The House Where It Happened

Martina Devlin spins an eerie tale around Ireland's last witchcraft trail

The last conviction for witchcraft in Ireland took place in County Antrim on March 31, 1711, when eight women appeared at Carrickfergus Castle. Their accuser? An 18-year-old named Mary Dunbar, who claimed she had been tortured and bewitched by the women while a guest at her cousin’s house in Islandmagee.

Omagh-born author and Irish Independent columnist, Martina Devlin, has brought this mysterious tale to life in her latest book, The House Where It Happened. With seven previous novels to her name, Devlin is an accomplished storyteller and has received rave reviews for her absorbing tale. Indeed, acclaimed novelist Joseph O’Connor admits to being 'utterly gripped by this book’s power'. It’s certainly deserving of attention.

Based on real events, The House Where It Happened is narrated by Ellen Hill, a 19-year-old ‘maid-of-all work’ who serves at Knowehead House in Islandmagee for the Haltridge family. The previous generation of Haltridges came to Ulster with the Scottish settlers some years before, and they are well respected within the community.

We are told, however, that Isabel Haltridge ‘never cared for the place’ and ‘was at the end of her tether’. Thus enters her cousin, the angelically pretty Mary Dunbar, who comes to visit, and so begins a series of increasingly disturbing events, the like of which have never been seen before on Islandmagee.

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We can assume that Devlin chose Ellen as her narrator as this wily young woman sees and hears all inside, as well as outside, the house. A native of the land, she subsequently educates us about the turbulent history of Islandmagee, recounting how women and children were ruthlessly massacred 70 years previous by the Scotch – driven over the cliffs by soldiers – with the result that an entire clan was wiped out.

Ellen warns us from the outset that 'something stirred on Islandmagee towards the heel-end of 1710, like an animal nosing out of its winter sleep'. She adds, ‘There was something other about the house’, hinting at ghostly goings-on at Knowehead House. We step into the novel just after Old Mistress Haltridge’s death – Master James Haltridge’s mother – who was said to have been plagued by the devil in her last days.

The House Where It Happened is far from being a traditional ‘haunted house’ story, however, as the unfolding witchcraft plot takes centre stage, while whispers of a ghostly presence lurk in the background. Mary Dunbar soon becomes victim to all manner of unpleasant attacks, including convulsions, vomiting up household objects and suffering knocks, bruises and visions.

Blame for the attacks falls on the fictional Hamilton Lock, ringleader of the aforementioned massacre, whose ghost is said to be controlling the coven of witches targeting Dunbar, and the victim begins to name the witches. The fates of the chosen eight are subsequently sealed.

Perhaps because it is based on true events, readers – particularly Northern Irish readers – are likely to connect with Devlin’s story on a deeper level. It sheds light on a little talked about period of Irish history, and not a particularly pleasing one at that. In reality, details on what really happened are scarce, so Devlin’s reimagining of the tale – her weaving of fact with fiction – will surely entice readers to delve in.

From the outset, launching us into the first chapter, Devlin uses dialect to great effect: ‘It poured fit to need the Ark again when Mary Dunbar came among us.' This continues throughout, with turns of phrase such as ‘clabber’, ‘forbye’, ‘gawp’ and ‘redd up’ peppering the prose. A handy glossary sits at the back of the book, for those non-Irish natives.

Using such language adds colour and authenticity to the novel and fittingly portrays Ellen, the servants and the townsfolk. It also differentiates said characters from the Haltridges – whose ‘speech was polished’ – clearly defining the social classes of the time. The dialect gives the story a raw reality and depth which, given the truth it is based on, is a good call on Devlin’s part.

The Ulster-Scots narrative is understandably less defined in the book than that of the native Irish, as the protagonist is, of course, from Islandmagee, and it is her voice that tells the tale. Devlin does, however, weave in enough Ulster-Scots history to paint a suitable picture of the period.

Indeed, the Haltridges are the family at the heart of the action, and their back story explains how Minister Haltridge, James’s late father, was sent to the island with the original settlers. Ellen’s account does present a biased view, however, particularly with a revelation about her own background towards the novel’s end.

It is clear that Devlin has carried out extensive research and therefore has as a thorough understanding of the period that she is describing. Threaded throughout the novel are the key themes of land ownership, superstition and memory prevalent at the time, as well as the social and legal rules and regulations of the day.

With The House Where It Happened, Devlin has created a novel that grips onto you tightly from the outset, with an authentic narrative and a satisfying story. As in real-life, we are ultimately left wondering about the reasons behind the events described. As with any good spine-chiller, however, perhaps it is best to leave some things unsaid.

The House Where It Happened is out now, published by Ward River Press.