The Witch Panic of Islandmagee – Podcast Script

This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!

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Welcome to Unreal, and The Season of the Witch.

We have reached the last and largest witch trial in Ireland. Most of the stories I have been dealing with in this October’s Season of the Witch show how a community’s suspicion focuses on a single woman, working alone, or at least as the ringleader of a group. It is she who faces the worst suspicion, and she who bears the brunt of the town’s accusations.

But sometimes, when a community is particularly afraid, or a supposed victim particular vindictive – sometimes whispers and rumours can fly even further, and many rumoured witches can stand trial for the same crime. A fear of witchcraft grows into something bigger altogether –what is called a witch panic. We have seen this happen across the world – from Lancashire, in Britain, to Salem in America. In Ireland, it’s only reported to have happened once – but as we’ll soon see, once was enough to do plenty of harm.

I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.

Fifty years after Florence Newton’s trial and death in Youghal, County Cork, another witch trial took place, in another religious community. This time it happened in Islandmagee, a small coastal parish near Carrickfergus in County Antrim.

Antrim at the time had dealt with its fair share of witch trials and panics. In 1672 , the deaths of James Shaw and his wife were believed by their neighbours to have been the work of witchcraft. 26 years later in 1698, a nine-year-old girl in Antrim town became very sick after eating a sorrel leaf, and the community became convinced that the elderly woman who gave it to her had bewitched it. The woman was condemned and tortured by strangling and burning, until she confessed to witchcraft and other crimes.

Unsurprisingly, these events were occurring at a time of political and religious turbulence, both for Antrim, and for the country as a whole. The wealth and government of Ireland at this time was in the hands of Anglican gentry – the Protestant Ascendancy, whose position had been greatly strengthened by William of Orange’s victory against the Catholic James II in The Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Meanwhile, the Jacobean plantation of Ulster, coupled with famine and poor harvests in Scotland, had led to a wave of emigration of Presbyterian settlers into the north of Ireland. By 1710, about a third of the population of Ulster was Presbyterian.

These early Presbyterian communites had a divided identity – they saw themselves as Scottish, rather English or Irish, but they remained loyal to the British crown. Their status left them isolated and persecuted from all sides – from the Church of England, who viewed their differing religious practises as a sign of dissent, and from the Gaelic Irish, who hadn’t taken kindly to a century of bloodshed and colonisation.

This is where witch panics thrive – in isolated communities and times of turmoil. Looking for stability, people turned to religious fervour to strengthen their bonds. And in a time when all Christian denominations viewed magic as dangerous, and the devil as a very real presence, strong religious feeling led to strong feelings of fear and suspicion – often with devastating consequences.

If Florence Newton’s story began with a kiss, this story begins with a house Knowhead House in Islandmagee, home to Mrs Ann Haltridge and her family. Ann was the widow of the late Reverend John Haltridge, a Presbyterian minister, and was a respected and well-known member of the community. Knowehead house was respectable also – a thick-walled, two-storey dwelling, that the family had lived in for many years.

But in the year 1710, strange things began to happen to the house, and the people who lived there – things that they felt could only be explained by magic. In the autumn of that year, Ann Haltridge began to be troubled by a strange presence, that pelted her with stones, disturbed the furniture in her room – and at night, she could feel it, crawling over her body.

And in the winter, a boy appeared – dressed in rags, and behaving in a very sinister manner. He kept his face covered, and jeered and threatened Ann and her family. When the servants closed the door against him, the boy threw a stone, and shouted out to them: “You think you are safe, but … I can come in through the smallest hole in the house, like a cat or a mouse, for the devil can make me anything I please.” The boy was later seen frightening the turkeys, digging a grave, and jumping over the garden wall, almost as if he could fly. The boy eventually vanished, and although the Haltridges and their neighbours combed the countryside searching for him, he was never found again. Ann and her family were sure this was proof of what the boy truly was – a demon, sent from hell.

Although the boy had disappeared, the strange attacks on Ann and the house continued, the Haltridges said. Stones and sods of earth battered the walls and windows. In February, Ann’s bedclothes were repeatedly found stripped from her bed, and bundled together with a sheet lying over them – almost in the shape of a corpse. But Ann refused to move out of the room – she was not going to give in to the Devil’s wishes, she said.

Eventually, the new minister was called for, a man called Robert Sinclair. Together with his Ruling Elders, and several other pious members of the community, Sinclair came to Knowehead House, determined to drive out the demonic forces that had taken hold of it. As darkness fell, they fasted and prayed, and Ann went to bed early.

But later, at midnight – they heard her scream.

