Irish Witchcraft

Irish Witchcraft

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

There was little witchcraft recorded in Ireland during the persecutions. The first trial was held in 1324 and the last in 1711, but there were no more than a half dozen trials between those two dates.

The trial of 1324 was that of Dame Alice Kyteler and was of special note since she was the wealthiest lady in Kilkenny. She was accused by Bishop Richard de Ledrede of Ossory, who no doubt was inspired by thoughts of confiscating Dame Alice's property. The two matched wits for a prolonged period—the bishop excommunicated Dame Alice, while Kyteler had the bishop imprisoned—until the lady fled to England. Her maid, Petronilla de Meath, then bore the brunt of the accusations and, under extreme torture, confessed all manner of crimes and was burned alive at the stake on November 3, 1324.

In November 1578, the next trial occurred. Again the location was Kilkenny. In this trial, three witches, one of whom was a black woman, were prosecuted. Few details of this trial are known, but the outcome was that all of the women were executed.

Queen Elizabeth's witchcraft bill of 1563 was adopted by the Irish Parliament in 1586. Twenty years later, a minister was accused of employing "wicked and lying spirits," but there were no real cases until September, 1661. In that year, Florence Newton, a woman living in Youghal (and later known as the "Witch of Youghal"), was charged at the Cork Assizes with hexing a servant girl, Mary Longdon. Longdon, who worked for John Pyne, had refused to give Goodie Newton a piece of her master's pickled beef for Christmas in 1660, and Newton had gone away muttering to herself. A week later, Newton met Mary Longdon in the street and knocked the girl down as she forcibly kissed her. Newton cried that she was Longdon's good friend and that the girl was not to bear her any ill will. A few days later Longdon dreamed that she saw Newton at her bedside, accompanied by an old man dressed in silver, whom she took to be a spirit.

A few weeks after she was kissed by Newton, Longdon began to have fits of vomiting and additonal wild dreams. When she had her fits, she shook so hard that three or four grown men could not hold her still. She also suffered loss of memory and started vomiting up pins and needles, regular and horseshoe nails, wool, and straw. Showers of stones occurred around her, both indoors and out, although the stones vanished after they landed. The girl also levitated out of her bed.

Florence Newton was summoned and taken to Cork for trial. When she was manacled, Mary Longdon's fits would cease, but when the "bolts" were removed, the girl would go into convulsions again. It was believed that a witch could not say the Lord's Prayer without making a mistake. This was tried on Newton and, indeed, she was unable to recite the whole prayer without stumbling. A man, David Jones, was appointed to teach her the prayer, but to no avail. At one point, in apparent gratitude, Newton kissed his hand. For the next several days Jones had pains in that hand, then his entire arm. Eventually he became very ill and at the end of two weeks he died.

At a hearing on March 24, 1661, Newton said she was sorry for casting the evil eye on Mary Longdon. She also named two other local women as witches, and the mayor of Youghal had them arrested. He was about to have all three ducked when Newton confessed that the other two were innocent, and the mayor released them. No records are available showing the outcome of Newton's trial, but it seems likely that she was put to death. Mary Longdon eventually recovered.

The last witchcraft trial in Ireland took place at Carrickfergus, County Antrim, on March 31, 1711. After a number of weeks of poltergeist activity, a widow named Haltridge died under mysterious circumstances. A newly employed maid, Mary Dunbar, who was hired to look after the widow's daughter-in-law, began to have fits and visions of various women tormenting her. She named seven local women as witches, and they were all arrested. Dunbar later accused another woman, but she was not held. In the eight-hour trial, the main evidence was various items that Mary Dunbar was supposed to have vomited up during her fits. The accused were found to be hard working, religious people. One of the judges, Anthony Upton, felt they were innocent and the other, James MacCartney, thought them guilty. The jury finally decided they were all guilty. They were sentenced to serve one year in jail with four appearances in the pillory.

As recently as 1808 Mary Butters, known as the Carmoney Witch, narrowly escaped trial. In Carricfergus, she was hired by Alexander Montgomery of Carmoney to cure a cow from whose milk no butter could be made. Montgomery's wife believed that a witch had cursed the cow. When Butters was called in, she told Montgomery and another young man named Carnaghan to go to the barn and turn their vests inside out. They were then to stand by the head of the bewitched cow until she sent for them. Butters went into the house, where she sat with Montgomery's wife, son, and an old woman named Margaret Lee.

The two men dutifully waited beside the cow until dawn, when they returned to the house to find all four people collapsed on the floor. There was a strong smell of sulfur which seemed to issue from a cauldron Butters had placed on the fire. In the cauldron she had put a quantity of milk and lots of sharp objects, like needles and pins, nails, and broken glass, much as is found in a witch bottle. The chimney had been covered over and the door and windows sealed tight. Montgomery found that his wife and son were already dead and the old woman, Lee, died soon after. He furiously kicked Butters out of the house and onto a dung heap, where she eventually recovered consciousness.

An inquest was held on August 19, in Carmoney. There it was determined that the victims had all died from asphyxiation due to the smoke and fumes from Mary Butters's cauldron of anti-witchcraft ingredients. Butters claimed that a mysterious

"man in black" had suddenly appeared to them all, wielding a huge club, and had killed the others and beaten her into unconsciousness. She was sent for trial at the spring assizes but, before that time, the charges against her were dropped.

If there was little historical witchcraft in Ireland, there was a heavy background of Paganism. Danu, or Dana, was the primal Mother Goddess. As with many triple goddesses, she was Maiden, Mother, Crone. The Tuatha De Danann were "the Children of the Goddess Danu." In her Maiden aspect, the Mother Goddess was Brighid. She was patroness of bardic lore (filidhecht), inheriting the Druidic role, according to R. J. Stewart, of a goddess of poetry, inspiration, and divination. Her feast day is Imbolc.

The Morrigan, meaning "Phantom Queen," was also a triple goddess, controlling both death and sexuality. Cuchulainn is the primary warrior goddess of Irish tradition. The fertility goddess Macha is connected to ritual games and festivals, especially those involving contests of skill and arms.

Lugh is one of the principle male deities, honored at the major Wiccan festival of Lughnasadh. Another male deity is Dagda, originally the son of Brighid but in later myths presented as the father of all female triplicity. He was the possessor of the great cauldron of death and rebirth. Irish-based Wiccan traditions today use various names for their deities.

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