A.D. 1807 TO PRESENT DAY
Mary Butters, the Carnmoney witch—Ballad on her—The Hand of Glory—A journey through the air—A “witch” in 1911—Some modern illustrations of cattle- and milk-magic—Transference of disease by a cailleach—Burying the sheaf—J.P.’s Commission—Conclusion
Old beliefs die hard, especially when their speedy demise is a consummation devoutly to be wished; if the Island-Magee case was the last instance of judicial condemnation of witchcraft as an offence against the laws of the realm it was very far indeed from being the last occasion on which a witch and her doings formed the centre of attraction in an Irish law-court. Almost a century after the Island-Magee incident the town of Carrigfergus again became the scene of action, when the celebrated “Carnmoney witch,” Mary Butters, was put forward for trial at the Spring Assizes in March 1808. It is an instance of black magic versus white (if we may dignify the affair with the title of magic!), though it should be borne in mind that in the persecution of witches many women were put to death on the latter charge, albeit they were really benefactors of the human race; the more so as their skill in simples and knowledge of the medicinal virtue of herbs must have added in no small degree to the resources of our present pharmacopœia. The following account of this is taken from the Belfast News-Letter for 21st August 1807, as well as from some notes by M‘Skimin in Young’s Historical Notices of Old Belfast.
One Tuesday night (evidently in August 1807) an extraordinary affair took place in the house of a tailor named Alexander Montgomery, who lived hard by Carnmoney Meeting-House. The tailor had a cow which continued to give milk as usual, but of late no butter could be produced from it. An opinion was unfortunately instilled into the mind of Montgomery’s wife, that whenever such a thing occurred, it was occasioned by the cow having been bewitched. Her belief in this was strengthened by the fact that every old woman in the parish was able to relate some story illustrative of what she had seen or heard of in times gone by with respect to the same. At length the family were informed of a woman named Mary Butters, who resided at Carrigfergus. They went to her, and brought her to the house for the purpose of curing the cow. About ten o’clock that night war was declared against the unknown magicians. Mary Butters ordered old Montgomery and a young man named Carnaghan to go out to the cow-house, turn their waistcoats inside out, and in that dress to stand by the head of the cow until she sent for them, while the wife, the son, and an old woman named Margaret Lee remained in the house with her.
Montgomery and his ally kept their lonely vigil until daybreak, when, becoming alarmed at receiving no summons, they left their post and knocked at the door, but obtained no response. They then looked through the kitchen window, and to their horror saw the four inmates stretched on the floor as dead. They immediately burst in the door, and found that the wife and son were actually dead, and the sorceress and Margaret Lee nearly so. The latter soon afterwards expired; Mary Butters was thrown out on a dung-heap, and a restorative administered to her in the shape of a few hearty kicks, which had the desired effect. The house had a sulphureous smell, and on the fire was a large pot in which were milk, needles, pins, and crooked nails. At the inquest held at Carnmoney on the 19th of August, the jurors stated that the three victims had come by their deaths from suffocation, owing to Mary Butters having made use of some noxious ingredients, after the manner of a charm, to recover a sick cow. She was brought up at the Assizes, but was discharged by proclamation. Her version of the story was, that a black man had appeared in the house armed with a huge club, with which he killed the three persons and stunned herself.
Lamentable though the whole affair was, as well for the gross superstition displayed by the participants as for its tragical ending, yet it seems to have aroused no other feelings amongst the inhabitants of Carnmoney and Carrigfergus than those of risibility and derision. A clever racy ballad was made upon it by a resident in the district, which, as it is probably the only poem on the subject of witchcraft in Ireland, we print here in its entirety from the Ulster Journal of Archæology for 1908, though we have not had the courage to attempt a glossary to the “braid Scots.” It adds some picturesque details to the more prosaic account of the News-Letter.
In Carrick town a wife did dwell
Who does pretend to conjure witches.
Auld Barbara Goats, or Lucky Bell,
Ye’ll no lang to come through her clutches.
A waeful trick this wife did play
On simple Sawney, our poor tailor.
She’s mittimiss’d the other day
To lie in limbo with the jailor.
This simple Sawney had a cow,
Was aye as sleekit as an otter;
It happened for a month or two
Aye when they churn’d they got nae butter.
