It’s a popular enduring image of Halloween. How many little girls will be donning black, and a wide-brimmed pointy hat, painting their faces green, and gluing rice crispies to their noses to represent warts tonight? And when all those little girls are lying asleep in bed, faces scrubbed clean, how many older little girls will be sallying forth on the high street, brooms in hand, adorned with green face paint and the addition of mini skirts and high heels in a not-quite-so-traditional version of the Halloween witch?
Most people today don’t believe in witches, although among the pagan community there are groups who call themselves witches; they practice a nature based faith called Wicca.
However, it seems more than likely that witches and witchcraft were a lie originally invented by Christianity to control powerful, knowledgeable women, and have people scurrying to the church for protection. That the notion of the witch struck such fear into people’s hearts that they were willing to collude in accusing any woman of the crime if it meant saving their own skins.
The punishment for women accused as witches was barbaric: burning, or drowning were common as anti-witchcraft fervour swept Europe, usually after torture and humiliation in order to extract a confession. In Ireland, however, common law dictated that women accused of witchcraft should be hung, although this did not happen in all cases.
If you want to know more about the persecution of witches, you should read this book. The Black Hours by Alison Williams is a no-holds-barred, powerful account of a real event based on real people. The research is meticulous, and the writing flawless and engaging. I found it very disturbing to read, and it stayed with me for a long time afterwards.
The first woman in Ireland to be officially denounced as a witch was Dame Alice Kyteler in the thirteenth century. By all accounts, she was quite a character, and did not at all fit into the social norms for women at that time. With hindsight, it’s perhaps not surprising that she was singled out for retribution.
The daughter of wealthy Norman immigrants who came to Kilkenny in Ireland in the mid thirteenth century, Alice met and married William Outlawe, a local banker, and bore him a son, also named William. When her husband died suddenly a few years later, leaving her all his wealth, she quickly remarried.
Her second husband, Adam de Blund of Cullen, also died suddenly and unexpectedly within a few years of their wedding, leaving her the full extent of his fortune. Not one long for grieving, Alice married Richard de Valle, and it wasn’t long before he too died suddenly.
Alice was by now an extremely wealthy woman in her own right. She ran a very popular inn, staffed with a bevvy of beautiful young women. This was seen as questionable at the time, and many people were jealous of her wealth and popularity. She married local landowner, Sir John de Poer, but he became ill shortly after. Just before he died, he amended his will, making Alice and her son, William, his sole heirs.
Sir John’s family were outraged that Alice had cheated them out of their inheritance. They accused Alice of witchcraft and sorcery, claiming she bewitched him to rewrite his will. The families of her previous husbands jumped on the bandwagon, hoping to win a slice of her fortune for themselves.
The Bishop of Ossary, Richard de Ledrede, was a zealous man obsessed with church law and morality. When the families of the dead husbands brought their complaint to him, he vowed to eradicate witchcraft from Ireland. In addition to poison and sorcery, he accused Alice of denying the Christian faith, sacrificing animals to demons at crossroads, holding secret gatherings in churches at night to carry out black magic rituals, sleeping with a familiar, Robin Artison, a demon of Satan, and the murder of four husbands… quite a list, huh?
Richard tried to have her arrested, but instead, he himself was thrown in jail by Sir Arnold le Poer, Seneschal of Kilkenny, who was related to Alice through her husband, Sir John. On his release seventeen days later, the Bishop wrote to the Chancellor of Ireland, Roger Utlagh (Outlawe) demanding Alice’s arrest, but the Chancellor, who was also related to Alice through her first husband, William, ordered Richard to drop the case. Ledrede, however, was on a mission to stamp out witchcraft in Ireland, and had no intention of backing down.
Alice fled the country, supposedly to London, and was never heard of again. Meanwhile, the Bishop rounded up all her less fortunate friends and servants and had them tried for witchcraft and heresy.
Alice’s son, William, confessed and repented; he was forced to attend three masses a day, and give aid to the poor. Alice’s maid, Petronella de Meath, was tortured until she confessed and implicated her absent mistress, Dame Alice. She was then publicly flogged and carted around the city streets as an example to the city folk.
Finally, on the 3rd of November 1324, poor Petronella was burned at the stake. As if she hadn’t already suffered enough. Compare this to the punishment William, a man, received. Um… yeah, no comparison at all, really, is it?
Petronella was the first woman to be burned at the stake in Ireland for witchcraft and heresy, but she wasn’t the last.
