The Kyteler Case and its Surroundings of Sorcery and Heresy—Michael Scot—The Fourth Earl of Desmond—James I and the Irish Prophetess—A Sorcery Accusation of 1447—Witchcraft Trials in the Sixteenth Century—Statutes dealing with the Subject—Eye-biters—The Enchanted Earl of Desmond
In one respect the case of Dame Alice Kyteler stands alone in the history of magical dealings in Ireland prior to the seventeenth century. We have of the entire proceedings an invaluable and contemporary account, or at latest one compiled within a very few years after the death of Petronilla of Meath; while the excitement produced by the affair is shown by the more or less lengthy allusions to it in early writings, such as The Book of Howth (Carew MSS.), the Annals by Friar Clyn, the Chartularies of S. Mary’s Abbey (vol. ii.), &c. It is also rendered more valuable by the fact that those who are best qualified to give their opinion on the matter have assured the writer that to the best of their belief no entries with respect to trials for sorcery or witchcraft can be found in the various old Rolls preserved in the Dublin Record Office.
But when the story is considered with reference to the following facts it takes on a different signification. On the 29th of September 1317 (Wright says 1320), Bishop de Ledrede held his first Synod, at which several canons were passed, one of which seems in some degree introductory to the events detailed in the preceding chapter. In it he speaks of “a certain new and pestilential sect in our parts, differing from all the faithful in the world, filled with a devilish spirit, more inhuman than heathens or Jews, who pursue the priests and bishops of the Most High God equally in life and death, by spoiling and rending the patrimony of Christ in the diocese of Ossory, and who utter grievous threats against the bishops and their ministers exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and (by various means) attempt to hinder the correction of sins and the salvation of souls, in contempt of God and the Church.” From this it would seem that heresy and unorthodoxy had already made its appearance in the diocese. In 1324 the Kyteler case occurred, one of the participants being burnt at the stake, while other incriminated persons were subsequently followed up, some of whom shared the fate of Petronilla. In 1327 Adam Dubh, of the Leinster tribe of O’Toole, was burnt alive on College Green for denying the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity, as well as for rejecting the authority of the Holy See. In 1335 Pope Benedict XII wrote a letter to King Edward III, in which occurs the following passage: “It has come to our knowledge that while our venerable brother, Richard, Bishop of Ossory, was visiting his diocese, there appeared in the midst of his catholic people men who were heretics together with their abettors, some of whom asserted that Jesus Christ was a mere man and a sinner, and was justly crucified for His own sins; others after having done homage and offered sacrifice to demons, thought otherwise of the sacrament of the Body of Christ than the Catholic Church teaches, saying that the same venerable sacrament is by no means to be worshipped; and also asserting that they are not bound to obey or believe the decrees, decretals, and apostolic mandates; in the meantime, consulting demons according to the rites of those sects among the Gentiles and Pagans, they despise the sacraments of the Catholic Church, and draw the faithful of Christ after them by their superstitions.” As no Inquisitors of heresy have been appointed in Ireland, he begs the King to give prompt assistance to the Bishop and other Prelates in their efforts to punish the aforesaid heretics. If the above refer to the Kyteler case it came rather late in the day; but it is quite possible, in view of the closing words of the anonymous narrator, that it has reference rather to the following up of the dame’s associates, a process that must have involved a good deal of time and trouble, and in which no doubt many unhappy creatures were implicated. Again, in 1353, two men were tried at Bunratty in co. Clare by Roger Cradok, Bishop of Waterford, for holding heretical opinions (or for offering contumely to the Blessed Virgin), and were sentenced to be burnt. The above are almost the only (if not the only) instances known of the punishment of death by fire being inflicted in Ireland for heresy.
