There are many things commonly associated with Halloween – some of the most traditional being black cats, pumpkins, and witches. However, the original ‘witch’ was not the wizened, warty, old woman that is popularly portrayed today during the spooky celebrations at the end of October.
Although the idea of ‘harmful magic’ can be traced as far back as ancient Greek and Roman times, the most famous period of history associated with witchcraft is that of early modern Europe. During the witch trials of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an estimated 200,000 accused witches were killed both legally and illegally.
In Ireland, however, witch trials were extremely rare. It is difficult to pin down the reason for this, as they were popular in England and particularly Scotland, where 4000-6000 trials were estimated to have occurred.
Only three witch trials are believed to have been carried out in Irish history. The first of these was the case of Dame Alice Kyteler and her maid Petronilla de Meath in 1324. This was also the first witch trial in the British Isles.
In terms of Northern Ireland, Ireland’s only mass witch trial was held in Carrickfergus, County Antrim. The women in question have become known as the ‘Islandmagee witches.’
Eight women were found guilty of bewitching a young girl, Mary Dunbar at Carrickfergus Assizes in 1711. Evidence in eyewitness accounts, witness statements and letters suggest that Mary Dunbar’s bewitchment appeared to take the form of demonic possession – trances, fits, swearing and throwing bibles.
Dr Andrew Sneddon, author of ‘Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland, 1586-1946,’ argues that Dunbar faked being possessed in order to rebel against the tight restrictions placed on her speech and behaviour in society.
“Being possessed allowed her misbehave without consequence, move from invisibility to notoriety within her community and attack her elders at will,” Sneddon suggests. “Dunbar chose to blame her possession on the witchcraft of the Presbyterian Islandmagee women because they had reputations locally as witches and failed to meet contemporary standards of female behaviour and beauty.”
Sneddon’s proposed reasons for accusing the Islandmagee women correlate with a running theme within witch trials across Europe. The accused were very often women who were disabled, ugly or spinsters – possessing features that did not fit with society’s idea of an upstanding woman in the early modern period.
Although some men were accused and convicted of witchcraft, the proportion of women was significantly higher. This was perhaps because the main reason behind the birth of the ‘witch-hunt’ was the horrific living conditions in a tumultuous early modern Europe following the Reformation and Thirty Years War.
Society’s need for a scapegoat led to the persecution of older women. European governments and leaders were quick to avert blame from themselves and this group was an easy target in the context of an inherently misogynistic society.
The cartoon version of a witch associated with Halloween today is an exaggeration of the traditional older woman who did not fit with societal views of physical beauty and supposedly possessed supernatural powers. In reality, aside from the lack of magical powers, the original witch was rarely a wizened old crone, with warts, long fingernails and a hooked nose.