Witchcraft in Ireland
Most Irish historians, with the exception of that classic incident, seem to hold that witch-cult never found a home in Ireland as it did elsewhere. For example, the article on “Witchcraft” in the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica mentions England and Scotland, then passes on to the Continent, and altogether ignores Ireland. This is, in general, the attitude held by many historians.
In view of this it seems very strange that no one has attempted to show why the Green Isle was alone escaped the belief in witchcraft that for centuries had infected Europe to the core.
Yet, others believe that the belief in witchcraft did reached Ireland, and took a fairly firm hold there, though by no means to the extent that it did in Scotland and England.
From the Anglo-Norman invasion down, Ireland can be divided into two opposing elements, the Celtic and the English. It is true that on many occasions these coalesced in peace and war, in religion and politics, but as a rule they were distinct, and this became even more marked after the spread of the Reformation. It was therefore in the Anglo-Norman portion of the country that we find the development of witchcraft along similar lines to those in England or the Continent.
The Celtic element had its own superstitious beliefs, but these never developed in this direction.
In England and Scotland, during the medieval and later periods of its existence, witchcraft was an offense against the laws of God and man. In Celtic Ireland dealings with the unseen were not regarded with such abhorrence, and indeed had the sanction of custom and antiquity.
In England, after the Reformation, we seldom find members of the Roman Catholic Church taking any prominent part in witch cases, and this is equally true of Ireland from the same date. Witchcraft seems to have been confined mainly to the Protestant persuasion. In addition to this, the existence of the penal laws deterred Roman Catholics from attracting public attention to themselves in such a marked degree. Both parties had their beliefs, but they followed different channels, which affected public life in different ways.
Reasons for Ireland’s comparative freedom from the scourge of witchcraft, when the whole of Europe was so sorely lashed for centuries, are outlined in the following points.
- In the first place Ireland’s remote location insulated the island from the influences which so profoundly affected popular thought in the European countries. Ireland was separated from England and the Continent by its geographical features, ecclesiastical organization, literature, and so forth. It developed along semi-independent lines due to its remoteness. Medieval witchcraft was a byproduct of the civilization of the Roman Empire. Ireland’s civilization developed along other lines, and so had no opportunity of assimilating the particular phases of that belief which was obtained elsewhere in Europe.Consequently, when the Anglo-Normans came over, they found that the native Celts had no predisposition towards accepting the view of the witch as an emissary of Satan and an enemy of the Church. However, they did believed in supernatural influences of both good and evil, and credited their Bards and Druids with the possession of powers beyond the ordinary.Had Ireland never suffered a cross-channel invasion, had she been left to work out her destiny unaided and uninfluenced by her neighbors, it is quite conceivable that at some period in her history she would have embraced the witchcraft spirit, and probably would have blended it with her own older beliefs. Had this taken place, Ireland might have developed a form of witchcraft which would have differed in many points from what was held elsewhere. Thus the Anglo-Norman invaders may be given the credit of having been the principal means of preventing the growth and spread of witchcraft in Celtic Ireland.
- Another point arises in connection with the advance of the Reformation in Ireland. Unfortunately the persecution of witches did not cease in the countries where that movement made headway. On the contrary it was kept up with unabated vigor. Infallibility was transferred from the Pope to the Bible; Roman Catholic leaders persecuted the witch because Supreme Pontiffs had stigmatized her as a heretic and an associate of Satan. Protestant leaders acted similarly because Holy Writ contained the grim command “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Thus persecution flourished equally in Protestant and Roman Catholic kingdoms.But in Ireland the conditions were different. We find there a Roman Catholic majority, not racially predisposed towards such a belief. The consequent turmoil and clash of war gave no opportunity for the witchcraft idea to come to maturity and cast its seeds broadcast. Instead, it was trampled into the earth by the feet of the combatants, and, though the Protestant minority believed firmly in witchcraft and kindred subjects, it did not have sufficient strength to make the belief general throughout the country.