Rushing up to Ann’s room, the people found Ann convulsing, and complaining about a pain in her back. The pain was sharp – like something was stuck into her, she said – it was like a knife. Too frightened, finally, to stay where she was, Ann was taken into the guest bedroom. But the shock, fear, and pain had been too great. Seven days later, Ann Haltridge was dead.

Now, these events make for a good ghost story, it seems pretty clear to us today that whatever was going on in the house, it wasn’t haunted. The boy if he existed at all was most likely a beggar, the stories of what he did sensationalised after the events that followed. Wind and drafts can explain the movements of stones. And as for Mrs Haltridge, the stress of such events, and her belief in their evil origins, may well have been the cause for her sudden ill health and death.

Whether or not Ann Haltridge’s torment was truly magical, the supernatural elements seemed real enough to the community to cause widespread consternation and suspicion. People were convinced that evil and dangerous magic was at play and rumours of who or what might have played a part were already flying fast. And the stage was set for accusations to take a far uglier turn.

After Ann Haltridge’s death people came from all around, both to sympathise with her family, and probably to see the bewitched house for themselves. Among them was a young woman called Mary Dunbar, a cousin of the Haltridges, who arrived five days later to keep Ann’s daughter company in her grief. Mary was eighteen years old, an intelligent and respected gentlewoman, so the accounts say. And when she first arrived, she did not seem afraid of the supernatural occurences in the way the others were.

On the first night that Mary arrived, she went up to her room with one of the other girls in the house, and when they opened the door, they found that their clothes had been scattered all over the floor. Among the scattered clothes, they found an apron that neither of them owned. It was tied with nine knots.

The other women of the house were afraid to touch the apron, but Mary took hold of it, and untied each of the knots herself. Within the folds, she found a cap that had belonged to Ann Haltridge.

The following morning, when Mary was going upstairs, she suddenly doubled over from a sharp pain in her leg. By evening, she began to have violent fits, crying out that a knife was running through her thigh, and that she could see a vision of three women standing close to her, who she described. By midnight, this crowd of spectres had grown to eight women, who crowded around her, Mary said, and called to each other by name. Because of this, Mary was now able to identify the women she said, and she began calling them out.

Now, Mary did not live near Islandmagee, and she insisted that she had never seen or met these women before – that the names were coming to her completely out of the blue. The others believed therefore that the names could only have come to the girl by evil magic –  a pure sign of witchcraft. But what seems to have been overlooked is the fact that Mary was a relation and close friend of the Haltridge family, so could easily have heard these names from them – and that she had been in the house for a day already, hearing the speculation and talk that had been going on around her And the descriptions she gave for those she couldn’t name were detailed, but were things that could apply to any number of people – short, stout, lame, a dirty headdress or a rolling eye.

Mary even named the relations of the neighbours who were already gathered there at Knowehead House. One of the women accused, Janet Carson – her daughter was there at Knowehead during Mary’s fit and accusation, and she was, understandably horrified to hear her mother being named. It was actually this daughter who involved the Reverend Sinclair again, hoping that he would intercede and make Mary Dunbar see sense.

But the Reverend Sinclair did no such thing. He called for Janet Carson to be brought to the house and taken up to Mary’s room. As soon as Janet Carson approached, Mary flew into a still more violent fit, crying out “Janet Carson is here.” The shocked older woman was immediately taken away from Mary, brought into another room and told to pray for Mary’s fits to improve. Janet Carson refused to do this at first – Why? I have done the girl no wrong, she said. But Reverend, and all the people who mattered, thought otherwise.

One thing that’s interesting to note is how similar all of these 17th and 18th century witchcraft accusations were. Mary Dunbar’s symptoms were the same as Mary Longdon’s in Youghal, and were also the same as the young girl in Antrim Town in 1698, as well as countless other witch trials in Britain. Each time, a young girl accused an old woman, or women of putting her under a spell, that caused fits, fear and pain, and symptoms that were the same across each of the cases. The tests carried out on the women by the Reverend Sinclair and his men were similar also – making them say the Lord’s Prayer, and bringing them up to Mary’s room to gauge her reaction.

Given the similarities, we have to wonder – is it possible that Mary Dunbar had read or heard about these previous witchcraft trials? She was an intelligent and likely educated woman – during her fits she cried out in Biblical language, suggesting she was well-read. And witch trials were easy to read about – just like to day, stories of witches gained fame and interest, were gossiped and preached about, and pamphlets and sermons were readily available, laying out every little detail of what had happened in the trials. So did Mary know the things that should be said to make the people around her pay attention, and believe her? And, if she knew that – did she know the fate she could be condemning the women she named to face? It seems too awful to believe that a person could make the whole thing up, knowing the punishment she might be inflicting upon them – but such things are not unheard of.

