WITCHES OF IRELAND PART 1 – ALICE KYTELER, THE BLACK WIDOW OF KILKENNY

alice

Long before the publication of Malleus Maleficarum, attention was brought to bear on the small medieval town of Kilkenny in the Kingdom of Ossory.  One of the earliest ever recorded witch trials took place in the early 14th century against a local businesswoman and serial bride by the name of Alice Kyteler – and what a sensational trial it was.

So who was the local entrepreneur and femme fatale who caused uproar in the Irish legal system and brought the Ecclesiastical authorities of Ireland to their knees?

THE BLACK WIDOW

Alice Kyteler’s family were Flemish brokers and they had settled in Kilkenny sometime towards the end of the 13th century with just one child, a daughter.  Alice learned the ropes of the family business and grew up to be very shrewd, so it came as no surprise that her first husband was an affluent local businessman and financier by the name of William Outlaw.

Believed to have married in 1280 when Alice would have been only sixteen or so, they went on to have a son, also called William.  The banker’s wife groomed her son for great things and by an early age he had gained positions of authority within the local community.  By 1302 William’s father was dead and Alice was already onto her second marriage.  Husband number two was another moneylender by the name of Adam le Blund, from the market town of Callan on the Kilkenny/Tipperary county borders.

Both parties were already wealthy before the union, however marriage brought them a new level of power and prosperity.   The couple’s wealth and status had left feelings of acrimony running high in the parish and rumours had already began to circulate that Alice’s first husband had not died from natural causes.  The locals were convinced that Alice and Adam had in fact, committed murder.

The fire of fear and distrust aimed at Alice Kyteler was beginning to take hold, however it would appear that Alice and the events surrounding her insisted on adding fuel to the growing flames.  In 1307, Adam le Blund relinquished all legal entitlement to his own wealth and gave what was effectively full Power of Attorney to his stepson William, together with the complete nullification of William’s debts agreements.  This incident was deemed all the more suspicious as Adam had offspring of his own from a prior marriage and was in seemingly good mental and physical health.  Two years later he was dead.

1309 saw Alice wed for the third time.  Richard de Valle was an affluent landowner from the neighbouring county of Tipperary and once again the marital union was short lived.  A seemingly fit and well Richard died mysteriously, leaving all his wealth to Alice.  The son of the unfortunate deceased, also called Richard, kept hold of the assets and was the subject of legal proceedings, as the widow demanded her rightful wealth.

By the time Alice Kyteler married yet another wealthy landlord, Sir John le Poer, the local rumour mill was in overdrive and the whispering of foul play continued.  In frighteningly similar circumstances to her first three husbands, John’s health began to decline, in spite of his relatively young age.   John’s finger nails and toe nails were discolouring and falling out, he was rapidly going bald, and the little hair he had left was devoid of pigmentation.  As his ailments increased and his already poor health took a decided turn for the worse, two game changing events took place.  First of all, with no regard for his own blood kin, John made a will bequeathing all his money and assets to Alice and her son William.  The second, fearing for his life, John turned to the church for help. By 1324 he was dead and the whispers had turned to shouts of witchcraft.

KYTELER’S INN

kytelers-inn

Despite marrying prosperous landowners, Alice insisted that she remain in her birthplace on St. Kieran’s Street in Kilkenny.

As a rich wife and ultimately an incredibly wealthy serial widow, Alice did not need to work, however her focus was on building and maintaining a thriving business.  She continued with her practice of moneylending, made easier by having the perfect location to conduct her affairs.

Kyteler’s Inn wasn’t just any old hostelry. It was a meeting place for local businessmen who all vied for the attention of the bewitching Alice, showering her with gifts and money.   It should therefore come as no surprise that this was the very place Alice set eyes on her ill-fated husbands to be.

Whilst the attention of so many of the wealthy local male population was scintillating for Alice, she was a canny businesswoman first and foremost.  She hired the most luscious and alluring of young women to work in her premises, enticing men from their wives and responsibilities and spending their money in Kyteler’s Inn, making her establishment the most successful in Kilkenny.

It was also here in the inn that Alice was said to work her sorcery and that her patrons were bewitched by Alice and her alleged coven.

