39 Pages


AS DIFFICULT as it often is to explain events which occurred in a society distant in time from our own, it is even more difficult to explain nonevents - expected developments which failed to materialize.! Early modern Ireland failed to mount any sustained campaign against suspected witches. There were no serial chain-reaction witch-hunts comparable to the vinllent purges that took place contemporaneously in other European societies. This is surprising, given the prevalence and scale of witchcraft prosecutions elsewhere in Europe at the time. During the early modern period, European trials resulted in the execution of some 60,000 condemned witches.' Even England, with its relatively moderate record of witchCCc\ft proseclltions, executed perhaps 500 to I,OOO witches. J

Ireland, however, proved a notable exception to this pattern. Despite the fact that the Irish were then subject to the English crown and derived theif I586 witchcraft statute from England, very few witch trials occurred in Ireland during the early modern era. From the beginning of Tudor

rule to Ireland's last known witch trial in 17Il, no more than nine proceedings against witchcraft are attested.4 Of this number, only three are known to have resulted in the execution of the accused, although it is probable that a fourth case had a similar outcome. During these two centuries tbere was but one mass trial, the Island Magee affair in 17II, and, while the seven women codefendants in the case were eventually found guilty of witchcraft, none was hJnged. S As sensational as certain features of this incident proved to be, it was self-contained, a local matter, and led to no furtber prosecutions. Ire land produced no large scale chainreaction hunts comparabJe, say, to the 1645 Essex witch"finding movement or the Salem witch-hunt of I692.6

By the standards of contemporary continental society, and even tbose of neighboring England, early modern lrehnd exhibited a remarkably low level of ;JDliwitchcraft jural activity. What 3.ccounts for the dearth of Irish prosecutions? What is responsible for the country's singular immunity to the epidemic witch-craze that swept Europe during the period? The questions are worth exploring not only for ·what may be revealed about Ireland, but also for what we may discover about the dynamics of witchhunting in early modern Europe.