From a consideration of the facts here enumerated it would seem as if a considerable portion of Ireland had been invaded by a wave of heresy in the first half of the fourteenth century, and that this manifested itself under a twofold form—first, in a denial of the cardinal doctrines of the Church and a consequent revolt against her jurisdiction; and secondly, in the use of magical arts, incantations, charms, familiar spirits, et hoc genus omne. In this movement the Kyteler case was only an episode, though obviously the most prominent one; while its importance was considerably enhanced, if not exaggerated out of all due proportion, by the aggressive attitude adopted by Bishop de Ledrede against the lady and her companions, as well as by his struggles with Outlawe and Le Poer, and their powerful backers, the Chancellor and Treasurer of Ireland. The anonymous writer, who was plainly a cleric, and a partisan of the Bishop’s, seems to have compiled his narration not so much on account of the incident of sorcery as to show the courage and perseverance of De Ledrede, and as well to make manifest the fact that the Church should dictate to the State, not the State to the Church. It appears quite possible, too, that other separate cases of sorcery occurred in Ireland at this period, though they had no historian to immortalise them, and no doubt in any event would have faded into insignificance in comparison with the doings of Dame Kyteler and her “infernal crew.”
From this on we shall endeavour to deal with the subject as far as possible in chronological order. It is perhaps not generally known that at one time an Irish See narrowly escaped (to its misfortune, be it said) having a magician as its Chief Shepherd. In 1223 the Archbishopric of Cashel became vacant, upon which the Capitular Body elected as their Archbishop the then Bishop of Cork, to whom the temporalities were restored in the following year. But some little time prior to this the Pope had set aside the election and “provided” a nominee of his own, one Master M. Scot, to fill the vacancy: he however declined the proffered dignity on the ground that he was ignorant of the Irish language. This papal candidate was none other than the famous Michael Scot, reputed a wizard of such potency that—
When in Salamanca’s cave
Him listed his magic wand to wave
The bells would ring in Notre Dame.
Scot had studied successively at Oxford and Paris (where he acquired the title of “mathematicus”); he then passed to Bologna, thence to Palermo, and subsequently continued his studies at Toledo. His refusal of the See of Cashel was an intellectual loss to the Irish Church, for he was so widely renowned for his varied and extensive learning that he was credited with supernatural powers; a number of legends grew up around his name which hid his real merit, and transformed the man of science into a magician. In the Border country traditions of his magical power are common. Boccaccio alludes to “a great master in necromancy, called Michael Scot,” while Dante places him in the eighth circle of Hell.
The next, who is so slender in the flanks,
Was Michael Scot, who of a verity
Of magical illusions knew the game. 
Another man to whom magical powers were attributed solely on account of his learning was Gerald, the fourth Earl of Desmond, styled the Poet, who died rather mysteriously in 1398. The Four Masters in their Annals describe him as “a nobleman of wonderful bounty, mirth, cheerfulness of conversation, charitable in his deeds, easy of access, a witty and ingenious composer of Irish poetry, a learned and profound chronicler.” No legends are extant of his magical deeds.
King James I of Scotland, whose severities against his nobles had aroused their bitter resentment, was barbarously assassinated at Perth in 1437 by some of their supporters, who were aided and abetted by the aged Duke of Atholl. From a contemporary account of this we learn that the monarch’s fate was predicted to him by an Irish prophetess or witch; had he given ear to her message he might have escaped with his life. We modernise the somewhat difficult spelling, but retain the quaint language of the original. “The king, suddenly advised, made a solemn feast of the Christmas at Perth, which is clept Saint John’s Town, which is from Edinburgh on the other side of the Scottish sea, the which is vulgarly clept the water of Lethe. In the midst of the way there arose a woman of Ireland, that clept herself as a soothsayer. The which anon as she saw the king she cried with loud voice, saying thus: ‘My lord king, and you pass this water you shall never turn again alive.’ The king hearing this was astonied of her words; for but a little before he had read in a prophecy that in the self same year the king of Scots should be slain: and therewithal the king, as he rode, cleped to him one of his knights, and gave him in commandment to turn again to speak with that woman, and ask of her what she would, and what thing she meant with her loud crying. And she began, and told him as ye have heard of the King of Scots if he passed that water. As now the king asked her, how she knew that. And she said, that Huthart told her so. ‘Sire,’ quoth he, ‘men may “calant” ye take no heed of yon woman’s words, for she is but a drunken fool, and wot not what she saith’; and so with his folk passed the water clept the Scottish sea, towards Saint John’s town.” The narrator states some dreams ominous of James’s murder, and afterwards proceeds thus: “Both afore supper, and long after into quarter of the night, in the which the Earl of Atholl (Athetelles) and Robert Steward were about the king, where they were occupied at the playing of the chess, at the tables, in reading of romances, in singing and piping, in harping, and in other honest solaces of great pleasance and disport. Therewith came the said woman of Ireland, that clept herself a divineress, and entered the king’s court, till that she came straight to the king’s chamber-door, where she stood, and abode because that it was shut. And fast she knocked, till at the last the usher opened the door, marvelling of that woman’s being there that time of night, and asking her what she would. ‘Let me in, sir,’ quoth she, ‘for I have somewhat to say, and to tell unto the king; for I am the same woman that not long ago desired to have spoken with him at the Leith, when he should pass the Scottish sea.’ The usher went in and told him of this woman. ‘Yea,’ quoth the king, ‘let her come tomorrow’; because that he was occupied with such disports at that time him let not to hear her as then. The usher came again to the chamber-door to the said woman, and there he told her that the king was busy in playing, and bid her come soon again upon the morrow. ‘Well,’ said the woman, ‘it shall repent you all that ye will not let me speak now with the king.’ Thereat the usher laughed, and held her but a fool, charging her to go her way, and therewithal she went thence.” Her informant “Huthart” was evidently a familiar spirit who was in attendance on her.