- A third reason that may be brought forward to account for the comparative immunity of Ireland was the total absence of literature on the subject. The diffusion of books and pamphlets throughout a country or district is one of the recognized ways of propagating any particular creed. The friends and opponents of Christianity have equally recognized the truth of this, and have always utilized it to the fullest extent. In England from the 16th century we find an enormous literary output relative to witchcraft, the majority of the works being in support of that belief. Many of these were small pamphlets, which served as the “yellow press” of the day; they were well calculated to arouse the superstitious feelings of their readers, as they were written from a sensational standpoint. The evil that was wrought by such amongst an ignorant and superstitious people can well be imagined; unbelievers would be converted, while the believers would be rendered more secure in their beliefs.At a later date, when men had become practical enough to question the reality of such things, a literary war took place. In this “battle of the books” we find such well-known names as Richard Baxter, John Locke, Joseph Glanvil, and Francis Hutchinson. Thus the ordinary Englishman would have no reasonable grounds for being ignorant of the power of witches, or of the various opinions held relative to them.In Ireland, on the other hand, there is not the slightest trace of any witchcraft literature being published in the country until we reach the opening years of the 19th century. All our information therefore with respect to Ireland comes from incidental notices in books and from sources across the water. We might with reason expect that the important trial of Florence Newton at Youghal in 1661, would be immortalized by Irish writers and publishers. However, it is only preserved for us in two London printed books. Thus the absence of this form of literature in Ireland seriously hindered the advance of the belief in (and consequent practice of) witchcraft.
Appearance of Witchcraft in Ireland
When did witchcraft make its appearance in Ireland, and what was its progress therein? It seems probable that this belief may occurred as a result of the Anglo-Norman invasion, though it is possible that an earlier introduction arrived with the Scandinavians. With our current historical records we cannot trace its active existence in Ireland further back than the Kyteler case of 1324. The next recorded witch case of 1447 would lead us to infer that nothing remarkable or worthy of note in the way of witchcraft or sorcery had occurred between these two cases. For another hundred years nothing is recorded, while the second half of the sixteenth century furnishes us with two cases and a suggestion of several others.
During the rule of the Commonwealth Parliament (in 17th century England) more witches were sent to the gallows at that particular period than at any other in English history. Ireland appears to have escaped scot-free — there are no recorded of witch trials at that time. Probably the terribly disturbed state of the country, the tremendous upheaval of the Cromwellian confiscations, and the various difficulties and dangers experienced by the new settlers would largely account for this immunity.Tales of apparitions and devils, of knockings and strange noises, with which English popular literature of the period is filled, are indications of a very overwrought public mind. Though the first half of seventeenth century Ireland is so barren with respect to witchcraft, it should be noted that during that period there are frequent notices of ghosts, apparitions, devils. This fact forces us to the conclusion that the increase of the belief in such subjects at that time was almost entirely due to the advent of the Cromwellian settlers and the Scotch colonists in Ulster. The beliefs of the latter made the Northern Province a miniature Scotland in this respect. We cannot blame them for this; could anything else be expected from men who, clergy and laity alike, were saturated with the superstitions that were then so prominent in the two countries from which their ranks had been recruited?
Thus the seventeenth century was the period par excellence of witchcraft, demonology, and the supernatural in Ireland. The most remarkable witch case of that time, the trial of Florence Newton in 1661, to which allusion has already been made, seems to have been largely influenced by what occurred in England. The various methods suggested or employed as a test of that old woman’s culpability are in accordance with the procedure adopted a few years previously by the English witch-finder general, the infamous Matthew Hopkins. Between 1711 and 1808 nothing has been found, though it may be safely inferred that that blank was filled by incidents similar to the case of Mar Butters and others.
Witchcraft never flourished to any great extent in Ireland
Witchcraft never flourished to any great extent in Ireland, nor did anything ever occur which was worthy of the name of persecution — except perhaps as a sequel to the Kyteler case, and the details of which will never be recovered. England has a lengthy list of books and pamphlets, while Scotland’s share in the business may be learnt from the written accounts of criminal trials that took place.
Ireland can produce nothing like this, for all printed notices of Irish witchcraft, with one possible exception, are recorded in books published outside the country. The very passing of an anti-witches statute (Act of 1634) by the Irish Parliament was in itself a sufficient incentive to the witches to practice their art. No belief really gains ground until it is forbidden; then the martyrs play their part, and there is a consequent increase in the number of the followers.
Based on these facts, it may be inferred that far more cases of witchcraft occurred in Ireland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than one imagines, though in comparison with other countries their numbers would be but small.
