Very few countries were immune to the Witch Trials that swept through Europe in the early modern period. Ireland, however, proved to be a rare exception.
The combination of prevailing pagan beliefs and Christianity created a completely different spiritual and cultural identity to that of its neighbouring countries, leading to a society more tolerant and accepting of the supernatural. For example, the prevailing belief in the Sidhe (fairies) who were known for causing trouble, a view that would be attributed to witchcraft in many other countries. Although Gillespie (1998) and Lapoint (1992) query this, stating that the view of witchcraft as harmful magic was as widespread in Ireland as it was in other European countries, Sneddon (2012) argues that the older belief systems of malevolent fairies, misfortune and the unintentional evil eye prevailed, inhibiting the development of European views of witchcraft and the supernatural.
Additionally, cross-cultural transmission of beliefs between Protestants (who saw witchcraft as a threat to their very existence) and Gaelic-Irish Catholics (who saw witches as benign) resulted in the overall view of magic becoming somewhat… muted (Sneddon 2012). Or, at the very least, less demonic-y. This resulted in magic being viewed as troublesome rather than malicious. Legal persecution was not necessary as communities could counteract it themselves through ritualistic and pseudo-religious means (Sneddon & Fulton 2019).
Although the number is low Ireland did hold a small number of witch trials (the exact number varies between different sources). These occurred in areas widely recognised as having large Scottish or English populations, suggesting migrants from neighbouring countries brought their views of witchcraft and the supernatural with them.
I’ll be exploring the Witch Trials of Ireland in future posts.
Lapoint, E. C. (1992) ‘Irish Immunity to Witch-Hunting, 1534–1711’ in Eire Ireland vol 27. pp 81 – 2.
Sneddon, A. (2012) ‘Witchcraft belief and trials in early modern Ireland’ in Irish Economic and Social History, vol 39. pp 1 – 25.
Sneddon, A., & Fulton, J. (2019) ‘Witchcraft, the Press and Crime in Ireland, 1822-1922’ in Historical Journal, vol 62. pp 741-764.
Gillespie, R. (1998) ‘Women and Crime in Seventeenth-Century Ireland’ in Women in Early Modern Ireland (Margaret MacCurtain and Mary O’Dowd eds.). Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Sneddon, A. (2015) Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.