From Magic to Tragic: A History of Ireland’s Witches

Compared to England, Ireland wasn’t ever madly trigger happy when it came to witchcraft and witch-hunting. Whilst it was common practice across the pond to torture and burn women who were suspected of being part of the occult, Ireland has a much fewer incidents on record. In fact, there are six cases that keep coming up again and again. These women’s stories range from magic to tragic but all of them had one thing in common: they stood out. Here is a list of Ireland’s most famous witches in history. 

1. Dame Alice Kyteler, Kilkenny

Alice Kyteler is notorious and a staple resident on any Irish Witch List. She was a successful innkeeper, notorious money lender and famously outlived four wealthy husbands… who knew that men’s weak immune systems would be the downfall of strong women? She was also the first person in Ireland’s history to be of witchcraft. By the event of her fourth husband’s death even her children started to accuse her of sorcery. Lucky for Alice, she had lots of friends in high places and was able to escape the country, though not before temporarily incarcerating the archbishop who accused her of being a witch. It is believed that she escaped to England, though she was never seen or heard from again. She was convicted in her absence.

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Verdict: Magic

2. Petronilla de Midia, Kilkenny

Now Petronilla’s story is one of true tragedy. Maid to Alice Kyteler, she was branded as a witch by association after her mistress escaped. When people want a witch, I suppose they get a witch – at any cost. Her trial was one that transfixed Europe (and probably Kyteler, wherever she was) and under torture, she confessed that both she and Alice Kyteler could fly and made dodgy potions. As witchcraft was not yet a crime by law, both she and Kyteler were charged with heresy, which is when you have a belief or stance that goes against the general consensus – in this case, orthodox religious values. She was burnt at the stake in November 1324.

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Verdict: Tragic

3. Florence Newton, Youghal 1660

Florence Newton is another woman who really just got a bad wrap. She was a beggar who called in on the house of a wealthy nobleman on Christmas day and asked for some food. She was denied and enough heated words were exchanged for Newton to apologise the following week and kiss the maid who refused her. The maid allegedly began vomiting needles, pins, wool and straw and Newton was accused of being a witch. This belief was fortified when she later kissed the hand of her prison guard and he died soon after. I think we can all related to Newton on some level (mine, spiritually) – all she wanted was love and food. (Why society no like?)  We don’t know what her exact fate was but we do know that while in prison she suffered a lot of brutal witchcraft tests and most likely was sentenced to death.

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Verdict: Tragic

4. The Witches of Islandmagee, County Antrim 1711

Ever read The Crucible? Yeah well forget Salem and the 1950s, Arthur Miller tore a page right out of Ireland’s history book. In 1711, County Antrim, eight women were convicted of being witches and possessing a young girl called Mary Dunbar, who had recently been sent from Belfast to the remote peninsular town and clearly wasn’t happy about it.  So what did she do? She accused the social outcasts, the women who, essentially, disgusted her and she knew nobody would defend. She exhibited the usual symptoms of fitting, vomiting nails and even threw a few bibles for good measure. Now think about how huge this case must have been, considering how lazy the Irish were when it came to witch-hunting –  and there they were – going after eight of them. Their punishments were either lost or not recorded but you can imagine what happened to them, and society got its release. 

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Verdict: Tragic

5. Biddy Early, Clare

Biddy Early, or The Wise Woman of Clare as she was also known, had a tough start to life but exhibits an early case in history of rags to riches. She grew up as an orphan in a poorhouse but had reputedly inherited healing magic from her mother. She was known for her conflict with the church, medical profession, police, corrupt landlords and the judiciary system (basically, for having an opinion), so it is no surprise that she was branded a witch (and blamed for local sports teams 80 year bad streaks). Like Alice Kyteler, she also outlived four husbands. Somehow though, just somehow, despite being notoriously strong-minded, a cougar, involved in murder conspiracies, a four-time widow and accused of witchcraft (just to name a few), Biddy just seemed to keep on going. This woman was able to get anointed on her deathbed and have 27 priests attend her funeral.

Biddy Early

Verdict: Magic

6. Bridget Cleary, Ballyvadlea, Co Tipperary. 

Bridget Cleary is known on all Irish Witch Lists as Ireland’s last witch. She was a famously beautiful, independent woman and a self-employed dressmaker. She wasn’t involved in any witch-hunting conspiracies or public persecution like her female counterparts, just for perhaps being a little full of it. When she went missing one day the story was that she had been taken away by fairies, but when her burnt remains were discovered her husband, father, aunt and four cousins were all charged for her murder. It came out eventually that when her appearance drastically changed during a bout of illness her husband and family became convinced that she had been replaced by a changeling – a supernatural force – and her husband burnt her to death. And all because the woman could hustle.

Bridget Cleary

Verdict: Tragic.

So as Haloween nears and people are readying their costumes and finalising their plans, we think it’s worth remembering these women and what they had to go through, disfigured by their outspokenness, visual qualities, money and power. Has much changed? Are we over our fear and suspicion of outspoken women in society? Maybe that’s some food for thought this Halloween…

Leora Mansoor
Leora Mansoor

Leora is a freelance journalist who is currently working for Babylon Radio, covering all things current and cultural

One comment

  1. Again, doggone it, another informative, entertaining despite the ultimately sad central thesis with the added beauty of brevity! Well done.

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