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
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-