Witch Fever at Ireland's Only Mass
Witch fever was in the air in Ireland in 1711. A witchcraft trial was convened in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim with the added frisson of being a mass trial – the only one of its kind in Ireland.
On one side – eight terrified women protesting their innocence. On the other – a pretty and pious young newcomer, of a higher social class to them, insisting she was bewitched.
It caused a sensation. Spectators from all walks of life turned up, on tenterhooks for a glimpse of the so-called Islandmagee witches in league with Satan.
Marginalised and voiceless, the women, all Presbyterians, stood little chance of acquittal. Some of the eight were deformed, a factor in the community’s readiness to believe in their guilt.
The verdict against them proved to be the last conviction for witchcraft under Ireland’s 1586 Witchcraft Act – the felony was dropped soon after. Too late, however, for the Antrim women found guilty of diabolical practices in nearby Islandmagee in 1711.
At best, the evidence against them was sketchy, and all eight maintained they were innocent throughout. But their teenaged accuser was believed in the remote and superstitious Ulster Scots community, where eye-witnesses had seen her writhe, sweat and scream.
The alleged victim, a pretty Presbyterian girl of about 18 named Mary Dunbar, had convulsions, during which three strong men struggled to hold her down. Her body bent backwards like a bow, and her tongue doubled back into her throat. She had visions, muttering away to people nobody else could see, and regurgitated pins, buttons and horsehair – used in evidence.
Mary Dunbar managed to persuade neighbours, the local clergy, and the elite who controlled the law that she was bewitched. However, she was not examined by a doctor, who might have reached a different conclusion about her behaviour.
In reading depositions lodged with the court by eye-witnesses, including Mary Dunbar’s own testimony, a sense emerges of something that became unstoppable. She pointed the finger and women were brought in to answer to her. Important men hung on her every word. She had power, presumably for the first and last time in her life.
Spectral evidence was accepted: that even if the women were elsewhere, and could produce alibis, the Devil had given them the ability to send their shapes to persecute victims. Against that, there is no defence.
The eight were sentenced to a year in jail and four turns in the pillory, the standard sentence in Ireland for a first offence. A second conviction would have meant the death sentence.
In a newspaper of the day, it was reported as follows: “We hear, That 8 Witches were Try'd at the Assizes of Carrickfergus, for bewitching a young Gentlewoman, were found Guilty, and are to be Imprisoned for a Year and a Day, and 4 times Pillored.”
That was a report in the Dublin Intelligence, an early newspaper printed in Smock Alley by Francis Dickson, and advertising itself as “containing a Full and Impartial Account, of the Foreign and Domestick News”.
It continued to keep an eye on the witchcraft case, 10 days later running a false report that “the young Gentlewoman, that was tormented by the Witches, lately Tried at Carrickfergus, is dead”.
In fact, Mary Dunbar made another unsubstantiated allegation about being attacked by witches, which did not lead to a conviction. Soon after, she dropped out of history. As did the eight women convicted of witchcraft because of her.
Compared to elsewhere in Europe, it was relatively difficult to have someone prosecuted for witchcraft in Ireland. While Gaelic Ireland believed in the supernatural, it was not regarded as evil. Where misfortune struck, the fairies were blamed rather than witchcraft, and folk remedies were used to overcome their mischief-making.
However Scottish Presbyterians – and Ulster Scots in their turn – believed the Devil actually walked about on earth, seeking to tempt people into evil. Mary Dunbar was a convincing accuser, backed by the Calvinistic belief system of those around her.
An account of the trial was written up by the Vicar of Belfast, William Tisdall, who knew Jonathan Swift – in fact, they quarrelled about Swift’s muse Stella. According to Dr Tisdall, who attended the trial, six of the eight accused has a “strange variety of ill looks.... diabolical appearances”. They had smallpox scars, or were lame or arthritic, while one was blind in one eye. Some smoked, some swore, some were bad-
tempered. One was described as of “ill fame” or immoral.
Mary Dunbar, by contrast, quoted liberally from the Bible, and was described by Dr Tisdall as “having an open and innocent countenance, and being a very intelligent young person”.
We know now that witchcraft accusations were a social control mechanism. Women played a key role in levelling accusations, although it was men who conducted prosecutions and were responsible for convictions.
Some four in five of the people tried for witchcraft in Europe were female and most of them did not conform to the male view of the female template: chaste, docile, attractive and of child-bearing age.
An unfortunate combination of circumstances led to the conviction of the eight women in Carrickfergus in 1711, because scepticism about witchcraft was growing.
Elsewhere, one further conviction was allowed in England in 1712, and in Scotland in 1727. The witchcraft laws were repealed in both countries in 1736. By some oversight, the Witchcraft Act was not taken off the statute books in Ireland until 1821.
But Mary Dunbar was the last person in Ireland to cry “witch” and be believed by the community at large, as well as by the elite which controlled the law.
Unfortunately for the eight women, she was a plausible accuser.
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