A Clerical Wizard—Witchcraft cured by a Relic—Raising the Devil in Ireland—How he was cheated by a Doctor of Divinity—Stewart and the Fairies—Rev. Robert Blair and the Man possessed with a Devil—Strange Occurrences near Limerick—Apparitions of Murdered People at Portadown—Charmed Lives—Visions and Portents—Petition of a Bewitched Antrim Man in England—Archbishop Usher’s Prophecies—Mr. Browne and the Locked Chest
An interesting trial of a clergyman for the practice of unhallowed arts took place early in 1606—interesting and valuable, if for no other reason than that it is the first instance of such a case being discovered in the Rolls at the Record Office (not counting those of the Parliament of 1447), though we hope that it will not prove to be a unique entry, but rather the earnest of others. Shorn of legal redundancies it runs as follows: “Inquiry taken before our lord the King at the King’s Court the Saturday next after the three weeks of Easter in the 6th year of James I by the oath of upright and lawful men of the County of Louth. Who say, that John Aston, late of Mellifont, Co. Louth, clerk, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being wholly seduced by the devil, on December 1st at Mellifont aforesaid, and on divers other days and places, wickedly and feloniously used, practised, and exercised divers invocations and conjurings of wicked and lying spirits with the intent and purpose that he might find and recover a certain silver cup formerly taken away at Mellifont aforesaid, and also that he might understand where and in what region the most wicked traitor Hugh, Earl of Tyrone, then was, and what he was contriving against the said lord the King and the State of this kingdom of Ireland, and also that he might find out and obtain divers treasures of gold and silver concealed in the earth at Mellifont aforesaid and at Cashel in the county of the Cross of Tipperary, feloniously and against the peace of the said lord the King. It is to be known that the aforesaid John was taken, and being a prisoner in the Castle of the City of Dublin by warrant of the lord King was sent into England, therefore further proceedings shall cease.” His ultimate fate is not known; nor is it easy to see why punishment was not meted out to him in Ireland, as he had directly contravened section 4 of the Elizabethan Act. Possibly the case was unique, and so King James may have been anxious to examine in person such an interesting specimen. If so, heaven help the poor parson in the grip of such a witch hunter.
In the year 1609 there comes from the County of Tipperary a strange story of magical spells being counteracted by the application of a holy relic; this is preserved for us in that valuable monastic record, the Triumphalia S. Crucis. At Holy Cross Abbey, near Thurles, there was preserved for many years with the greatest veneration a supposed fragment of the True Cross, which attracted vast numbers of people, and by which it was said many wonderful miracles were worked. Amongst those that came thither in that year was “Anastasia Sobechan, an inhabitant of the district of Callan (co. Kilkenny), tortured by magical spells (veneficis incantationibus collisa), who at the Abbey, in presence of the Rev. Lord Abbot Bernard [Foulow], placed a girdle round her body that had touched the holy relic. Suddenly she vomited small pieces of cloth and wood, and for a whole month she spat out from her body such things. The said woman told this miracle to the Rev. Lord Abbot while she was healed by the virtue of the holy Cross. This he took care to set down in writing.”
That most diligent gleaner of things strange and uncommon, Mr. Robert Law, to whom we are deeply indebted for much of the matter in this volume, informs us in his Memorialls that in the first half of the seventeenth century there was to be found in Ireland a celebrated Doctor of Divinity, in Holy Orders of the Episcopal Church, who possessed extreme adroitness in raising the Devil—a process that some would have us believe to be commonly practised in Ireland at the present day by persons who have no pretensions to a knowledge of the Black Art! Mr. Law also gives the modus operandi at full length. A servant-girl in the employment of Major-General Montgomerie at Irvine in Scotland was accused of having stolen some silverwork. “The lass being innocent takes it ill, and tells them, If she should raise the Devil she should know who took these things.” Thereupon, in order to summon that Personage she went into a cellar, “takes the Bible with her, and draws a circle about her, and turns a riddle on end from south to north, or from the right to the left hand [i.e. contrary to the path of the sun in the heavens], having in her right hand nine feathers which she pulled out of the tail of a black cock, and having read the 51st [Psalm?] forwards, she reads backwards chapter ix., verse 19, of the Book of Revelation.” Upon this the Devil appeared to her, and told her who was the guilty person. She then cast three of the feathers at him, and bade him return to the place from whence he came. This process she repeated three times, until she had gained all the information she desired; she then went upstairs and told her mistress, with the result that the goods were ultimately recovered. But escaping Scylla she fell into Charybdis; her uncanny practices came to the ears of the authorities, and she was apprehended. When in prison she confessed that she had learnt this particular branch of the Black Art in the house of Dr. Colville in Ireland, who habitually practised it.
