The Witches of Islandmagee
In the autumn of 1710, Ann Haltridge woke in fright. An unseen assailant was throwing stones and turf at her bed, her bedroom curtains flapped as if caught in a wind, the sheets and pillows were torn away from her. Horrified, she fled the room. It was only the beginning.
That winter, an apparition of a small boy appeared by her fire. He tore through the house, across the courtyard and into the barn, pursued by the servants. Here, he vanished, only to reappear by the kitchen fire.
He jigged around the house until James, Mrs Haltridge’s son, returned home. He returned in February 1711, tearing books from the shelves, smashing the windows and declaring that he had been sent by the devil.
He dug a hole in the yard – a grave, he said, for someone in the house. Three days later, Mrs Haltridge’s sheets were again torn from her bed and arranged to resemble a corpse.
Local clergymen were summoned to pray over the house, but it seemed only to embolden the demon. On February 21st, Mrs Haltridge went to bed but awoke with stabbing pains in her back. The excruciating pain never left her, and she died the following day.
So began the supernatural happenings that would culminate in Ireland’s last witchcraft trial. Witchcraft was never as prominent in Ireland as it was in Scotland and England – it usually appeared in areas where migrants from the rest of the British Isles had settled. The Antrim coast’s close links with Scotland meant that this place was awash with the supernatural beliefs that gave rise to witchcraft trials.
Mrs Haltridge’s daughter-in-law was frightened and lonely after the older lady had passed away, so her cousin, Mary Dunbar – a beautiful girl of 18 – came to stay with her. But the haunting of the Haltridges continued. One night, when Mary went to bed, she was alarmed to find that her trunk was open and her clothes were scattered around the house. As she searched for them, she discovered an apron, rolled up and tied tight in nine knots. When she opened it she discovered one of the late Mrs Haltridge’s flannel caps.
More was to follow. Mary began to have fits, claiming that spectral women were stabbing her legs with knives. She would shout, threaten those around her, blaspheme, throw Bibles, convulse when clergymen passed by, and vomited household items such as pins, buttons, nails, glass and wool.
These were symptoms of demonic possession familiar from the Salem witch trials, which had taken place 20 years earlier, and similar cases in Scotland.
“These demoniacs all have the same symptoms,” explains Andrew Sneddon, author of Possessed by the Devil: The Real History of the Islandmagee Witches and Ireland’s Only Mass Witchcraft Trial in an interview for the Independent. He thinks Mary Dunbar made the whole thing up. “I think Mary Dunbar learned the part from accounts about Salem or Scotland.”
Nevertheless, her testimony was taken at face value and eight local women – marginal and poor people – were rounded up an put on trial at the Carrickfergus Assizes. The main evidence against them was Mary Dunbar’s testimony, their inability to say the Lord’s Prayer, and their reputations for drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco and swearing.
At one point, Mary was blindfolded and led along a line-up. She reportedly convulsed when she drew near the accused.
There’s no record of the court’s sentence, but the statute books called for witches to be imprisoned and spend four days in the pillory. Passersby would have been pelted with stones, rotten fruit and other waste by passersby.
What was Mary’s motivation for drawing down such punishment on a group of strangers?
Andrew Sneddon believes she did it to escape her society’s strictures for women’s behaviour. “Ironically, she's doing the same kind of things that the witches she's accusing are castigated for, but because it's not her fault, there's no moral responsibility. It's someone else who is doing it to her, so she can break the type of behavioural constraints placed upon her as a female at the time,” he explains. “I think Dunbar was invisible in this community. She had the opportunity because she'd just arrived in this place, and she saw a chance to become visible within this community and this family, and to act in ways that were usually socially unacceptable."
It may seem hard to believe that such things could happen today, but it makes sense in the context of Britain and Ireland in the early modern period.
“These ideas were often backed up by clergy and medical professionals,” says Sneddon.
“In the Islandmagee case, doctors were called in and they said Mary Dunbar’s condition was not physical but supernatural.”
There was one voice of dissent, however. Two judges – Anthony Upton and James McCartney – presided over the jury trial. Judge Upton instructed the jury not to bring a guilty verdict – the evidence of Mary’s visions was not strong enough for a conviction.
Judge McCartney disagreed and the jury followed his lead.