Caer Australis

The Last Witch Trial

From: "Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry"
Edited and Selected by William Butler Yeats, 1888. (pp.322-323).
Reprinted in "A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, and Folklore"
Compiled and Edited by Claire Booss, Avenel Books, NY ©1986 by Crown Publishers, Inc. New York.


The last trial for witchcraft in Ireland - there were never very many - is thus given in MacSkimmin's History of Carrickfergus:-

"1711, March 31st, Janet Mean, of Braid-island; Janet Latimer, Irish-quarter, Carrickfergus; Janet Millar, Scotch-quarter, Carrickfergus; Margaret Mitchel, Kilroot; Catharine M'Calmond, Janet Liston, alias Seller, Elizabeth Seller, and Janet Carson, the four last from Island Magee, were tried here, in the County of Antrim Court, for witchcraft."

Their alleged crime was tormenting a young woman called Mary Dunbar, about eighteen years of age, at the house of James Hattridge, Island Magee, and at other places to which she was removed. The circumstances sworn on the trial were as follows:-

The afflicted person being, in the month of February, 1711, in the house of James Hattridge, Island Magee (which had been for some time believed to be haunted by evil spirits), found an apron on the parlour floor, that had been missing some time, tied with five strange knots, which she loosened.

On the following day she was suddenly siezed with a violent pain in her thigh, and afterwards fell into fits and ravings; and, on recovering, said she was tormented by several women, whose dress and personal appearance she minutely described. Shortly after, she was again seized with the like fits, and on recovering she accused five other women of tormenting her, describing them also. The accused persons being brought from different parts of the country, she appeared to suffer extreme fear and additional torture as they approached the house.

It was also deposed that strange noises, as of whistling, scratching, etc., were heard in the house, and that a sulphureous smell was observed in the rooms; that stones, turf, and the like were thrown about the house, and the coverlets, etc., frequently taken off the beds and made up in the shape of a corpse; and that a bolster once walked out of a room into the kitchen with a night-gown about it!  It likewise appeared in evidence that in some of her fits three strong men were scarcely able to hold her in the bed ; that at times she vomited feathers, cotton yarn, pins, and buttons ; and that on one occasion she slid of the bed and was laid on the floor, as if supported and drawn by an invincible power. The afflicted person was unable to give any evidence on the trial, being during that time dumb, but had no violent fit during its continuance.

In defence of the accused, it appeared that they were mostly sober, industrious people, who attended public worship, could repeat the Lord's Prayer, and had been known to pray both in public and private ; and that some of them had lately received communion.

Judge Upton charged the jury, and observed of the regular attendance of accused at public worship ; remarking that he thought it improbable that real witches could so far retain the form of religion as to frequent the religious worship of God, both publicly and privately, which had been proved in favour of the accused. He concluded by giving his opinion "that the jury could not bring them in guilty upon the sole testimony of the afflicted person's visionary images".  He was followed by Judge Macaerthy, who differed from him in opinion", and thought the jury might, from the evidence, bring them in guilty", which they accordingly did.

This trial lasted from six o'clock in the morning till two in the afternoon ; and the prisoners were sentenced to be imprisoned twelve months, and to stand four times in the pillory of Carrickfergus.

Tradition says that the people were much exasperated against these unfortunate persons, who were severely pelted in the pillory with boiled cabbage stalks and the like, by which one of them had an eye beaten out.

Original work and design © Caer Australis 2011: From Coogee in Sydney's eastern beaches NSW Australia

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