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Monday 9 December 2019

Witch trials - forgotten women of a bewitched Ireland

Martina Devlin
Martina Devlin
Author Martina Devlin
Tales of witches were not as common here as in other parts of the world
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Novelist Martina Devlin on the shocking witch trials of 1711 that tore a small community apart.

Witch fever was in the air in 1711, when Ireland's only mass witchcraft trial was held. On one side - eight terrified women protesting their innocence. On the other - a pretty and pious young newcomer, from a higher social class, insisting she was bewitched.

It caused a sensation. Spectators from all walks of life turned up for a glimpse of the so-called Islandmagee witches.

Three hundred years on, that trial is overlooked. I stumbled across a passing reference to it five years ago in a newspaper, which reported that eight women had been convicted of witchcraft at the spring Assizes in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim. I felt compelled to dig deeper - the more questions which were answered, the more I had.

Why did an 18-year-old named Mary Dunbar arrive in Islandmagee to stay with relatives, and almost immediately start complaining about being tormented by witches? Why did she name eight local women as her persecutors? Why did she have convulsions, during which three strong men could barely restrain her? Why did she regurgitate pins and buttons?

One 'why' could be answered - the reason the community listened to her. Belief in witches was widespread among Ulster Scots Presbyterians, whose Calvinist outlook taught them Satan walked the earth looking for souls to ensnare. The Gaelic tradition did not share this fear and loathing.

I found myself unable to forget the women at the heart of the Islandmagee story. In Dublin's National Library I read the court documents - sworn depositions from witnesses, including Mary Dunbar. At the nearby Pearse Library, I read a newspaper report referring to the trial. I laid my hands on an eyewitness account of the trial by the Rev William Tisdall, Vicar of Belfast. And I visited Islandmagee to walk the land, where local historians were welcoming and helpful - a remote place, beautiful, with a sense of otherness. Scotland is a short boat ride away.

No doubt, spectators were titillated by the details given in evidence: how Mary Dunbar's body bent backwards like a bow during fits, and her tongue doubled back into her throat. How she had visions, muttering away to people nobody else could see. In court, spectral evidence was accepted against the women: the premise that even if they could produce alibis, the Devil had given them the ability to send their shapes to torment victims. Against that, no defence exists.

In reading contemporaneous reports, a sense emerges of something that became unstoppable. Mary Dunbar pointed the finger and women were brought in to answer to her. Important men hung on her every word. She had power, presumably for the first and last time in her life.

As a novelist, the story fascinated me - not least because of modern parallels. Every age has its witches, people marginalised by society. In writing The House Where It Happened, I wanted to give back their voices to those eight women. They were silenced twice: once in the courtroom, where they were disbelieved, and later by being written out of history. I also found myself pondering Mary Dunbar: was she mad or bad?

The women were convicted on no real evidence. But their teenage accuser was believed in the remote and superstitious Ulster Scots community. Partly because she was convincing. Partly because she was not examined by a doctor. And partly because punishing women for witchcraft was a social control mechanism for those outside the template.

Dr Tisdall, who knew Jonathan Swift, made it his business to meet the girl after the trial. He was taken with her, not just she could quote liberally from the Bible, but because she had "an open and innocent countenance. . . a very intelligent young person".

Contrast his description of Mary Dunbar with the accused, who had a "strange variety of ill looks. . . diabolical appearances".

They had smallpox scars, or were lame or arthritic, and one was blind in one eye. Some smoked, some swore, some were bad-tempered and one was described as of "ill fame" or immoral.

It proved to be Ireland's last conviction for witchcraft - the statute fell into disuse soon after. The eight women, all from a lower social class than their accuser, were sentenced to a year in jail and four turns in the pillory.

This was the standard sentence in Ireland for a first offence. A second conviction would have meant the death sentence.

Afterwards, they dropped out of history. As did Mary Dunbar. And that's where fictions comes into its own: my book imagines what may have taken place in Co Antrim all those years ago. And why.

Martina Devlin's novel ­inspired by the Islandmagee ­witchcraft trial is The House Where it Happened, published by Ward River Press

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