That instructor of youth in such un-christian practices, the Rev. Alexander Colville, D.D., was ordained in 1622 and subsequently held the vicarage of Carnmoney, the prebend of Carncastle, and the Precentorship of Connor. He was possessed of considerable wealth, with which he purchased the Galgorm estate, on which he resided; this subsequently passed into the Mountcashel family through the marriage of his great granddaughter with Stephen Moore, first Baron Kilworth and Viscount Mountcashel. Where Dr. Colville got the money to purchase so large an estate no one could imagine, and Classon Porter in his useful pamphlet relates for us the manner in which popular rumour solved the problem. It was said that he had sold himself to the Devil, and that he had purchased the estate with the money his body and soul had realised. Scandal even went further still, and gave the exact terms which Dr. Colville had made with the Evil One. These were, that the Devil was at once to give the Doctor his hat full of gold, and that the latter was in return, at a distant but specified day, to deliver himself body and soul to the Devil. The appointed place of meeting was a lime-kiln; the Devil may have thought that this was a delicate compliment to him on account of the peculiarly homelike atmosphere of the spot, but the Doctor had different ideas. The Devil produced the gold, whereupon Dr. Colville produced a hat with a wide slit in the crown, which he boldly held over the empty kiln-pit, with the result that by the time the terms of the bargain were literally complied with, a very considerable amount of gold lay at the Doctor’s disposal, which he prudently used to advance his worldly welfare.
So far, so good. But there are two sides to every question. Years rolled by, bringing ever nearer and nearer the time at which the account had to be settled, and at length the fatal day dawned. The Devil arrived to claim his victim, and found him sitting in his house reading his Bible by the light of a candle, whereupon he directed him to come along with him. The Doctor begged that he might not be taken away until the candle, by which he was reading, was burned out. To this the Devil assented, whereupon Dr. Colville promptly extinguished the candle, and putting it between the leaves of the Bible locked it up in the chest where he kept his gold. The candle was thus deposited in a place of safety where there was no danger of any person coming across it, and thus of being the innocent cause of the Doctor’s destruction. It is even said that he gave orders that the candle should be put into his coffin and buried with him. So, we may presume, Dr. Colville evaded the payment of his debt. Our readers may perchance wonder why such stories as the above should have become connected with the reverend gentleman, and an explanation is not hard to be found. Dr. Colville was a well-known divine, possessed of great wealth (inherited lawfully, we may presume), and enjoyed considerable influence in the country-side. At this time Ulster was overrun by triumphant Presbyterianism, which the Doctor, as a firm upholder of Episcopacy, opposed with all his might, and thereupon was spoken of with great acerbity by his opponents. It is not too uncharitable, therefore, to assume that these stories originated with some member of that body, who may well have believed that such had actually happened.
