The Last Witch Trial in Ireland with a ‘Guilty’ outcome

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The Stocks at Purity Lane
The Stocks at Purity Lane

The Witch Trial

The last witch trial in Ireland resulting in a guilty verdict took place on 31st March 1711 at the Spring Assizes in the Old Courthouse in Carrickfergus. The case attracted a lot of publicity and feelings were running high in the County Antrim town. The seriousness of the charges can be seen by the fact that two High Court Judges presided over the trial.

“The courthouse was within one hundred yards from the lodging house. So much interest in the trial had caused large crowds from Islandmagee and Carrickfergus to assemble in the Market Place despite the early hour, eager to get into the court”

Charles McConnell, The Witches of Islandmagee, 2000

Background to the Witchcraft Claims

Unnatural Occurrences

The events surrounding the claims of witchcraft had begun the previous year. An elderly lady by the name of Ann Haltridge, began to notice strange things in her home. She was the widow of Rev John Haltridge, a former Presbyterian minister of Islandmagee (1672-1697).

Ann shared her home, Knowehead House, in the townland of Kilcoan More, Islandmagee, with her son James and her daughter-in-law Jane and their two young children. At first it was a case of items being found in the wrong places, curtains opening and blowing when there was no wind, bedclothes scattered on the floor.

One night while sitting at the hearth a shower of pebbles was thrown at her by ‘an unseen agency’. This progressed to turf and stones being hurled at her bed and the pillow pulled out from under her head. Naturally the inhabitants of the house were terrified.

Knowehead House - Front View
Knowehead House – Front View (from Dixon Donaldson, Historical Traditional and Descriptive Account of Islandmagee),

The Young Boy

On 11th December 1710, Mrs Haltridge was sitting at the kitchen fire when a young boy opened the door and came and sat next to her. She described him as about 11, with black hair, wearing a vest and cap. Over his shoulders and half hiding his face was a dirty old blanket.

Mrs Haltridge was concerned for the child and offered him food and drink. At this the boy began to run and dance around the room and then out of the door and into the cow-shed. Mrs Haltridge sent the servants to look for him, but they could find no-one. However, when they returned to the house, the boy appeared again. The servants tried to catch him but he was too quick for them. It was with relief that one of the staff noticed the hunting dogs returning and shouted “The young master is home!” At this the youngster disappeared.

Satan’s Emissary and a Death

The boy did not reappear for a couple of months, and all seemed normal in the house. On 12th February Mr Haltridge left for a business trip to Dublin. Soon after his departure the boy was seen again digging a hole in the lawn, when questioned he said it was for the corpse that would be soon leaving the house. Asked his name and abode, the boy said he had been sent by Satan. He continued causing havoc, throwing stones, jeering and breaking windows. The family and servants were sorely distressed and locked themselves in the house.

The minister, Rev Robert Sinclair and two church elders, John Main and Reynold Leaths, were summoned. That evening the household went to bed while the clergy decided to spend the night in prayer. During the dark hours the whole house was roused by Mrs Ann Haltridge’s screams. The old woman was in agony, saying she felt like she had been stabbed in the back. She moved from her ‘haunted’ bedroom to another room. However, the pain did not ease and she died just days later on 22nd February 1711.

Knowehead House - Rear View
Knowehead House – Rear View (from Dixon Donaldson, Historical Traditional and Descriptive Account of Islandmagee)

The Haunting of Mary Dunbar

Mary Dunbar’s Arrival

Less than a week later, Miss Mary Dunbar, a cousin of the Haltridges, moved into the house. This arrangement was to keep the young Mrs Jane Haltridge company as (not surprisingly) she was feeling nervous in the house. Mary lived with her mother in the Castlereagh hills and knew nothing of the strange goings-on. A few days into her visit Mrs Jane Haltridge and Mary returned to their sewing after lunch to find the clothes and material scattered about the room and even in the garden. Mary put this down to a prank.

Later a servant girl called Jeannie brought a twisted apron to Mrs Haltridge which she had found lying on the parlour floor. It was tied with 5 strange knots, on untying these Mary found the flannel cap which had belonged to the old mistress and had been missing since the night of her death. The women were instantly fearful that they had undone a spell and brought a curse upon themselves.

The Attacks Begin

The next day Mary collapsed with a terrible and unexplained pain in her thigh. She was put to bed but began to suffer from fits and convulsions. During the fits she was heard talking to and begging someone to leave her in peace. On recovering she described a woman standing at the bottom of the bed who had been tormenting her.

