The witches of Antrim
Shouting, swearing and throwing Bibles — no, not the demonic antics from ‘The Exorcist’, but of a possessed 18-year-old in the 1700s. Declan Cashin recalls Ireland’s last witch trial and explains why the case is being reopened after 300 years.
In March 1711, eight women appeared in court in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, as part of a sensational trial that found them guilty. They were put in the stocks for the public to rain stones and rotten fruit upon them, before being jailed for a year.
Their crime? The demonic possession of the body, mind and spirit of a teenage girl.
This bizarre tale, which took place in Islandmagee, a peninsula on the east coast of Antrim, was the last recorded witch trial in this country and, exactly 300 years later, one researcher has reopened the case and arrived at a very different and shocking conclusion.
Dr Andrew Sneddon, a lecturer in international history at the University of Ulster has immersed himself in the trial as part of an upcoming book, 'Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland, 1586-1946'. He teaches the only history course in Ireland dedicated to the study of the great European witch hunts.
Despite the passing of a witchcraft statute in 1586, there were not many actual trials conducted in this country. Sneddon says he could only find evidence of three trials and 11 individuals standing accused.
However, Sneddon explains that the intensity of the Islandmagee witch trial was probably due to the Scots-Presbyterian heritage of the 300 residents of the peninsula.
"There was a lot of belief in Protestant settler islands and mainland Ireland, even if there weren't many trials," he says. "There was one trial in Youghal, Co Cork, in 1661 among an English settler community.
"They brought their ideas with them to Ireland. Witch hunting in Scotland was one of the worst in Europe, far worse than England. Some 3,800 people were prosecuted there, and more than three-quarters were put to death by strangling and burning. But in England, and so by extension in Ireland, they had common law, so those convicted were only hanged."
It was the Scottish settlers who brought the idea of a 'dangerous witch' to Ireland; there was already a type of Gaelic witch that wasn't perceived to be as threatening. "That was the 'Butter Witch', borne of a belief or a tradition whereby witches stole the ability to churn milk into butter, or where they'd turn themselves into hares and steal the butter," Sneddon says.
Luckily for him, the circumstances of the Islandmagee trial were well documented at the time, allowing him to draw on a range of primary sources, including witness statements from the main people involved, a newspaper article, pamphlets, letters, correspondence and legal depositions.
The origins of the case go back to 1710, when 18-year-old Mary Dunbar arrived in Islandmagee from Castlereagh in Belfast. She had come to stay in the home of a cousin, Mrs James Haltridge, whose mother-in-law had just died -- apparently through witchcraft.
Dunbar soon exhibited signs of demonic possession: issuing threats, shouting, swearing, blaspheming, throwing Bibles, going into fits every time a clergyman came near her and vomiting household items such as pins, buttons, nails, glass and wool. "It was basically like 'The Exorcist'," says Sneddon.
Crucially -- in terms of the trial -- Dunbar claimed to have seen eight women appearing to her in spectral form.
"Spectral evidence was used in the case, where the demoniac [possessed person] claims to have seen and, most likely, been attacked by the witches causing his or her possession in spectral form," Sneddon explains.
"As a form of evidence, this was becoming less and less convincing in England, but that was one of the main proofs against the eight women in 1711. The only person who would have seen this spectral possession is Mary Dunbar, and being a stranger in the area, she'd never have seen these women before. So she claimed anyway."
Other types of 'proof' offered to prove the women were witches was their apparent inability to say the Lord's Prayer.
The authorities went even further than that and set up an identity parade. Mary Dunbar was blindfolded and a whole host of women came in to touch her, as it was believed that the demoniac would go into fits if touched by a witch.
Apparently, Dunbar picked out the eight women she had claimed bewitched and attacked her in spectral form.
The character of the accused women themselves was also a major factor in their conviction. "In small communities, local reputations are well known," Sneddon says. "If you had a reputation, or someone in your family did, and then some kind of misfortune occurred, or, in the case of Mary Dunbar, you were accused of bewitching someone, then it was taken more seriously. Some of these women had that reputation.
"In fact, they were marginal and poor, and I think some of them had previously claimed to have some witchcraft power. There was a stereotype at the time of a wizened old woman -- like we have now of the witch -- and these women, looks-wise, fitted that description."
Indeed, the fact that these women fell short of contemporary ideals of womanhood also fuelled suspicions of witchcraft.
"Three of these women were accused of taking alcohol, which wasn't womanly, and of smoking tobacco and swearing," Sneddon says. "They didn't meet the attitudes of beauty, and a lot of them were disabled. Compare that to Mary Dunbar, who was intelligent, from a good family and was described as beautiful."
Sneddon believes that Mary Dunbar was making up the whole thing.
"Like a lot of demoniacs in England and Scotland, I think Mary Dunbar learned and followed a script," he argues. "There had been witch hunts and trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, and in Scotland in 1696, where an 11-year-old girl, Christian Shaw, claimed to have been possessed. That resulted in seven people being put to death.
"These demoniacs all have the same symptoms. I think Mary Dunbar learned the part of a demoniac from accounts about Salem or Scotland, or someone told her about it. Remember, this was a time when people were pouring in from Scotland.
"Do I think some symptoms were psychosomatic once she got into the part?" he asks. "Maybe. Ironically, she's doing the same kind of things that the witches she's accusing are castigated for, but because it's not her fault, there's no moral responsibility. It's someone else who is doing it to her, so she can break the type of behavioural constraints placed upon her as a female at the time.
"Basically, she can get away with murder."
Looked at in that context, it may explain why the young girl would have gone to those lengths in the first place. "I think Dunbar was invisible in this community," Sneddon contends. "She had opportunity because she'd just arrived in this place, and she saw a chance to become visible within this community and this family, and to act in ways that were usually socially unacceptable."
The case may seem incredible to readers today, but Sneddon reminds us not to judge the people involved or simply dismiss them as ignorant or disastrously superstitious.
"It made sense to them," he says. "These ideas were often backed up by clergy and medical professionals. In the Islandmagee case, doctors were called in and they said Mary Dunbar's condition was not physical but supernatural.
"So I wouldn't say it was ignorance, but it does come out of social tensions and interpersonal tensions between people. In the case of Mary Dunbar, it came out of age and gender tensions."
Unfortunately, nobody knows what happened to Mary Dunbar or the eight women afterwards, as the public records office holding many Church of Ireland records was burned down during the Irish Civil War between 1922-1923.
"We know that the eight women, under the 1586 Act, would have been put in jail for a year and four times in the pillory on market day for a first offence," Sneddon says.
"We don't know what happened to them afterwards. They disappear from historical records. As anyone who has ever tried to trace a family tree would know, it's a hard task to perform in this country, and it's even harder if people were poor."
Though the Islandmagee case was the last witch trial in Ireland, Sneddon's forthcoming book (due in 2013) covers a period right up until 1946. "The belief in witchcraft continues until the 20th century," he says.
"There might not have been any more prosecutions, but the 1586 Act was actually on the statute books until 1821, when it was finally repealed. Some cases would still make it to court, but the judges would not have entertained the notion of witchcraft because they were better educated and didn't believe in it.
"But the popular belief was still there. For instance, you'd still have cases of fairy doctors curing fairy attacks and performing anti-bewitchment measures, and people continued to be accused of witchcraft."
Dr Andrew Sneddon will speak on the Islandmagee witches at the annual conference of the 18th-Century Ireland Society from July 1-3 in Trim, Co Meath