For the next instance of witchcraft and the supernatural in connection with Ireland we are compelled to go beyond the confines of our country. Though in this the connection with the Green Isle is slight, yet it is of interest as affording an example of that blending of fairy lore with sorcery which is not an uncommon feature of Scottish witchcraft-trials. In the year 1613 a woman named Margaret Barclay, of Irvine in Scotland, was accused of having caused her brother-in-law’s ship to be cast away by magical spells. A certain strolling vagabond and juggler, John Stewart, was apprehended as her accomplice; he admitted (probably under torture) that Margaret had applied to him to teach her some magic arts in order that “she might get gear, kye’s milk, love of man, her heart’s desire on such persons as had done her wrong.” Though he does not appear to have granted her request, yet he gave detailed information as to the manner in which he had gained the supernatural power and knowledge with which he was credited. “It being demanded of him by what means he professed himself to have knowledge of things to come, the said John confessed that the space of twenty-six years ago, he being travelling on All-Hallow Even night between the towns of Monygoif and Clary, in Galway, he met with the King of the Fairies and his company, and that the King gave him a stroke with a white rod over the forehead, which took from him the power of speech and the use of one eye, which he wanted for the space of three years. He declared that the use of speech and eyesight was restored to him by the King of Fairies and his company on a Hallowe’en night at the town of Dublin.” At his subsequent meetings with the fairy band he was taught all his knowledge. The spot on which he was struck remained impervious to pain although a pin was thrust into it. The unfortunate wretch was cast into prison, and there committed suicide by hanging himself from the “cruik” of the door with his garter or bonnet-string, and so “ended his life miserably with the help of the devil his master.”
A tale slightly resembling portion of the above comes from the north of Ireland a few years later. “It’s storied, and the story is true,” says Robert Law in his Memorialls, “of a godly man in Ireland, who lying one day in the fields sleeping, he was struck with dumbness and deafness. The same man, during this condition he was in, could tell things, and had the knowledge of things in a strange way, which he had not before; and did, indeed, by signs make things known to others which they knew not. Afterwards he at length, prayer being made for him by others, came to the use of his tongue and ears; but when that knowledge of things he had in his deaf and dumb condition ceased, and when he was asked how he had the knowledge of these things he made signs of, he answered he had that knowledge when dumb, but how and after what manner he knew not, only he had the impression thereof in his spirit. This story was related by a godly minister, Mr. Robert Blair, to Mr. John Baird, who knew the truth of it.”
The Rev. Robert Blair, M.A., was a celebrated man, if for no other reason than on account of his disputes with Dr. Echlin, Bishop of Down, or for his description of Oliver Cromwell as a greeting (i.e. weeping) devil. On the invitation of Lord Claneboy he arrived in Ireland in 1623, and in the same year was settled as (Presbyterian) parish minister at Bangor in Co. Down, with the consent of patron and people; he remained there until 1631, when he was suspended by Dr. Echlin, and was deposed and excommunicated in November, 1634. He has left a few writings behind him, and was grandfather of the poet Robert Blair, author of The Grave.
During the years of his ministry at Bangor the following incident occurred to him, which he of course attributes to demonic possession, though homicidal mania resulting from intemperate habits would be nearer the truth. One day a rich man, the constable of the parish, called upon him in company with one of his tenants concerning the baptizing of the latter’s child. “When I had spoken what I thought necessary, and was ready to turn into my house, the constable dismissing the other told me he had something to say to me in private. I looking upon him saw his eyes like the eyes of a cat in the night, did presently conceive that he had a mischief in his heart, yet I resolved not to refuse what he desired, but I keeped a watchful eye upon him, and stayed at some distance; and being near to the door of the church I went in, and invited him to follow me. As soon as he entered within the doors he fell atrembling, and I, awondering. His trembling continuing and growing without any speech, I approached to him, and invited him to a seat, wherein he could hardly sit. The great trembling was like to throw him out of the seat. I laid my arm about him, and asked him what ailed him? But for a time he could speak none. At last his shaking ceased, and he began to speak, telling me, that for a long time the Devil had appeared to him; first at Glasgow he bought a horse from him, receiving a sixpence in earnest, and that in the end he offered to him a great purse full of sylver to be his, making no mention of the horse; he said that he blessed himself, and so the buyer with the sylver and gold that was poured out upon the table vanished. But some days thereafter he appeared to him at his own house, naming him by his name, and said to him, Ye are mine, for I arled you with a sixpence, which yet ye have. Then said he, I asked his name, and he answered, they call me Nickel Downus (I suppose that he repeated evil, that he should have said Nihil Damus). Being thus molested with these and many other apparitions of the Devil, he left Scotland; but being come to Ireland he did often likewise appear to him, and now of late he still commands me to kill and slay; and oftentimes, says he, my whinger hath been drawn and kept under my cloak to obey his commands, but still something holds my hand that I cannot strike. But then I asked him whom he was bidden kill? He answered, any that comes in my way; but
The better they be
The better service to me,
Or else I shall kill thee.
