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The Islandmagee Witches 300 Year Anniversary

The 300th anniversary of the last ever witch trial to take place in Ireland is being marked this week and is the focus of a book currently being written by a University of Ulster lecturer.

Dr Andrew Sneddon, a lecturer based in the School of English, History and Politics at Ulster’s Coleraine campus, is writing a book which will feature material on the Islandmagee witch trial in Co Antrim which took place on March 31, 1711.

Dr Sneddon teaches the only history course in Ireland dedicated to the study of the great European witch-hunts, 1500-1800 and has been commissioned by Palgrave MacMillan to write the first academic book on Irish witchcraft entitled, ‘Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland, 1586-1946’.

The book will contain new insights into charms, witchcraft, and demonic possession in Ireland, up until the twentieth-century, and will be published in early 2013.

A central part of this book will be a pioneering, academic study of the Islandmagee witches, the trial of whom took place 300 years ago this Thursday 31 March 1711.

Dr Sneddon said: “This is one of only a handful of Irish witchcraft trials in the early modern period. Under the Irish witchcraft law of 1563, which was repealed only in 1821, eight women from the Islandmagee and the surrounding areas were found guilty at Carrickfergus Assizes, County Antrim’s criminal court, for bewitching an 18-year-old girl, Mary Dunbar.”

For their punishment, the eight women were sent to prison for a year and put four times in the pillory on market day.

Dr Sneddon continued: “My research is based on wide variety of contemporary documentation, including witness statements, letters and eye-witness accounts. It suggests that Mary Dunbar’s symptoms of bewitchment were that of demonic possession: fits, swearing, throwing bibles, vomiting household objects, and trances.”

The accused women also allegedly attacked her in spirit form. Dr Sneddon argues that Dunbar faked her possession to escape the tight bounds normally placed on her behaviour and speech.

“Being possessed allowed her misbehave without consequence, move from invisibility to notoriety within her community and attack her elders at will. Dunbar chose to blame her possession on the witchcraft of the Presbyterian Islandmagee women because they had reputations locally as witches and failed to meet contemporary standards of female behaviour and beauty.

“Some were physically disabled, others swore and drank alcohol. All were poor. The local male authorities believed Dunbar’s version of events because she was beautiful, educated and from a respected family. The accusations were also used to further local political goals at a time of intense party political conflict between the two main political parties of the day, the Whigs and the Tories.”

Dr Sneddon’s research on the Islandmagee witches will be given in a paper at the annual conference of the 18th-Century Ireland Society on 1-3 July in Trim, Co Meath.