Were some of Ireland’s most powerful and notorious women in actual fact Witches? Or were they victims of their own success falling foul of the jealous and fearful? Let’s take a look at three of the most well-known ‘Witches’ to be put on trial and find out!
DAME ALICE KYTELER
In Kilkenny you will find Kyteler’s Inn, the home and business of Alice Kyteler. Alice was the first person to be accused and charged with witchcraft in Ireland in 1324. A moneylender in the town, Alice was married a total of four times, with each husband dying under mysterious circumstances, leaving her more wealthy each time.
Kyteler’s Inn was a meeting place for local businessmen who all vied for the attention of the bewitching Alice, showering her with gifts and money. With her staff of luscious women, the premises were by far the busiest in Kilkenny.
As local envy and suspicion reached its peak, the surviving children of Alice’s four husbands had her charged with using poison, Sorcery, favouring her first born, denying the faith, blasphemy and animal sacrifices to the demons of the underworld.
Alice had many connections and her manipulative ways meant that she managed to avoid arrest for some time. After several twists including her accuser, the Bishop of Ossory being jailed himself, Alice was finally imprisoned to await trial.
First up for trial was Alice’s maid, Petronella de Meath who was tortured and confessed to practising Witchcraft with her mistress. Petronella was found guilty and burned at the stake. Alice’s first son William was also found guilty of among other things, perjury, extortion and heresy, however his was a more lenient sentence of three masses a day for a year and feeding the poor.
In 1325 Alice escaped, only to be tried in her absence and found guilty of Witchcraft. Alice Kyteler remained at large, never to be heard of again. Did she use magic to finally be rid of the threat of execution, or was she simply a smart woman, able to use her skills and charm to be a success and escape the stake?
FLORENCE NEWTON, THE WITCH OF YOUGHAL
Another sensational witch trial for Ireland was that of Florence Newton in 1661. She was accused of enchanting Mary Langdon, the maid of a prominent figure in the town called John Pyne.
Florence had called to the house during the winter of 1660 asking for meat from the master’s table. The maid refused and the slighted beggar left muttering curses. When Florence met Mary Langdon on the street, she grabbed her and gave her a vicious kiss, after which time Mary became violently ill. She suffered seizures and visions and the house of her master became subject to poltergeist activity.
When Newton was brought into Mary’s presence her sickness became worse and she began vomiting needles and nails. Mary claimed that Florence would appear in visions, sticking pins into her body.
Newton was also accused of causing the death of her jailer through sorcery, as his widow accused Florence of kissing her husband on the hand shortly before he dropped dead.
So important was the trial of the Witch of Youghal that the Irish Attorney General came to Cork to preside and it was assumed that Florence was found guilty and hanged. You see, despite well-kept records of the beginning of the trial, the remainder of them vanished completely so we will never know exactly what happened to Florence Newton. Did she also use Sorcery to survive?
BIDDY EARLY AND THE MAGIC BLUE BOTTLE
Biddy Early was born in 1778 in Kilenena, County Clare and took her mother’s maiden name. Ellen Early taught her daughter herbal cures, however both parents died when Biddy was sixteen and she was left in poverty and living in the poorhouse.
Marginalised for being aloof, rumour had it that Biddy had been talking to the fairies since she was a child and could control them at will. A good looking woman, Biddy met the first of her four husbands at market, a man twice her age.
Already making a name for herself as a healer, Biddy also opened a successful Shebeen, were the local folk would drink illicit alcohol and play cards. Within five years her husband Pat had died from alcohol consumption and she married her stepson John who also died from alcohol related issues. Her third husband died in 1868 when she was 70 and in 1869 she married a man in his thirties in exchange for a cure.
Biddy’s healing powers seemed to have centred on a mysterious blue bottle that was supposedly brought to her by a dead relative from the fairies. No one was allowed to touch the bottle and only true believers would receive help from Biddy.
If she knew you had been to a physician you were thrown out and priests in disguise would be regularly hunted away as they tried to get to the root of her power. Biddy publicly denounced the Catholic Church and was accused and charged with Witchcraft in 1865, which was very unusual this late on.
Fear took hold of those who had agreed to testify and Biddy was acquitted. On her deathbed she repented and at her funeral a gathering of priests asked the community to pray for the soul of Biddy Early.
Her cottage stands in ruins and her grave in Feakle is unmarked, however her blue bottle was not to be seen after she died. Did the fairies reclaim the source of Biddy Early’s power?
Skilled, manipulative and powerful all three, but were they Witches? That knowledge is lost forever, by way of Witchcraft or otherwise!