The Witches of Islandmagee

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.

Witches of Islandmagee 3During 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.

Witches of Islandmagee 2We 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.

Witches of Islandmagee 4There 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.

Witches of Islandmagee 5As 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.

 

 

An Interesting Trial

This is the story of an extraordinary trial that took place in Ireland just before the turn of the 20th Century and was revealed to me through the records of a provincial newspaper, printed in 1899. I think for many of my readers this will be their first introduction to the story.

The case in question began in the northern province of Ireland and is being reported here for the first time since its original publication, over one hundred and eighteen years ago. It was at a time of political upheaval and much talk about ‘Home Rule’, supporters and opponents of which marched regularly through the streets. It is my intention that the story of this trial is told exactly the way it happened and the manner it was reported. The report of the trial states the evidence that was given at the time, and I am writing it down exactly according to what was deposed at the trial.

In the criminal court it was said that Joan O’Rourke, wife of Andy O’Rourke, had been murdered, but the only question left to answer was, “How did Joan come by her death?” From the evidence of the coroner’s inquest on the body, and from the depositions made by Mary O’Rourke, John Croke and his wife, Agnes, it appeared that Joan O’Rourke had committed suicide. Witnesses stated that they had found the unfortunate woman lying dead in her bed, with the knife sticking in the floor, and her throat cut from ear to ear. They also stated that the night before they found her body Joan had went to bed with her child, and her husband was not in the house. They swore that no other person came into the house at any time after Joan had gone to bed. The witnesses said that the truth of their statements lay in the fact that they had been lying in the outer room, and they would have undoubtedly seen or heard any strangers who might have tried to enter the house.

With this evidence established in the court, the jury finally submitted their verdict that in their opinion Joan O’Rourke had indeed committed suicide. This verdict, however, came under some pressure afterwards, when rumour arose within the neighbourhood that suicide was not the cause of Joan’s death. Further investigation and discovery of some diverse circumstances began to suggest that Joan did not, nor, according to those circumstances, could she possibly have murdered herself. The jury, whose verdict had not yet been made official by the coroner’s office, was summoned again and requested that the coroner’s office exhume the body. The request to remove the body from the grave, in which she had already been buried, was granted. Thus, almost thirty days after she had died, Joan’s corpse was taken up in the presence of the jury members, and a substantial number of other witnesses, and the sight that greeted them caused the jury to change their verdict.

Those persons who had been brought before the court to be tried were all acquitted. But, there was now so much the evidence, against the previous verdict, that the trial Judge was of the opinion that an appeal should be made, rather than allow such a gruesome murder to go unpunished by the law.  As a result, the four most likely suspects were brought to trial on an appeal, which was brought by the young child, against his father, grandmother, and aunt, and her husband John Croke. The evidence that was now brought against them was so strange, that one would need to read through it very carefully to ensure a good understanding of it. The paper recorded the evidence as follows –

At the subsequent trial the prosecution called forward a person of unimpeachable character to give evidence. The Parish Priest of the town where the act was committed was deposed and began to speak. He confirmed that the body, which had been taken up out of the grave, had lain there for thirty days after the woman’s death. The priest stated that the corpse was laid out on the grass in her cheap pine coffin, and the four defendants in the dock were also present at the exhumation. Each of the defendants where then requested to place a hand upon the Joan’s long dead body. Agnes Croke, the priest said, immediately fell upon her knees, and she prayed aloud to God that he would do something to show that she was innocent of doing any harm to Joan. She mumbled out some other words in her grief, but the priest was unsure about what she said.

None of those who were standing trial refused to touch Joan’s dead body. But, after they had done this, the dead woman’s brow which, beforehand had been a dark bluish grey in colour, like that of carrion, began to have a dew or gentle sweat come out upon it. This perspiration now began to increase so much that the sweat began to run down in droplets over the face. Almost like magic the brow began to turn, and it quickly changed to a more lively and fresh colour. Unbelievably, as we watched, the dead woman opened one of her eyes and shut it again. This action of opening the eye and then closing it was carried out by the corpse three times. In addition to this, the dead woman thrust out her marriage finger three times, and swiftly pulled it in again, and, as she did so, drops of blood dripped from the finger down onto the grass,” explained the priest.

The Judge who was hearing the case, not surprisingly, had some doubts about the evidence that was being given and he asked the Parish Priest, “Who else saw these things besides yourself?”

The priest felt that his veracity was being questioned and was quite annoyed by the question that had been posed. But, he chose not to react angrily and simply answered, “Your Honour, I could not swear to what others may have seen or not. But, your Honour, I firmly believe that the entire company saw these things for themselves. In fact, if any of my testimony had been considered to be in doubt, some proof of that doubt would have been presented and many would have spoke out against this statement.

