Jen­nifer O’Con­nell on Ire­land’s most fa­mous witches

Hal­loween is a time to eat barm brack, to go bob­bing for ap­ples, and to cel­e­brate one of so­ci­ety’s most per­va­sive fears: pow­er­ful women, writes Jen­nifer O’Con­nell

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS -

So­ci­ety has al­ways feared pow­er­ful women. Witches have been a fea­ture of folk­lore right across the globe, from the troll- whis­per­ers of Scan­di­navia, to Italy’s witch- pros­ti­tutes, to the tsuki­mono- suji – or fox- witch fam­i­lies – of Ja­pan. What­ever form they take, they have one thing in com­mon: they are women who stood apart, whose re­fusal to con­form made them ob­jects of fear, de­ri­sion, re­spect and, too of­ten, vi­o­lence.

Ire­land’s re­puted witches in­clude a four- times- mar­ried money­len­der; a much- loved healer; a suc­cess­ful seam­stress seen as a bit too high and mighty; and eight women from Is­land­magee, who were ac­cused of be­witch­ing a young new­comer, in a trial that came to be known as Ire­land’s Salem.


Dame Alice Kyteler, the strik­ing only daugh­ter of a Flem­ish fam­ily of mer­chants who set­tled in Kilkenny in the 13th cen­tury, grew up to be a suc­cess­ful, well- con­nected innkeeper and money­len­der – and the first per­son to be con­demned for witchcraft in Ire­land. Kyteler had the bad sense to out­live not one, but four hus­bands – bankers Wil­liam Out­lawe and Adam le Blund, land­lord Richard de Valle and Sir John le Poer – and to ac­cu­mu­late a vast for­tune in the process.

In 1302, she and le Blund were briefly ac­cused of killing Out­lawe, who was 20 years older than her, but Kyteler’s power lo­cally meant she was able to shake the ac­cu­sa­tions off. By the time her fourth hus­band, le Poer, fell ill sud­denly in 1324, the ru­mours that she was in­volved in Sa­tanic rit­u­als were rife. After his death, his chil­dren and those of her pre­vi­ous three hus­bands col­lec­tively ac­cused her of sor­cery.

The Bishop of Os­sor y , R i c h a r d d e Le­drede, seized on the ac­cu­sa­tions, and t he witch- hunt of Alice Kyteler un­folded as a strug­gle of re­li­gion, pol­i­tics, power and greed.

Kyteler once again called in her pow­er­ful connections, and had Le­drede jailed and ques­tioned for 17 days, after which he wrote to the Chan­cel­lor of Ire­land, Roger Ut­lagh – pos­si­bly Kyteler’s brother- in- law – de­mand­ing her ar­rest. The chan­cel­lor de­layed the pro­ceed­ings, al­low­ing Kyteler to flee to Eng­land or Flan­ders, where she dis­ap­peared per­ma­nently from pub­lic view.

Sev­eral of her as­so­ciates were ar­rested and one, Petron­illa de Midia ( see be­low), con­fessed to acts of witchcraft con­ducted, she said, on be­half of her em­ployer. PETRON­ILLA DE MIDIA Petron­illa de Midia, or de Meath, be­came a witch by as­so­ci­a­tion. The ex­otic list of charges brought against de Midia and Alice Kyteler, in a trial that trans­fixed Europe, in­cluded mak­ing a brew of the in­testines and in­ter­nal or­gans of cock­erels, worms and hairs taken from the but­tocks of a dead boy, mixed up in­side the de­cap­i­tated skull of a rob­ber. Ac­cord­ing to an ac­count of the trial by Le­drede, de Midia claimed both women could fly. She con­fessed, was flogged “through six parishes” and burnt at the stake in Kilkenny on Novem­ber 3rd, 1324 – the first per­son to be burnt f or heresy, as witchcraft was not yet on the statute books. FLORENCE NEW­TON, WITCH OF YOUGHAL Florence “Goody” New­ton was a beg­gar whose crime was to call to the house of John Pyne, a Youghal no­ble­man, during Christ­mas 1660 to ask for a piece of beef out of the pow­der­ing tub. Mary Long­don, his maid, re­fused her. “Thou hads’t as good given it me,” New­ton replied, words that were later taken to be a curse. When they met at the well a week lat-


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