Considering the barrenness of Irish records on the subject of sorcery and witchcraft it affords us no small satisfaction to find the following statement in the Statute Rolls of the Parliament for the year 1447. It consists of a most indignantly-worded remonstrance from the Lords and Commons, which was drawn forth by the fact that some highly-placed personage had been accused of practising sorcery with the intent to do grievous harm to his enemy. When making it the remonstrants appear to have forgotten, or perhaps, like Members of Parliament in other ages, found it convenient to forget for the nonce the Kyteler incident of the previous century. Of the particular case here alluded to unfortunately no details are given, nor is any clue for obtaining them afforded us. The remonstrance runs as follows: “Also at the prayer of John, Archbishop of Armagh (and others). That whereas by the subtle malice and malicious suits of certain persons slandering a man of rank this land was entirely slandered, and still is in such slanderous matters as never were known in this land before, as in ruining or destroying any man by sorcery or necromancy, the which they think and believe impossible to be performed in art—It is ordained and agreed by authority of this present parliament, with the entire assent of the lords spiritual and temporal and commons of said parliament, that our lord the king be certified of the truth in this matter, in avoidance of the slander of this land in common, asserting that no such art was attempted at any time in this land, known or rumoured among the people, nor any opinion had or entertained of the same by the lay men in this land until now.” It seems likely that the accusation was prompted by personal enmity, and was groundless in fact; but the annals of witchcraft show that such an indictment could prove a most terrible weapon in the hands of unscrupulous persons. With respect to the above we learn that Ireland was coming into line with England, for in the latter country during the fifteenth century charges of sorcery were frequently raised against persons of eminence by their political adversaries. One of the most celebrated cases of the kind occurred only six years prior to the above, in 1441, that of the Duchess of Gloucester in the reign of Henry VI.
Nothing further on the subject is recorded until the year 1544, under which date we find the following entry in the table of the red council book of Ireland:
“A letter to Charles FitzArthur for sendinge a witch to the Lord Deputie to be examined.”
This note is a most tantalising one. The red council book has been lost, but a succinct “table” of its contents, from which the above has been extracted, and which was apparently compiled by Sir William Usher, has been preserved in Add. MSS. 1792, and published in Hist. MSS. Comm. 15th Report, appendix, part 3, but an examination of the original MS. reveals nothing in addition to the above passage; so, until the lost book is discovered, we must remain in ignorance with respect to the doings of this particular witch.
The next notice of witchcraft in Ireland occurs in the year 1578, when a witch-trial took place at Kilkenny, though here again, unfortunately, no details have been preserved. In the November of that year sessions were held there by the Lord Justice Drury and Sir Henry Fitton, who, in their letter to the Privy Council on the 20th of the same month, inform that Body that upon arriving at the town “the jail being full we caused sessions immediately to be held. Thirty-six persons were executed, amongst whom were some good ones, a blackamoor and two witches by natural law, for that we find no law to try them by in this realm.” It is easy to see why the witches were put to death, but the reason for the negro’s execution is not so obvious. It can hardly have been for the colour of his skin, although no doubt a black man was as much a rara avis in the town of Kilkenny as a black swan. Had the words been written at the time the unfortunate negro might well have exclaimed, though in vain, to his judges:
Mislike me not for my complexion—
The shadowed livery of the burning sun.
