Please activate JavaScript!
Please install Adobe Flash Player, click here for download


5 WITCHCRAFT BELIEF [Back to Contents] This section provides literary and folklore material, as well as legal documents, court reports, and pamphlet accounts which attest to a strong, popular belief in Ulster Scots culture in witches and witchcraft, from the late 1600s to the late 1800s. Witchcraft, or harming by magical means, was made a felony or serious crime in Ireland in 1586 by a law that was repealed in 1821. We encounter two fairly distinct ‘witch’ figures in the Supernatural Reader. First of all, we see the malefic, demonic witch that plagued the lives of early modern people of all social orders, and whom judiciaries across Europe put to death in their tens of thousands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In popular culture however witchcraft remained a perceived threat well into the nineteenth century, long after the era of the witchcraft trials.2 Secondly, we encounter the butter-stealing witch who stole milk directly from cows by turning themselves into hares or by transferring the “goodness” of their neighbours’ milk to their own, thus preventing it from being churned into butter. Belief in butter-stealing witches was firmly associated with Gaelic-Irish culture in the early modern period,3 but by the nineteenth-century it had crossed the denominational divide into Protestant popular culture. Rev. James Shaw and his wife, 1672 [Back to Contents] In 1672, the neighbours of Rev. James Shaw, Scottish-born Presbyterian minister of Carnmoney, Co. Antrim, suspected that he and his wife had been killed by the ‘sorcery of some witches in the parish’, who were never identified. His servant, George Russell, was later reprimanded by Antrim Presbytery, acting in its capacity as a church court punishing moral offences, for the conjuration of evil spirits (see minutes below). 2 See, Owen Davies and Willem De Blecourt, Beyond the Witch Trials: Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment Europe (Manchester, 2004): 81-100; Owen Davies, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951 (Manchester, 1999). 3 For witchcraft in early modern Ireland, see: Ronald Hutton, ‘Witch-hunting in Celtic Societies’ in, Past and Present, 212/1 (2011): 43-71; Andrew Sneddon, ‘Witchcraft Belief and Trials in Early Modern Ireland’ in, Irish Economic and Social History, 39 (2012): 1-25; E. C. Lapoint, in 'Irish Immunity to Witch-hunting, 1534-1711' in, Eire-Ireland, xxvii (1992): 76-92; Raymond Gillespie ‘Women and Crime in Seventeenth Century Ireland’ in, Margaret MacCurtain and Mary O’ Dowd (eds), Women in Early Modern Ireland (Edinburgh, 1991); Mary McAuliffe, ‘Gender, History and Witchcraft in Early Modern Ireland: A Re-reading of the Florence Newton Trial’ in, Mary Ann Gialenella Valiulis (ed.), Gender and Power in Irish history (Dublin, 2009): 39-58.

Pages Overview