Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Last witch trial re-investigated

To facts behind Ireland's last witch trial are being reinvestigated
To facts behind Ireland's last witch trial are being reinvestigated

The intriguing tale of Ireland's last witch trial has been re-investigated ahead of the 300th anniversary of a case in which eight Co Antrim women were found guilty of possessing a teenage girl.

The story of the Islandmagee witches has generated little historical re-examination in the last three centuries.

But Dr Andrew Sneddon from the University of Ulster intends to change that with a reappraisal of the trial, which took place 300 years ago this week..

After being convicted at a court in Carrickfergus, the eight Presbyterian women were sentenced to a year in prison and each put in the public stocks four times on market day.

In his forthcoming book - Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland, 1586-1946 - the history lecturer contends that their alleged victim, 18-year-old Mary Dunbar, made the whole thing up.

"My research is based on a wide variety of contemporary documentation, including witness statements, letters and eye-witness accounts," he said. "It suggests that Mary Dunbar's symptoms of bewitchment were that of demonic possession: fits, swearing, throwing bibles, vomiting household objects, and trances."

The academic claims she faked these episodes to break free from the tight social restraints put on her at the time and to become a local celebrity.

"Being possessed allowed her to misbehave without consequence, move from invisibility to notoriety within her community and attack her elders at will," he said. "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.

"Some were physically disabled, others swore and drank alcohol. All were poor. The local male authorities believed Dunbar's version of events because she was beautiful, educated and from a respected family.

While Dr Sneddon's book will not be published until early 2013, his research on the Islandmagee witches will be given in a paper at the annual conference of the 18th Century Ireland Society in Trim, Co Meath, this July.

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