Or could it have been that he was the unhappy victim of a false etymology! For in old writers the word “necromancy” is spelt “nigromancy,” as if divination was practised through the medium of negroes instead of dead persons; indeed in an old vocabulary of 1475 “Nigromantia” is defined as “divinatio facta per nigros.” He may therefore have been suspected of complicity with the two witches.
As yet the “natural law” held sway in Ireland, but very soon this country was to be fully equipped with a Statute all to itself. Two Statutes against witchcraft had already been passed in England, one in 1541, which was repealed six years later, and a second in 1562. Partly no doubt on account of the Kilkenny case of 1578, and partly to place Ireland on the same footing as England, a Statute was passed by the Irish Parliament in 1586. Shorn of much legal verbiage the principal points of it may be gathered from the following extracts:
“Where at this present there is no ordinarie ne condigne punishment provided against the practices of the wicked offences of conjurations, and of invocations of evill spirites, and of sorceries, enchauntments, charms, and witchcrafts, whereby manie fantasticall and devilish persons have devised and practised invocations and conjurations of evill and wicked spirites, and have used and practised witchcrafts, enchauntments, charms, and sorceries, to the destruction of the persons and goods of their neighbours, and other subjects of this realm, and for other lewde and evill intents and purposes, contrary to the laws of Almighty God, to the peril of their owne soules, and to the great infamie and disquietnesse of this realm. For reformation thereof, be it enacted by the Queen’s Majestie, with the assent of the lords spirituall and temporall and the commons in this present Parliament assembled.
1. That if any person or persons after the end of three months next, and immediately after the end of the last session of this present parliament, shall use, practise, or exercise any witchcraft, enchauntment, charme, or sorcery, whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroied, that then as well any such offender or offenders in invocations and conjurations, as is aforesaid, their aydors or councelors … being of the said offences lawfully convicted and attainted, shall suffer paines of death as a felon or felons, and shall lose the privilege and benefit of clergie and sanctuarie; saving to the widow of such person her title of dower, and also the heires and successors of such a person all rights, titles, &c., as though no such attaynder had been made.
2. If any persons (after the above period) shall use, practise, or exercise any witchcraft, enchauntment, charme, or sorcery, whereby any person or persons shall happen to be wasted, consumed, or lamed, in his or their bodie or member, or whereby any goods or cattels of any such person shall be destroyed, wasted, or impaired, then every such offender shall for the first offence suffer imprisonment by the space of one yeare without bayle or maineprise, and once in every quarter of the said yeare, shall in some market towne, upon the market day, or at such time as any faire shall be kept there, stand openlie in the pillorie for the space of sixe houres, and shall there openly confesse his or theire errour and offence, and for the second offence shall suffer death as a felon, saving, &c. (as in clause 1).
3. Provided always, that if the offender in any of the cases aforesaid, for which the paines of death shall ensue, shall happen to be a peer of this realm: then his triall therein to be had by his peers, as is used in cases of felony and treason, and not otherwise.
4. And further, to the intent that all manner of practice, use, or exercise of witchcraft, enchauntment, charme, or sorcery, should be from henceforth utterly avoide, abolished, and taken away; be it enacted by the authority of this present Parliament that if any person or persons … shall take upon them by witchcraft, &c., to tell or declare in what place any treasure of gold or silver shall or might be found or had in the earth or other secret places, or where goods or things lost or stollen should be found or become, or shall use or practice any sorcery, &c., to the intent to provoke any person to unlawful love (for the first offence to be punished as in clause 2), but if convicted a second time shall forfeit unto the Queen’s Majesty all his goods and chattels, and suffer imprisonment during life.”
On the whole, considering the temper of the time, this Statute was exceedingly mild. It made no provision whatsoever for the use of torture to extract evidence, nor indeed did it offer any particular encouragement to the witch hunter, while the manner of inflicting the death penalty was precisely that for felony, viz. hanging, drawing, and quartering for men, and burning (preceded by strangulation) for women—sufficiently unpleasant, no doubt, but far more merciful than burning alive at the stake.