A few days later Mary described seeing several women in her room discussing how to curse her. The clergy were once again called to the property, but the 18 year old Mary continued to be wracked with pain and suffer from fainting fits or feverish convulsions. Tales of her sufferings spread through the neighbourhood and several women and men volunteered to stay in the house to aid the stricken family. All were said to witness Mary’s condition as well as bedclothes being pulled off the bed by invisible hands, stones flung at them, strange sounds and sulphurous smells.

“It was also deposed that strange noises, as of whistling, scratching, etc, were heard in the house, and that a sulphurous 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!”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946

Escalating Torment

Mary now began to vomit up wool, glass, pins, long strands of hair and other household articles. She said they had been forced down her throat by her demonic visitors to stop her from talking. Several times witnesses saw her being flung into the air and back on to the mattress with her face pressed into the bolster. It took several men to be able to turn her over to prevent suffocation. They claimed it felt like she was being held down.

After various other unexplained happenings, the local doctors were called to examine the teenage girl. Their diagnosis was that:

“Mary Dunbar’s condition was not physical but supernatural”

Andrew Sneddon, Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland, 2016
Andrew Sneddon - Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland
Andrew Sneddon – Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland

On March 13th Miss Dunbar was removed to the house of Mr Stannus in Larne to see if a change in location would bring an end to the haunting. But to no avail. Mary continued to be plagued by fits and threatening visions. Her body contorting into strange shapes or falling into a deep swoon were she was likened to being as rigid as a person after death.

The Search for the Witches

It is said that Mary was able to describe her tormentors in some detail. Although she had never been to Islandmagee before, she gave precise descriptions and even recalled some names that she had overheard when they spoke to each other. The authorities sent out reports and many women were brought to Mary’s room for identification. Apparently Dunbar went into fits and hysterics when certain women approached the house even though they were not visible to her.

Mary picked out 8 women she said had appeared to her in spectral form. They were –Janet Sellor nee Liston, Elizabeth Sellor (Janet’s daughter), Katherine McCalmont and Janet Carson all from Islandmagee. Janet Mean of Braid Island (now Ballycarry), Janet Latimer of the Irish Quarter, Carrickfergus, Margaret Mitchell of Kilroot and Janet Millar of the Scotch Quarter, Carrickfergus. The women were arrested and held over for trial.

The Witch Trial

Witch Trials in Ireland

Witchcraft trials were not common in Ireland. This was a feature of Scottish and English culture which the Planters brought with them from across the water. Presbyterian Scotland, in particular, had an extreme compulsion to root out what it saw as evil women – 3,800 ‘witches’ were executed in that country.

“In Scotland, the General Assembly was notably vigorous in prosecuting the design of rooting out these ‘children of the devil’ and Presbyterian clergy were to seek for and prosecute all found within their boundaries who might be suspected of the evil power. In 1659, in one circuit of a church court, seventeen poor victims were found guilty and sentenced to the stake”

The Haltridges lived in an almost exclusively Presbyterian community with strong Scottish links. Their strict scripture-based religion believed implicitly in the devil and his avowed aim to possess Christian souls.

In Court

On the day of the trial the Rev Doctor William Tisdall, Vicar of Belfast, came to watch the proceedings and took meticulous notes. There was a long list of witnesses to speak out against the women. Several notable personages also gave sworn testimony including, Rev William Ogilvie [Presbyterian minister of Larne], William Fenton, John Blair and Rev P Adair. Additionally statements from the family and household were heard describing Miss Dunbar’s frightening behaviours. They also produced the items she was said to have vomited up.

“There was a great quantity of things produced in Court, and sworn to be what she vomited out of her throat, I had them all in my hand, and found there was a great quantity of feathers, cotton, yarn, pins and two large waistcoat buttons”

Dr Tisdall

Mary Dunbar in Court

Mary herself did not give evidence although she was in Court. On her journey to Carrickfergus Mary had suffered many severe fits and in one of them appeared a man and two women who told her that she would not be able to utter a word of testimony. On the morning of the trial Mary found she had been struck dumb. After the hearing Mary, regained her power of speech.

Witch Trial Case Against the Women

High Court Judge James McCartney, urged the all-male jury to find the accused guilty. The defendants were all poor, illiterate women. They were only allowed to speak to enter their pleas and were not permitted legal representation. At least one was disabled – Elizabeth Sellor was lame which was considered, if not a punishment from God, then a mark of disfavour. A couple of the women smoked, (pipe smoking among county women was not unusual at the time). Others were known to take ‘strong drink’. These were seen, by men at least, as disreputable activities for the ‘fairer sex’. The final evidence against them was that they could repeat the Lord’s Prayer but not recite it off by heart.