SORCERY, THE CHURCH AND THE LAW

Contrary to popular belief, the Church often turned a blind eye to sorcery, accepting that some forms of Malficium were minor offences and that the medical benefits offered by those who practiced such arts outweighed the ‘crime’.  As such, any issues relating to witchcraft were dealt with by the local authorities and not the Church, except in the case of direct heretical doctrine.

Unfortunately for Alice, this all changed when Pope John XXII came to the Papal Throne in 1316.  He was genuinely terrified of witchcraft and was convinced his life was in jeopardy, leading to the granting of sweeping powers to his Inquisitors.

Pope John XXII published a definitive list of practices that would constitute heresy and subsequent prosecution by the Church, particularly in relation to demon worship and pacts with the devil.

pope-john-xxii

Unfortunately for Alice, this canon law reached Ireland and in particular, Richard Ledrede, the Bishop of Ossory.

ACCUSATIONS, ARRESTS AND ABSCONDING

Whether out of bitterness of being cheated from their respective inheritance or genuine concern that Alice Kyteler was indeed a witch, the children of her last three deceased husbands joined together and called upon the assistance of Richard Ledrede.

Richard was a devout Christian and fanatical with seeking out and punishing heretics.  He was unhappy that respect for the Church and canon law were fading and that the law of the land took precedent.  He had the necessary background to implement Church doctrine and proceed with charges of heresy against Alice and her son William Outlaw, however he was up against resistance from local law enforcement and Alice’s very powerful contacts.

Having heard the allegations from Alice’s stepchildren, Ledrede went ahead and charged Alice, her maid Petronella and her son William with heresy.  The charges included denying the Faith, desecration of the church with black magic rituals, sorcery, demonic animal sacrifice, murder, controlling members of the local community with potions and spells and fornicating with a demon known by many names including Robin Artisson, in exchange for power and prosperity.

Richard’s first attempt at arrest was thwarted by the Chancellor of Ireland, Roger Outlaw, a relative of Alice’s first husband.  He advised Ledrede that there could be no warrant issued for the arrests without the accused having first been excommunicated for at least 40 days and a public hearing.  Meanwhile the well timed intervention of another relation by marriage, Sir Arnold de Poer, senior steward of Kilkenny allowed Alice to flee to Dublin and saw the imprisonment of Richard Ledrede.

While Richard was in prison, the whole of the diocese of Ossory saw an embargo on funerals, baptisms and marriage.  As the majority of the population believed in Hell and eternal damnation, the public outcry was too much and the Bishop of Ossory was released.

Incarceration left Ledrede incensed and he heightened his efforts to prosecute Alice, her son and maid by involving the Justice of Ireland, who insisted upon a full witch trial.

William Outlaw pleaded guilty to the charges of heresy, illegal money lending, adultery and perverting the course of justice.  His punishment was to attend three masses a day, donate to the poor and agree to reroof the cathedral with lead.

WITCH

In the meantime, Alice had absconded and the trial continued in her absence.  The alleged depths of her depravity and heresy began to be revealed to the court.  The witch Kyteler was said to have used a human skull to brew her potions, with ingredients including parts of corpses, the innards of fowl, worms and insects and the clothing of deceased infants.  The concoctions were said to rouse her innocent victims to do her bidding, with acts of love, hatred or murder.

Alice and her coven were said to have conducted black masses in the churches, sacrificed and dissected livestock to bargain with demons at crossroads and Alice herself was accused of continued carnal relations with a powerful demon in order to maintain her position of influence over the local community.

The final accusations were of the murder of each of her four husbands.  Evidence regarding her last husband, John le Poer was put forward.  He had no nails, they were ripped from their beds and left bleeding, all bodily hair had fallen out and he was completed withered away to a skeleton at the time of his death.

While Alice had disappeared, some say to England with the help of her well positioned male acquaintances, her maid was not so fortunate.

Petronella de Meath was tortured repeatedly in Kilkenny Jail until she confessed to being a witch and a member of the coven of Alice Kyteler.  On 3rd November 1324, Petronella was the first woman in Ireland to be burned at the stake as a witch.

burning-at-the-stake

THE LEGACY OF ALICE KYTELER

So what of Alice? Well Alice Kyteler was never heard of again – whether she used witchcraft to cloak her whereabouts or was helped abroad by calling on infatuated men of position we will never know.