When he uttered these words he fell again atrembling, and was stopped in his speaking, looking lamentably at me, designing me to be the person he aimed at; then he fell a crying and lamenting. I showed him the horribleness of his ignorance and drunkenness; he made many promises of reformation, which were not well keep’d; for within a fortnight he went to an alehouse to crave the price of his malt, and sitting there long at drink, as he was going homeward the Devil appeared to him, and challenged him for opening to me what had passed betwixt them secretly, and followed him to the house, pulling his cap off his head and his band from about his neck, saying to him, ‘On Hallow-night I shall have thee, soul and body, in despite of the minister and of all that he will do for thee.’”
In his choice of a date his Satanic Majesty showed his respect for popular superstitions. This attack of delirium tremens (though Mr. Blair would not have so explained it) had a most salutary effect; the constable was in such an abject state of terror lest the Devil should carry him off that he begged Mr. Blair to sit up with him all Hallow-night, which he did, spending the time very profitably in prayer and exhortation, which encouraged the man to defy Satan and all his works. The upshot of the matter was, that he became very charitable to the poor, and seems to have entirely renounced his intemperate habits.
Rejecting the supernatural element in the above as being merely the fruits of a diseased mind, there is no reason to doubt the truth of the story. Mr. Blair also met with some strange cases of religious hysteria, which became manifest in outbursts of weeping and bodily convulsions, but which he attributed to the Devil’s “playing the ape, and counterfeiting the works of the Lord.” He states that one Sunday, in the midst of public worship, “one of my charge, being a dull and ignorant person, made a noise and stretching of her body. Incontinent I was assisted to rebuke that lying spirit that disturbed the worship of God, charging the same not to disturb the congregation; and through God’s mercy we met with no more of that work.” Thus modestly our writer sets down what happened in his Autobiography; but the account of the incident spread far and wide, and at length came to the ears of Archbishop Usher, who, on his next meeting with Mr. Blair, warmly congratulated him on the successful exorcism he had practised.
If the period treated of in this chapter, viz. from the commencement of the seventeenth century to the Restoration of Charles II, be barren of witchcraft proper, it must at least be admitted that it is prodigal in regard to the marvellous under various shapes and forms, from which the hysterical state of the public mind can be fairly accurately gauged. The rebellion of 1641, and the Cromwellian confiscations, that troubled period when the country was torn by dissention, and ravaged by fire, sword, and pestilence, was aptly ushered in by a series of supernatural events which occurred in the county of Limerick. A letter dated the 13th August 1640, states that “for news we have the strangest that ever was heard of, there inchantments in the Lord of Castleconnell’s Castle four miles from Lymerick, several sorts of noyse, sometymes of drums and trumpets, sometimes of other curious musique with heavenly voyces, then fearful screeches, and such outcries that the neighbours near cannot sleepe. Priests have adventured to be there, but have been cruelly beaten for their paynes, and carryed away they knew not how, some two miles and some four miles. Moreover were seen in the like manner, after they appear to the view of the neighbours, infinite number of armed men on foote as well as on horseback…. One thing more [i.e. something supernatural] by Mrs. Mary Burke with twelve servants lyes in the house, and never one hurt, onley they must dance with them every night; they say, Mrs. Mary come away, telling her she must be wyfe to the inchanted Earl of Desmond…. Uppon a Mannour of my Lord Bishoppe of Lymerick, Loughill, hath been seen upon the hill by most of the inhabitants aboundance of armed men marching, and these seene many tymes—and when they come up to them they do not appeare. These things are very strange, if the cleargie and gentrie say true.”
