9 - Irish Witchcraft

The most famous single case of Irish witchcraft is that of Lady Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny. The Bishop of Ossory charged her with witchcraft under the new Bulls issued by Pope John XXII, and she was tried in 1324. The court obviously believed she had been practising witchcraft, but saw no particular harm in it Though supposed to convict her they let her off as lightly as possible and discharged her, much to the Bishop's disgust; much as a Manx court in 1659 found Mrs. Jane Ceasar not guilty of witchcraft, though the Bishop managed to get her sentenced to 'abjure her witchcraft, the following Sunday in Malew Church' (a curious case of 'not guilty but you must promise not to do it again'.)

The lady was forced to abjure in church and spoke with a play of words which satisfied the court, though the commentators said: 'It would make her accusers very unhappy if they really believed her to be a witch. As nothing more is recorded it is to be presumed that the matter was allowed to drop. Later Church records show that she died and was buried in the ordinary way; the Ceasars were people of very good position.

But the Bishop of Ossory was of sterner mettle than the Manx Bishops. Relying on the Pope's Bulls he attacked again, accusing Lady Alice of denying Christ, having indecent ceremonies with a Robin Artison, or Robin the son of Art, at the cross-roads, and of a whole list of the usual stock charges, including having a staff which she anointed with ointment and galloped through thick and thin - presumably an ordinary fertility dance. Again he could not obtain a conviction; the nobles protected her and she got away to England.

The Bishop had to content himself with flogging, torturing and burning her servants by a sort of ecclesiastical lynch law. Among the charges against her was one of sweeping the dust inwards. In the Isle of Man it is a common superstition that you must sweep inwards or you will sweep the luck away.

In Lady Kyteler's case there was sufficient evidence to prove the existence of witchcraft and of a coven of thirteen. Most likely she was in communication with an Irish branch of the Fairy or Little People who celebrated rites similar to those used in England and to those of Dionysus in ancient Rome.

The second charge against her was that 'she was wont to offer sacrifices to devils, live animals which she and her company tore limb from limb, and made oblation by scattering them at the crossways to a certain demon called Robin, son of Artes, or Robinartison'. As remarked above, the name Robin was a common one for a spirit, this time perhaps an artful or tricky one ('artes'). The action seems like a description of a number of Bacchantes who used to tear animals in pieces in the Dionysian frenzies, since the devouring of an animal victim was supposed to symbolise the incarnation, death and resurrection of the divinity.

There was another charge of sacrificing red cocks to Robin, who is described as being 'Aethiopia' - in other words, a Negro. It would be very unusual to find a Negro with an English name in Ireland at that time, so I presume that Robin mixed soot with his protective ointment so as not to be recognised. They were probably members of a local cult who carried out magical ceremonies to bring themselves luck. There were thirteen people accused but Robin was never arrested, so the 'tricky spirit' was probably of high rank or a churchman. Thus we may presume that a witch cult which had some resemblance to the cult of Dionysus was in full swing at that date and consisted of both Irish and English members.

Mr. Hughes mentions that the municipal archives of Exeter show that in 1302 the Grand Jury found that 'Dionysia Baldwyn does often receive John and Agnes de Wormhille and Joan de Cornwale of Taignmouth who are witches; and the said Dionysia consorts with them.' The name Dionysia suggests to me that her parents belonged to some such cult and that the priest who christened her had no objections, though many Church councils had fulminated against cults of Diana and the moon.

John, Agnes and Joan are all witch names, according to Dr. Margaret Murray; Wormhille (Dragon Hill) might be accidental, or it might have some meaning. One would have expected the local Bishop to have secured a conviction; but the court apparently would have none of this and thought: 'Why shouldn't witches have a good time or practise their arts?' As in Ireland, they had no objections to Lady Kyteler's 'dirty work at the cross-roads'.