Rown-tree tied in the cow’s tail,
And vervain glean’d about the ditches;
These freets and charms did not prevail,
They could not banish the auld witches.
The neighbour wives a’ gathered in
In number near about a dozen;
Elspie Dough, and Mary Linn,
An’ Kate M‘Cart, the tailor’s cousin.
Aye they churn’d and aye they swat,
Their aprons loos’d, and coost their mutches;
But yet nae butter they could get,
They blessed the cow but curst the witches.
Had Sawney summoned all his wits
And sent awa for Huie Mertin,
He could have gall’d the witches’ guts,
An’ cur’t the kye to Nannie Barton.
But he may shew the farmer’s wab,
An’ lang wade through Carnmoney gutters;
Alas! it was a sore mis-jab
When he employ’d auld Mary Butters.
The sorcerest open’d the scene
With magic words of her invention,
To make the foolish people keen
Who did not know her base intention,
She drew a circle round the churn,
And washed the staff in south-run water,
And swore the witches she would burn,
But she would have the tailor’s butter.
When sable Night her curtain spread
Then she got on a flaming fire;
The tailor stood at the cow’s head
With his turn’d waistcoat in the byre.
The chimney covered with a scraw
An’ every crevice where it smoak’d,
But long before the cock did craw
The people in the house were choak’d.
The muckle pot hung on all night,
As Mary Butters had been brewing
In hopes to fetch some witch or wight,
Whas entrails by her art were stewing.
In this her magic a’ did fail;
Nae witch nor wizard was detected.
Now Mary Butters lies in jail
For the base part that she has acted.
The tailor lost his son and wife,
For Mary Butters did them smother;
But as he hates a single life
In four weeks’ time he got another.
He is a crouse auld canty chiel,
An’ cares nae what the witches mutter;
He’ll never mair employ the Deil,
Nor his auld agent Mary Butters.
At day the tailor left his post
Though he had seen no apparition,
Nae wizard grim, nae witch, nor ghost,
Though still he had a stray suspicion
That some auld wizard wrinkled wife
Had cast her cantrips o’er poor brawney
Cause she and he did live in strife,
An’ whar’s the man can blame poor Sawney.
Wae sucks for our young lasses now,
For who can read their mystic matters,
Or tell if their sweethearts be true,
The folks a’ run to Mary Butters.
To tell what thief a horse did steal,
In this she was a mere pretender,
An’ has nae art to raise the Deil
Like that auld wife, the Witch of Endor.
If Mary Butters be a witch
Why but the people all should know it,
An’ if she can the muses touch
I’m sure she’ll soon descry the poet.
Her ain familiar aff she’ll sen’
Or paughlet wi’ a tu’ commission
To pour her vengeance on the man
That tantalizes her condition.
There also exists a shorter version of the ballad, which seems to be a rather clumsy adaptation of what we have given above; in it the witch is incorrectly termed Butlers. That the heroine did not evolve the procedure she had adopted out of her own fervent imagination, but that she followed a method generally recognised and practised in the country-side is shown by a case that occurred at Newtownards in January 1871. A farm-hand had brought an action against his employer for wages alleged to be due to him. It transpired in the course of the evidence that on one occasion he had been set to banish witches that were troubling the cows. His method of working illustrates the Carnmoney case. All left the house except the plaintiff, who locked himself in, closed the windows, stopped all keyholes and apertures, and put sods on top of the chimneys. He then placed a large pot of sweet milk on the fire, into which he threw three rows of pins that had never been used, and three packages of needles; all were allowed to boil together for half an hour, and, as there was no outlet for the smoke, the plaintiff narrowly escaped being suffocated.
It is strange to find use made in Ireland of that potent magical instrument, the Hand of Glory, and that too in the nineteenth century. On the night of the 3rd of January 1831, some Irish thieves attempted to commit a robbery on the estate of Mr. Naper, of Loughcrew, co. Meath. They entered the house, armed with a dead man’s hand with a lighted candle in it, believing in the superstitious notion that if such a hand be procured, and a candle placed within its grasp, the latter cannot be seen by anyone except him by whom it is used; also that if the candle and hand be introduced into a house it will prevent those who may be asleep from awaking. The inhabitants, however, were alarmed, and the robbers fled, leaving the hand behind them. No doubt the absolute failure of this gruesome dark lantern on this occasion was due to the fact that neither candle nor candlestick had been properly prepared! The orthodox recipe for its preparation and consequent effectual working may be found in full in Mr. Baring Gould’s essay on Schamir in his Curious Myths of the Middle Ages.
