Are you ready for a haunting tale that will send shivers down your spine? Look no further than the Islandmagee Witch Trials, the last known witch trial to take place in Ireland. The trials, which took place in 1711 in Carrickfergus, were the result of a claim by Mrs James Haltridge that Mary Dunbar, an 18-year-old girl, exhibited signs of demonic possession.
According to Mrs. Haltridge, Mary Dunbar would shout, swear, blaspheme, throw Bibles, go into fits every time a clergyman came near her, and even vomit household items like pins, buttons, nails, glass, and wool. With the assistance of local authorities, Dunbar picked out eight women she claimed were witches that had attacked her in spectral form.
Janet Carson, Janet Latimer, Janet Main, Janet Millar, Margaret Mitchell, Catherine McCalmond, Janet Liston, and Elizabeth Sellor were tried in March 1711 at the County Antrim spring assizes, presided over by two judges. Anthony Upton of the Common Pleas and James Macartney of the King’s Bench. Upton urged the jury to acquit, stressing the blameless lives of the accused and their exemplary attendance at Christian worship. Macartney, however, took a more credulous view and successfully urged the jury to convict.
William Sellor, husband of Janet Liston and father of Elizabeth Sellor, was tried and convicted in September 1711. The Witchcraft Act 1586 provided a penalty of death for causing death by witchcraft, and one year’s imprisonment with time in the pillory for causing injury; it is likely that William Sellor suffered the former penalty and the eight women the latter. On release, he was most likely ostracized from the community.
It’s important to note that the lack of official records and sparseness of other contemporary records make it difficult to assess the truth behind the accusations. Some historians believe that Mary Dunbar was making the whole thing up, and that she may have learned about the role of a demoniac from accounts of similar trials in Salem or Scotland.
Regardless of what actually happened, the legacy of the Islandmagee Witch Trials lives on. Authors, Victoria McCollum, Andrew Sneddon, and David Campbell wrote a novel based on the case called The Witches of Islandmagee, and in March 2023, a plaque was unveiled at The Gobbins visitor centre by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council to commemorate the eight women who were accused and convicted.
Of course, not everyone was on board with the idea of a memorial. Traditional Unionist Voice councillor Jack McKee objected, saying that the plaque could become a “shrine to paganism,” and he was unconvinced that the women were innocent. Ulster Unionist Party councillor Keith Turner also objected to the proposed line “Today the community recognizes your innocence,” stating that it was ultra vires for the council to make such a claim.
Despite the controversy, the plaque was eventually unveiled without the disputed line. It serves as a reminder of the Islandmagee Witch Trials and the power of fear and superstition in our collective past.
So, what can we learn from the Islandmagee Witch Trials? Perhaps it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of believing in things without evidence or using fear to manipulate others. Or maybe it’s a reminder that even in the darkest moments of our history, there are always those who will fight for truth and justice.
Either way, the Islandmagee Witch Trials remain a fascinating piece of history that will continue to intrigue and inspire future generations. Whether you believe in witches or not, one thing is for sure: this spooky tale is not one to be
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