Out To Lunch festival goers come out in force to hear the story of Ireland's final conviction for witchcraft
The Black Box in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter is rammed once again. I don’t know what arcane witchery Out To Lunch festival director, Sean Kelly, is practising but each show I have attended at the festival this year has been stuffed to the gills – at lunchtime, in January. What sorcery is this?
Sorcery, as it happens, is very much on the menu today and it has a peculiarly local flavour. Introduced by Newsletter journalist Liz Kennedy, author Martina Devlin is a relaxed and confident storyteller. So relaxed, in fact, that it takes quite some time to even approach the subject that we’re nominally here to talk about: the Islandmagee Witch trials and Devlin's new book, The House Where It Happened, which uses the shameful episode as its subject matter.
Instead, we take a scenic stroll through Devlin's early career (she sold ice-creams) and to another of her books of local import, Ship of Dreams, a Titanic novel with a personal twist. Devlin explains that when you write a historical novel you want to lard it with as much factual information as possible and, during the course of her research, she studied the passenger manifest and came across the name Thomas O’Brien. Knowing she had relatives who were O’Briens she took a leap of faith – it turned out that Thomas O’Brien was a great uncle who was eloping as a passenger third class with his wife. She survived, he did not, but she was pregnant. Some small part of Thomas O'Brien did make it to America.
'Did your publisher not ask you to put witches in the title?' asks a pragmatic Kennedy, and we’re finally 'on message' regarding her latest publication. In fact, Devlin’s working title for The House Where It Happened was Witch Fever, a title that may yet be used for a film version of the novel. And a witch fever it certainly was, as the small County Antrim community where Ireland's last witch trial took place was quickly whipped into a frenzy of accusation and suspicion.
That the witch trial had its own peculiar intensity was likely due to the Scots-Presbyterian heritage of the 300 residents of the peninsula. Witch hunting in Scotland had been some of the most intensive in Europe, and the settlers had bought these beliefs to the North of Ireland with them. The devil was no metaphor for the inhabitants of Islandmagee – he was a real physical force moving abroad, an incarnation of evil, disseminating malevolence through a cabal of acolytes. Young Mary Dunbar claimed to have seen a spectral vision of those followers, and summarily picked out eight women whom she claimed were witches.
Lending focus to the conversation is a slideshow allowing us to see the House Where It Happened as it was in 1711. The 'Witch House' at Knowehead is a large, nicely appointed thatched affair. It looks posh and that is not incidental to the story. When 18-year-old Dunbar arrived at the house from Castlereagh in Belfast, it was owned by her cousin, Mrs James Haltridge, whose mother in law had recently died. Dunbar immediately stated that she was bewitched: she had fits, she vomited hair and buttons and she terrified everybody.
Dunbar was well spoken and pretty. The women she accused were old, poor and disabled. Dunbar was a plausible witness, a squire’s daughter, and as a result of her accusations, she gained extraordinary power over the community. Men listened to her, probably for the first time in her life. Her victims had none of her social attributes and they had no form of redress. Even an alibi was useless as the theory of 'spectral evidence' was valid in court. It was believed that if you signed a covenant with the devil, He could shapeshift to take your form so that you could literally be in two places at once.
The accused were found guilty, sentenced to a year in jail and to be pilloried four times: that is, placed in the stocks and pelted with rotting food, dead animals and stones. One of them lost an eye. They were lucky they were tried under Irish and not Scottish law. The Scottish penalty for witchcraft was hanging. Thereafter, Dunbar began accusing others but the authorities, fearing another Salem – the Massachusetts witch frenzy had happened only 70 years before and likely inspired Dunbar’s 'bewitchment' – shut the whole thing down. Unlike the accused of Salem, the Islandmagee witches have never been exonerated; they are still technically witches.
While researching the book, Devlin stayed in a guesthouse belonging to a man whose parents own the 'Witch House'; he had been brought up in it. He claimed that the house was haunted and lived with the sensation of 'feeling a pair of eyes staring at you in a crowd' all of his life. He would later claim that it was quite feasible that the women were actually witches. Watch your step in Islandmagee!