Possessed by the Devil: The Real History of the Islandmagee Witches and Ireland's Only Witchcraft Mass Trial

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In early April 1711, a Dublin newspaper reported that the previous week, ‘8 witches were try’d at the Assizes of Carrickfergus, for bewitching a young gentlewoman, were found guilty, and to be imprisoned for a year and a day, and 4 times pilloried.’ This was of course the infamous trial of the Islandmagee witches, who were convicted of bewitching a teenage girl, Mary Dunbar, at Co. Antrim Assize court in Carrickfergus on 31 March 1711, under the 1586 Irish witchcraft Act. Although countless witchcraft trials were held in early modern Europe during the ‘witch-craze’, a period that witnessed the execution of around 40,000 people, the Islandmagee case was one of only three known to have been held in early modern Ireland. It was also intimately related to infamous witchcraft cases in late seventeenth-century England, Scotland and Salem, New England. This book tells the story of the ‘Islandmagee witches’ and demonstrates that people living in Ireland, both among indigenous and settler populations, and in common with every other continent in the world at some time in their history, believed in witches, and that these beliefs had serious and lasting effects on the culture and society in Ireland. It also represents an exploration of Protestant mentalities in the north of Ireland at the beginning of the eighteenth century, revealing a place where belief in the moral, magical universe remained very strong, and where immaterial essences constantly interfered in the lives of humankind: from God and the Devil, to good and evil spirits, popular magicians, demonic possession, prophets and ghosts. It also explains why Mary Dunbar’s accusation was taken seriously by Antrim clergy, wealthy local elites and agents of law enforcement, when other similar cases were not. This in its turn throws light on how religious bodies and the criminal justice system handled witchcraft accusation at that time. Finally, the book demonstrates how a unique blend of local and national politics, religious beliefs, social tensions, and cultural persuasion came together to rob Ireland of any claim to have been a (witchcraft) trial-free Island.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherHistory Press
Number of pages224
ISBN (Print)184588745X
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 1 Mar 2013


  • Demonic Possession
  • witchcraft
  • cunning folk
  • magic
  • Islandmagee
  • witches
  • 1711
  • Devil
  • Presbyterian
  • Ulster Scots
  • Carrickfergus
  • Co. Antrim
  • Ireland
  • Salem
  • Christian Shaw
  • Andrew Sneddon


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