Irish witch trial of eight women revealed 300 years later
Professor uncovers details on sensational Irish witch trial
The case began in 1710, when Mary Dunbar (18) arrived on the peninsula from Belfast. She came to stay in the home of a cousin, Mrs James Haltridge, who had just died, apparently as a result of witchcraft.
The Belfast woman soon began to exhibit signs of demonic possession.
"It was basically like 'The Exorcist,'" says Sneddon.
According to the trial records, Dunbar claimed to have seen eights phantom women.
“Spectral evidence was used in the case, where the demoniac [possessed person] claims to have seen and, most likely, been attacked by the witches causing his or her possession in spectral form," Sneddon explains.
"As a form of evidence, this was becoming less and less convincing in England, but that was one of the main proofs against the eight women in 1711. The only person who would have seen this spectral possession is Mary Dunbar, and being a stranger in the area, she'd never have seen these women before. So she claimed anyway."
The character of the eight women was an important factor in their conviction Sneedon says.
"In small communities, local reputations are well known,"
"If you had a reputation, or someone in your family did, and then some kind of misfortune occurred, or, in the case of Mary Dunbar, you were accused of bewitching someone, then it was taken more seriously. Some of these women had that reputation.
"In fact, they were marginal and poor, and I think some of them had previously claimed to have some witchcraft power. There was a stereotype at the time of a wizened old woman -- like we have now of the witch -- and these women, looks-wise, fitted that description."
Based on his research, Sneddon thinks Mary Dunbar made the entire thing up.
"Like a lot of demoniacs in England and Scotland, I think Mary Dunbar learned and followed a script," he suggests.
"There had been witch hunts and trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, and in Scotland in 1696, where an 11-year-old girl, Christian Shaw, claimed to have been possessed. That resulted in seven people being put to death.
"These demoniacs all have the same symptoms. I think 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.
"Do I think some symptoms were psychosomatic once she got into the part?" he asks. "Maybe. Ironically, she's doing the same kind of things that the witches she's accusing are castigated for, but because it's not her fault, there's no moral responsibility. It's someone else who is doing it to her, so she can break the type of behavioral constraints placed upon her as a female at the time.
"Basically, she can get away with murder."
There is no historical record of what happened to Mary Dunbar or the eight women, as the public records office was burned down during the Irish Civil War between 1922-1923.
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