What we do know, is that the accusations and the trial were very real indeed.  They remain documented as they have been for centuries and the trial changed the balance of law and power back in favour of the Church.

The most exciting revelation of this account is that the locations remain.  The Jail still stands, bars on windows.  As you stand on the street, peering into the eerie darkness of the cold, cramped cells, a shiver runs up your spine at the realization there could be something ethereal staring back at you, perhaps the tormented blackened soul of Petronella de Meath.

Kyteler’s Inn is still the most famous hostelry in Kilkenny and the spirit of Alice is said to remain, watching over her establishment and the revelers within for eternity.

So was Alice Kyteler indeed a witch, or just the most successful and richest business woman in medieval Ireland? Perhaps if you come across her in Kyteler’s Inn, you can ask her yourself!

alice-sculpture

I shall leave you with Alice, immortalised in the words of W. B Yeats:

"A sudden blast of dusty wind and after
Thunder of feet, tumult of images,
Their purpose in the labyrinth of the wind;
And should some crazy hand dare touch a daughter
All turn with amorous cries, or angry cries,
According to the wind, for all are blind.
But now wind drops, dust settles; thereupon
There lurches past, his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,
That insolent fiend Robert Artisson
To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought
Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks."

 

 

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GRIEF, GHOSTS AND GOTHIC REVIVAL AT DUCKETT’S GROVE

Ducketts Grove

Although only ruins now, the outline of the towers and turrets of Duckett’s Grove stand resplendent against the horizon and surrounding countryside of the estate to which they have belonged for nearly two centuries.

Duckett’s Grove was originally a modest two story house built in the style of its day in the mid eighteenth century by a descendant of the Duckett family, who arrived to the townland of Kneestown in County Carlow some 100 years previously.

As the family grew in wealth and social standing in both Carlow and Dublin city, it became clear that the somewhat ordinary family home was insufficient to meet the Duckett needs. Owner William Duckett, married an heiress by the name of Harriet in order to further his aspirations of grandeur.

William Duckett

William Duckett

In 1830 therefore, the services of Thomas A Cobden, renowned architect were secured and work began on making Duckett’s Grove a Gothic revival masterpiece of epic proportion, with regal arches, neo-gothic oriel windows and grotesques added to the majestic towers and imposing structure.

One of the only photographs of Ducketts Grove before the fire of 1933.

One of the only photographs of Ducketts Grove before the fire of 1933.

Now believing his home was suitable for his social needs, William Duckett began to throw lavish parties inviting the socialites of Dublin to mingle with local gentry and the Duckett family. William was somewhat of a philanderer and married his second wife, Maria Thompson in 1895 when he was 73 years old, bringing her and her daughter Olive to reside at Ducketts Grove.

William passed away in 1908 and was buried in the family plot at nearby Knocknacree. Maria continued to live in solitude at the mock Gothic castle as she and her daughter had become estranged. Finally Maria abandoned the property in 1916 to live in Dublin.

In a twist, when Maria died she was still so furious with Olive, that in her will she left nothing but what was known as the ‘Angry Shilling’ to her absentee offspring.

Not wishing to be done out of her inheritance, Olive went to court and in a week and a half long hearing, it was revealed that mother and daughter had a tempestuous and physically violent relationship, much to the shock of the Dublin city social scene. Maria was given a cash settlement and the Ducketts of Duckett’s Grove were no more.

Originally purchased by a farmer’s collective, bickering and greed over shares led to default on payment and the Land Commission stepped in and took over. During this time in the early 1920’s the IRA made use of Duckett’s Grove for training purposes and it was the base of its flying column, a mobile armed unit of soldiers.

Despite the nature of its use post-Duckett, the great house was well maintained until it was brought to a smoking shell by way of a catastrophic fire on 20 April 1933 – the cause of which was never discovered.

Although nothing but a husk, it would seem that the events within Duckett’s Grove have left their mark, with several agitated spirits being witnessed over the decades, making the building ruins a hotspot for numerous paranormal investigations, including America’s Destination Truth in 2011.

