Portent On Entry Of James II—witchcraft In Co. Antrim—traditional Version Of Same—events Preceding The Island-Magee Witch-Trial—the Trial Itself—dr. Francis Hutchinson.
The account of the following portent is given us in Aubrey's Miscellanies. " When King James II first entered Dublin after his Arrival from France, 1689, one of the Gentlemen that bore the Mace before him, stumbled without any rub in his way, or other visible occasion. The Mace fell out of his hands, and the little Cross upon the Crown thereof stuck fast between two Stones in the Street. This is well known all over Ireland, and did much trouble King James himself with many of his chief Attendants " ; but no doubt greatly raised the hopes of his enemies.
A few years later a witch-story comes from the north of Ireland, and is related by George Sinclair in his Satan's Invisible World displayed (in later editions, not in the first). This book, by the way, seems to have been extremely popular, as it was reprinted several times, even as late as 1871. "At Antrim in Ireland a little girl of nineteen (nine ?) years of age, inferior to none in the place for beauty, education, and birth, innocently put a leaf of sorrel which she had got from a witch into her mouth, after she had given the begging witch bread and beer at the door ; it was scarce swallowed by her, but she began to be tortured in the bowels, to tremble all over, and even was convulsive, and in fine to swoon away as dead. The doctor used remedies on the 9th of May 1698, at which time it happened, but to no purpose, the child continued in a most terrible paroxysm ; whereupon they sent for the minister, who scarce had laid his hand upon her when she was turned by the demon in the most dreadful shapes. She began first to rowl herself about, then to vomit needles, pins, hairs, feathers, bottoms of thread, pieces of glass, window-nails, nails drawn out of a cart or coach-wheel, an iron knife about a span long, eggs, and fish-shells ; and when the witch came near the place, or looked to the house, though at the distance of two hundred paces from where the child was, she was in worse torment, insomuch that no life was expected from the child till the witch was removed to some greater distance. The witch was apprehended, condemned, strangled, and burnt, and was desired to undo the incantation immediately before strangling ; but said she could not, by reason others had done against her likewise. But the wretch confessed the same, with many more. The child was about the middle of September thereafter carried to a gentleman's house, where there were many other things scarce credible, but that several ministers and the gentleman have attested the same. The relation is to be seen in a pamphlet printed 1699, and entitled The Bewitching of a Child in Ireland".
Baxter in his Certainty of the World of Spirits quotes what at first sight appears to be the same case, but places it at Utrecht, and dates it 1625. But it is quite possible for a similar incident to have occurred on the Continent as well as in Ireland ; many cases of witchcraft happening at widely different places and dates have points of close resemblance. Sinclair's story appears to be based on an actual trial for witchcraft in co. Antrim, the more so as he has drawn his information from a pamphlet on the subject which was printed the year after its occurrence. The mention of this latter is particularly interesting ; it was probably locally printed, but there appears to be no means of tracing it, and indeed it must have been thumbed out of existence many years ago. The above story, marvellous though it may seem, is capable of explanation. The oxalic acid in sorrel is an irritant poison, causing retching and violent pains. But when once the suspicion of witchcraft arose the ejection of such an extraordinary collection of miscellaneous articles followed quite as a matter of course—it would, so to speak, have been altogether against the rules of the game for the girl to have got rid of anything else at that particular date.
Classon Porter gives what he considers to be the traditional version of the above.
According to it the supposed witch was a poor old woman, who was driven mad by the cruel and barbarous treatment which she received from many of her neighbours on the ground of her being a witch. To escape this treatment she sought refuge in a cave, which was in a field attached to the old (not the present) meeting-house in Antrim. Her living in such a place being thought a confirmation of what was alleged against her, she was thereupon stabbed to death, and her body cut in pieces, which were then scattered over the places where she was supposed to have exercised her evil influence. For some years after this terrible tragedy her ghost, in the form of a goat, was believed to haunt the session-house of the old meetinghouse near which she had met her cruel fate ; it was popularly known as Mac-Gregor's ghost, this having been the name of the man who was sexton of the meetinghouse when these things took place, and who probably had been concerned in the murder. So far Classon Porter. But we very much doubt if the above has really any connection with the Antrim witchcase of 1698. It seems more probable that it occurred at a later date, possibly after the Island-Magee trial, and thus would be an instance of one of those outbursts of cruelty on the part of a mob rendered ferocious by ignorance and superstition, of which examples are to be found in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
On one occasion an Irish witch or wise woman was the means of having a Scotch girl delated by the Kirk for using charms at Hallow-Eve apparently for the purpose of discovering who her future husband should be. She confessed that " at the instigation of an old woman from Ireland she brought in a pint of water from a well which brides and burials pass over, and dipt her shirt into it, and hung it before the fire ; that she either dreamed, or else there came something and turned about the chair on which her shirt was, but she could not well see what it was." Her sentence was a rebuke before the congregation ; considering the state of Scotland at that period it must be admitted she escaped very well.1
1 C. K. Sharpe, op. cit.