Exactly 300 years ago to the day (March 31st, 2011) Ireland finished its last ever witch trial. No one was burned at the stake, no one was drowned but eight Presbyterian women were sentenced to a year in jail alongside time in public stocks. On market day these “witches” had to suffer the crowds pelting them with rotting fruit and stones.
The eight became known as the Islandmagee witches. All eight were from the Islandmagee area in Co Antrim.
The Carrickfergus court found all eight gulity of bewitching Mary Dunbar, a local girl.
It was said that Dunbar suffered from fits, trances and vomitting household objects. She would also throw bibles and swear.
Historian Dr Andrew Sneddon, based in the University of Ulster, is working on a book (Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland, 1586 – 1946) which suggests Dunbar faked the symptoms in order to behave as she wished and to find fame.
The Islandmagee witches were all poor, some drank – unusual and frowned on by the community – and some had physical disabilities. Sneddon points out that they were an easy target for anyone looking to find a witch scapegoat.
Talking to local press, he said;
“Being possessed allowed her to misbehave without consequence, move from invisibility to notoriety within her community and attack her elders at will.
“Dunbar chose to blame her possession on the witchcraft of the Presbyterian Islandmagee women because they had reputations locally as witches and failed to meet contemporary standards of female behaviour and beauty.
“The accusations were also used to further local political goals at a time of intense party political conflict between the two main political parties of the day, the Whigs and the Tories.”
Ireland repealed their 1563 witchcraft law in 1821. That was 110 years after the Islandmagee trial.
In Pure Spirit
Do you think any of the Islandmagee eight where likely to be witches?
Picture credit: Wilson Adams, shows Islandmagee and surrounds.