My first thoughts for writing about the last day of the Hay Festival in Kells was to cover all the events I attended in one slightly squashy report. But how do you squash Marian Keyes with anyone (I don’t think she’d mind, but it seems a bit rude). For that matter how do you squash Roddy Doyle? I suspect he would mind. And tell you so.
Never mind, I thought. I’ll just focus on the two biggies and do a footnote about the film Parked and Martina Devlin’s talk about witches. This blog doesn’t write itself, after all. I do have novels of my own to write. And socks to wash.
But wouldn’t you know it, Martina Devlin was bloomin’ brilliant and now I have to do a whole thing about her, too. Ah, well, sock washing is over-rated.
We gathered in old St Columba’s Church. A perfect setting for this eerie tale, as this picture of Martina among the headstones shows –>
Using slides to illustrate the story, we listened, spellbound (yes, I know) as Martina Devlin brought to life the tale of Mary Dunbar and the eight unfortunate women she accused of witchcraft in 1711.
The setting for this sad and somewhat macabre tale was the remote isle of Islandmagee. Knowehead House, where the alleged events occurred, still stands, and is still occupied. It’s supposedly haunted. (I know, you’re shocked.)
It seems hardly coincidental that Mary Dunbar’s allegations came just 17 years after the notorious Salem Witch Trials. The pretty, educated young woman was undoubtedly aware of the history. Did she make up her tale out of the sticks and bones of that terrible case, hoping for attention? Or was she mentally ill, either with schizophrenia or, as Martina Devlin speculates, Munchhausen’s syndrome?
People on Islandmagee were isolated, deeply religious (Presbyterian), and perhaps this added to the atmosphere of suspicion and dread. In any case, no one seems to have doubted Mary Dunbar’s allegations. Witnesses told the court they observed the young woman having convulsions and seeming to be attacked by invisible hands. (As a former nurse, I’d speculate that a frontal lobe lesion might have caused many of Mary’s symptoms, including seizures, abnormal body posturing, and explosive screams, including profanity. Of course, there’s nothing to say she couldn’t have a medical condition and also be a liar.) Regardless of the reason, no one seems to have doubted Mary Dunbar. She was described as “having an open and innocent countenance, and being a very intelligent young person.” You stand such an apparent paragon against old women with skin blemishes and, perhaps, shrewish dispositions, and the poor old ones haven’t got a chance.
All the ‘witches’ were regular church-goers. All of them were female. The judges and jury were all male. Even though some of the women had alibis for the alleged molestation of poor, unfortunate Mary, the prosecution insisted their spirits had left their bodies to abuse the girl. While one of the judges dismissed the notion of ‘spectral evidence’, the other judge and the jury (did I mention they were all men?) upheld the idea.
In the end, the women were convicted and sentenced to a year and a day in jail, plus four turns in the pillory. Outrageous as this is, at least they got to live. The Irish Witchcraft Act did not allow for burning or hanging. You have to wonder, though, what their lives were like after their release. History doesn’t tell us. It doesn’t tell us what happened with Mary Dunbar, either.
Despite the horrors of the tale, it was all but forgotten. Some of the islanders speak of it, but not often. The descendants of the victims don’t like to talk about it, and who can blame them? Shamefully, these unfortunate women have never been exonerated. The crime is still attached to them and requests to Stormont to overturn the verdict and correct this miscarriage of justice have been met with passive resistance. Even the elders of Salem admitted their error and restored the reputations of the 19 dead eventually.
Martina Devlin did a fabulous job explaining the background to this all but forgotten story. The novel she has based on it is called The House Where It Happened. When I went to buy it I was told there was just one copy left. “She must have been good,” the shopgirl said. “The book’s been flying off the shelves.”
When I tweeted Martina to tell her this, she replied, “Not on broomsticks, I hope!”
I’ve only just started reading it and I’m already captivated.
Ah well, the socks have lasted this long…