The most notorious entity identified is the Duckett’s Grove Banshee. Banshees have forever been known as portents of death, with most connected to families and more than a few of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment.

Banshee

Banshee

In this instance, the Banshee is the result of a Piseóg, a curse placed on the house and family to bring about death, despair and financial ruin. This particular curse was cast by the angry grieving mother of a young girl who had been having an affair with William Duckett and was riding on the estate when she fell from her horse.

The bringer of death can be heard shrieking on the wind through the ruins of Duckett’s Grove from the towers for two days and nights, with stories of those that heard her suffering fatality and family tragedy. Noted accounts include a woman who dropped dead in the grounds and a worker in the gardens who heard the feared cry and whose mother died the follow morning.

Servants have distinctly been heard working in what was formerly the kitchens and pantry and a phantom horse and carriage has rolled up to the former entrance.

Disembodied voices, bangs, floating balls of light and spectral shadows are just a few more of the paranormal phenomena to occur in the Carlow castle. Apparitions of various figures, believed to be members of the Duckett family have been seen, including what is believed to be the ghost of William Duckett himself, riding a horse on his estate.

The Ducketts had extremely strong ties to the Protestant church and a vocalised hatred of Catholicism, so some investigators have provoked heightened paranormal responses from the entities of Duckett’s Grove, by bringing Catholic relics such as rosary beads to investigations.

Now Duckett’s Grove is open to the public, with visitors touring the extensive gardens and woodlands. For those who look at the Gothic skeleton that remains, it is a statuesque reminder of the opulent and lavish lifestyle that used to be lived within.

Ducketts

For those who are braver, the ruins provide a hive of paranormal occurrences to be witnessed from the brightest and busiest of tourist days to the dead of night.

With a family history of materialism, violence and infidelity, and with a Duckett family motto of ‘Let us be judged by our acts’, it is little wonder therefore that this noble family and those whose lives they touched remain the eternally restless residents of Duckett’s Grove.

CELTIC HARBINGERS OF DEATH

Celtic Harbinger of Death

For centuries clans and bloodlines have been forewarned of imminent death within their walls by way of portents and harbingers.

I first learned of such things as a child when my mother would tell me of the banshees and the accounts of local families here in County Limerick, who would have strange phenomena occur during times of impending bereavement.

In Ireland it is extremely common for creatures and ethereal beings to appear in the days and moments preceding the demise of a relative. The most terrifying aspect is that one of these harbingers attaches itself to a lineage and hangs over them forever more, particularly when it comes to the families of high social standing and nobility.

THE FOXES OF GORMONSTON

 

Gormonston Castle

 

In Irish Peerage the title of Baron or Viscount of Gormonston belongs to the patriarch of the Preston family and has been around since the late fourteenth century, their residence being Gormonston castle in Drogheda, County Meath.

The castle remained in the family until the 1950’s when it was sold to a Holy Order to create a school. Prior to that however, it was the location of one of the strangest occurrences for generations.

With the first instance reported in the seventeenth century, it was documented that the foxes in the surrounding countryside would know when the head of the Preston household was dying, even if that fact was unbeknown to the family themselves.

Arriving in twos and amassing under the window of the Viscount’s bed chamber, the foxes would howl and cry all night long. Servants would do their utmost to drive the animals away, only for them to return to their place of vigil.

Once the Viscount had passed away, the foxes soundlessly faded into the night.

fox

BANSHEES

 

Banshee

Banshee

Banshees have forever been known as portents of death, however there have been sightings of these wailing spirits seeking death for revenge and torment.

This evil being has the appearance of a wretched old hag, dress shredded, matted grey hair, pointed rotting teeth and long, yellow fingernails. If she sets her mind to have you as her prey, she will stalk you, forcing you to listen to her soul wrenching scream of despair until you go insane and your own soul is lost in the depths of her evil cry.

Of course of you are lucky, you will have a quick death by looking into her blood red eyes, filled with enough loathing and agony to kill you instantly. Those strong enough not to succumb to either, are ripped apart with her bare hands.

More often than not however, the Banshee is a herald of despair and even as a child I heard tales and indeed the chilling cries through the still of the night that led to the report of a death the following morning.