Based on the few witch-trials recorded, it may be claimed that torture as a means of extracting evidence was seldom used upon witches in Ireland. It would be interesting indeed to note that this terrible and illogical method of extracting the truth was very seldom utilized against criminals as well.
In Scotland, on the other hand, it was employed with terrible frequency; there was hardly a trial for witchcraft or sorcery but some of the unfortunates incriminated were subjected to this terrible ordeal. Even as late as 1690 torture was judicially applied to extract evidence, for in that year a Jacobite gentleman was questioned by the boots.
But Scotland, even at its worst, fades into insignificance before certain parts of the Continent, where torture was used to an extent and degree that can only be termed hellish; the appalling ingenuity displayed in the various methods of applying the “question extraordinary” seems the work of demons rather than of Christians, and makes one blush for humanity. The repetition of torture was forbidden, indeed, but the infamous Inquisitor, James Sprenger, imagined a subtle distinction by which each fresh application was a continuation and not a repetition of the first. One sorceress in Germany suffered this continuation no less, than fifty-six times.
Nor was the punishment of death by fire for witchcraft or sorcery employed to any extent in Ireland. We have one undoubted instance, and a general hint of’ some others as a sequel to this. How the two witches were put to death in 1578 we are not told, but probably it was by hanging. Subsequent to the passing of the Act of 1586 the method of execution would have been that for felony.
On the Continent the stake was in continual request. In 1514 three hundred persons were burnt alive for this crime at Como. Between 1615 and 1635 more than six thousand sorcerers were burnt in the diocese of Strasbourg, while, if we can credit the figures of Bartholomew de Spina, in Lombardy a thousand sorcerers a year were put to death for the space of twenty-five years. The total number of persons executed in various ways for this crime has, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, been variously estimated at from one hundred thousand to several millions; if the latter figure be too high undoubtedly the former is far too low.
In the persecution of those who practiced magical arts no rank or class in society was spared; the noble equally with the peasant was liable to torture and death. This was especially true of the earlier stages of the movement when sorcery rather than witchcraft was the crime committed.
Sorcery was, so to speak, more of an aristocratic pursuit; the sorcerer was the master of the Devil (until his allotted time expired), and compelled him to do his bidding: the witch generally belonged to the lower classes, embodied in her art many practices which lay on the borderland between good and evil, and was rather the slave of Satan, who almost invariably proved to be a most faithless and unreliable employer.
Irish Witch Trials
Witch trials were not common in Ireland and are poorly documented.
- Florence Newton (fl. 1661) was an alleged Irish witch, known as the “Witch of Youghal”. The case against Newton is described as one of the most important examples of Irish witch trials. The trial displayed many similarities with the witch trials in England.
Florence Newton was arrested and imprisoned in March of 1661. She was accused of having enchanted Mary Longdon and was put on trial the following September.
In the Christmas of 1660, Newton had visited the house of John Pyne and asked to be given a piece of beef. When she was denied, Florence left mumbling curses. Afterward, she had met Longdon, an employee of Pyne, on the street and kissed her. Longdon then became sick and experienced fits, cramps and visions. She became convinced that the house had been affected with poltergeists. People suspected sorcery as the cause.
At this point, a coven of witches were suspected to exist in the area. Two of the supposed members, Goody Halfpenny and Goody Dod, were taken to her, but without effect. When Newton was brought to her, Longdon’s fits grew worse, and she eventually pointed out Newton. Soon, Newton was accused of another case of sorcery; she was charged with having caused the death of David Jones. At the trial, the widow of Jones said that Newton had kissed the hand of Jones in prison, and afterward, he had become sick and died after having screamed the name of Newton on his death bed. Unfortunately, the court documents are missing, and the verdict was never confirmed. It is estimated that she was judged guilty, which means she would have been executed.
- In 1606, the clergyman John Aston was accused of having used spells to discover missing people and hidden treasures, and was upon the king’s orders sent to England; the result of the trial is not known. In 1685, the son of Christopher Crofts was taken ill at Cork, and his sickness blamed upon Gammer Welsh, whom his father had sent to prison.
- In 1699, a woman is reported to have been arrested, sentenced to death, strangled and burned at Aston for having cast a spell on a nine-year-old girl.
