A Story of County Antrim
The story of the ‘The Witches of Islandmagee’ is a strange tale, which has become very famous in the history and folklore of Ireland. It’s a story is located on the small Islandmagee peninsula, that lies along the east coast of County Antrim, and it is famed for being the last recorded witch trial held in Ireland. Although a witchcraft statute had been passed in Ireland in 1586, the record shows that not too many actual witch trials were conducted in any areas of the land. In fact, the record shows that only three witch trials were held, in which eleven individuals were accused of the crime of witchcraft. It is, however, the Islandmagee witch trial that stands out among them all because of the intensity of feeling it caused in a small, tightly knit community that numbered some three-hundred people of Scots-Presbyterian descent.
During the time of the ‘Tudor Plantation’ in Ireland Scottish Protestants, mostly from the Scottish Lowlands were encouraged to take up land that the crown had confiscated from Irish lords that had risen in rebellion. Among these new Scots-Presbyterian settlers there was a widely held belief in the existence of witchcraft, and they brought their superstitious ideas with them to Ireland. In Scotland, the hunting and destruction of witches was far more widespread than that carried out in England. In fact, Scotland was widely recognised as being one of the most vicious anti-witch countries in Europe. There was a total of approximately 3,800 people prosecuted in the Scottish courts, and more than three-quarters of these were put to death by strangling and/or burning. In England, and so by extension in Ireland, however, there was ‘Common Law’, which meant that those convicted in those courts of witchcraft could only be hanged. In Ireland, such trials were few in number, but there is an account of a trial that was held among the English ‘Planter’ community that lived in the Youghal area of County Cork, during 1661. Fifty years later, in March 1711, eight women were taken into custody and brought before the court at Carrickfergus, Co.Antrim. The subsequent trial was a major sensation at the time, shocking everyone when all eight women were found guilty of the demonic possession of the body, mind, and spirit of a local teenage girl. The judgment levied on them was that they were put in the stocks, where the public could throw stones and rotten fruit at them, prior to them being taken to serve a year in jail.
Witches and witchcraft had always been an integral part of Irish folklore, but the image portrayed by the folklore tales was that of a witch that was non-threatening to ordinary mortals. We have all heard the stories that tell us about witches stealing the ability for churning milk into butter, or other tales saying that they had the power to turn themselves into hares and steal the butter that had already been made. It was, however, the Scottish ‘Planters’ who brought their beliefs about witches to Ireland, introducing the witch as a malicious, expert in magic that was extremely dangerous to ordinary mortals. Thankfully, the ‘Trial of the Islandmagee Witches’ was well recorded by the authorities and the media of the day, which has provided modern researchers with ample primary historical resources to aid their studies. These include statements from the trial of the main characters, copies of newspaper articles at the time, pamphlets that were produced, letters, correspondence and legal depositions from witnesses. From all these documents it has been discovered that the origins of the case can be traced back to the previous year, 1710.
We are told that it was in 1710, that a young 18-year-old girl called Mary Dunbar arrived in Islandmagee from her home in Castlereagh, which lay at the edge of Belfast. It is suggested that the young girl had come to stay and help in the home of her cousin, Mrs. James Haltridge, whose mother-in-law had recently died. At the time of the woman’s death, it was alleged that her passing had been brought about through the black arts of witchcraft. Witnesses further alleged that Mary soon began to show signs that she, herself, had been possessed by an evil demon. These signs included Mary issuing threats to people, shouting, swearing, blaspheming, and throwing Bibles everywhere. On those occasions when a clergyman approached her to help, Mary would suddenly be overcome by violent fits, accompanied by vomiting various household articles, such as pins, buttons, nails, glass, and wool. In her statement to the court, Mary Dunbar claimed to have seen eight women appearing to her in spectral form, and this evidence alone would prove to very important at the trial. ‘Spectral evidence’ was a tactic used by the prosecution lawyers in cases, where the possessed person claims to have seen and been attacked by the witches, which then caused his or her possession in spectral form. This sort of evidence had been common in England in earlier trials but, by the time of the Islandmagee case, this type of evidence was rarely used because it had become less and less convincing in witch trials. ‘Spectral Evidence’ would, nevertheless, become one of the main proofs of guilt that were brought against the eight women in the trial of 1711. The main problem about such proof was that Mary would have been the only person to have seen this spectral possession occur. But Mary Dunbar was a relative stranger to this area, and she would never have seen any of these women before. However, this evidence was sworn to be true by her, and the trial jury in Carrickfergus chose to believe her. There were other types of ‘proof’ offered by the prosecution, of course, including their apparent inability to say, ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. And the authorities went even further to prove their case against the women by setting up a form of the identity parade, in which Mary Dunbar was blindfolded while a line of women came in to touch her. It was believed that the demoniac would go into terrible fits if he or she was touched by a witch, and Dunbar apparently succeeded in picking out the eight women that she had claimed to have bewitched and attacked her in spectral form.