The following tale comes from an article in the Dublin University Magazine, vol. lxiv.; it has rather a Cross-Channel appearance, but may have been picked up locally in Ireland. A man named Shamus Rua (Red James) was awakened one night by a noise in the kitchen. He stole down, and found his old housekeeper, Madge, with half a dozen of her kidney, sitting by the fire drinking his whisky. When the bottle was finished one of them cried, “It’s time to be off,” and at the same moment she put on a peculiar red cap, and added:—
By yarrow and rue,
And my red cap, too,
Hie over to England!
And seizing a twig she soared up the chimney, whither she was followed by all save Madge. As the latter was making her preparations Shamus rushed into the kitchen, snatched the cap from her, and placing himself astride of her twig uttered the magic formula. He speedily found himself high in the air over the Irish Sea, and swooping through the empyrean at a rate unequalled by the fastest aeroplane. They rapidly neared the Welsh coast, and espied a castle afar off, towards the door of which they rushed with frightful velocity; Shamus closed his eyes and awaited the shock, but found to his delight that he had slipped through the keyhole without hurt. The party made their way to the cellar, where they caroused heartily, but the wine proved too heady, and somehow Shamus was captured and dragged before the lord of the castle, who sentenced him to be hanged. On his way to the gallows an old woman in the crowd called out in Irish “Ah, Shamus alanna! Is it going to die you are in a strange place without your little red cap?” He craved, and obtained, permission to put it on. On reaching the place of execution he was allowed to address the spectators, and did so in the usual ready-made speech, beginning,
“Good people all, a warning take by me.”
But when he reached the last line,
“My parents reared me tenderly”
instead of stopping he unexpectedly added,
“By yarrow and rue,” &c.,
with the result that he shot up through the air, to the great dismay of all beholders. Our readers will at once recall Grandpapa’s Tale of the Witches’ Frolic in the Ingoldsby Legends. Similar tales appear in Scotland, for which see Sharpe, pp. 56, 207; the same writer (p. 212) makes mention of a red cap being worn by a witch.
After the opening years of the eighteenth century, when once it had ceased to attract the unwelcome attentions of judge, jury, and executioner, witchcraft degenerated rapidly. It is said by some writers that a belief in the old-fashioned witch of history may still be found in the remoter parts of rural England; the same can hardly be said of Ireland, this being due to the fact that witchcraft was never, at its best (or worst) period, very prevalent in this country. But its place is taken by an ineradicable belief in pishogues, or in the semi-magical powers of the bone-setter, or the stopping of bleeding wounds by an incantation, or the healing of diseases in human beings or animals by processes unknown to the medical profession, or in many other quaint tenets which lie on the borderland between folklore and witchcraft, and at best only represent the complete degeneracy and decay of the latter. Yet these practices sometimes come, for one reason or another, within the wide reach of the arm of the law, though it is perhaps unnecessary to state that they are not treated as infringements of the Elizabethan Statute. For example, some years ago a case was tried at New Pallas in co. Limerick, where a woman believed that another desired to steal her butter by pishogues, flew in a passion, assaulted her and threw her down, breaking her arm in the fall. That appalling tragedy, the “witch-burning” case that occurred near Clonmel in 1895, is altogether misnamed. The woman was burnt, not because she was a witch, but in the belief that the real wife had been taken away and a fairy changeling substituted in her place; when the latter was subjected to the fire it would disappear, and the wife would be restored. Thus the underlying motive was kindness, but oh, how terribly mistaken! Lefanu in his Seventy Years of Irish Life relates a similar incident, but one which fortunately ended humorously rather than tragically: while Crofton Croker mentions instances of wives being taken by the fairies, and restored to their husbands after the lapse of years.