- Biddy Early (c. 1798 – 1874) was a traditional Irish healer who helped peasants. She acted against the wishes of the local tenant farmer landlords and Catholic priests and was accused of witchcraft.
As a child, Biddy wore clothes that her mother made by weaving fibers from the flax that was grown nearby. She spent most of her time alone and was said to “talk to the fairies”. She was good humored and showed a keen intellect but, like most people of her time, she did not learn to read or write. With her family and friends she spoke Irish, but she also had some knowledge of English. She may also have spoken Shelta, the language of Irish Travellers, but it is unknown where or how she would have learned it.
Ellen Early was well known for her exceptional herbal cures and taught her daughter many of her recipes. These recipes were regarded as family secrets, as was common for the time. When Biddy was 16 years old, her mother died of malnutrition, leaving Biddy in charge of the household. Just six months after her mother’s death, Biddy’s father died of typhus. Unable to pay the rent, Biddy had no choice but to leave her childhood home. Little is known about this period of her life, but for the next two years she probably wandered the county roads, working where she could along the way and experimenting with herbal cures.
In later years, when people didn’t get the help they wanted from the priests or doctors, they would turn to Biddy. Her cures did not only consist of applying herbs to a wound or feeding a recipe to the sick. She was insightful and intuitive, which helped her to recognize and understand people’s needs and choose appropriate yet creative measures to address them. People even thought that she could tell if someone had visited a doctor before consulting her. They believed that seeing a doctor showed a lack of faith in Biddy’s abilities, so she would not treat them.
Biddy was also called upon occasionally to treat animals. During her time, the death of an animal could lead to an inability to complete required tasks and cause a farm to fail. This was important because it could, in turn, lead to eviction and poverty and, in extreme cases, loss of human life. For the same reasons, farmers also asked Biddy to help with other problems related to daily life, such as restoring a spring well or fixing a problem with the farm’s butter production.
At some point Biddy acquired a bottle that became as famous as she was. She would frequently look into the bottle, which contained some sort of dark liquid, when considering possible cures for her visitors. She took the bottle everywhere, and it was even with her when she died.
Biddy’s cures are the main reason she became well-known, but her strong personality was also an important factor.Although the Catholic Church, which had a strong influence in the lives of many peasants, did not approve of Biddy’s activities, she encouraged people to listen to the priests. The priests openly disapproved of Biddy and discouraged people from visiting her, yet some of them secretly visited her. In one story, a priest disguised himself and called on Biddy in hope of learning some of her secret cures. She, however, knew what he wanted and dismissed him immediately.
The peasantry believed that Biddy was good. Some believed that the real reason the priests didn’t like her was that they thought if Biddy wasn’t practicing medicine, the people would not be waisting five or ten shillings on her supposed cures. This notion is repeated frequently in interviews with those who had personal knowledge of Biddy.
Another contributing factor must have been the peasant-class folklore and mysticism that surrounded her. While Biddy was from a class of small tenant farmers, the priests were usually from more comfortable backgrounds. Therefore, they placed emphasis on education. The priests were anxious to leave behind them the world of peasant lore and herbal medicine.
In 1865 Biddy was accused of witchcraft under a 1586 statute and was brought before a court in Ennis. This would have been unusual in the 1860s. The few who agreed to testify against her later backed out, and she was released due to lack of sufficient evidence. Most of the peasant population supported her.
Biddy died in poverty in April 1874. A priest was present at her death, and her friend and neighbor, Pat Loughnane, arranged for her burial in Feakle Graveyard in County Clare. At her funeral a local priest remarked, “We thought we had a demon amongst us in poor Biddy Early, but we had a saint, and we did not know it”.
Her funeral was poorly attended because most people at this time were still afraid that their presence at her funeral would be misunderstood. Even many years after her death, people in County Clare rarely spoke of her. Because there is no marker on her grave, the exact location is not known.
The last generation of people who had personal contact with Biddy ended in the 1950s. The stories that persist today originated in the strong oral tradition on the west coast of Ireland. Later, Lady Gregory compiled a valuable collection of stories 20 years after Biddy’s death. Meda Ryan and Edmund Lenihan wrote books that were based on interviews with many people whose parents or grandparents had personal contact with Biddy.
