Friday, 8 April 2011

Ireland's last witch trial reexamined

The verdict in Ireland’s last witch trial was handed down three centuries ago in 1711, but a new historical study is reexamining the evidence which convicted eight Co. Antrim women of “possessing” a teenage girl, Mary Dunbar.

Dr. Andrew Sneddon from the University of Ulster has undertaken a new investigation of the Islandmagee witches case, presenting the theory that the women were wrongfully convicted and that the girl fabricated the entire story.

He told the Irish Independent: “My research is based on a 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.”
Based on testimony by the “possessed” 18-year-old, eight Presbyterian women were tried at a court in Carrickfergus and sentenced to a year in prison. They were also placed in the public stocks on market days.

In Sneddon’s new work Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland 1586-1946, he argues Dunbar chose to accuse these women because they were already perceived to be outside polite society.
“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 behavior and beauty,” he said.

“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The book will not be published until early 2013, but Sneddon will give a paper on the topic in July at the annual conference of the 18th Century Ireland Society in Trim, Co. Meath.

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