Local History - Witches on Islandmaghee and Other Strange Tales.

 I'm sure you will have heard of the witch trials that proliferated through Europe and America from medieval time onwards.  Perhaps the two most famous one were from Pendle (Yorkshire, 1612), and Salem (Massachusetts, 1692/93).  Here in Northern Ireland we came late to all this persecution, our one trial starting from incidents in 1711.  I had heard of this trial, but not of the twist on it put on it in the story below.  This comes from an old guide book to Northern Ireland called "Thank You Now", written by someone called Oswell Blakeston that I read recently.  I have already mentioned one other fact that I learned from it in a previous post about the First Car.  It seems to have been very well researched and written, but being from 1960 it is a little dated in places.

Anyway, back to the witches.  Given some of the incidents being used as evidence against these women, the twist sounds very plausible to me.  The text starts part way through a chapter, so there are some references that will be out of context unfortunately.  See what you think.

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....Islandmaghee is notable as the only place in Northern Ireland which provided victims for a witch trial.  Strangely enough, these unfortunates were not put to the test by the local rocking stone, but they had to face a court at Carrickfergus.

In 1711, a few days after Mrs. Hattridge's funeral, the ladies in her house found an apron on the parlour floor.  Mary Dunbar lifted up the apron and saw a flannel cap of old Mrs. Hattridge's that had been lost.  Immediately she had fits and visions and started to name women whom she said were responsible. The names were noted, and the Presbyterian minister kept a watch and soon saw one of the accused walking backwards "in a perspective glass."  He also observed a cloth like the lower part of a petticoat turn round and round in the middle of the floor.  After such evidence, there was nothing else to be done but demand a warrant to be issued against the accused, Janet Carson and her witches.

When the constable approached one of the accused to apprehend her, she was gathering sticks and she flung herself upon a stone "from which the limb of the law had difficulty removing her."  In the townland of Balloo, on Islandmaghee, one can still see The Witches Stone, weighing two hundredweights, with indents corresponding to the sorceress' thumb and forefinger.  All the accused were then brought before Mary Dunbar who was in her bed with, rather oddly, a mouse.  She identified them as the people she had seen in her vision and who'd played psychic tricks with Mrs. Hattridge's clothing.  The neighbours then flocked in to pray, and something the size of two birds flew out from behind Mary Dunbar's bed, and clothes in an upstairs room were found folded in the shape of a corpse.  A garment, which had belonged to Mrs. Hattridge, was rolled round a sheaf of wheat on the floor.  That night the clergyman discovered a cord with nine knots tied round his waist; and Mary Dunbar declared she'd been visited by a woman who'd forced her to swallow feathers and pins which she afterwards voided.  The visitor was identified as another witch, Margaret Mitchell.

The trial was held on 31st March, 1711, before Judges Upton and M'Cartney at Carrickfergus: it lasted from six in the morning till two in the afternoon.  The prisoners were not legally represented, and the merits of their case were not argued; but plenty of witnesses appeared against them including Charles Lennon (Gent.) who testified to the sulphurous smell on the threshold of Mary Dunbar's room and which must have been placed there by evil means.

Most oddly, the punishment of the witches did not end the disturbances.  Knocks were heard in old Mrs. Hattridge's house; and, when a sword was flourished near them, the knocks changed to whistling "louder than a man can do."  Mary Dunbar began to accuse a number of other people, and to say that strange things had happened near a cairn, one of the 366 cairns in Ulster that mark a night of love spent by a Princess with the man of her choice when she was being chased around the land by a jealous Finn MacCoul.  But by now the citizens of Islandmaghee had had enough of it.  The men Mary Dunbar namedas warlocks were not arrested, although Robert M'Killocks said he saw two of them mount black horses when "others did not observe it."

When one reads through the report of Ulster's only witch trial, one wonders why no one suggested that Mary Dunbar was the witch.  The mouse in her bed and the birds behind it seem highly significant.  But perhaps one may find a part explanation for the whole business in a manuscript which Richard Dobbs wrote in 1683: "Within these 3 or 4 years in Islandmaghee & several other places near the sea coast, a sort of Pyson, I take it, called Darnell riz in the oats and other grain, very offensive to the brain, and cannot be cleansed of the corn; the country folk call it Sturdy, from the effects of making people light headed."  This thought gives a new stress to the incident of a garment rolled around a sheaf of wheat.

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