On the whole, considering the temper of the time, this Statute was exceedingly mild. It made no provision whatsoever for the use of torture to extract evidence, nor indeed did it offer any particular encouragement to the witch hunter, while the manner of inflicting the death penalty was precisely that for felony, viz. hanging, drawing, and quartering for men, and burning (preceded by strangulation) for women —sufficiently unpleasant, no doubt, but far more merciful than burning alive at the stake.
In some way Ireland was fortunate enough to escape the notice of that keen witch hunter, King James I and VI ; had it been otherwise we have little doubt but that this country would have contributed its share to the list of victims in that monarch's reign. The above was therefore the only Statute against witchcraft passed by the Irish Parliament ; it is said that it was never repealed, and so no doubt is in force at the present day. Another Act of the Parliament of Ireland, passed in 1634, and designed to facilitate the administration of justice, makes mention of witchcraft, and it is there held to be one of the recognised methods by which one man could take the life of another.
" Forasmuch as the most necessary office and duty of law is to preserve and save the life of man, and condignly to punish such persons that unlawfully or wilfully murder, slay, or destroy men . . . and where it often happeneth that a man is feloniously strucken in one county, and dieth in another county, in which case it hath not been found by the laws of this realm that any sufficient indictment thereof can be taken in any of the said two counties. . . . For redress and punishment of such offences ... be it enacted . . . that where any person shall be traiterously or feloniously stricken, poysoned, or bewitched in one county (and die in another, or out of the kingdom, &c), that an indictment thereof found by jurors in the county where the death shall happen, shall be as good and effectual in the law as if, etc. etc".
Before passing from the subject we may note a curious allusion to a mythical Act of Parliament which was intended to put a stop to a certain lucrative form of witchcraft. It is gravely stated by the writer of a little book entitled Beware the Cat1 (and by Giraldus Cambrensis before him), that Irish witches could turn wisps of hay, straw, etc. into red-coloured pigs, which they dishonestly sold in the market, but which resumed their proper shape when crossing running water. To prevent this it is stated that the Irish Parliament passed an Act forbidding the purchase of red swine. We regret to say, however, that no such interesting Act is to be found in the Statute books.
The belief in the power of witches to inflict harm on the cattle of those whom they hated, of which we have given some modern illustrations in the concluding chapter, was to be found in Elizabethan times in this country. Indeed if we are to put credence in the following passage from Reginald Scot, quoted by Thomas Ady in his Perfect Discovery of Witches (London, 1661), a certain amount of witch persecution arose with reference to this point, possibly as a natural outcome of the Statute of 1586. "Master Scot in his Discovery telleth us, that our English people in Ireland, whose posterity were lately barbarously cut off, were much given to this Idolatry [belief in witches] in the Queen's time [Elizabeth], insomuch that there being a Disease amongst their Cattel that grew blinde, being a common Disease in that Country, they did commonly execute people for it, calling them eye-biting Witches".
1 Quoted in Journal of Royal Society of Antiquaries, 3rd series, vol. i. Français mentions a Swiss sorcerer, somewhat of a wag, who used to play the same trick on people.
From incidental notices in writers of the latter half of the sixteenth century it would seem at first sight as if witchcraft, as we are treating of it in this work, was very prevalent in Ireland at this period. Barnabe Rich says in his description of Ireland: " The Irish are wonderfully addicted to give credence to the prognostications of Soothsayers and Witches." Stanihurst writes that in his time (1547—1618) there were many sorcerers amongst the Irish. A note in Dr. Hanmer's Collection speaks of "Tyrone his witch the which he hanged."1 But these statements seem rather to have reference to the point of view from which the English writers regarded the native bards, as well as the " wise women " who foretold the future ; probably " Tyrone " put his " witch" to death, not through abhorrence of her unhallowed doings, but in a fit of passion because her interpretation of coming events, by which he may have allowed himself to be guided, turned out wrongly.
We have already alluded to Gerald, the fourth Earl of Desmond. His namesake, the sixteenth holder of the title, commonly known as the " Great Earl," who was betrayed and killed in 1583, has passed from the region of history to that of mythology, as he is credited with being the husband (or son) of a goddess. Not many miles from the city of Limerick is a lonely, picturesque lake, Lough Gur, which was included in his extensive possessions, and at the bottom of which he is supposed to lie enchanted. According to the legend1 he was a very potent magician, and usually resided in a castle which was built on a small island in that lake. To this he brought his bride, a young and beautiful girl, whom he loved with a too fond love, for she succeeded in prevailing upon him to gratify her selfish desires, with fatal results. One day she presented herself in the chamber in which her husband exercised his forbidden art, and begged him to show her the wonders of his evil science. With the greatest reluctance he consented, but warned her that she must prepare herself to witness a series of most frightful phenomena, which, once commenced, could neither be abridged nor mitigated, while if she spoke a single word during the proceedings the castle and all it contained would sink to the bottom of the lake. Urged on by curiosity she gave the required promise, and he commenced. Muttering a spell as he stood before her, feathers sprouted thickly over him, his face became contracted and hooked, a corpse-like smell filled the air, and winnowing the air with beats of its heavy wings a gigantic vulture rose in his stead, and swept round and round the room as if on the point of pouncing upon her. The lady controlled herself through this trial, and another began.
1 Ulster Journal of Archæology, vol. iv. (for 1858).
1 All the Year Round (for April 1870).