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Gobbins tour guides 'not ordered to avoid witch trials'

Tour guides 'are free to discuss notorious case'

By David Young

Published 14/09/2015

The restored cliff path at the Gobbins
The restored cliff path at the Gobbins
An image depicting women on trial accused of withcraft

A 300-year-old witch trial is still stirring up toil and trouble in Northern Ireland countryside.

After the opening last month of the restored cliff path at the Gobbins on the Antrim coast, rumours have been flying that tour guides have been ordered to avoid talking about one of the area's most notorious historical events - the Islandmagee witch trials.

Eight local women were arrested, tried and imprisoned for witchcraft in 1711 in what was the last witchcraft trial in Ireland.

Earlier this year, a call by author Martina Devlin for a plaque to be erected in memory of the eight women sparked controversy when a TUV councillor, Jack McKee, objected, saying any such plaque could become a "shrine to paganism".

Persistent rumours had been circulating in the area that the tour guides had been ordered to avoid the controversial subject for fear of causing offence. One concerned tourist said: "Events like this may look distasteful now, but they intrigue visitors who want to learn more. Tourists want to know our real history, warts and all."

But speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Gobbins Centre operations and development manager Alister Bell broke the spell, insisting that tour guides were happy to discuss local history - including the witch trials - with visitors during the short bus journey from the path back to the visitor centre.

"While the actual Gobbins tour concentrates on the history of the cliff path itself, our guides have certainly not been told to avoid discussing the Islandmagee witch trials," he said. "If a visitor asks us about them, we'll talk about them."

The restored Gobbins Path in Islandmagee has been open since August and visitor demand for tours has been high. Although the Gobbins tour focuses on the unique engineering and design of the picturesque path, Mr Bell said there had been a broader interest in the history and culture of the whole area from the visitors.

He said it was hoped to develop a new tour that would cover important historical events like the witch trials in more depth. "There is certainly mileage in developing a broader Islandmagee tour," he said. "That would let us widen the focus to include information about the witch trials, Brown's Bay, Portmuck and other local attractions."

Historian Dr Andrew Sneddon - who wrote the definitive history of the Islandmagee witch trials - said they offered great potential for tourism development in the area.

"It's a dark event in our history - but it happened. People are fascinated by what happened at the Islandmagee witch trials, and the council could get a lot more tourism value from their interest," the Ulster University academic said.

According to Dr Sneddon, in other places where with trials took place, the places and events involved have become major tourist attractions in themselves.

"In Lancaster, their 1612 witch trials are an industry: there are tours, conferences and much more devoted to them. They bring lots of tourists and visitors into the area," Dr Sneddon said.

"Look at Salem in Massachusetts: they too have made an industry out of their 17th century witch trials."

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