In 1710, on Islandmagee, on the east coast of Antrim, eighteen-year-old Mary Dunbar accused eight local women of witchcraft and causing her to be demonically possessed. This was the last recorded witch trial in Ireland. As with Alice, these women did not fit into accepted notions of female behaviour; they drank, smoked and were old and hag-like, some of them were actually disabled. The women weren’t burned, so far as we know; records show that they were jailed for a year, and pilloried four times, as it was a first offence. What happened after that is not known, as the public records office holding many Church of Ireland records was burned down during the Irish Civil War between 1922-1923.
Poor Bridget Cleary is often cited as the last witch burned in Ireland, but this is not true. She was murdered by her deranged husband in 1895, who claimed that when she became ill, she had been abducted by fairies, and a changeling left in her place. So he set her alight and burned her to death. Hmmm… nice guy. Bridget had never at any point been accused of witchcraft. Michael Cleary was found guilty of manslaughter and imprisoned for only fifteen years, after which he emigrated to Canada.
Incidentally, Alice’s inn is still going strong to this very day… it’s now known by the name of Kyteler’s Inn, and is reputed to be frequented by Alice’s ghost.
To get the full Alice Kyteler story, you can download a FREE copy of A contemporary narrative of the proceedings against Dame Alice Kyteler : prosecuted for sorcery in 1324, by Richard de Ledrede, bishop of Ossory
Want to know more about Halloween and Samhain? You might find something of interest here…
For our ancient ancestors, the day began not with the arrival of dawn, but with the fall of dusk. Therefore, Samhain (pronounced sau-win, and believed to derive from the Old Irish sam, meaning ‘summer’, and fuin, meaning ‘end’) began on the evening of 31st October, and continued until dusk on November 1st. Similarly, their New Year began with the arrival of the dark season, Winter, not halfway through it, as ours does today. Some say this equates with a belief that life is born into the light from the darkness of the womb.
At Tlachtga, I felt a great sense of peace. I know you will say it’s because it all happened so long ago, in fact, probably never happened at all, because these are just ancient stories. But I think forgiveness washes a place clean, floods it with peacefulness and makes it wholesome again.
It didn’t even feel like a hill, but as I walked out onto the summit, I was amazed at the wide open 360* panorama which unfolded around me. From here, other famous ancient sites can be seen, if you know where to look, such as Tara (19kms), Loughcrew, Slane (23kms) and Teltown (12kms).
The legend of Crom Cruach is a sinister one. The ancient texts of the Metrical Dindshenchas claim that the people of Ireland worshipped the God at Samhain, by offering up their firstborn child in return for a plentiful harvest in the coming year. The children were killed by smashing their heads on the stone idol representing Crom Cruach, and sprinkling their blood around the base. This stone idol has been identified as the Killycluggin Stone.
My father was not known for his kindliness; the Black Baron, they called him, and with good reason. He couldn’t abide lawlessness, demanded obedience, and ruled with an iron hand.
That grim, grey castle was not the place for a young girl to grow up in. For the most part, I was left alone, save for my poor governess. I was always tricking her with false errands, that I might escape her sharp eyes and those unforgiving walls.
As far as we can tell, the ancient Irish people never had a God of the Dead. The Otherworld was said to be the domain of Manannán, God of the Sea, but the myths and legends do not tell of him being a God of the Dead. However, there is someone, a mere mortal, who has come to be associated with this role.
“Tomorrow is the eve of Samhain,” whispered the Filidh, the High King’s Royal Bard. The crowd stilled, straining to hear through the smoky atmosphere of the King’s hall.
It was the night before Halloween. As always, the High King had invited all his favourite nobles to celebrate the festival at Tara. They crowded his hall, feasting at his table. The air was thick with smoke from the hearth fires, the scent of candles, the aroma of roasting meat, chatter, music and song. Now, when bellies were full and hunger sated, folk sat back and turned to their cups. It was time for the storyteller to weave his magic.
They hide the truth,
these gaudy costumes,
the carved lanterns,
the trick or treat…
She lies upon the hill, ragged and torn,
Borne of the night her three sons bold.
Told a story heartless and cruel,
Fuel for revenge of an act most foul…
Lugh hammered loudly on the palace gates, his men gathered about him. They had been travelling many days, and darkness would soon be falling. They had no intention of spending yet another night sleeping on the hard ground with just their cloaks to warm them.
“Be off with you!” someone shouted down to them from the shadows atop of the palisade wall. “The gates to the King’s palace are closed for the night. We are accepting no visitors this Samhain Eve.”