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One of the main witch-hunters involved in the infamous Islandmagee Witch Trial is an ancestor of the American author and humourist, Mark Twain, according to University of Ulster historian, Dr Andrew Sneddon.

Dr Sneddon says he unearthed evidence of the family connection between Edward Clements of Clements Hill, Straid, the man who led the Islandmagee witch-hunt in his role as Mayor of Carrickfergus and the writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens who used the pseudonym Mark Twain, while carrying out research for his latest book.

'Possessed by the Devil: The History of the Islandmagee Witches & Ireland's Only Witchcraft Mass Trial’ is one of the few studies of Irish witchcraft during the time of the early modern, European witch-hunts. It details Ireland’s only ever mass witch-hunt and contains new insights into charms, witchcraft, and demonic possession in Ireland.

Dr Sneddon teaches on the only history course in Ireland dedicated to the study of the great European witch-hunts between 1500-1800. He says it is commonly assumed that the European witch craze of the 16th and 17th centuries never reached Irish shores.

“However, belief in witches was a significant part of Irish culture, while both Scottish and English settlers in Ireland often accused each other of witchcraft. The mass trial of the Islandmagee Witches in Carrickfergus in 1711 demonstrates that fear surrounding witchcraft was indeed present in Ireland,” adds Dr Sneddon.

The tale of the Islandmagee Witches began a year earlier when Mrs Ann Haltridge, the elderly widow of Rev John Haltridge was staying in in the area.

Dr Sneddon takes up the story: “During her stay in Knowehead House, beds were stripped by unseen hands and the bedclothes rearranged in the shape of a corpse. Stones were thrown at the window and a demonic apparition foretold of her death. When she died on February 21 1711, local people blamed her death on witchcraft.

“Following Ann’s funeral, Mary Dunbar, an eighteen year old from Castlereagh in County Down arrived to keep her relatives company at their time of grief. Within a few hours of her arrival, Mary found a mysterious knotted apron lying on the parlour floor. While everyone else was afraid to touch it, Mary undid the knots to reveal the Ann Haltridge’s bonnet. Almost immediately supernatural disturbances began to shake the house and Mary appeared to be possessed. She had severe convulsions, shouting and screaming fits, an ability to listen to prayers or sermons, vomited pins, feathers, cotton and buttons and was even seen levitating above a four poster bed.

“The following month, Mary accused eight women of using witchcraft in order to possess her and haunt Haltridge house. She described her attackers and, even though she had never actually seen them, her evidence was enough to convince the Mayor of Carrickfergus, Edward Clements of Clements Hill, Straid and the local clergy to embark on a witch hunt.

The County Antrim hunt in 1711 led to what turned out to be the last ever witch-trial in Ireland under the Irish witchcraft law of 1563, which was repealed only in 1821.

“Following a trial at Carrickfergus Assizes, eight women from the Islandmagee and the surrounding areas were found guilty of bewitching Mary Dunbar and the haunting and supernatural murder of Ann Haltridge. For their punishment, they eight women were sent to prison for a year and put four times in the pillory (stocks) on market day.”

Dr Sneddon suggests 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. She blamed her possession on the witchcraft of the Islandmagee women who failed to meet contemporary standards of female behaviour and beauty and because of their local reputations as witches.

The Coleraine based academic continues: “They were all poor, some were physically disabled, others swore and drank alcohol. The local male authorities believed Dunbar’s version of events because she was beautiful, educated and from a respected family.”

“The witch-finder who did the most to ensure this drama, which has fascinated historians and remains part of local folklore to this day, was Edward Clements, an ancestor of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Although it was already known that Samuel Clements’ ancestors were the Clements of Clements Hill, we didn’t know until now that Edward Clements was in fact a leading witch-finder.”

‘Possessed by the Devil: The Real History of the Islandmagee Witches & Ireland’s Only Witchcraft Mass Trial’ is published by History Press Ireland. To mark the publication of the book, PRONI (Public Records Office of Northern Ireland) will be hosting an evening conference at its premises in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter on Thursday, October 31 at 5.30 pm.

The conference will look at various aspects of belief in the supernatural in Ireland before the 20th century and the programme will include presentations by Dr Sneddon on ‘Writing the History of Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland’ and three University of Ulster PhD students: Cara Hanly, Portrayals of Witchcraft, Gender and Secuality in Early Modern Imagery; John Fulton, Mary Butters, the Carnmoney Witch 1807-8; Jodie Shevlin, Demonic Possession, Exorcism and the Roman Catholic Clergy in the Pre-famine Period.

All available places for the event at Hallowe’en have been booked so due to popular demand, PRONI will host an additional event on Thursday, 28 November. Booking is essential, email