In the early sixteenth century in Bunratty Castle in County Clare, it was reported that a visitor to the O’Brien family home was staying in a room overlooking the river and was woken by a piercing scream. Upon investigation the guest was horrified to see a pale deathly face floating at the window, dishevelled red hair cascading over her face.

The following morning the Lady told of her experience, to be told a family member had died in the castle in the night. The Banshee was believed to be the spirit of the wife of a worker drowned in the river by a former castle Lord, with her revenge being to bring death to descendants of the Castle.

In Dingle on John Street, the Hussey family were settled in for the night when their blood ran cold. The pitiful gut-wrenching cry of the Banshee was at their door. Thankfully due to their lowly status, it would appear to have been a case of mistaken identity, as the Banshee left and the following morning a well to do man in the fishing village, also called Hussey, was found dead.

HELLHOUNDS

 

Shuck

Shuck

Shucks, or Devil Dogs have long been written about in Irish history. They are black as the night, large, with glowing red eyes, some with cloven hooves instead of paws. Sometimes they are raised to protect treasure such as the one that breathes fire at Castle Biggs in Tipperary, others simply to forewarn of death.

Quite possibly the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles, they are seen in rural and isolated areas, although once your eyes set on the Shuck the mark of death is upon you.

In Kanturk, County Cork a local man by the name of Foley was walking home when he encountered the hell beast on the road, eyes glowing and snarling. He stood terrified as the Shuck brushed up against his leg. Unable to sleep that night, he told his family of his encounter and died just a few days later.

ORNITHOMANCY

 

Raven

Raven

Crows and Ravens have long been emblematic of death, made all the more foreboding by their predisposition to feed on carrion, the decaying flesh of animals, as well as their black plumage.

These birds were purported to be chaperones, guiding the souls of the departed into the next world as well as conduits between this world and the spirit plain.

In Ireland there are references going back to ancient times and in Celtic folklore, The Morrigan is symbolised by a crow. She is a goddess of battle, strife and sovereignty and a harbinger of doom for those men who cross her path.

 

The Morrigan

The Morrigan

No corporeal weapons were needed in order for the Morrigan to take her prey. She relied solely on magic and her ability to shapeshift at will and is known primarily for appearing as a crow to those at death’s door.

The belief has continued over the centuries that when a single raven or crow has appeared at a house, tapping on the window, a death within was looming.

In the late eighteenth century there is an account of the Ross-Lewin family in Kilchrist, in County Clare being terrorised by their own messenger of death. The father of the household was away on business and his children went to spend the evening with friends.

On returning home, they passed the old abandoned church where they saw an old hag crying and waving her hands in the air.

Thinking her crazy the terrified youth went towards her only for the old woman to vanish. They sped home and told their mother of their encounter and the matriarch expressed her fears of a death in the family.

At that moment an enormous raven landed on the window sill and tapped three times on the pane. A few days later the family were in mourning as news reached them of the death of Mr Ross-Lewin.

Of course birds of ill-news do not end there. Thrushes flying in the window and settling and white owls seen during the day are also signs of a bereavement in the home.

THE COACH OF DEATH AND THE DULLAHAN

death coach

By far the most fearsome of all the harbingers is the Headless Horseman and his Cóiste Bodhar. Unlike the other portents who are seen as messengers of death and attached to bloodlines, the Dullahan is Death and he has no master other than the sacrificial god, Crom Dubh. He will not be stopped and his malevolent call to the dying is a summoning of their very soul.

The Dullahan is believed to be an incarnation of Crom Dubh. The god did not want to be denied human souls following the introduction of Christianity and so disguised himself as the one without a head, a tribute to the sacrifices through decapitation that gave Crom Dubh his power.

He rides through the darkness on the blackest steed with glowing red eyes, breathing flame and sparks from its nostrils. The Dullahan carries a whip made from the spine of a human corpse as he stands on his coach, with wheel spokes of thigh bone and covered with dried human skin. Some say the carriage is headed by six horses, black as the darkest soul, however the rider is always the same.

The headless horseman lights his way with candles embedded into skulls, his own incandescent head that he carries, a beacon in the dead of night. He has supernatural vision and when he senses a soul for the taking he holds his head aloft, seeing for miles across fields and forests, through windows and into the darkest and dingiest of rooms.