During the rebellion an appalling massacre of Protestants took place at Portadown, when about a hundred persons, men, women, and children, were forced over the bridge into the river, and so drowned; the few that could swim, and so managed to reach the shore, were either knocked on the head by the insurgents when they landed, or else were shot. It is not a matter of surprise that this terrible incident gave rise to legends and stories in which anything strange or out of the common was magnified out of all proportion. According to one deponent there appeared one evening in the river “a vision or spirit assuming the shape of a woman, waist high, upright in the water, naked with [illegible] in her hand, her hair dishevelled, her eyes seeming to twinkle in her head, and her skin as white as snow; which spirit seeming to stand upright in the water often repeated the word Revenge! Revenge! Revenge!” Also Robert Maxwell, Archdeacon of Down, swore that the rebels declared to him, (and some deponents made similar statements) “that most of those that were thrown from that bridge were daily and nightly seen to walk upon the River, sometimes singing Psalms, sometimes brandishing of Swords, sometimes screeching in a most hideous and fearful manner.” Both these occurrences are capable of a rational explanation. The supposed spectre was probably a poor, bereaved woman, demented by grief and terror, who stole out of her hiding-place at night to bewail the murder of her friends, while the weird cries arose from the half-starved dogs of the country-side, together with the wolves which abounded in Ireland at that period, quarrelling and fighting over the corpses. Granting the above, and bearing in mind the credulity of all classes of Society, it is not difficult to see how the tales originated; but to say that, because such obviously impossible statements occur in certain depositions, the latter are therefore worthless as a whole, is to wilfully misunderstand the popular mind of the seventeenth century.
We have the following on the testimony of the Rev. George Creighton, minister of Virginia, co. Cavan. He tells us that “divers women brought to his House a young woman, almost naked, to whom a Rogue came upon the way, these women being present, and required her to give him her mony, or else he would kill her, and so drew his sword; her answer was, You cannot kill me unless God give you leave, and His will be done. Thereupon the Rogue thrust three times at her naked body with his drawn sword, and never pierced her skin; whereat he being, as it seems, much confounded, went away and left her.” A like story comes from the other side: “At the taking of the Newry a rebel being appointed to be shot upon the bridge, and stripped stark-naked, notwithstanding the musketeer stood within two yards of him, and shot him in the middle of the back, yet the bullet entered not, nor did him any more hurt than leave a little black spot behind it. This many hundreds were eye-witnesses of. Divers of the like have I confidently been assured of, who have been provided of diabolical charms.” Similar tales of persons bearing charmed lives could no doubt be culled from the records of every war that has been fought on this planet of ours since History began.
The ease with which the accidental or unusual was transformed into the miraculous at this period is shown by the following. A Dr. Tate and his wife and children were flying to Dublin from the insurgents. On their way they were wandering over commons covered with snow, without any food. The wife was carrying a sucking child, John, and having no milk to give it she was about to lay it down in despair, when suddenly “on the Brow of a Bank she found a Suck-bottle with sweet milk in it, no Footsteps appearing in the snow of any that should bring it thither, and far from any Habitation; which preserved the child’s life, who after became a Blessing to the Church.” The Dr. Tate mentioned above was evidently the Rev. Faithful Tate, D.D., father of Nahum Tate of “Tate and Brady” fame.
On the night of Sunday, the 8th of May 1642, a terrific storm of hail and rain came upon the English soldiers, which of course they attributed to other than the correct source. “All the tents were in a thrice blown over. It was not possible for any match to keep fire, or any sojor to handle his musket or yet to stand. Yea, severalls of them dyed that night of meere cold. Our sojors, and some of our officers too (who suppose that no thing which is more than ordinarie can be the product of nature), attributed this hurrikan to the divilish skill of some Irish witches.” Apparently the English were not as wise in their generation as the inhabitants of Constance in Switzerland were on the occasion of a similar ebullition of the elements. The latter went out, found a witch, persuaded her to confess herself the guilty author of the storm, and then burnt her—by which time, no doubt, the wind had subsided!