In some way Ireland was fortunate enough to escape the notice of that keen witch hunter, King James I and VI; had it been otherwise we have little doubt but that this country would have contributed its share to the list of victims in that monarch’s reign. The above was therefore the only Statute against witchcraft passed by the Irish Parliament; it is said that it was never repealed, and so no doubt is in force at the present day. Another Act of the Parliament of Ireland, passed in 1634, and designed to facilitate the administration of justice, makes mention of witchcraft, and it is there held to be one of the recognised methods by which one man could take the life of another.
Forasmuch as the most necessary office and duty of law is to preserve and save the life of man, and condignly to punish such persons that unlawfully or wilfully murder, slay, or destroy men … and where it often happeneth that a man is feloniously strucken in one county, and dieth in another county, in which case it hath not been found by the laws of this realm that any sufficient indictment thereof can be taken in any of the said two counties…. For redress and punishment of such offences … be it enacted … that where any person shall be traiterously or feloniously stricken, poysoned, or bewitched in one county (and die in another, or out of the kingdom, &c.), that an indictment thereof found by jurors in the county where the death shall happen, shall be as good and effectual in the law as if, &c. &c.
Before passing from the subject we may note a curious allusion to a mythical Act of Parliament which was intended to put a stop to a certain lucrative form of witchcraft. It is gravely stated by the writer of a little book entitled Beware the Cat (and by Giraldus Cambrensis before him), that Irish witches could turn wisps of hay, straw, &c. into red-coloured pigs, which they dishonestly sold in the market, but which resumed their proper shape when crossing running water. To prevent this it is stated that the Irish Parliament passed an Act forbidding the purchase of red swine. We regret to say, however, that no such interesting Act is to be found in the Statute books.
The belief in the power of witches to inflict harm on the cattle of those whom they hated, of which we have given some modern illustrations in the concluding chapter, was to be found in Elizabethan times in this country. Indeed if we are to put credence in the following passage from Reginald Scot, quoted by Thomas Ady in his Perfect Discovery of Witches (London, 1661), a certain amount of witch persecution arose with reference to this point, possibly as a natural outcome of the Statute of 1586. “Master Scot in his Discovery telleth us, that our English people in Ireland, whose posterity were lately barbarously cut off, were much given to this Idolatry [belief in witches] in the Queen’s time [Elizabeth], insomuch that there being a Disease amongst their Cattel that grew blinde, being a common Disease in that Country, they did commonly execute people for it, calling them eye-biting Witches.”
From incidental notices in writers of the latter half of the sixteenth century it would seem at first sight as if witchcraft, as we are treating of it in this work, was very prevalent in Ireland at this period. Barnabe Rich says in his description of Ireland: “The Irish are wonderfully addicted to give credence to the prognostications of Soothsayers and Witches.” Stanihurst writes that in his time (1547-1618) there were many sorcerers amongst the Irish. A note in Dr. Hanmer’s Collection speaks of “Tyrone his witch the which he hanged.” But these statements seem rather to have reference to the point of view from which the English writers regarded the native bards, as well as the “wise women” who foretold the future; probably “Tyrone” put his “witch” to death, not through abhorrence of her unhallowed doings, but in a fit of passion because her interpretation of coming events, by which he may have allowed himself to be guided, turned out wrongly.
We have already alluded to Gerald, the fourth Earl of Desmond. His namesake, the sixteenth holder of the title, commonly known as the “Great Earl,” who was betrayed and killed in 1583, has passed from the region of history to that of mythology, as he is credited with being the husband (or son) of a goddess. Not many miles from the city of Limerick is a lonely, picturesque lake, Lough Gur, which was included in his extensive possessions, and at the bottom of which he is supposed to lie enchanted. According to the legend he was a very potent magician, and usually resided in a castle which was built on a small island in that lake. To this he brought his bride, a young and beautiful girl, whom he loved with a too fond love, for she succeeded in prevailing upon him to gratify her selfish desires, with fatal results. One day she presented herself in the chamber in which her husband exercised his forbidden art, and begged him to show her the wonders of his evil science. With the greatest reluctance he consented, but warned her that she must prepare herself to witness a series of most frightful phenomena, which, once commenced, could neither be abridged nor mitigated, while if she spoke a single word during the proceedings the castle and all it contained would sink to the bottom of the lake. Urged on by curiosity she gave the required promise, and he commenced. Muttering a spell as he stood before her, feathers sprouted thickly over him, his face became contracted and hooked, a corpse-like smell filled the air, and winnowing the air with beats of its heavy wings a gigantic vulture rose in his stead, and swept round and round the room as if on the point of pouncing upon her. The lady controlled herself through this trial, and another began.