As he stood in the witness stand, the priest was able to observe that many of those listening to him were showing some admiration for him, and he was encouraged to speak further. “Your Honour,” he began, “I am Priest of the parish, and I have known all the parties involved for a very long time. I have never had any occasion to be displeased with any of them, nor have I ever had much to do with any of them, or they with me, outside of my pastoral duties as a minister of the Church. The things that happened amazed me and filled my mind with wonder. However, the only interest that I have in these matters is to do what I have been asked to do and that is to testify to the truth. This, I assure you, I have done.”

This witness was aged about seventy years and highly respected in the district. When he spoke his testimony, he did so in a clear voice, slowly and elegantly, which won the admiration of all who heard him. Clearing his throat, he again began to speak to the Judge in the case, saying, “May I point out, at this time, your Honour, that my brother priest, who is present in the court, is the minister of the parish adjacent to my own, and I am assured that he saw everything to which I have testified.”

This other priest, who was just a little younger than the first, was invited into the witness box, where he was sworn in and invited to give his evidence. His testimony supported every point that had been previously made. He confirmed the sweating of the brow, the changing of its colour, the mystical opening of the eye, and the three times that the corpse’s finger thrust itself out and drew in again. The only area in which he differed from the first witness was in declaring that he had, himself, dipped his finger into the blood which had exuded from the dead body. He said that he had examined it and was certain in his own mind that it was blood.

I can understand the difficulty of believing such testimony. Modern ideas on the paranormal often leave us doubting our own eyes and senses. But, there were others who had observed these things and agreed with the testimony given by the priests. There is no reason to doubt the testimony of the clerics, for why would they be persuaded to lie about such things. At the same time, allow me to assure you that the reports from the trial have been recorded here accurately. Evidence was also given against the prisoners in the dock, namely, the grandmother of the plaintiff, and against Croke and his wife, Agnes. It was stated that all four confessed that they had lain in the next room to the dead person that entire night, and that no other person had entered the house until they found her dead the next morning. The only conclusion to be drawn, therefore, was that if this woman did not murder herself, then they must be the murderers.

To prove such a charge, however, further evidence was needed and to this end the medical examiner was called forward. Looking at his notes on the examination he had made of the crime scene and the body of the dead woman. Then, point by point he explained his findings to the court. Firstly, he described the scene that he had found when he arrived at the house, and told the jury, “I found the dead woman lying in her bed, in a quite composed way. The bed clothes and other things in the room had not been disturbed in any way, and her child lay by her side in the bed. Immediately, I could see that the deceased woman’s throat was cut from ear to ear, and her neck was broken. It is completely impossible for the deceased person to first cut her throat, and then break her own neck in the bed; or vice-versa.

The examiner continued to explain that he had found no blood in the bed, except for a small spot of blood on the pillow where she had laid her head. “But, there was no evidence of major blood loss on the bed, which there should have been if the death had occurred in the place that she was found. On further investigation, however, we found a stream of blood on the floor of the bedroom, which ran along the wooden floorboards until it found obstructions that caused it to spread in pools. There was, at the same time, another stream of blood found on the floor at the bed’s feet. This stream had caused small ponds of blood to form, but there was no sign of both blood streams being connected. This suggests that the woman bled severely in two places. Furthermore, when I turned up the mattress of the bed, I found clots of congealed blood in the underneath of the straw-filled mattress.

The court was informed that the blood-stained knife was found that morning after the murder, sticking in the wooden floor a good distance from the bed. “The point of the knife, as it stuck in the floor was pointing towards the bed, while the handle pointed away from the bed,” he explained. “On the knife itself I discovered the print of the thumb and four fingers of the left hand.

At this point the judge interrupted the testimony of the Examiner and asked him, “But, how can you know the print of a left hand from the print of a right hand in such a case as this?

Your Honour,” he began to reply, “it is hard to describe, but easier to demonstrate. If it would please your Honour, could you put your clerk’s left hand upon your left hand. You will see that it is impossible to place your right hand in the same posture.

The Judge did as he was asked and was satisfied by the demonstration. The defendants, however, were given an opportunity to put forward a defence against all these claims. But, they decided to maintain their silence and gave no evidence at any stage of the trial. The Jury, therefore, was directed to retire and deliberate their verdict. It took them only an hour to return to the court and announce their findings. John Croke was acquitted of all charges, but the other three defendants were found guilty as charged. The judge turned to the three guilty persons and asked if they had anything to say about why judgement should not be produced. Their reply was simply, “I have nothing to say except that I am not guilty. I did not do this.

Judgement was passed upon all three. The grandmother and the husband were executed by hanging, while the aunt was spared execution because she was pregnant. None of them confessed anything before their execution and the aunt never spoke as to any possible motivation for the murder. In fact, the aunt never spoke about the incident ever again. She moved away from the district with her husband, where she died some fifteen years after her niece had been brutally killed.