Mary had also named and a mother and daughter– Jane and Elizabeth Sellar, so they were brought reluctantly and tested as well. The Reverend Sinclair was so convinced by the results of the tests he had carried out on Janet Carson and the two Sellar women, that he went straight to the authorities, instead of the church, involving the Mayor of Carrickfergus, Edward Clements as well as the constables and watchmen of the local area. Having ‘discovered’ proof of three witches, the authorities believed Mary totally, and as she had said in her visions that seven or eight figures were crowded around her, they began to look for the others.

In all, Mary’s names and descriptions led to the arrests of seven women from Islandmagee and the surrounding area. It was the largest witch panic ever recorded in Ireland.

They were

Janet Main, of Braid Island,

Jane Latimer of Carrickfergus

Margret Mitchell of Kilroot

And Catherine McCalmont, Janet and Elizabeth Sellar, and Janet Carson, all of Islandmagee.

It’s not surprising that these were the women accused. They were all known for being ignorant or bad-tempered, or ugly, or had distinctive features that marked them out as different from the people around them. Catherine McCalmont was lame or crippled, Janet Latimer had one eye that was blind and sunk in her head. Elizabeth Sellar, the youngest person accused, who was just 17, was also lame, and she and her mother had already been under suspicion from the community of practising witchcraft in times before this. They were outcasts, in other words – people the community had no time for, and easy targets when rumours and suspicion were flying.

Much like Florence Newton in Youghal, the women were jailed, chained and bolted so that they could not work their magic on Mary, and the case was brought to trial at Carrickfergus at the end of March, 1711.

At the trial, Mary Dunbar did not perform a dramatically violent fit in the way Mary Longdon had done in Youghal. She did not speak or give any evidence at all. The people watching her during the trial described how her eyes cast about the room in a wild and distracted manner. When the people raised her up to give evidence, Mary appeared to faint, sinking back down into the arms of the person supporting her, and closing her eyes. After the trial, Mary claimed that she had been struck dumb by the witches, forbidden from giving evidence against them, and that three spectral figures at all times were guarding her closely. Soon after the trial, she also accused another member of the Sellar family – this time the father, William Sellar – and he too faced trial, although his fate is unknown.

After the evidence had been given, the seven accused witches were brought forward, and were asked to offer their own defence. They each denied the charges, and unlike Florence Newton’s trial, there was more said in their defence. Some of them were industrious, hard-working women it was claimed. Some were even religious, known to pray with their families and say the lord’s prayer, and several had taken communion recently – all things that it was believed witches could not do. Fifty years had passed since Florence Newton’s trial after all, and although there had been witchcraft accusations since then, it seems likely that rationality was beginning to win out to a certain level – that people had begun to weigh up the evidence for themselves, and were not as sure as they had been before that an accusation was a certainty.

These changing times, and the fact that Mary Dunbar was still alive and well, also meant that the fates of these women were very different to past cases. In fact, one of the judges at the trial, Judge Upton, told the Jury that the women could not be found guilty, based on the evidence given – it did not seem possible to him that pious women who attended church regularly, could be witches. The other judge, Mr Justice McCartney disagreed, however, feeling that the evidence was there. The jury deliberated, and returned their verdict. The women were indeed guilty, they said. But they were not sentenced to death. They were given a year’s imprisonment, and made to stand in the pillory four times during their sentence.

I don’t want to play down the fates these women suffered. The pillory punishment was brutal and humiliating – it involved standing with your head and arms encased in a wooden bar, while the watching crowd could heckle and throw things at you. The women were pelted with eggs and cabbage stalks. One of them, it was reported, lost an eye to the violence. It was a horrific fate. But, it wasn’t death.

And, after this, no more witches stood trial in Ireland. In fact, the early 18th century marked the end of witch trials across Ireland and Britain – with the last trial in England taking place in 1717, and Scotland’s last trial in 1722. Things were changing in each country, as more and more people began to view witch panics as foolish superstition instead of true religious practice.

But although they no longer stood trial in traditional courts, the ordeals of suspected witches were not quite over. Among the more superstitious, less educated, and insular communities, fear and suspicion still brought devastating results. And as we will see in next week’s episode, Ireland’s last and most horrifying witch case was still to come.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. You can find links to the sources and music from today’s episode on my website, The song you are listening to right now is All of This, by Ayla Nero. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please do tell a friend or leave a review wherever you get your podcast – thanks to everyone who has done that so far. Unreal was written and created by me, Ruth Atkins. I’ll be back next week with the conclusion to this witchy chapter, and the tragic story of Bridget Cleary. Until then, go néirí an bóthar leat.