Martina: This real-life Ulster tale of witches and ghosts cast a spell on me
Acclaimed Tyrone author Martina Devlin reveals the haunting inspiration behind her new book and how it’s set to be made into a major movie. The writer also tells Una Brankin how her work has helped to exorcise some demons of her own.
Martina Devlin has the ghosts of eight women whispering in her ear, but far from wanting them exorcised, she wishes them to be heard - widely.
The award-winning writer would like to see a commemoration to the lost souls in the north Antrim townland where they were wrongly accused of witchcraft in 1711 by a beautiful blow-in, and convicted by a superstitious bunch of men.
Her wish could come true. The rapid sales of her novel on the Islandmagee witchcraft trial and a big-budget film deal are getting people talking, and Martina was touched to see a delegation from Larne Borough Council, including Lord Mayor Mark Wilson in his ceremonial robes, at the recent book launch in Dublin.
The House Where It Happened is told from the perspective of the maid from said haunted house (Wuthering Heights springs to mind) and asks why the pious and pretty 18-year-old newcomer Mary Dunbar almost immediately started complaining about being tormented by eight local women she claimed were witches. Why did she have convulsions, the writer wondered, during which three strong men could barely restrain her? Why did she regurgitate pins and buttons?
“There was no medical evidence entered and Mary Dunbar was seen as chaste and of a higher social class. The other women fitted the template of witchcraft at the time — deformed, lame, blind, claw-handed, pockmarked, tobacco-smoking, drinking and so on,” says the Omagh-born writer and columnist.
“Mary’s word was accepted over theirs. It was lucky it was their first offence and tried under the Irish witchcraft act — in Scotland they would have been executed. The slur against them still stands, yet in Salem, Massachusetts, they pardoned the women they accused in the infamous 1692 trials there, and repented.
“If that would happen in Islandmagee I’d feel as if I’d made some small contribution to rectifying this miscarriage of justice. I feel haunted by these women. It happened 300 years ago but that’s not long in terms of eternity.”
She’s speaking down the line — Tyrone inflections intact — from the south Dublin home she shares with her husband, RTE business editor David Murphy. They were co-writing a non-fiction book on the Irish banking scandal, Banksters, when Martina came across a passing reference to Ireland’s only mass witchcraft trial, at the 1711 Spring Assizes in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, in a historical look-back piece in a Dublin newspaper. The eight Islandmagee women were the last to be convicted of the felony, largely on “spectral evidence” of “demonic shape-shifting”, and jailed for a year.
“The poor deluded souls admitted to colluding with the Devil and were literally pilloried — forced to take turns on the pillory, which was similar to stocks, at the annual fair day,” Martina explains.
“The crowd were so riled up against them one poor soul had her eye put out. Witch fever was in the air at the time; it was a small Ulster Scots Presbyterian community who believed the Devil was a malign presence on earth, on the look-out for souls to lead astray.
“After one woman, Mary Dunbar,
pointed the finger at these eight, the men then took over — a constable, the mayor, a 12-man jury, two male judges — but why did she point the finger in the first place? She must have heard about Salem and the trials in Scotland. By 1711 people were better educated and already recognising that claims were based on superstition.”
So in making these accusations, was Mary Dunbar mad or just bad?
“That’s what I wanted to find out,” Martina replies. “She must have heard about the trials in Scotland and Salem. Some people in Islandmagee were more interested in talking about it to me than others. Some think it’s a slightly unseemly thing to speak of — there’s a sense of shame and of being marginalised, but I did get to speak to one of the descendants of the women, before he died, and I saw the actual house, as in the title. I didn’t want to disturb the elderly couple who live there now, but I stood longingly at the window one day.
“The house was built in the 1600s and said to be haunted and it definite
ly has an aura about it, even now. There was a rebellion in the area by the native Irish against the Planters and a lot of bloodshed. I never saw a ghost but I believe in places where something dramatic has happened or where there has been a great outpouring of despair, something is left in the ether — that may have happened in Islandmagee.”