“The eight poor wretches who stood in line at the bar were bedraggled and showed signs of their incarceration. They possessed such a strange variety of ill looks, and from their diabolical appearance anyone could have assumed this alone would give grounds for suspecting them of witchcraft. They stood with their heads bowed as their names were read out then ordered to sit on the bench”

Charles McConnell, The Witches of Islandmagee, 2000
Charles McConnell - The Witches of Islandmagee
Charles McConnell – The Witches of Islandmagee

The second judge however, Anthony Upton, did make some comments in favour of the accused women. He noted that they were all of previously good character, none had a criminal record. They were all known to attend Sunday Services, and two had recently received Communion. He asked the jurors not to condemn the defendants on the word of one young girl’s visions. The hearing lasted from 6 in the morning till 2pm.

The Witch Trial Verdict

The 8 women were found guilty of ‘bewitching’ Mary Dunbar, under a law passed in 1586. The jury did not take long to reach a unanimous decision. If this case had been heard in England or Scotland, these unfortunates would have been punished by death. In Ireland the sentence was not so severe, but still harsh. The 8 women were to serve one year in prison and take 4 turns in the stockades on market day.

Prison conditions in the eighteenth century were dire. Most institutions were vastly overcrowded, with men, women and children herded together in bare cells. Beds were of loose straw with no coverings. Carrickfergus gaol, built in 1613, was situated at the corner of Castle Street and Market Place. It had no running water so washing facilities were sparse. Most prisoners were filthy and lice-infested. Diseases such as typhus and dysentery were rife. Food rations were the bare minimum for survival. Some inmates were lucky enough to have extra food and clothes supplied by family and friends, but it is unlikely that anyone would risk being associated with the ‘witches’.

“The conditions in the prison were really frightful. The atmosphere was noisy and malignant, the inmates being murderers, highway robbers, pirates and common felons. The wards were rarely cleaned. The poor wretches were kept in fetters and slept on straw”

Charles McConnell

The Stockades

Once in the stockades the local populace and those who had come to town for the market would pelt the prisoners with rotten fruit and vegetables, eggs, stones and anything else that came to hand. There does not seem to have been much sympathy for the women, they left the stockades battered and bruised and humiliated. Samuel McSkimin tells us that one woman even lost an eye.

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

Samuel McSkimin, History of Carrickfergus
Carrickfergus Stockade
Carrickfergus Stockade

With their jail sentences completed the broken women were released. However, the stigma of being a convicted witch remained with them. They were shunned by their families and communities. Their subsequent lives are unknown, but it is safe to assume, they were not easy.

Dixon Donaldson, Extract from Historical Traditional and Descriptive Account of Islandmagee, 1927
Dixon Donaldson, Extract from Historical Traditional and Descriptive Account of Islandmagee, 1927

Mary Dunbar’s Troubles Continue

However, Mary Dunbar’s troubles were not over. On 8th April, back in her mother’s house in County Down, Mary claimed to have seen the man who had accosted her the day before the trial. He threatened to kill her if she reported him to the authorities. On 12th she suffered more fits and accused this vision of stabbing her with a broken butcher’s knife. On inspection a mark was seen on her shoulder where he had attacked her. Mary gave a full description of her mysterious assailant and this was forwarded to Islandmagee.

The description was said to match that of William Sellor, husband and father to two of the convicted women. Hearing rumours, William took flight but was apprehended some miles from his home. He was tried at the summer assizes at Carrickfergus and found guilty of bewitching Mary Dunbar.

Aftermath of the Witch Trial

Tales of the witches and belief in their guilt lived on in oral tradition and popular folklore throughout the nineteenth and even into the twentieth century’s. In Islandmagee, associated sites were thought to be cursed. The well-known ‘rocking stone’ was were, it was said, the witches danced at night and the area around Knowehead House was avoided at all costs after dark.

“Happily, the extreme penalties for witchcraft were repealed in 1734. Still, in this age of education and democracy, a belief in charms and exorcism exists in country areas”

Dixon Donaldson, The History of Islandmagee, 1927

Postscript

A startling postscript to the story of the Islandmage witches was uncovered by Andrew Sneddon, a history lecturer at the University of Ulster. In an article Witchcraft, Belief, Representation and Memory in Modern Ireland (Cultural and Social History, March 2019) Sneddon revealed evidence that Mary Dunbar died only 3 weeks after the trial in April 1711.

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