When did witchcraft make its appearance in Ireland, and what was its progress therein ? It seems probable that this belief, together with certain aspects of fairy lore hitherto unknown to the Irish, and ideas relative to milk and butter magic, may in the main be counted as results of the Anglo-Norman invasion, though it is possible that an earlier instalment of these came in with the Scandinavians. With our present knowledge we cannot trace its active existence in Ireland further back than the Kyteler case of 1324 ; and this, though it was almost certainly the first occasion on which the evil made itself apparent to the general public, yet seems to have been only the culmination of events that had been quietly and unobtrusively happening for some little time previously. The language used by the Parliament with reference to the case of 1447 would lead us to infer that nothing remarkable or worthy of note in the way of witchcraft or sorcery had occurred in the country during the intervening century and a quarter. For another hundred years nothing is recorded, while the second half of the sixteenth century furnishes us with two cases and a suggestion of several others.
It is stated by some writers (on the authority, we believe, of an early editor of Hudibras) that during the rule of the Commonwealth Parliament thirty thousana witches were put to death in England. Others, possessing a little common sense, place the number at three thousand, but even this is far too high. Yet it seems to be beyond all doubt that more witches were sent to the gallows at that particular period than at any other in English history. Ireland seems to have escaped scot-free—at least we have not been able to find any instances recorded of witch trials at that time. Probably the terribly disturbed state of the country, the tremendous upheaval of the Cromwellian confiscations, and the various difficulties and dangers experienced by the new settlers would largely account for this immunity.
Dr. Notestein1 shows that the tales of apparitions and devils, of knockings and strange noises, with which English popular literature of the period is filled, are indications of a very overwrought public mind; of similar stories in Ireland, also indicative of a similar state of tension, some examples are given in chapter IV. Though the first half of the seventeenth century is so barren with respect to witch-crafty yet it should be noticed that during that period we come across frequent notices of ghosts, apparitions, devils, etc, which forces us to the conclusion that the increase of the belief in such subjects at that time was almost entirely due to the advent of the Cromwellian settlers and the Scotch colonists in Ulster ; indeed the beliefs of the latter made the Northern Province a miniature Scotland in this respect. We cannot blame them for this ; could anything else be expected from men who, clergy and laity alike, were saturated with the superstitions that were then so prominent in the two countries from which their ranks had been recruited ?
1 In his History of Witchcraft in England.
Thus the seventeenth century was the period par excellence of witchcraft, demon-ology, and the supernatural in Ireland. The most remarkable witch case of that time, the trial of Florence Newton in 1661, to which allusion has already been made, seems to have been largely influenced by what occurred in England, while the various methods suggested or employed as a test of that old woman's culpability are quite in accordance with the procedure adopted a few years previously by the English witch-finder general, the infamous Matthew Hopkins. After 1711 the period of decadence is reached, while between that date and 1808 nothing has been found, though it may be safely inferred that that blank was filled by incidents similar to the case of Mary Butters and others, as described in the final chapter ; and possibly too, as in England, by savage outbursts on the part of the ignorant and credulous multitude.
Witchcraft never flourished to any great extent in Ireland, nor did anything ever occur which was worthy of the name of persecution—except perhaps as a sequel to the Kyteler case, and the details of which we fear will never be recovered. The first part of this statement must be taken generally and not pressed too closely, as it is based almost entirely on negative evidence, the absence of information on the subject. England has a lengthy list of books and pamphlets, while Scotland's share in the business may be learnt from the fine series of criminal trials edited by Pitcairn in the Miscellanies of the Abbotsford Club, not to speak of other works ; notwithstanding these, many cases in both England and Scotland must have been unrecorded. Ireland can produce nothing like this, for, as we have already shown, all printed notices of Irish witchcraft, with one possible exception, are recorded in books published outside the country. Nevertheless, if all likely sources, both in MS. and print, could be searched, it is highly probable that a much fuller volume than the present one could be written on the subject. The Elizabethan Act was passed on account of cases (recorded and unrecorded) that had arisen in the country ; while, human nature being what it is, it seems likely that the very passing of that Statute by the Irish Parliament was in itself a sufficient incentive to the witches to practise their art. No belief really gains ground until it is forbidden ; then the martyrs play their part, and there is a consequent increase in the number of the followers.
The Act of 1634 shows the opinion that was entertained in the highest circles relative to the baneful influence of witches and the menace their presence was to the safety of the community at large ; in this no doubt the effect of the " evil eye," or of the satirical verses of Bards, would be equally classed with witchcraft proper.
From various hints and incidental notices, such as in the account of the bewitching of Sir George Pollock, or in Law's statement relative to the case of Mr. Moor, as well as from a consideration of the prevalence of the belief amongst all classes of society, it may be inferred that far more cases of witchcraft occurred in Ireland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than one imagines, though in comparison with other countries their numbers would be but small. Future students of old documents may be able to bear out this statement, and to supply information at present unavailable.