A weekly columnist for the Irish Independent, red-headed Martina makes a convivial and warm interviewee, with a big hearty laugh and a good eye for detail. She grew up listening to ghost stories on five-hour drives by her father Frank, a bus driver, to her mother Bridie’s hometown of Limerick. She has dedicated The House Where It happened, her sixth novel, to her six siblings: “To all of us Devlins who were there. Everyone was true: Frank, Niall, Tonia, Cahal, Conor, and especially|Census.”
By ‘there’, she’s referring to her late mother’s bedside. The much-loved Bridie Devlin died last Christmas Day, seven years after suffering a massive stroke.
“We all looked after my mother — we cared for her 24/7 in her own home for seven years, on a rota basis,” she recalls. “We ran a one-person nursing home. We just didn't want her ending her days in a nursing home, and there were enough of us to make it work. Took all seven of us though. The dedication just acknowledged what we did together.”
It was Bridie who helped Martina come to terms with her infertility, the subject of her heart-rending memoir The Hollow Heart. She went through three rounds of fertility treatment after being unable to conceive a child with her first husband (whom she prefers, respectfully, to remain anonymous), when they moved from London to a four-bed house in Dublin in the mid-’90s. Martina had worked for the Press Association in Fleet Street for seven years and had saved enough to see her through a Masters in Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College. But her dreams of motherhood didn’t come true.
“My three failed attempts at in-vitro fertilisation [IVF] laid waste my life,” she wrote. “I lost my husband, my home and my dreams of becoming a mother, and the combination of those three concurrent blows took me to the verge of a nervous breakdown. In the raw desolation of the aftermath, I saw no purpose in life if I couldn't hold a baby in my arms.”
She goes on to describe how her mother Bridie tried to offer comfort, suggesting that everything happened for a reason, but she couldn’t wholly accept it at the time, claiming that she’d swap the publication of her then three novels for a baby “in a heartbeat”.
Since then she married RTE's David Murphy, two years ago at Niagara Falls, in a silk dress covered in spray from the famous deluge. They co-wrote the best-selling Banksters from a distance — she was writer-in-residence at the Princess Grace Library in Monaco at the time. With continuing success, I wondered if she has been able to fulfil her life — without babies.
“Mary was convincing. The eight women she accused were from humbler origins”honoured: Martina was writer-in-residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco in 2009DARK TIMES: Many convicted of witchcraft suffered cruel punishment“Yes I find life fulfilling,” she says. “I'm very happily married to a kind and interesting man who makes me laugh. And who seems to like me, which always helps. Loving is one thing, but liking is another.
“Would I swap my novels etc for a baby? Put it this way: I accept that none of us gets everything in life — it's all about compromises and looking for the silver linings. Or counting our blessings, as my lovely mother Bridie advised. She died on Christmas Day 2013, and I still rely on her understated wisdom. I'm able to share other people's children — I have them in my life. They just don't belong to me. But then, whose child truly belongs to them?”
She would love to see her young nephew Justin in the film adaptation of The House Where It Happened. The rights to the book have been optioned by Samson Films, the company that made the Oscar-winning film Once, starring Glen Hansard. Samson's productions also include The Sea, the recent adaptation of John Banville's novel, starring Ciaran Hinds and Sinead Cusack, and the comedy-drama Run and Jump.
“Once you sign over the rights you’ve no control but the film company has taken me for dinner and given me an unofficial consultative role,” she says. “I’d love to see it being filmed locally and giving people employment. The Gobbins cliffs in the book are magnificent — all I can do is suggest locations. The whole place, Islandmagee, would fire your imagination. It’s an old Celtic settlement, very atmospheric, with something other about it — what Seamus Heaney called ‘extraness’.”
So who would she like to play the leads?
