In March and September of 1711, in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Ireland’s last witch trials took place, those of the ‘Islandmagee Witches’. The events leading to the trial started when in February 1711, the elderly widow of Presbyterian minister, Ann Haltridge died suddenly after suffering months of demonic supernatural attack in her home, Knowehead House, in Islandmagee. Islandmagee is an eight-mile long peninsula on the east coast of Co. Antrim, which contained around 300 Presbyterians of Scots descent at that time.
After Ann’s funeral, her niece, eighteen-year old, educated gentlewoman, Mary Dunbar, arrived at Knowehead House. Almost immediately Mary began to display the classic symptoms of demonic possession: from convulsions, to vomiting household objects, to levitation. During the month of March 1711, Dunbar accused eight Presbyterian women from Islandmagee and the surrounding areas of using witchcraft to attack her in spectral or spirit form and to summon demons to possess her body. The women were eventually tried on 31 March 1711 at the Spring Session of Carrickfergus County Assize Court. Despite pleading not guilty, they were convicted under the 1586 Irish Witchcraft Act and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment and four stints in the pillory.
Unlike most demoniacs (demonically possessed persons), the incarceration of the convicted witches did not improve Dunbar’s health. Dunbar now claimed that William Sellor, husband and father to two of the convicted women, had begun bewitching her. William was convicted of witchcraft at the Summer Assizes in September 1711. Mary Dunbar however had died a few weeks earlier, just after the first trial, turning William’s original offence into a capital crime for which he was probably executed: he was thus one of a possible two people executed in Ireland under a witchcraft Act.
A further look into these trials and a more detailed backstory can be found in Dr Andrew Sneddon’s book; Possessed By the Devil: The Real History Of The Islandmagee Witches And Ireland’s Only Mass Witchcraft Trial, see below:
Andrew Sneddon, -‘‘Florence Newton’s Trial for Witchcraft, Cork, 1661’, Irish Historical Studies, 43:169 (2019): 298-319.
-‘Medicine, Belief, Witchcraft and Demonic Possession in late Seventeenth-century Ulster,’ Medical Humanities, 42/2 (2016): 81-6.
– Representing Magic in Modern Ireland: Belief, History, and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
-Witchcraft Belief, Representation and Memory in Modern Ireland’, Cultural and Social History, 16:3 (2019): 251-70.
– Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland (Palgrave, 2015).
– Witchcraft and Whigs: Bishop Francis Hutchinson, 1660-1739 (Manchester University Press, repr. 2014).
-Andrew Sneddon, John Fulton, ‘Witchcraft, Crime and the Press in Ireland, 1822-1922,’ Historical Journal, 62:3 (2019): 741-64.
© Copyright Victoria McCollum and Andrew Sneddon 2022