Belfast Telegraph

‘Witch’ doctor bringing a history of sorcery to book

By Amanda Poole

Today marks the 300th anniversary of the last witch trial to take place in Ireland.

The macabre event took place in Islandmagee, Co Antrim, on March 31, 1711.

The occasion is the focus of a book being written by University of Ulster lecturer Dr Andrew Sneddon.

He teaches the only history course in Ireland dedicated to the study of the great European witch-hunts between 1500 and 1800 and has been commissioned by Palgrave MacMillan to write the first academic book on Irish witchcraft, called Witchcraft And Magic In Ireland, 1586-1946.

The book, due for publication in early 2013, will contain insight into charms, witchcraft, and demonic possession in Ireland up to the 20th century.

Dr Sneddon told the Belfast Telegraph that people are becoming increasingly fascinated by witchcraft.

“It’s the unknown. It’s the mysterious. It’s like ghost stories,” he said.

“Witchcraft is everywhere, in films and books and plays.

“Every year my course increases in popularity and our exchange students seem to particularly like it. It used to be viewed as superstition, but in the last 50 years academics, film-makers and authors are much more interested.”

Under the Irish witchcraft law of 1563, repealed in 1821, eight women from the Islandmagee area were found guilty at Co Antrim’s criminal court for bewitching 18-year-old Mary Dunbar.

For their punishment they were sent to prison for a year, and on four market days were put in the pillory, a form of stocks, to be publicly humiliated and pelted by rotten food and stones.

Mary Dunbar’s symptoms of bewitchment included fits, swearing, throwing Bibles, and being trances.

Dr Sneddon argues she faked her possession to escape the restrictions placed on her behaviour. He said Dunbar blamed her possession on the women because they had reputations as witches and did not meet contemporary standards of female behaviour and beauty.

“Some were physically disabled, others swore and drank alcohol. All were poor,” he said.

“The local male authorities believed Dunbar’s version of events because she was beautiful, educated and from a respected family.

“The accusations were also used to further local political goals at a time of intense party political conflict between the two main political parties of the day.

“As there were no natural reasons for her behaviour, I believe she probably learned about witchcraft from the Salem witch trials and similar demonic possessions in Paisley, Scotland.

“This all happened in a Presbyterian Scottish community in Ireland, so the influence and ideas would have come from there.”

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