Mary Butters, the Carnmoney witch—Ballad on her—The Hand of Glory—A journey through the air —A "witch" in 1911 —Some modern illustrations of cattle- and milk-magic —TRANSference of disease by a cailleach—Burying the sheaf—J.P.'s Commission—Conclusion
Old beliefs die hard, especially when their speedy demise is a consummation devoutly to be wished ; if the Island-Magee case was the last instance of judicial condemnation of witchcraft as an offence against the laws of the realm it was very far indeed from being the last occasion on which a witch and her doings formed the centre of attraction in an Irish law-court. Almost a century after the Island-Magee incident the town of Carrigfergus again became the scene of action, when the celebrated " Carnmoney witch," Mary Butters, was put forward for trial at the Spring Assizes in March 1808. It is an instance of black magic versus white (if we may dignify the affair with the title of magic!), though it should be borne in mind that in the persecution of witches many women were put to death on the latter charge, albeit they were really benefactors of the human race ; the more so as their skill in simples and knowledge of the medicinal virtue of herbs must have added in no small degree to the resources of our present pharmacopæia. The following account of this is taken from the Belfast News-Letter for 21st August 1807, as well as from some notes by M'Skimin in Young's Historical Notices of Old Belfast.
One Tuesday night (evidently in August 1807) an extraordinary affair took place in the house of a tailor named Alexander Montgomery, who lived hard by Carnmoney Meeting-House. The tailor had a cow which continued to give milk as usual, but of late no butter could be produced from it. An opinion was unfortunately instilled into the mind of Montgomery's wife, that whenever such a thing occurred,, it was occasioned by the cow having been bewitched. Her belief in this was strengthened by the fact that every old woman in the parish was able to relate some story illustrative of what she had seen or heard of in times gone by with respect to the same. At length the family were informed of a woman named Mary Butters, who resided at Carrigfergus. They went to her, and brought her to the house for the purpose of curing the cow. About ten o'clock that night war was declared against the unknown magicians. Mary Butters ordered old Montgomery and a young man named Carnaghan to go out to the cow-house, turn their waistcoats inside out, and in that dress to stand by the head of the cow until she sent for them, while the wife, the son, and an old woman named Margaret Lee remained in the house with her.
Montgomery and his ally kept their lonely vigil until daybreak, when, becoming alarmed at receiving no summons, they left their post and knocked at the door, but obtained no response. They then looked through the kitchen window, and to their horror saw the four inmates stretched on the floor as dead. They immediately burst in the door, and found that the wife and son were actually dead, and the sorceress and Margaret Lee nearly so. The latter soon afterwards expired ; Mary Butters was thrown out on a dung-heap, and a restorative administered to her in the shape of a few hearty kicks, which had the desired effect. The house had a sulphureous smell, and on the fire was a large pot in which were milk, needles, pins, and crooked nails. At the inquest held at Carnmoney on the 19th of August, the jurors stated that the three victims had come by their deaths from suffocation, owing to Mary Butters having made use of some noxious ingredients, after the manner of a charm, to recover a sick cow. She was brought up at the Assizes, but was discharged by proclamation. Her version of the story was, that a black man had appeared in the house armed with a huge club, with which he killed the three persons and stunned herself.
Lamentable though the whole affair was, as well for the gross superstition displayed by the participants as for its tragical ending, yet it seems to have aroused no other feelings amongst the inhabitants of Carnmoney and Carrigfergus than those of risibility and derision. A clever racy ballad was made upon it by a resident in the district, which, as it is probably the only poem on the subject of witchcraft in Ireland, we print here in its entirety from the Ulster Journal of Archæology for 1908, though we have not had the courage to attempt a glossary to the " braid Scots." It adds some picturesque details to the more prosaic account of the News-Letter.
" In Carrick town a wife did dwell.
Who does pretend to conjure witches. Auld Barbara Goats, or Lucky Bell,
Ye'll no lang to come through her clutches. A waeful trick this wife did play.
On simple Sawney, our poor tailor. She's mittimiss'd the other day.
To lie in limbo with the jailor. This simple Sawney had a cow,
Was aye as sleelkit as an otter ; It happened for a month or two.
Aye when they churn'd they got nae butter. Rown-tree tied in the cow's tail,
And vervain glean'd about the ditches ; These freets and charms did not prevail,
They could not banish the auld witches. The neighbour wives a' gathered in.
In number near about a dozen ; Elspie Dough, and Mary Linn,
An' Kate M'Cart, the tailor's cousin.
Aye they churn'd and aye they swat,
Their aprons loos'd, and coost their mutches ; But yet nae butter they could get,
They blessed the cow but curst the witches. Had Sawney summoned all his wits.
And sent awa for Huie Mertin, He could have gall'd the witches' guts,
An' cur't the kye to Nannie Barton.1 But he may shew the farmer's wab,
An' lang wade through Carnmoney gutters ; Alas ! it was a sore mis-jab.
When he employ'd auld Mary Butters. The sorcerest open'd the scene.
With magic words of her invention, To make the foolish people keen.
Who did not know her base intention, She drew a circle round the churn,