The bird alighted near the door, and in less than a minute changed, she saw not how, into a horribly deformed and dwarfish hag, who, with yellow skin hanging about her face, and cavernous eyes, swung herself on crutches towards the lady, her mouth foaming with fury, and her grimaces and contortions becoming more and more hideous every moment, till she rolled with a fearful yell on the floor in a horrible convulsion at the lady’s feet, and then changed into a huge serpent, which came sweeping and arching towards her with crest erect and quivering tongue. Suddenly, as it seemed on the point of darting at her, she saw her husband in its stead, standing pale before her, and with his finger on his lips enforcing the continued necessity of silence. He then placed himself at full length on the floor and began to stretch himself out, longer and longer, until his head nearly reached to one end of the vast room and his feet to the other. This utterly unnerved her. She gave a wild scream of horror, whereupon the castle and all in it sank to the bottom of the lake.
Once in seven years the great Earl rises, and rides by night on his white horse round Lough Gur. The steed is shod with silver shoes, and when these are worn out the spell that holds the Earl will be broken, and he will regain possession of his vast estates and semi-regal power. In the opening years of the nineteenth century there was living a man named Teigue O’Neill, who claimed to have seen him on the occasion of one of his septennial appearances under the following curious conditions. O’Neill was a blacksmith, and his forge stood on the brow of a hill overlooking the lake, on a lonely part of the road to Cahirconlish. One night, when there was a bright moon, he was working very late and quite alone. In one of the pauses of his work he heard the ring of many hoofs ascending the steep road that passed his forge, and, standing in his doorway, he saw a gentleman on a white horse, who was dressed in a fashion the like of which he had never seen before. This man was accompanied by a mounted retinue, in similar dress. They seemed to be riding up the hill at a gallop, but the pace slackened as they drew near, and the rider of the white horse, who seemed from his haughty air to be a man of rank, drew bridle, and came to a halt before the smith’s door. He did not speak, and all his train were silent, but he beckoned to the smith, and pointed down at one of the horse’s hoofs. Teigue stooped and raised it, and held it just long enough to see that it was shod with a silver shoe, which in one place was worn as thin as a shilling. Instantly his situation was made apparent to him by this sign, and he recoiled with a terrified prayer. The lordly rider, with a look of pain and fury, struck at him suddenly with something that whistled in the air like a whip; an icy streak seemed to traverse his body, and at the same time he saw the whole cavalcade break into a gallop, and disappear down the hill. It is generally supposed that for the purpose of putting an end to his period of enchantment the Earl endeavours to lead someone on to first break the silence and speak to him; but what, in the event of his succeeding, would be the result, or would befall the person thus ensnared, no one knows.
In a letter written in the year 1640, the Earl assumes a different appearance. We learn from it that as a countryman was on his way to the ancient and celebrated fair of Knockaney, situated a few miles from Lough Gur, he met “a gentleman standing in the waye, demanding if he would sell his horse. He answered, yea, for £5. The gentleman would give him but £4, 10s., saying he would not get so much at the ffaire. The fellow went to the ffaire, could not get so much money, and found the gentleman on his return in the same place, who proffered the same money. The fellow accepting of it, the other bid him come in and receive his money. He carried him into a fine spacious castle, payed him his money every penny, and showed him the fairest black horse that ever was seene, and told him that that horse was the Earl of Desmond, and that he had three shoes alreadye, when he hath the fourthe shoe, which should be very shortlie, then should the Earl be as he was before, thus guarded with many armed men conveying him out of the gates. The fellow came home, but never was any castle in that place either before or since.” The local variant of the legend states that the seller of the horse was a Clare man, and that he went home after having been paid in gold the full amount of a satisfactory bargain, but on the following morning found to his great mortification, that instead of the gold coins he had only a pocketful of ivy leaves. Readers of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame will recall the incident of the écu that (apparently) was transformed by magic into a withered leaf. Similar tales of horse-dealing with mysterious strangers are told in Scotland in connection with the celebrated Thomas the Rhymer, of Erceldoune.