Historically, being a witch in Ireland has always required a certain amount of versatility. You had to be good with animals as well as people, and as adept at curses as you were at cures.
And you had to be able to solve crimes.
In 1916, PJ McCorry sought the help of a witch when his local police proved incapable of providing either clues or suspects in the short time they devoted to investigating a burglary at his home.
The thief had taken £50 while the farmer laboured in the fields in Aghadalgan, near Crumlin, County Antrim. It was a significant sum, and McCorry wanted it back.
So, he travelled to Belfast to meet a witch (unfortunately, her name is not given in the article). At their meeting, she not only produced an image of the thief on a mirror, she also told McCorry that his money would soon be returned to him.
On the morning after McCorry’s meeting with the witch, the local postman returned from his round to find that someone had left a parcel on a window ledge at the post office. The parcel was addressed to PJ McCorry. Inside was £45 10s.
Despite getting most of his money back, McCorry wasn’t entirely satisfied. But at another meeting, the witch reassured him that the balance would soon be repaid.
Regardless of whether or not McCorry got the rest of his money (I haven’t been able to find a follow-up), it was still a good result. This isn’t always the case, though.
In May 1867, when two dresses and a jacket were stolen from Margaret Martin of Lisburn, County Antrim, Martin employed the services of Moses Wilson instead of contacting the police. It didn’t end well.
The following exchange took place in Belfast Police Court on 19 August 1867.
Mr Orme - Why did you go to him and not to the police?
Plaintiff - Because it was said he could do such things (laughter).
Mr Orme - That he could work miracles?
Plaintiff - Yes; I asked him what he would charge. I said if he would cause the parties to carry my clothes back that took them I would give him 10s.
Mr Orme - That was a rise (laughter).
Plaintiff - I gave him a shilling, as part payment, on the 31st July. That day week I gave him 6s. 6d. He then asked me if I had any daughters, and if they could write. Having answered that I have two, he got them to write their names, for which he gave them threepence each. Three weeks after he went to Hillsborough. I inquired about the detainment of the clothes, when he told me that he would have to touch the pins on which the clothes hung (Laughter).
Mr Orme - Had he a staff or a wand in his hand? (Laughter.)
Mr Orme (to prisoner) - What object had you in getting the daughters’ names, or in touching the pins where the clothes hung - to make the persons return them?
Prisoner - That is a thing which I could not do, nor any man on earth (laughter).
Mr Orme (to plaintiff’s daughter) - I wonder that you, an intelligent girl, should allow your mother to be imposed on by a scamp.
So, Margaret Martin got conned. She lost some clothes and some money, and she was humiliated in court. But it could have been worse. A lot worse.
In August 1807, a cow kept by Alexander and Elizabeth Montgomery was producing milk that couldn’t be churned into butter. Local gossip helped convince Elizabeth that the cow had been bewitched.
A number of “spells” were recommended and tried. At one point, twelve local women encircled the cow and blessed it. Nothing worked.
The family were told to contact Mary Butters, a witch living in Carnmoney, County Antrim, who had a bit of a reputation. Butters arrived and tried a number of “cures.” Again, nothing worked. Unperturbed, she announced that, as soon as it became dark, she would perform a spell “that would not fail.”
Seemingly, this spell "that would not fail" would compel the witch responsible for the bewitchment to come to the Montgomery house - in her true form. It would require Alexander Montgomery and another man to wait with the cow in the cowshed - armed with a knife and a Bible - while Butters performed the spell in the house with Elizabeth; the Montgomery’s son, David; and Elizabeth’s friend Margaret Lee.
But, having spent the night, uneventfully, in the cowshed without being called by Butters, Alexander returned to the house, where he found his wife and son dead, and Margaret Lee dying. Only Butters survived.
At the inquest, the Coroner said: “It is the opinion of the Jury, that the deceased Elizabeth Montgomery came by her death from suffocation, occasioned by a woman named Mary Butters, in her making use of some noxious ingredients, in the manner of a charm, to recover a cow.”
Margaret and David, according to the Coroner, had died in the same way.
- Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 5 February 1916
- Caledonian Mercury, 29 August 1808
- Dublin Daily Express, 21 August 1867
- Larne Times, 3 May 1951