seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Islandmagee Witch Trial

islandmagee-witch-trialEight women from Islandmagee, County Antrim, in what is today Northern Ireland, are imprisoned and pilloried on March 31, 1711 for “bewitching” a woman named Mary Dunbar, who has experienced strange fits and visions. The Islandmagee witch trial takes place in 1710–1711 on Islandmagee and is believed to be the last witch trial to take place in Ireland.

In March 1711, in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, eight women are put on trial and found guilty of witchcraft. The women are put in stocks and then jailed for one year. The trial is the result of a claim by Mrs. James Haltridge that 18-year-old Mary Dunbar exhibited signs of demonic possession such as “shouting, swearing, blaspheming, throwing Bibles, going into fits every time a clergyman came near her and vomiting household items such as pins, buttons, nails, glass and wool.” Assisted by local authorities, Dunbar picks out eight women she claims are witches that have attacked her in spectral form.

During the trial, Mary Dunbar is dumb and unable to give evidence. Evidence is given by twenty individuals, of whom four are clergymen of the Presbyterian church. The trial lasts from 6:00 AM until 2:00 PM. For the accused, it is said they are industrious, attend public worship, some having latterly received the sacrament. Judge Upton says, “real witches could not assume or retain the form of religion by frequenting worship. The jury should not find them guilty on the sole testimony of the visionary images of the afflicted person.” Judge Macartney believes they might, from the evidence, bring them in guilty and they do.

According to Andrew Sneddon, history lecturer at University of Ulster, “Mary Dunbar was making up the whole thing.” Sneddon writes that “Mary Dunbar learned the part of a demoniac from accounts about Salem or Scotland, or someone told her about it. Remember, this was a time when people were pouring in from Scotland.”

Records of what happened to Mary Dunbar or those convicted of witchcraft are apparently lost when the Public Records Office in question is burned down in June 1922 during the Battle of Dublin in the Irish Civil War.

A memorial to the eight women convicted is proposed by the author Martina Devlin. However the memorial is objected to by Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) councillor Jack McKee who believes the plaque could become a “shrine to paganism” and furthermore states that he is not convinced the women were not guilty and that he believes the proposal to be “anti-god.”


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Death of John O’Donovan, Irish Language Scholar

john-odonovanJohn O’Donovan, Irish language scholar, dies at his residence at 36 Upper Buckingham Street in Dublin on December 10, 1861.

O’Donovan is born in County Kilkenny on July 25, 1806 and is the fourth son of Edmond O’Donovan and Eleanor Hoberlin of Rochestown. His early career is likely inspired by his uncle, Parick O’Donovan. He works for antiquarian James Hardiman researching state papers and traditional sources at the Public Records Office. He also teaches Irish to Thomas Larcom for a short period in 1828 and works for Myles John O’Reilly, a collector of Irish manuscripts.

Following the death of Edward O’Reilly in August 1830, O’Donovan is recruited to the Topographical Department of the first Ordnance Survey Ireland under George Petrie in October 1830. Apart from a brief period in 1833, he works steadily for the Survey on place-name researches until 1842, unearthing and preserving many manuscripts. After that date, O’Donovan’s work with the Survey tails off, although he is called upon from time to time to undertake place-name research on a day-to-day basis. He researches maps and manuscripts at many libraries and archives in Ireland and England, with the intent to establish the correct origin of as many of Ireland’s 63,000 townland names as possible. His letters to Larcom are regarded as an important record of the ancient lore of Ireland for those counties he documents during his years of travel throughout much of Ireland.

By 1845, O’Donovan is corresponding with the younger scholar William Reeves, and much of their correspondence to 1860 survives.

O’Donovan becomes professor of Celtic Languages at Queen’s University Belfast, and is called to the Bar in 1847. His work on linguistics is recognised in 1848 by the Royal Irish Academy, who award him their prestigious Cunningham Medal. On the recommendation of German philologist Jacob Grimm, he is elected a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Prussia in 1856.

Never in great health, he dies shortly after midnight on December 10, 1861 at his residence in Dublin. He is buried on December 13, 1861 in Glasnevin Cemetery, where his tombstone inscription has slightly incorrect dates of both birth and death.