Belfast Telegraph

Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble ... in islandmagee

Dr Andrew Sneddon reveals a sinister tale of possession, demons and witches in his new book

Belief in witches was a significant part of Irish culture, while Scottish and English settlers in Ireland often accused each other of witchcraft. It is commonly assumed that the European witch-craze of the 16th and 17th centuries, which claimed tens of thousands of lives, never reached Irish shores.

But the mass trial of the Islandmagee Witches in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, in 1711 demonstrates that fear surrounding witchcraft was indeed present in Ireland. The Islandmagee Witch trial was the last trial to be held under the 1586 Irish witchcraft law, a law which was not repealed until 1821, 85 years after Scotland and England had abandoned theirs.

The tale of the Islandmagee witches has long fascinated historians and has remained part of the local folk-lore, with reports from the 1840s of Islandmagee natives still being too frightened to pass the house where the events took place.

The story that haunts the rural peninsula of Islandmagee, Co Antrim, began in September 1710. Mrs Ann Haltridge, the elderly widow of local minister, Rev John Haltridge, was staying in Knowehead House.

At various times during her stay, beds were stripped by unseen hands and bed-clothes rearranged in the shape of a corpse. Stones were hurled at windows, household objects disappeared before reappearing days later, and a demonic apparition foretold of Ann's impending doom.

Finally on February 21, 1711, Ann died of stabbing pains in her back, which the local community of around 300 people blamed on witchcraft.

Following Ann's funeral, Mary Dunbar (18), arrived in Islandmagee from Castlereagh, Co Down, to keep her relatives company in their time of grief. Within a few hours of her arrival, Mary found a mysterious knotted apron lying on the parlour floor.

While everyone else was too frightened to touch it, Mary undid the knots to reveal the bonnet of the late Ann Haltridge. Almost immediately supernatural disturbances began to shake the house: demonic horses rode through the sky above the roof and a pillow walked by itself, dressed in a nightgown.

Mary then appeared to be possessed. She had severe convulsions, shouting and screaming fits, an inability to listen to prayers or sermons, and vomited pins, feathers, cotton, and buttons. She was even seen levitating above a four poster bed.

During the following month, Mary accused eight women from the surrounding area of summoning up demons, using witchcraft in order to possess her and haunt the Haltridge house.

Mary was able to describe her attackers due to their frequent attacks upon her in spirit form though she had never met any of the women before. These spectral visits were only visible to Mary.

Others were only able to see the fits which Mary suffered but this was enough to convince them that the matter needed to be investigated further by the local clergy and the Mayor of Carrickfergus, Edward Clements of Clements Hill, Straid, Co Antrim.

Clements was an ancestor of Samuel Langhorne Clements, the American author better known as Mark Twain.

The eight accused women were arrested and remanded in custody in Co Antrim jail in Carrickfergus. They were clamped in chains at Mary Dunbar's request, to prevent them leaving their bodies in spirit form to attack her once more. On March 31, 1711, they were tried, without a defence lawyer, before two high court Judges who argued over whether Mary's spectral evidence was admissible.

The cream of North Antrim society were brought forward to testify to support stories of Mary's possession. The trial started at 6am and by 2pm, the jury had decided on a guilty verdict despite pleas of innocence from the accused.

The women were sentenced to a year's imprisonment and four appearances in the pillory or stocks on market day.

Their punishment may seem light in comparison to the horrors of the witch burnings of continental Europe but the jail they were kept in was disease infested and filthy. Legend also has it that one of the women lost an eye while been pelted by fruit in the pillory.

Was Dunbar possessed or had she faked her symptoms to gain the attention of the wider community and break free of the tight behavioural constraints placed on young women of her high social class at that time. Mary convinced most people she came in contact with that she was indeed possessed and her claims were lent an extra air of credibility by the mysterious death of Mrs Haltridge.

Unlike the accused, she possessed a good reputation and met the expected standards of female physical beauty, behaviour and morality. Added to this was a general heightened hysteria surrounding demonic possession within the Presbyterian-Scots community in Ulster.

This had been created in part by a similar outbreak a few years earlier in Scotland and in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.

Belief in witchcraft continued but there were no more mass trials of witches on the island of Ireland.

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