Alongside the witness testimony, the character of the accused women themselves was also important in them being convicted. These women were all from the margins of society in the small community and were suffering from an impoverished life. It is said that some of them claimed to possess some form of witches’ craft. But, in Irish folklore, there was the character of “The Wise Woman”, who knew about love potions, healing plants, and various natural remedies that the people of their community sought. They were not witches in the true sense of the word but would have been readily accused of witchcraft by some. This was especially true in an age when the widespread belief was that a witch looked like a wizened old crone, much like the image we have of witches today, and these eight women apparently fitted that description.
In small villages and towns, the reputation of a person, or a family, is always well known. If a person had a less than perfect reputation and some act of misfortune happened within the community, then that person and his family would be suspected and even accused of being the guilty party. In this case, the misfortune that had occurred was the bewitching of Mary Dunbar, and some of these women already had the reputation of using witchcraft. Moreover, these women appeared to fall short of the ideals of womanhood espoused by others, which helped to fuel the suspicions of them being witches. Several of the women, for instance, were accused of drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and swearing, none of which met the expected requirements for being considered a lady. On the other hand, Mary Dunbar was an intelligent, attractive young lady from a good family.
There is no record of what happened to Mary Dunbar or the eight women after the trial in Carrickfergus. Unfortunately, the public records office that held many Church of Ireland records was burned down during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923). According to the Act of 1586, the eight women would have been put in prison for a year and pilloried four times on market days for a first offense. However, we have no knowledge what happened to any of them after their sentence was served, for they simply disappeared from the historical records. As for Mary Dunbar, it is widely considered that she had made the entire thing up, for some reason or another. After all, she was not the first demoniac in England and Scotland to do such a thing and, being an intelligent young woman, such precedents would have provided her with an excellent example to follow.
Prime examples of misleading evidence were seen during the witch hunts and trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, and in Scotland in 1697, where an eleven-year-old girl called Christian Shaw, who was the daughter of the Laird of Bargarran, complained that she was being tormented by a group of local witches. She said that these witches included one of her family’s servants, Catherine Campbell, whom she had reported to her mother after witnessing her steal a drink of milk. As a result of Christian’s statements Seven people (Margaret Lang, John Lindsay, James Lindsay, John Reid, Catherine Campbell, Margaret Fulton, and Agnes Naismith) were found guilty of having bewitched the child and were subsequently condemned to death. One of this group went on to hang himself in his prison cell. It is also believed that Agnes Naismith may also have died while she was imprisoned. The remaining five accused were hanged, and their bodies burned on the ‘Gallow Green’ in Paisley on 10th June 1697. This proved to be the last mass execution of ‘witches’ in western Europe.
It is very likely that Mary Dunbar had learned the part of a demoniac from accounts she had heard or read about events in Salem or, more likely, Scotland, from where people were pouring into the ‘Ulster Plantation’ at this time. Maybe she sought fame or was simply doing the same thing that she is accusing others of doing. But, because it would not be considered her fault, there would be no moral responsibility attached to her actions. And, because she claims that it is someone else who is doing these things to her, she can comfortably break the type of behavioural constraints that were placed upon her as a female at the time.
As far as seeking fame is concerned, Mary Dunbar was a stranger in that community and may have felt that she was invisible and undervalued. She may have seen her accusations as being an opportunity to make herself visible in that community and her cousin’s family, as well as being able to act in ways that would normally be socially unacceptable. Whatever Dunbar’s reasons, it seems incredible to modern society that she should have succeeded. While it is easy to dismiss the people of that time as being blatantly ignorant, or disastrously superstitious, we must understand how things were in those days. Dunbar’s accusations made complete sense to the people, especially when they are supported by members of the clergy and the medical professions. In fact, doctors were called in to examine Mary Dunbar’s condition and concluded that her condition did not have physical causes but was due to supernatural influences.
Although the ‘Islandmagee Case’ was the last witch trial to be held in Ireland, there continues to be a belief in witches and witchcraft. There may have been no further prosecutions in Ireland for witchcraft since 1711, the Act of 1586 continued to be on the statute books until 1821, when it was finally repealed. There is little doubt that some cases did make it to the court, but the judges of the day would reject them because they were better educated and did not believe in such superstitions. There remains some belief in such things, with ‘Fairy Doctors’ and ‘Wise Women’ being asked to cure ‘fairy attacks’, and to perform traditional rites to remove curses and bewitchments. Such people are very small in number, compared to many years ago, but they are a sign that belief in witchcraft is not yet dead in Ireland.