After the opening years of the eighteenth century, when once it had ceased to attract the unwelcome attentions of judge, jury, and executioner, witchcraft degenerated rapidly. It is said by some writers that a belief in the old-fashioned witch of history may still be found in the remoter parts of rural England ; the same can hardly be said of Ireland, this being due to the fact that witchcraft was never, at its best (or worst) period, very prevalent in this country. But its place is taken by an ineradicable belief in pishogues, or in the semi-magical powers of the bone-setter, or the stopping of bleeding wounds by an incantation, or the healing of diseases in human beings or animals by processes unknown to the medical profession, or in many other quaint tenets which lie on the borderland between folklore and witchcraft, and at best only represent the complete degeneracy and decay of the latter. Yet these practices sometimes come, for one reason or another, within the wide reach of the arm of the law, though it is perhaps unnecessary to state that they are not treated as infringements of the Elibabethan Statute. For example, some years ago a case was tried at New Pallas in co. Limerick, where a woman believed that another desired to steal her butter by pishogues, flew in a passion, assaulted her and threw her down, breaking her arm in the fall.1 That appalling tragedy, the " witch - burning " case that occurred near Clonmel in 1895, is altogether misnamed. The woman was burnt, not because she was a witch, but in the belief that the real wife had been taken away and a fairy changeling substituted in her place ; when the latter was subjected to the fire it would disappear, and the wife would be restored. Thus the underlying motive was kindness, but oh, how terribly mistaken ! Lefanu in his Seventy Tears of Irish Life relates a similar incident, but one which fortunately ended humorously rather than tragically : while Crofton Croker mentions instances of wives being taken by the fairies, and restored to their husbands after the lapse of years.
1 Journal of Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, xxii. (consec. ser.), p. 291.
Even as late as the summer of 1911 the word " witch " was heard in an Irish law-court, when an unhappy poor woman was tried for killing another, an old-age pensioner, in a fit of insanity.1 One of the witnesses deposed that he met the accused on the road on the morning of the murder. She had a statue in her hand, and repeated three times : " I have the old witch killed : I got power from the Blessed Virgin to kill her. She came to me at 3 o'clock yesterday, and told me to kill her, or I would be plagued with rats and mice." She made much the same statement to another witness, and added : " We will be all happy now. I have the devils hunted away. They went across the hill at 3 o'clock yesterday." The evidence having concluded, the accused made a statement which was reduced to writing : " On the day of the thunder and lightning and big rain there did a rat come into my house, and since then I was annoyed and upset in my mind. . . A lady came to me when I was lying in bed at night, she was dressed in white, with a wreath on her head, and said that I was in danger. I thought that she was referring to the rat coming into the house. . . . The lady who appeared to me said, If you receive this old woman's pension-book without taking off her clothes and cleaning them, and putting out her bed and cleaning up the house, you will receive dirt for ever, and rats and mice".
1 Irish Times for 14th June; Independent for 1st July.
Imagine the above occurring in 1611 instead of 1911 ! The ravings of the poor demented creature would be accepted as gospel-truth ; the rat would be the familiar sent by the witch to torment her, the witnesses would have many more facts to add to their evidence, the credulous people would rejoice that the country-side had been freed from such a malignant witch (though they might regret that she had been given her conge so easily), while the annals of Irish witchcraft would be the richer by nearly as extraordinary a case as that of Florence Newton, and one which would have lost nothing in the telling or the printing. Shorn of their pomp and circumstance, no doubt many witch-stories would be found to be very similar in origin to the above.
As is only to be expected in a country where the majority of the inhabitants are engaged in agricultural pursuits, most of the tales of strange doings are in connection with cattle. At Dungannon Quarter Sessions in June 1890, before Sir Francis Brady, one farmer sued another for breach of warranty in a cow.1 It was suggested that the animal was " blinked," or in other words was under the influence of the " evil eye," or had a pishogue put upon it. The defendant had agreed to send for the curative charm to a wise woman in the mountains. The modus operandi was then proceeded with. Three locks of hair were pulled from the cow's forehead, three from her back, three from her tail, and one from under her nostrils. The directions continued as follows : The operators were to write the names of eight persons in the neighbourhood whom they might suspect of having done the harm (each name three times), and the one of these eight who was considered to be the most likely to have " blinked " the cow was to be pointed out. When this had been done there was to be a bundle of thatch pulled from the roof of the suspected person. The owner of the cow was then to cut a sod, and take a coal out of the fire on a shovel on which to burn the hair, the thatch, and the paper on which the names had been written. The sod was then to be put to the cow's mouth, and if she licked it she would live.
1 Journal of Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, xxi. (consec. ser.), pp. 406-7.
His Honour to defendant : " And did she lick it ? "
Defendant : " Aye, lick it ; she would have ate it." (Roars of laughter.) It then transpired that the burning of the thatch had been omitted, and this necessitated another journey to the wise woman.