Actually in those days the courts seem to have believed that there was no harm in witchcraft. There were no particular laws against it. The Sites Partidas of Castille, circa 1260, says it should be punished if it causes harm, but that it is thought valuable for curing diseases. The Assizes of Jerusalem and the Establishments of St. Louis and other tribunals held similar views.

I have been told of a witch cult in Southern Ireland practising nowadays, but I have not been able to contact it. The members are said to hold their meetings in a disused quarry where they can work without being disturbed. They wear long black cloaks for protection until they reach the meeting place, where they remove them to reveal a

type of kilt made of two pieces of leather thonged at the sides. They are said to sacrifice animals to the moon, or at least to hold ceremonies in honour of the full moon, with dances regulated by a moon dial. I am told that they have one very beautiful dance, the Dance of the Four Winds, which is usually held round a standing stone or something which has four sides; but I can obtain no details.

It is said that part of the initiation ceremony of the man is called Diana's Hunt, when all the single and unattached girls chase the initiate and whoever catches him beats him and then takes him under her guidance, it having usually been arranged beforehand who should catch him. I was told that blood was sometimes used in the rites and curses were put on people, but my informant knew nothing of the rites, or of their leader, except that there was a high priestess called Diana and that they use 'whiskey'.

The problem in investigating such a case is to find out whether the cult is an ancient one or whether it is of recent origin. In Ireland the people are either strongly Roman Catholic or just as strongly Protestant, and it is possible that someone may have invented a cult for fun, or in opposition to both religions. This, if it grew fairly strong, could not remain hidden for long, and then the Churches would be likely to combine to crush it.

If, on the other hand, it had an ancient tradition, then it might have carried on, as its members would have realised the necessity for secrecy. The name Diana sounds a little like a modern invention; but from the Renaissance onwards there have been many classical scholars who might have applied this name to an ancient goddess.

There is a small town in Ireland where it is the custom every year to put in the market place a billy goat attended by two maidens for three days and nights; and during that time it is an open town. This is known as Puck Fair. The police stay in their stations, the public houses never close and no one goes to sleep, because that has always been the custom and it would bring bad luck to change it. This looks like the last of some curious pre-Christian religious rite which has survived.

If in Lady Alice's time there was a secret cult which brought luck to its votaries and curses upon its opponents, then it is not surprising to find it working today. In England, in their present form, the rituals and charges cannot be very old because they have been copied into modern language from grandfathers and grandmothers; but they do go back at least a hundred and fifty years. If they had been invented, then they would have been written in a sentimental form, whereas these are direct and to the point.

Prior to 1800, when we know the cult was working, there was a certain interest in occult matters, but this was in the ceremonial type of magic, or the Hell Fire Club type, and these meant evoking the Devil. It is possible that someone may have started a new religion, but I think there must have been something already on which to graft it. I think it most curious that such a tradition should have come down from such early times. I have given my reasons for thinking that it must go back at least as far as the days of the first Elizabeth.

If it was imported from Italy then, a relic of a Dionysian cult which had survived there, it could easily have survived in England; or it could have been imported from France by the Normans far earlier. I wonder if we shall ever really find out.

The people I know are taught never to use blood or to make sacrifices; but the Irish coven seemingly use them and they are used in Voodoo. Knowing how the rites in England work, these practices would be useless in any I know, so presumably there are totally different rites of which my friends know nothing.

The essence of magic is usually to raise power, then to use or control it. I can understand its being thought that killing something might release power or force, if the soul is force, but I do not understand how one would control or use it. Freshly shed blood might contain some vital power, which would exude slowly, and that blood might increase the power; but if this were the case, I should expect to hear that the municipal slaughterhouse men were setting up as magicians.

When I hear of this, I will believe in the power of blood. I know the Bacchantes were said to tear live animals to pieces and eat them, but I think they were people who, not understanding the occult teachings they received, mistook drunkenness for divine ecstasy, doing mad things in their frenzy. The law then restrained these excesses and reforms were carried out in the sect. The West Africans use blood, but, again, I think they do not have the true secrets.