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Ireland’s last ‘Salem trial’: New graphic novel and virtual experience and tells account of the Presbyterian witches of Islandmagee

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Dr Andrew Sneddon and Dr Victoria McCollum, from Ulster University, who have worked together to produce a new graphic novel documenting the history of the Islandmagee witch trial of 1711

Dr Andrew Sneddon and Dr Victoria McCollum, from Ulster University, who have worked together to produce a new graphic novel documenting the history of the Islandmagee witch trial of 1711

Dr Andrew Sneddon and Dr Victoria McCollum, from Ulster University, who have worked together to produce a new graphic novel documenting the history of the Islandmagee witch trial of 1711

The magic of modern technology is set to resurrect the centuries-old story of Ireland’s last witch trials in Co Antrim.

Ireland’s own version of the Salem witch trials took place in Islandmagee in 1711, when eight Presbyterian women and one man were accused of the demonic possession and magical torment of a young girl.

And the events of over 300 years ago are now being brought to life by Ulster University in a new graphic novel, interactive website, video game and VR experience to shine new artistic light on the history of witchcraft.

The project has been led by Dr Andrew Sneddon and Dr Victoria McCollum, who tell the story with the help of the illustrations of Londonderry artist David Campbell, who has worked with Marvel and DC Comics.

The events of 1711 were to be Ireland’s last witch trial, a significant social, political and religious moment in history. While film and TV has popularised the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, which took place 19 years earlier, the story of the Islandmagee witches is less well-known.

“This is one of only a handful of Irish witchcraft trials in the early modern period. Under the Irish witchcraft law of 1563, which was repealed only in 1821, eight women from the Islandmagee and the surrounding areas were found guilty at Carrickfergus Assizes, Co Antrim’s criminal court, for bewitching an 18-year-old girl, Mary Dunbar,” said Dr Sneddon.

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For their punishment, the eight women were sent to prison for a year and put four times in the pillory on market day. Convicted of “harming by magical means” they narrowly avoided a death sentence.

“Research suggests that Mary Dunbar’s symptoms of bewitchment were demonic possession: fits, swearing, throwing Bibles, vomiting household objects and trances.”

The accused women were also alleged to have attacked her in spirit form, but there are strong suspicions Dunbar was faking her possession.

“Being possessed allowed her to misbehave without consequence, move from invisibility to notoriety within her community and attack her elders at will,” Dr Sneddon continued.

“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. 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, the Whigs and the Tories.

“From a modern perspective we might see the conviction as unjust, but from a historical point of view, there was nothing unjust about it. The women were tried under a law, according to due legal process and convicted by a jury,” he said.

“We have a timeless fascination with witches and witchcraft,” he added. “It’s easy to forget that it was a crime in most places in Europe until the 18th century, when an accusation of witchcraft could have terrible consequences.”

Dr McCollum, a leading authority on the use of creative arts and modern media to bring history to life, said the project showcases the importance of visual arts and how it complements the understanding, commemorating and recording of historical events.

“We decided that a visual verbal format could enrich the public’s understanding of individuals weighed down and destroyed by the past: the graphic novel is well placed to open our eyes to erased chapters from our past,” she said.

Supported by a website, video game, original score, and virtual reality experience, the project brings an important part of Ireland’s cultural heritage to life.

The website acts as a gateway to an online game, where the user takes the role of a witch-finder and explores the moral choices involved in accusing someone of witchcraft in 1711.


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