Much in the same strain might be added, but, lest we should weary our readers, we shall content ourselves with giving two more marvellous relations from this particular period so full of the marvellous. O’Daly in his History of the Geraldines relates that during the siege of Limerick three portents appeared. The first was a luminous globe, brighter than the moon and little inferior to the sun, which for two leagues and a half shed a vertical light on the city, and then faded into darkness over the enemy’s camp; the second was the apparition of the Virgin, accompanied by several of the Saints; and the third was a lusus naturæ of the Siamese-twins type: all three of which O’Daly interprets to his own satisfaction. The first of these was some form of the northern lights, and is also recorded in the diary of certain Puritan officers. That learned, but somewhat too credulous English antiquary, John Aubrey, relates in his Miscellanies that before the last battle between the contending parties “a woman of uncommon Statue all in white appearing to the Bishop [Heber McMahon, whom Aubrey terms Veneras] admonished him not to cross the River first to assault the Enemy, but suffer them to do it, whereby he should obtain the Victory. That if the Irish took the water first to move towards the English they should be put to a total Rout, which came to pass. Ocahan and Sir Henry O’Neal, who were both killed there, saw severally the same apparition, and dissuaded the Bishop from giving the first onset, but could not prevail upon him.”
An instance of an Irishman suffering from the effects of witchcraft outside Ireland is afforded us in a pathetic petition sent up to the English Parliament between the years 1649 and 1653. The petitioner, John Campbell, stated that twelve years since he lost his sight in co. Antrim, where he was born, by which he was reduced to such extremity that he was forced to come over to England to seek some means of livelihood for himself in craving the charity of well-disposed people, but contrary to his expectation he has been often troubled there with dreams and fearful visions in his sleep, and has been twice bewitched, insomuch that he can find no quietness or rest here, and so prays for a pass to return to Ireland.
The saintly James Usher, Archbishop of Armagh, was a Prelate who, if he had happened to live at an earlier period would certainly have been numbered amongst those whose wide and profound learning won for themselves the title of magician—as it was, he was popularly credited with prophetical powers. Most of the prophecies attributed to him may be found in a little pamphlet of eight pages, entitled “Strange and Remarkable Prophecies and Predictions of the Holy, Learned, and Excellent James Usher, &c…. Written by the person who heard it from this Excellent person’s own Mouth,” and apparently published in 1656. According to it, he foretold the rebellion of 1641 in a sermon on Ezekiel iv. 6, preached in Dublin in 1601. “And of this Sermon the Bishop reserved the Notes, and put a note thereof in the Margent of his Bible, and for twenty years before he still lived in the expectation of the fulfilling thereof, and the nearer the time was the more confident he was that it was nearer accomplishment, though there was no visible appearance of any such thing.” He also foretold the death of Charles I, and his own coming poverty and loss of property, which last he actually experienced for many years before his death. The Rev. William Turner in his Compleat History of Remarkable Providences (London, 1697) gives a premonition of approaching death that the Archbishop received. A lady who was dead appeared to him in his sleep, and invited him to sup with her the next night. He accepted the invitation, and died the following afternoon, 21st March 1656.
This chapter may be brought to a conclusion by the following story from Glanvill’s Relations. One Mr. John Browne of Durley in Ireland was made by his neighbour, John Mallett of Enmore, trustee for his children in minority. In 1654 Mr. Browne lay a-dying: at the foot of his bed stood a great iron chest fitted with three locks, in which were the trustees’ papers. Some of his people and friends were sitting by him, when to their horror they suddenly saw the locked chest begin to open, lock by lock, without the aid of any visible hand, until at length the lid stood upright. The dying man, who had not spoken for twenty-four hours, sat up in the bed, looked at the chest, and said: You say true, you say true, you are in the right (a favourite expression of his), I’ll be with you by and by, and then lay down again, and never spoke after. The chest slowly locked itself in exactly the same manner as it had opened, and shortly after this Mr. Browne died.