Even as late as the summer of 1911 the word “witch” was heard in an Irish law-court, when an unhappy poor woman was tried for killing another, an old-age pensioner, in a fit of insanity. One of the witnesses deposed that he met the accused on the road on the morning of the murder. She had a statue in her hand, and repeated three times: “I have the old witch killed: I got power from the Blessed Virgin to kill her. She came to me at 3 o’clock yesterday, and told me to kill her, or I would be plagued with rats and mice.” She made much the same statement to another witness, and added: “We will be all happy now. I have the devils hunted away. They went across the hill at 3 o’clock yesterday.” The evidence having concluded, the accused made a statement which was reduced to writing: “On the day of the thunder and lightning and big rain there did a rat come into my house, and since then I was annoyed and upset in my mind…. A lady came to me when I was lying in bed at night, she was dressed in white, with a wreath on her head, and said that I was in danger. I thought that she was referring to the rat coming into the house…. The lady who appeared to me said, If you receive this old woman’s pension-book without taking off her clothes and cleaning them, and putting out her bed and cleaning up the house, you will receive dirt for ever, and rats and mice.”
Imagine the above occurring in 1611 instead of 1911! The ravings of the poor demented creature would be accepted as gospel-truth; the rat would be the familiar sent by the witch to torment her, the witnesses would have many more facts to add to their evidence, the credulous people would rejoice that the country-side had been freed from such a malignant witch (though they might regret that she had been given her congé so easily), while the annals of Irish witchcraft would be the richer by nearly as extraordinary a case as that of Florence Newton, and one which would have lost nothing in the telling or the printing. Shorn of their pomp and circumstance, no doubt many witch-stories would be found to be very similar in origin to the above.
As is only to be expected in a country where the majority of the inhabitants are engaged in agricultural pursuits, most of the tales of strange doings are in connection with cattle. At Dungannon Quarter Sessions in June 1890, before Sir Francis Brady, one farmer sued another for breach of warranty in a cow. It was suggested that the animal was “blinked,” or in other words was under the influence of the “evil eye,” or had a pishogue put upon it. The defendant had agreed to send for the curative charm to a wise woman in the mountains. The modus operandi was then proceeded with. Three locks of hair were pulled from the cow’s forehead, three from her back, three from her tail, and one from under her nostrils. The directions continued as follows: The operators were to write the names of eight persons in the neighbourhood whom they might suspect of having done the harm (each name three times), and the one of these eight who was considered to be the most likely to have “blinked” the cow was to be pointed out. When this had been done there was to be a bundle of thatch pulled from the roof of the suspected person. The owner of the cow was then to cut a sod, and take a coal out of the fire on a shovel on which to burn the hair, the thatch, and the paper on which the names had been written. The sod was then to be put to the cow’s mouth, and if she licked it she would live.
His Honour to defendant: “And did she lick it?”
Defendant: “Aye, lick it; she would have ate it.” (Roars of laughter.) It then transpired that the burning of the thatch had been omitted, and this necessitated another journey to the wise woman.
We may also expect to find traces of strange doings with respect to the produce of cows, viz. milk and butter. Various tales are related to the following effect. A herdsman having wounded a hare, which he has discovered sucking one of the cows under his charge, tracks it to a solitary cabin, where he finds an old woman, smeared with blood and gasping for breath, extended almost lifeless on the floor. Similar stories are to be found in England, and helped to make up the witch-element there, though it may be noted that as early as the twelfth century we are informed by Giraldus Cambrensis that certain old hags in Ireland had the power of turning themselves into hares and in that shape sucking cows. The preservation of hares for coursing, which is being taken up in parts of this country, will probably deal the death-blow to this particular superstition. With regard to the stealing of butter many tales are told, of which the following may be taken as an illustration. A priest was walking in his field early one summer’s morning when he came upon an old woman gathering the dew from the long grass, and saying, “Come all to me!” The priest absent-mindedly muttered, “And half to me!” Next morning he discovered in his dairy three times as much butter as he ought to have, while his neighbours complained that they had none at all. On searching the old beldame’s house three large tubs of freshly-churned butter were discovered, which, as her entire flocks and herds consisted of a solitary he-goat, left little doubt of her evil-doing!