The Dullahan is only permitted to speak once on each ride and that is to utter the name of the person who is going to die. When the horseman stops, he has found his quarry and speaks their name aloud, bringing forth their spirit to be devoured.

 

Dullahan

Dullahan

So all are harbingers of death, however with the exception of the Dullahan, are these messengers of doom a horror to be feared with the knowledge of what is to follow, or rather an old family friend, come to warn of loved ones being taken into the eternal night?

 

 

Saint Valentine, Heartbreak and Haunting in Ireland

Saint Valentine Dublin

As you enjoy Saint Valentine’s Day, you may not realise that his remains are in a shrine in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Dublin! To celebrate his Irish connection , I have taken a look at some of the tragic love stories and hauntings of the castles and stately homes of Ireland.  Saint Valentine, Hearbreak and Haunting in Ireland

ZOMBIE IRELAND: A BITE OF SUPERSTITION

zombie ireland

In Ireland aside from the fear of the soul entering eternal damnation, one of the biggest fears in relation to death is that the dead will rise and inflict carnage on the living.  So being practical and all, the Irish have gone to great lengths to make sure that just didn’t happen!

Zombie Ireland: A Bite of Superstition

Ireland’s Headless Horseman – The Dullahan

Dullahan

In my Halloween special I briefly touched on this imposing devourer of souls – time to find out more about the Dullahan – after all, forewarned is forearmed!

http://www.spookyisles.com/2014/11/irelands-headless-horseman-the-dullahan/

SAMHAIN, SUPERSTITION AND SUPPERS FOR THE DEAD

samhain

As Samhain draws to a close for another year, it is a time to reflect on the origins of this pagan celebration and what it meant to those who, over centuries maintained the traditions and rites synonymous with this feast in Ireland.

Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) would begin at sunset on 31st October and end at sunset on 1st November, signalling the beginning of a new year.  It is one of four major celebrations during the Celtic year and signifies the end of summer.

This was a time when cattle were brought in and slaughtered for the winter months, the bitter cold and poor pasture leaving farmers no choice.

The ceremonies for Samhain were intertwined – the light and dark, protections against bad spirits and misfortune and a welcome for the dead to return.

As with Beltane, at the heart of Samhain is the customary communal bonfire. The fire was a protection ritual, to purge bad fortune and influence and to defend from harm during the long hard winter.

All house fires would be quenched, the central fire the only one alight. Each family would take a burning ember from the bonfire, carried in a hollowed out turnip and use it to reignite their own hearth, instilling the same protection and cleansing into their own homes and lives.

The bones of slaughtered cattle would be cast onto the fire as an offering for a good winter and objects symbolising wishes or ailments would be thrown on the flames, individuals hoping to be cured or receive their hearts desires.

Samhain is the time of year when the curtain between our world and the next becomes so fragile that the both the fairies and the dead can take a simple step between realms.

Many of the dead were welcomed back into the family fold with open arms, a place set for returning souls to sit at the table. This was known as a Dumb Supper and all living guests were to dine in silence, listening and watching for a word or sign from their dearly departed.

The fear for celebrants was that of course malevolent spirits could also cross over as could the Devil himself. These evil entities were thought to wreak havoc on the villages by making cattle sick and bringing disease to households so ‘guising’ would be carried out as a symbolic gesture to hide from those not wanted.

A typical costume was the Láir Bhán (White Mare) which would consist of a man covered in a white cloth, carrying a horse’s skull in his hands. He would lead a group of youths from farm to farm blowing on cow horns and asking for food.  Woe betide any farmer who refused for he would be cursed with bad luck for the coming year.

As well as the dead, homeowners had to contend with the fairies travelling abroad to create mischief on this most ethereal of nights. Gifts in the form of food or milk would be left on doorsteps to guarantee a fairy blessing.  Anyone foolish enough to not do so would be subject to pranks by the cheeky wee folk at best and victim to a fairy curse at worst.

It was these beliefs and traditions that led us to trick or treating and costumes in today’s Halloween, so a fistful of sweets for protection from mischief and misfortune is a small price to pay don’t you think?