Biddy accomplished a great deal of success in the face of oppression and hardship, during a time when her religion and heritage were the subject of discrimination by the English rulers of Ireland. The best evidence of her success is the fact that she is the only individual Irish healer from previous centuries who is remembered today despite Ireland’s long history of folk medicine. The cottage where she lived has been restored and is now a minor tourist attraction in the area.
There are many practicing witches and druids in Ireland today who believe in ancient traditions and folk magic.
Below is a list of ancient charms and spells based on ancient traditions of Irish magic.
1. Love spell:
On a night of the full moon, walk to a spot beneath your beloved’s bedroom window. Whisper his/her name three times to the night wind (el alder).
It is believed that the night breeze has a guardian. This guardian is compassionate to mortal requests between 12 Midnight and 1AM (the witching hour).
2. To find stolen goods:
Place two keys in a sieve (a utensil consisting of a wire or plastic mesh held in a frame, used for straining) cross ways. Two people hold the sieve while another makes a crossed sign on the forehead of the suspected thief, calling out their name loudly three times. If the person is innocent the keys will remain stationary but if the person is guilty the keys will start to revolve slowly round the sieve.
3. Attract good fortune:
You will need a candle, some string, and a trinket.
Light the candle and loop the string in through the trinket and tie it. Then start passing it above the candle-flame (the trinket), then chant:
“A candle flickers, This trinket I pass, Good energy and fortune come to me, Wealth, Knowledge, Influence, Energy, By good means come to me, Wealth, Knowledge, Influence, Energy, This trinket I pass into power, To attract, To me, Wealth, Knowledge, Influence, Energy, Come To Me!!”
Repeat that three times, then wear the “necklace” around your neck. The more you do this- the more powerful.
4. Beauty spell:
This spell makes you prettier than you think, just follow the instructions.
On a full moon, take a mirror and go outside (if you can’t then open a window, make sure the moon is reflected on the mirror) take a piece of a picture (hair, lips, eyes, whatever you are interested in changing) place it on the mirror and concentrate on it. Then say:
“Moonshine, Starlight, let the wind carry your light, let your glow cover my body, and let your shine cover every eye.”
Say it three times and concentrate on the part that you want to change, Then say:
“Moonshine, Starlight, shape and mold my body, as a rose is granted beauty, let me blossom in your light, the light that brings me beauty, and grant me beauty three times three”
Say it three times and when you are finished light a candle (pink) or incense.
5. To get someone to call you:
Take a piece of parchment or fine quality writing paper and inscribe the name of the target. Write it in a circle twice, so the ends meet. As you do this concentrate on the person’s face and your desire that they call you. Then, while still concentrating, put a needle through the center of the circle created by the name. Place the charm by the phone.
The call will come within five minutes, five hours or five days depending on how well the spell was cast and how much will power was used.
6. Hair binding / Bond of trust:
In ancient Ireland, it was customary for a man to braid a bracelet from his hair and give it to the woman he loved, a gift of trust– knowing what can be done to someone magically if you possess their hair.
The binding is not activated unless she accepts the gift, thus accepting him and agreeing to the spell. This is not a binding that can be imposed on another.
7. Healing charm for a wound:
Close the wound tightly with the two fingers, and repeat these words slowly:
“In the name of Dagda, Bridget and Diancecht. The wound was red, the cut was deep, and the flesh was sore; but there will be no more blood, and no more pain, till the Gods come down to earth again.”
8. A charm for always having money:
Take the feather of a black cock, go to the crossing points of three fairy-paths, and while holding the feather and a gold colored coin, call the name of the Goddess Áine three times, to bring you everlasting prosperity.
9. Elixir of potency:
Two ounces of cochineal, one ounce of gentian root, two drachms of saffron, two drachms of snakeroot, two drachms of salt of wormwood, and the rind of ten oranges, the whole to be steeped in a quart of brandy, and kept for use.
10. Charm against depression:
When a person becomes low and depressed and careless about everything, as if all vital strength and energy had gone, he is said to have got a fairy blast. And blast-water must be poured over him by the hands of a fairy doctor while saying,
“In the name of Lugh with his shining sword, who has strength before the gods and stands among them.”
Great care must be taken to ensure that no portion of the water is sullied. Whatever is left over after the procedure must be poured on the fire.
Sources of Information