Wise Women & Witches

Bob Curran delves into the facts behind the folklore at the Roe Valley Arts Centre

If you want to talk witches, then just before All Hallows Eve must surely be the perfect time to do it. Throw in a half-moon hooked into a shadowy night sky, and a drive over the mountains through pricking rain and swirling leaves, and you have yourself a scene suitably set.

Dr Bob Curran – author, community development worker and cultural consultant, to name but a few of his job titles – is also a fount of folklore knowledge. Author of A Bewitched Land, the County Down man is in Limavady to address a fairly sizeable crowd on the history of Ireland’s witches, spanning the 14th to the 19th century.

First, though, a little clarification. 'If you’ve come tonight to try to find out about spells, you’re going to be disappointed,' Curran informs us with a hearty laugh. 'We’re going to look at witches in Ireland, which isn’t usually done. Witches in Ireland have largely been ignored.'

It is difficult not to think of an old crone kitted out in black garb, complete with cat, cape and broomstick every time Curran says the word ‘witch’, but it gets easier as his tales unfold.

'What do we mean by "witch"?' he quite rightly asks, and no doubt everyone in the room suppresses an urge to describe women in pointy hats who cast weird and gruesome spells.

'To the Catholics, they’re fairies and to the Protestants, they’re witches,' Curran explains. 'Well, that’s not quite right, but it serves to outline some of the thinking in Ireland back then.'

The word ‘witch’, he adds, comes from the Saxon word meaning ‘knowledge’, and not just knowledge of magic – knowledge of anything outside of what the church taught in centuries past (and, in many cases, continue to do today).

Defined in law in 900AD in The Canon Episcopi, such beliefs and practices were said to be the result of people being lured into evil-doing by the devil. By 1487, the church – most likely to deflect criticism from itself – updated that book, which later became known as The Witch-hunter’s Bible.

People were told that the devil had now infiltrated their communities, and so began in earnest the first dangerous whisperings about witches…

While the last so-called witch trial in Ireland took place in 1895, the first recorded case actually occurred in 1324, Curran reveals, when the so-called 'Sorceress of Kilkenny' came under fire. A money lender, with four husbands buried and one seemingly favoured son inheriting all the wealth, witchcraft was a convenient crime to lay at her door – convenient for a lot of people.

That was just it, says Curran – naming witches was usually rooted in societal unrest, jealousy and internecine power struggles. Did the Sorceress of Killkenny sweep the streets with a broomstick at night chanting about her son, or was it all just an easy way for her customers to avoid their debts?

Then there was also an old woman in Cork who seemingly induced convulsions in people or, indeed, made them drop dead altogether after they touched her. Meanwhile, six Carrickfergus women were accused of witchcraft in 1711, when strange goings-on began in the local manse – said to be built above a fairy fort.

Was it witchcraft, or a pop at the Presbyterians? As it happens, all of these particular women were, indeed, part of the influx of Presbyterians from Scotland and elsewhere at the time.

Then, says Curran, there were the wise women – perhaps better described as cunning women – who supposedly produced cures for all ills, and who were also branded witches. They had, after all, that ‘special’ knowledge unknown to others – a profitable knowledge that surely led to jealousy.

By the 19th century, folklore and superstition had seeped into every pore of Irish culture and society, and another common belief among the masses was that some humans were shapeshifters, fairies in disguise. Cue the tale of the Tipperary man who burned his wife because he thought she wasn’t human.

'I’m not baptised,' our host adds, 'and I remember, as a boy, my grandfather throwing a coat over me from time to time, to remind the fairies I was a human, and not to be taking me. It was believed the fairies would take children away if they weren’t baptised.'

With all this talk of cunning and witchy women – women who were often burned, hanged or drowned in public – what then of the men? Well, says Curran – that is a story for another day.

Visit the Roe Vallery Arts Centre website for information on forthcoming events.