The witch of history is now a thing of the past. No longer does she career on a broomstick to the nocturnal Sabbath, no longer does she sell her soul to the Devil and receive from him in return many signal tokens of his favour, amongst which was generally the gift of a familiar spirit to do her behests. No longer does the judge sentence, no longer does the savage rabble howl execrations at the old witch come to her doom. The witch of history is gone, and can never be rehabilitated—would that superstition had died with her. For in Ireland, as probably in every part of the civilised world, many things are believed in and practised which seem repugnant to religion and common-sense. Scattered throughout the length and breadth of the land there are to be found persons whom the country-folk credit with the power of performing various extraordinary actions. From what source they derive this power is not at all clear—probably neither they themselves nor their devotees have ever set themselves the task of unravelling that psychological problem. Such persons would be extremely insulted if they were termed wizards or witches, and indeed they only represent white witchcraft in a degenerate and colourless stage. Their entire time is not occupied with such work, nor, in the majority of cases, do they take payment for their services; they are ready to practise their art when occasion arises, but apart from such moments they pursue the ordinary avocations of rural life. The gift has come to them either as an accident of birth, or else the especial recipe or charm has descended from father to son, or has been bequeathed to them by the former owner; as a rule such is used for the benefit of their friends.
An acquaintance told the writer some marvellous tales of a man who had the power of stopping bleeding, though the ailing person might be many miles off at the time; he promised to leave the full modus operandi to the writer’s informant, but the latter was unable to go and see him during his last moments, and so lost the charm, and as well deprived the writer of the pleasure of satisfying himself as to the efficacy of its working—for in the interests of Science he was fully prepared to cut his finger (slightly) and let the blood flow!
The same informant told the writer of a most respectable woman who had the power of healing sores. Her method is as follows. She thrusts two sally-twigs in the fire until they become red-hot. She then takes one, and makes circles round the sore (without touching the flesh), all the while repeating a charm, of which the informant, who underwent the process, could not catch the words. When the twig becomes cool, she thrusts it back into the fire, takes out the other, and does as above. The whole process is repeated about ten or twelve times, but not more than two twigs are made use of. She also puts her patients on a certain diet, and this, together with the general air of mystery, no doubt helps to produce the desired results.
Instances also occur in Ireland of persons employing unhallowed means for the purpose of bringing sickness and even death on some one who has fallen foul of them, or else they act on behalf of those whose willingness is circumscribed by their powerlessness. From the Aran Islands a story comes of the power of an old woman to transfer disease from the afflicted individual to another, with the result that the first recovered, while the newly-stricken person died; the passage reads more like the doings of savages in Polynesia or Central Africa than of Christians in Ireland. In 1892 a man stated that a friend of his was sick of an incurable disease, and having been given over by the doctor, sought, after a struggle with his conscience, the services of a cailleach who had the power to transfer mortal sickness from the patient to some healthy object who would sicken and die as an unconscious substitute. When fully empowered by her patient, whose honest intention to profit by the unholy remedy was indispensable to its successful working, the cailleach would go out into some field close by a public road, and setting herself on her knees she would pluck an herb from the ground, looking out on the road as she did so. The first passer-by her baleful glance lighted upon would take the sick man’s disease and die of it in twenty-four hours, the patient mending as the victim sickened and died.
A most extraordinary account of the Black Art, as instanced in the custom known as “burying the sheaf” comes from co. Louth. The narrator states that details are difficult to obtain, at which we are not surprised, but from what he has published the custom appears to be not only exceedingly malignant, but horribly blasphemous. The person working the charm first goes to the chapel, and says certain words with his (or her) back to the altar; then he takes a sheaf of wheat, which he fashions like the human body, sticking pins in the joints of the stems, and (according to one account) shaping a heart of plaited straw. This sheaf he buries, in the name of the Devil, near the house of his enemy, who he believes will gradually pine away as the sheaf decays, dying when it finally decomposes. If the operator of the charm wishes his enemy to die quickly he buries the sheaf in wet ground where it will soon decay; but if on the other hand he desires his victim to linger in pain he chooses a dry spot where decomposition will be slow. Our informant states that a case in which one woman tried to kill another by this means was brought to light in the police court at Ardee a couple of years before he wrote the above account (i.e. before 1895).
Though the Statutes against witchcraft in England and Scotland were repealed (the latter very much against the will of the clergy), it is said that that passed by the Irish Parliament was not similarly treated, and consequently is, theoretically, still in force. Be that as it may, it will probably be news to our readers to learn that witchcraft is still officially recognised in Ireland as an offence against the law. In the Commission of the Peace the newly-appointed magistrate is empowered to take cognisance of, amongst other crimes, “Witchcraft, Inchantment, Sorcery, Magic Arts,” a curious relic of bygone times to find in the twentieth century, though it is more than unlikely that any Bench in Ireland will ever have to adjudicate in such a case.
