Tuesday 23 January 2018

Unholy row as Irish town plans plaque to mark 1711 witch trial

The eight women found guilty escaped the fate of many other ‘witches’, who were burnt at the stake
The eight women found guilty escaped the fate of many other ‘witches’, who were burnt at the stake

They were among the last witchcraft trials in Europe - and took place just outside Larne.

Now, more than 300 years on, the charges brought against eight Islandmagee women accused of possessing a teenage girl have ignited fresh controversy.

Deemed guilty of sorcery, the group were sentenced to pillorying and being locked up in jail.

Antrim's Larne Borough Council is to commemorate their plight with a plaque in the coming weeks. But the move has been lambasted by a veteran unionist councillor as "anti-God".

The TUV's Jack McKee reportedly said he would "not support devil worship". The commemoration was proposed by Alliance councillor John Matthews following the release of a new book about the witchcraft trial, The House Where It Happened, by Co Tyrone-born author Martina Devlin.

It is understood a film is also in the pipeline.

Attempts to have the women's convictions posthumously overturned have failed.

Mr Matthews said relatives of those tried still live in the area.

"These were the last witch trials in the British Isles," he said.

"It was suggested to me Larne council could do something for these women.

"They have family about still.

"This a minimal thing, an acknowledgement this happened."

Back in 1711 the women were accused by 18-year-old Mary Dunbar of having cast spells on her.

Among her symptoms were fits, swearing, throwing Bibles, vomiting household objects and trances.

The case was previously re-investigated by Ulster University's Dr Andrew Sneddon. He claimed Miss Dunbar faked her symptoms as she wanted to be famous.

Mr Matthews said he was surprised by Mr McKee's comments.

According to minutes from a meeting of Larne council, Mr McKee said he could not tell whether or not the women were rightly or wrongly convicted as he didn't have the facts and he was not going to support devil worship. The TUV politician was unavailable yesterday.


Belief in witches was a significant part of Irish culture, while Scottish and English settlers here often accused each other of witchcraft. It is commonly assumed that the European witch-craze of the 16th and 17th centuries that claimed tens of thousands of lives never reached Irish shores. In 1711 eight women were convicted of witchcraft in Islandmagee. Their accuser was an 18-year-old, Mary Dunbar.

Belfast Telegraph

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