Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bob Curran's "A Bewitched Land: Ireland's Witches": Book Review

Ireland had few witch trials, no hangings, and two burnings that we can account for. Compared to England, Scotland, and the Continent, not many. Yet, Irish tradition tells of those rumored to be witches and sorcerers.

Curran, an educational psychologist and Ulster-based folklorist, has written many books on the uncanny in Irish lore. He tells vividly the most famous Irish cases of where witch beliefs overlapped with tales of demons and especially fairy dealings. I wish this book cited more scholarship; for instance, neither Joan Hoff & Marion Yeates' "The Cooper's Wife is Missing" (reviewed by me on this blog and Amazon US) and Angela Bourke's "The Trials of Bridget Cleary" are mentioned as recent and comprehensive studies regarding the sensationalized "Clonmel witch burning" of 1895.

Still, it's handy to have the accounts compiled. Curran relates events briskly, but with a grounding in folkloric, historical, political, and ecclesiastical tensions that appear as always to collide whenever an Irish scholar investigates. Alice Kyteler escaped death in her raucous 1324 show-trial in Kilkenny but her servant Petronilla of Meath did not, after being tortured, flogged, and burned. We don't know the ultimate fate of Florence Newton of Youghal in Cork, in 1661, but the stories of strange diabolically attributed goings on sound like a B-movie today. Her interrogator, the spendidly named if rather shady Alexander Greatrakes, credited himself not only with first-hand expertise on how to deal with witches, but with the touch to cure the "King's Evil" of scrofula.

Islandmagee in East Antrim long has been an eerie enclave of Presbyterian severity; the supposed coven uncovered there in 1711 recalls intriguingly concurrent goings-on in Salem, Massachusetts. Bridget Cleary's sad case gains verve and poignancy as retold in Curran's quickly paced yet sympathetic style. He then shifts to wise women, who often had to adapt for survival in difficult times, perhaps left alone as elders to survive in harsh village environments, as counter-forces to Catholic suppression or Protestant surveillance. That is, they may have cultivated as a defense mechanism a fearsome folk presence, so as to exact respect from their neighbors, who then kept their distance-- unless perhaps needing a potion or charm. This sinister aura then reinforced their own alleged powers in local tradition.

Eddie Lenihan of Clare has written well of the connections of those, especially Biddy Early, who operated in this fashion. Curran describes the scraps that have come down in local history about what she supposedly did. Her mysterious blue bottle through which she could foretell the future was thrown into a lake by the priest after being bequeathed to him on her deathbed, but its legend lives on. (For more on fairies, see my Amazon US/ blog review of "Meeting the Other Crowd," a terrifyingly convincing study of their presence even within modern times, as related by Lenihan.)

Moll Anthony may not share Biddy's renown, but she represents in Carlow another wise woman associated with witchcraft, one of the last, in the 19th c, of an antiquated number otherwise lost to history. The Irish ghost writer J. Sheridan LeFanu in "Sir Dominick's Bargain" adapted the Faustian bargain made, and remade, and extended ingeniously, by Anglican cleric Alexander Colville at Galgorm castle near Ballymena in Antrim. Colville managed to outwit the devil around the 1630s and '40s. The outcome of the pact I leave you to find out for yourself.

The book concludes with a few tales of others claiming powers. Gerald Fitzgerald "the Wizard Earl" after his 1583 death against the English haunted Lough Gur; "the Black Hag of Shanagolden" of the Earl's clan was seen as the spectral abbess around her abandoned convent where in 1640 happenings paralleling and nearly concurrent with those of the French convent of Loudon (dramatized in Aldous Huxley's book and inflated into Ken Russell's "The Devils") were said to have occured; after Cromwell's invasion, Leamanah Castle in Clare likewise boasted a lady now impoverished, the O'Brien's Máire Rua.

Curran figures such tall tales were propaganda spread by the English against the native clans. Mary Butters, "the witch of Carmoney," however, in Presbyterian Antrim long after the collapse of the clans shows the power of black rumor allied against a woman on the margins in 1808. Concluding, Curran reminds us of the "age-old wariness" many have of a crone, "just in case." (Posted to Amazon US 12-14-09)

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