In the foregoing pages we have endeavoured to trace the progress of witchcraft in Ireland from its first appearance to the present day, and as well have introduced some subjects which bear indirectly on the question. From the all too few examples to be obtained we have noted its gradual rise to the zenith (which is represented by the period 1661-1690), and from thence its downward progress to the strange beliefs of the day, which in some respects are the degenerate descendants of the witchcraft-conception, in others represent ideas older than civilisation. We may pay the tribute of a tearful smile to the ashes of witchcraft, and express our opinion of the present-day beliefs of the simple country-folk by a pitying smile, feeling all the time how much more enlightened we are than those who believed, or still believe, in such absurdities! But the mind of man is built in water-tight compartments. What better embodies the spirit of the young twentieth century than a powerful motor car, fully equipped with the most up-to-date appliances for increasing speed or lessening vibration; in its tuneful hum as it travels at forty-five miles an hour without an effort, we hear the triumph-song of mind over matter. The owner certainly does not believe in witchcraft or pishogues (or perhaps in anything save himself!), yet he fastens on the radiator a “Teddy Bear” or some such thing by way of a mascot. Ask him why he does it—he cannot tell, except that others do the same, while all the time at the back of his mind there exists almost unconsciously the belief that such a thing will help to keep him from the troubles and annoyances that beset the path of the motorist. The connection between cause and effect is unknown to him; he cannot tell you why a Teddy Bear will keep the engine from overheating or prevent punctures—and in this respect he is for the moment on exactly the same intellectual level as, let us say, his brother-man of New Zealand, who carries a baked yam with him at night to scare away ghosts.
The truth of the matter is that we all have a vein of superstition in us, which makes its appearance at some period in our lives under one form or another. A. will laugh to scorn B.’s belief in witches or ghosts, while he himself would not undertake a piece of business on a Friday for all the wealth of Crœsus; while C., who laughs at both, will offer his hand to the palmist in full assurance of faith. Each of us dwells in his own particular glass house, and so cannot afford to hurl missiles at his neighbours; milk-magic or motor-mascots, pishogues or palmistry, the method of manifestation is of little account in comparison with the underlying superstition. The latter is an unfortunate trait that has been handed down to us from the infancy of the race; we have managed to get rid of such physical features as tails or third eyes, whose day of usefulness has passed; we no longer masticate our meat raw, or chip the rugged flint into the semblance of a knife, but we still acknowledge our descent by giving expression to the strange beliefs that lie in some remote lumber-room at the back of the brain.
But it may be objected that belief in witches, ghosts, fairies, charms, evil-eye, &c. &c., need not be put down as unreasoning superstition, pure and simple, that in fact the trend of modern thought is to show us that there are more things in heaven and earth than were formerly dreamt of. We grant that man is a very complex machine, a microcosm peopled with possibilities of which we can understand but little. We know that mind acts on mind to an extraordinary degree, and that the imagination can affect the body to an extent not yet fully realised, and indeed has often carried men far beyond the bounds of common-sense; and so we consider that many of the elements of the above beliefs can in a general way be explained along these lines. Nevertheless that does not do away with the element of superstition and, we may add, oftentimes of deliberately-planned evil that underlies. There is no need to resurrect the old dilemma, whether God or the Devil was the principal agent concerned; we have no desire to preach to our readers, but we feel that every thinking man will be fully prepared to admit that such beliefs and practices are inimical to the development of true spiritual life, in that they tend to obscure the ever-present Deity and bring into prominence primitive feelings and emotions which are better left to fall into a state of atrophy. In addition they cripple the growth of national life, as they make the individual the fearful slave of the unknown, and consequently prevent the development of an independent spirit in him without which a nation is only such in name. The dead past utters warnings to the heirs of all the ages. It tells us already we have partially entered into a glorious heritage, which may perhaps be as nothing in respect of what will ultimately fall to the lot of the human race, and it bids us give our upward-soaring spirits freedom, and not fetter them with the gross beliefs of yore that should long ere this have been relegated to limbo.