting babies, but sometimes they take women who seem, like our Brigid, who are a bit “queer” in their ways.
Unlike the sanitized versions of the fairy world our own children might grow up with, the fair folk were feared: they were mischievous, enemies of Christianity, and dangerous.
As dangerous as an uncontrollable woman who doesn’t know her place in the patriarchy.
The saddest part of Brigid’s story is that Cleary was able to convince both his and Brigid’s family that she wasn’t Brigid, but, in fact a faery: a changeling. After summoning them, a priest, and then subjecting her to horrors of an ordeal including hot iron pokers and fire, Brigid was deemed herself again after describing herself as “Brigid Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God”.
They forced her to eat two pieces of toast as further proof she was ‘back to herself’ (and unharmed, probably to ease their guilty consciences). When she refused a third piece of toast, saying she was full, Michael held a hot poker to her chamise, then poured oil on it, burning her to death.
When urged to stop by his sister and others who helped him enact the macabre ritual, Doyle writes that he assured them the changeling was still there, that they’d see it fly up the chimney any moment.
Of course, Brigid Boland never rose again.
According to History Collection [dot] com, her burnt body was found in a bog near Ballyvadlea near Clonmel in Southern Tipperary. According to Sady Doyle, the Irish nursery rhyme I quoted at the top is still sung by children today while they skip. Brigid Boland was murdered by her husband, and died “the wife” of Michael Cleary.
Women have always been the first monsters — especially mother-women, with power over life and death the patriarchy and its men both covet and desire. We need to see the fear which resulted in patriarchy casting feminine power as monstrous. What I’m wondering, and clearly Sady Doyle does too, is why more women aren’t ceasing this power — the power handed to us in casting us as other.
Don’t get me wrong, women have every reason to fear men. A woman a week is killed by a man who wants to control her in Australia, and in America, it’s even more. But motherhood and womanhood can gain much from women standing together and embracing our natural rebelliousness, our innate monstrosity in beauty and terror.
Let’s build a world where mother-in-laws, sister-in-laws and our own family don’t collude with abusive, possessive murderers simply because we refuse to stay in our box.
Let us women dance in the shadows and exult in our Otherness: we can’t fit our largeness into the tiny mold of water-colour womanhood. We shouldn’t try.
Narratives from fiction and myth pervade our social subconsciousness. If you liked this story, you may also like Murder, Rape, and Why Myths Still Matter.