Ireland and its witches
Be she cruel or kind, the witch is capable of great acts of the arcane, and as such has been embedded into the mindscape of Irish superstition for many ages.
We’ve compiled the stories of six unforgettable Irish women associated with witchcraft. Their stories are all unique, ranging from terrific to tragic, but today, we celebrate them for their uniting factor: a spark of something magical that set them apart from the rest.
Though not a witch in the most traditional sense, the Morrígan of Irish mythology’s Ulster Cycle bears a name often translated to “Queen of the Phantoms”—and it is this, combined with her undeniably spooky legacy, that merits her the very first spot on this definitive list of witchy Irish women. Associated with war and death, she would often swoop over active battlefields in the form of a bedraggled crow known as the badb.
The Morrígan first appeared in the stories of ancient Ireland as having a tumultuous relationship with the famed hero Cú Chulainn. The two first met when she drove a cow from his territory, and when he approached her but was unable to recognize her face, she became insulted. In response to her anger, the hero grew defensive and arrogant, claiming she could do him no harm. Ominously, the Phantom Queen replied: “It is at the guarding of thy death that I am; and I shall be.”
Much later in life, Cú Chulainn rode across Ireland to meet his enemies, only to encounter a haggard old woman washing armor in a ford. On closer inspection, he saw that the breastplate and helmet were his own. This was an omen that foretold his fast-approaching demise, and the story itself has brought many to compare the Morrígan with the more widespread Irish harbinger of death, the banshee. Crows too, of course, symbolize death in many cultures, making it fitting that, later in the story, Cú Chulainn’s enemies do not believe that the hero is truly dead until the badb lands comfortably upon the shoulder of his corpse.
The loathly lady is a motif that appears frequently in medieval literature. Specifically, it refers to a grotesque woman who becomes beautiful when approached by a man who doesn’t judge her by her looks alone. Often, the lady’s unattractiveness is revealed to have been the result of a curse, which her suitor has now broken, and they all live happily ever after. The Irish version, of course, is nowhere near as tidy.
In the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne was a member of the Fianna, a legendary band of warriors. One night, the group was visited by a shivering old woman who asked them for warmth and shelter. Only Diarmuid showed her any compassion, promising her that he would protect her throughout the night as she slept. By morning, the old woman had transformed into a fresh-faced young lady, and Diarmuid was besotted.
The strange woman rewarded Diarmuid’s gentleness by granting him a wish: to own a house by the sea. He begged her to live there with him, and she agreed on the singular condition that he never speak aloud of the form she took on the night when they first met. For a time, they lived happily. However, one day while Diarmuid was out hunting, his trusty greyhound gave birth to a litter of puppies. The lady gave them away. Diarmuid was furious, and asked her how she could treat him so unkindly when he had so generously overlooked her ugliness at the time of their first meeting. True to her previous warning, the lady and the house by the sea disappeared, and Diarmuid’s beloved dog died soon after.
The story, however, does not end there, and love eventually finds a way—but it does take a journey into the fairy world, a battle of one man against 2,400, and a sizable swallowing of pride to end the loathly quarrel.
Born in Co. Kilkenny in 1263 to a family of wealthy Flemish merchants, Alice Kyteler has been remembered in history as the first person to be condemned for witchcraft in Ireland. She is referenced in the W.B. Yeats poem, “Nine Hundred and Nineteen:”
But now the wind drops, dust settles; thereupon
There lurches past, his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,
That insolent fiend Robert Artisson
To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought
Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.
So who was Robert, and why did Alice honor him so? Well, we are talking in terms of witches, so the answer was never going to be a virtuous one. According to Alice’s house servant, Petronella de Meath, Robert was the name of the demon Alice made offerings to to gain her arcane powers; a right hand of Satan himself who often appeared as three distinct and imp-like men.
Petronella testified against Alice in court, and she was accused of heresy, sacrifices to and intercourse with demonic entities, making love and hate potions to corrupt Christians, and the murder her previous husbands—of which there were four, all dead. However, the servant woman’s testimonies against her mistress stacked the cards against both of them in the end: it became a popular belief that Petronella assisted Alice in her crimes, and Petronella was burned at the stake, becoming the very first person in Ireland to suffer this brutal fate.
Alice Kyteler was neither burned nor buried on Irish soil. The story goes that she fled to the safety of England, but this take is little more than an educated guess—after the death of Petronella, Alice disappears entirely from historical records. What we do know, however, is that she seems to have taken with her a ward in the form of Petronella’s young daughter, Basilia.