“Johnny Depp would be good — he was great in Sleepy Hollow — and Ciaran Hinds is a brilliant actor,” she says.
“I could imagine Saoirse Ronan as Mary Dunbar... she has piercing eyes, very pretty, very compelling. Mary Dunbar was clearly attractive and very convincing for these people to take her at her word.
“The Vicar of Belfast, Tisdall, was taken with her intelligence. The eight women she accused were from much humbler backgrounds. And in a way, every age has its witches, people marginalised by society. I seem to be drawn to them, in terms of fiction.”
This could possibly spring from being tormented over her long red hair as a child, one of the topics of her popular Irish Independent columns. She points out that redheads were seen as unlucky in times gone by, with old mariners refusing to set sail if there was one among his passengers. And it just so happens that her grandfather’s uncle, Tom O’Brien, who went down with the Titanic in 1912, had a head of golden hair. Ship Of Dreams, Martina’s novel based on the steerage passenger’s experience of eloping, became a bestseller in 2008.
“I was supposed to go on a Titanic 100th anniversary voyage and do readings — I saved up for it for four years then the company went bust and I lost my deposit. I tried to get it back but it wasn’t worth the energy in the end. I had to write it off.”
Ever industrious, Martina has just finished the first draft of her next novel, on another outsider, set in the near future. Between drafts she’s doing a course on chartered directorship — “I’m on the board of Irish Writers Centre but know nothing about corporate governance,” — and will be giving talks on her research for The House Where it Happened at Trinity College, where it has been added to a Masters syllabus.
“Doing my own Masters was a great excuse to sit around reading books all day and I would have loved to have stayed to do a PhD but I ran out of money. But the research that goes into writing a novel, especially a historical one, is just about the same as doing a Phd,” says Martina.
“Then the imagination takes over. What got me about those wrongly accused women in Islandmagee was how they dropped out of history after the trial, as did Mary Dunbar. And that's where fiction comes into its own, my book imagines what may have taken place in Co. Antrim all those years ago. And why.”
Trial and terror on Islandmagee
The Islandmagee witch trial took place in 1710–1711 on Islandmagee, Co. Antrim. It is believed to have been the last witch trial to take place in Ireland.
The trial was caused by a phenomenon of poltergeists and possession in the house of a Mrs Haltridge. In 1710, Mrs Haltridge claimed she had been affected by poltergeist activity. She had been unable to get any sleep, clothes had been thrown around the house, and a boy had shown himself to her, and vanished.
One night, she was heard screaming that she was being attacked with a knife, and was later found dead. In 1711, Mrs Haltridge, the younger, daughter-in-law of the deceased Mrs Haltridge, was visited by a Mary Dunbar. The pretty young visitor was also tormented by the poltergeists and an apron with ‘witches’ knots’ was found. Dunbar claimed to have been attacked by women in her bed. She named eight local women, who were arrested and put on trial for having caused the phenomena with witchcraft. They were found guilty of witchcraft and condemned to one year’s imprisonment and four times pillorying.
A life in literature
Martina Devlin was born in Omagh and lives near the sea in Dublin.
She has had eight books published, including the number one bestseller Banksters, a co-authored account of the Irish banking collapse written with her husband, RTÉ’s David Murphy.
Other work includes Ship of Dreams, a novel about the Titanic — inspired by a family connection with the disaster — and a memoir, The Hollow Heart. She started writing fiction after winning a Hennessy Literary Award for her first short story in 1996, and has been shortlisted twice for the Irish Book of the Year awards.
A former Fleet Street journalist, she writes weekly columns for the Irish Independent, and contributes essays to RTÉ Radio 1’s Sunday Miscellany.
In 2013 she joined the board of the Irish Writers Centre. In 2009 she was writer-in-residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco. In 2010 she was GALA columnist of the year. In 2011 she was named National Newspapers of Ireland columnist of the year. In 2012 she won the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett short story award.
Martina has an MPhil in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin.