Category: Belief and Worldview

Possessed by the Devil: The Real History of the Islandmagee Witches & Ireland's Only Mass Witchcraft Trial

By Andrew Sneddon. 2013. Dublin: The History Press Ireland. 224 pages. ISBN: 978-1-84588-745-2 (soft cover).

Reviewed by James E. Doan, Nova Southeastern University

[Review length: 584 words • Review posted on May 7, 2014]

With strong parallels to the Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft trials of the late-seventeenth century and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, this book provides an excellent overview of witchcraft trials in Ireland from the fourteenth century onwards, focusing particularly on the celebrated 1710-11 case in Islandmagee, Co. Antrim. Involving the haunting and supernatural “murder” of the widow of a local clergyman (Ann Haltridge), who lived with her son James and his wife, and the later possession of the star witness at this trial, the young Mary Dunbar, the episode highlights specific features of witchcraft accusations in Ireland, which differed in many ways from cases in Britain and on the Continent.

The original haunting bears a strong resemblance to what we now think of as poltergeist occurrences, e.g., Ann’s being pelted with stones while sitting by the kitchen fire; pillows and bed coverings being mysteriously removed from the bed; a copy of the Bible disappearing, etc. Within six months of the beginning of these disturbances, the original victim was dead. Five days after her death, Mary Dunbar (first cousin of James Haltridge’s wife) arrived in Islandmagee from Castlereagh, Co. Down, to keep her cousin company while James was in Dublin. Almost immediately, supernatural disturbances are again experienced as Mary unties a knotted apron which contained Ann’s missing bonnet, which was then thought to be the means used to place a spell on her. Mary then began to show signs of demonic possession which eventually led her to accuse eight women and one man of bewitching her. The defendants were convicted and, according to a 1586 statute, would have been sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment in Carrickfergus Gaol and pilloried four times. None of them received the death sentence and we don’t know much about their ultimate fates.

As in New England, accusations of witchcraft were far more common in Protestant, specifically Presbyterian, communities in Ireland as well as in Scotland. As Sneddon points out, “[b]elief in witchcraft and Satan also thrived because people at that time saw the universe in moral terms, where spiritual or supernatural essences constantly interfered in the natural world and the lives of humankind” (71). On the contrary, “belief in malefic and demonic witchcraft was conspicuously absent in its Catholic, Gaelic-Irish counterpart. Although the Gaelic Irish also lived in a moral, magical universe, it was one where a less threatening witch figure predominated” (73). In Gaelic folklore, witches prevented milk from being churned or stole fresh milk from farmers’ cows by assuming the shape of hares. Sneddon also points out that accusations of and convictions for witchcraft were far more common in Scotland than in England or Ireland during this period, largely for political as well as religious reasons.

Unlike Continental Europe, where as many as 40,000 were executed during the early modern “witch craze,” very few people died in Ireland, the last one being an elderly woman in Antrim Town, Co. Antrim, who was strangled and killed by a mob for allegedly bewitching a nine-year old girl. The last person in Ireland convicted of witchcraft, Jane Wenham in 1712, was later pardoned, partly a result of changing views on witchcraft among the political elites.

This book will be of particular use to those interested in the history of witchcraft in Europe, specifically in the British Isles, as well as to folklorists investigating the role of religion in predisposing individuals to a belief in it, or not. Handsomely produced, it contains several maps and illustrations highlighting places and occurrences discussed in the text.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.