Troubled Times For Ulster Witches

Fear of witchcraft was common in Ulster in the early 1700s, leading to at least one mass trial and church-inspired inquiries into claims of witchcraft – particularly in County Antrim, according to University of Ulster historian Dr Máirtín Ó Catháin.

Planters and migrants arriving in 17th century Ulster brought a belief in the existence of witches which had gripped the Lowlands of Scotland – echoing the witchcraft panics of mainland Europe.

As time passed, however, and arguably through a determination not to relive the impassioned atmosphere of Scotland’s witch-hunts, Presbyterian clerics may have adopted a more sensible attitude towards the investigation of supposed witchcraft here, said Dr Ó Catháin.

“Witches – or, more properly, suspected witches – were Public Enemy Number One in Scotland for much of the 17th century. Accusations of witchcraft became fairly widespread,” said Dr Ó Catháin, a research associate with the Magee-based Institute of Ulster Scots Studies.

“There was a whole catalogue of beliefs attaching to people who were suspected of witchcraft. The reality is that they tended to be people who ‘didn’t fit in’. All too often they were the people of the margins. The classic suspects were the poor, the ugly and the old, though the wealthy were also occasionally accused.”

Research into trials and church-investigations is hampered by a lack of original sources, in particular the relative absence of 17th century Irish judicial records, many of which were destroyed by fire along with other historical manuscripts in the Four Courts, Dublin in 1922.

He has traced important information relating to Ulster in minutes of Sessions of the Presbyterian Church and also through contemporary decuments

“There is plenty of evidence that there was a fairly widespread belief in the presence of witchcraft, but there was a lack of prosecutions – so far as we know. Evidence about that comes from Session Minutes. Predominantly, whatever convictions took place appear to have been in County Antrim, although other Ulster counties were also involved.

The biggest known mass-trial involved eight defendants, mainly from Islandmagee, who were tried in Carrickfergus in 1711. A girl had claimed to have been bewitched by local women. Since she did not die, convicted defendants were given the standard sentence for non-lethal witchcraft – one year’s imprisonment along and standing in the stocks four times. One woman lost an eye when hit by an object thrown as she stood in the stocks.

In 1698, a woman was tried for witchcraft in Co Antrim after a child to whom she had give a leaf of sorrel became ill and suffered various fits.

“The ‘witch’ was tried, convicted, strangled and burned. It was apparently thought that the child was going to die, but she was still alive when the execution happened,” Dr Ó Catháin explained.

Concern about witchcraft arose in Ireland generally later than the rest of Europe, which in the 16th century was also swept by the political-legal-religious turmoil of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic counter-reformation.

James, a Protestant who became King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England), married Anne of Denmark (a Lutheran who later became a Catholic in 1589. A rough sea crossing which had endangered his ship on the way home after the marriage, and early difficulties in securing the marriage, sparked his worries that Scottish witchcraft might be to blame. He ordered investigations.

A series of prosecutions culminated in the first major witchcraft trial of (1590-91 in the north Berwick area, not far from Edinburgh. Some were convicted and hanged. Several 17th century Scottish “witches” were burned, although hanging was the usual execution method.

In a European climate of demonology, witchcraft was often seen as the root cause of happenings which, in those days, lacked explanation; a death, an illness, a psychological condition, or even a change in the weather, Dr Ó Catháin said.
University of Ulster Online – News Release

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