Known in her time as the Witch of Youghal, Florence Newton was the central player of what would become known as one of Ireland’s most important witch trials.
The accusations leveled at her were many and varied: during Christmas of 1660, she was heard to mumble curses beneath her breath about being passed over by a plate of beef at a party thrown by a man named John Pyne.
Shortly after this, she met with a servant of Pyne’s named Mary Longdon on the street, and “violently kissed her.” It wasn’t long after this incident that Mary began to take ill, suffering fits, cramps, and unnatural visions. Around this time, whisperings had already begun that a coven of witches had made their home in Youghal; the proof, locals claimed, was in the “needles, pins, horsenails, wool, and straw” that Mary began to throw up. Mary claimed that the mastermind behind her ailment was Florence, and so she was arrested and imprisoned on March 24, 1661.
Florence Newton was also blamed for the death of a local man named David Jones during her trial: later, his widow claimed that she had seen Florence kiss her late husband’s hand through the bars of her confinement. Later, he became aggressively ill, and on his deathbed could muster the energy only to cry out a name: “Newton!”
On September 11, 1661, Florence Newton was tried at Assizes, Co. Cork, for the “enchantment” of Mary Longdon and for employing sorcery to bring about the death of David Jones. The verdict? Unconfirmed. Essential court documents have been missing since well before historians ever began looking into the case. If Florence was found guilty, she would have been put to death, as all ascertained witches were at the time. And if she was innocent? We may never know.
Not all alleged Irish witches were the kind to consort with Satan’s helpers and lay hexes on those who did them wrong. The renowned Biddy Early, for example, is best understood as a kind of “white witch” or folk healer, beloved by many for her charming personality and clever way with natural remedies.
Born around 1798, Biddy was known to be heard “talking to the fairies” during her early years, and was as kind and full of wit as she was stubborn. Her mother, Ellen, was a renowned herbalist, and taught her daughter all that she knew.
Biddy was an unusual woman by many counts, and, as such, was a prime target for witchcraft accusations by the Catholic Church, who disliked her unorthodox streak. She married three times (and, in an unorthodox twist, her final husband was much younger than she); she traded natural cures for whiskey with her neighbors, then invited everyone over to drink and play cards; she trekked out to farms to help restore spring wells and treat dying crops.
Her immense popularity was, to the Church, a threat—but it was also her safeguard. In 1865, at the age of 67, she was accused of witchcraft and was brought before a court in Ennis, Co. Wexford. The small number of people who agreed to testify against her soon dropped their charges, and her many friends in the community rallied to support her. Before long, the case was dropped due to lack of sufficient evidence. And, as she had her whole life long, Biddy Early walked free. She died peacefully nine years later.
There is well-known Irish nursery rhyme that’s sung: “Are you a witch, or are you a fairy / Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?” The story of the woman in question, however, is far from the stuff of children’s bedtime stories.
Born into the Boland family in Co. Tipperary of 1869, Bridget met and married Michael Cleary in August, 1887. It was, it seemed, love at first sight, and they married within the month. He made his living as a cooper; she, a dressmaker whose talents were lauded far and wide. Bridget was an uncommonly professional young lady for the times in which she lived. With the help of her ultra-modern Singer sewing machine, she made her own steady stream of income alongside her husband, and all seemed well—until suddenly, in March of 1895, she went missing.
What we know is this: prior to Bridget’s vanishing, she had been evidently ill for several days. Her diagnosis was recorded as bronchitis, and it set in fast, so much so that the abrupt change in Bridget’s appearance and attitude led her husband and father to belief that a fairy changeling had taken her place. Urine was thrown on her, and she was brought before the fireplace to force the fairy out of her body. The rest, tragically, isn’t hard to guess.
On March 22, Bridget’s burned body was found in a shallow grave near her home. When questioned, Michael continued to insist that his wife had been taken away by the fairies, and in the trial that ensued it became clear that he believed through burning the changeling to death, the malevolent creatures would bring his wife back to him. Michael was charged for manslaughter.
Today, Bridget Cleary is famously known as the “last witch burned in Ireland,” though she was never actually described as practising the dark arts. Since her death, her story has been covered extensively, even reaching the New York Times within a month of its occurrence. This year, Margaret Perry’s play Porcelain debuts in Dublin’s globally-renowned Abbey Theatre, drawing on the story of Bridget’s life and untimely demise to set the stage for a thriller about wonder and woes of womanhood.