“With Roun-tree tied in the cow’s tail,Ballad of the Carnmoney witches
And Vervain gleaned about the ditches,
But a these did naught avail,
Thou they Blest the cow, and cursed the witches”
Ireland stands out as being relatively unique in the fact that we didn’t fare as badly as much of Europe (and beyond) when it comes to the witch craze that swept across the later medieval and early modern periods. As it stands, we only have a handful of documented, high-profile cases. One of these I covered in a previous article featuring the sorcery trial of Alice Kyteler and the subsequent burning of her maidservant Petronilla. You can read this article here.
The cases that we do have evidence of that feature diabolic witchcraft are found in towns of English influence (like in garrison towns such as Youghal and the case of Florence Newton in the 17th Century). The connection of diabolism never really caught on amongst the Gaelic population and typically the “witch” was seen as only attacking household produce and livestock (as opposed to demonic possession etc). You can read more of these ‘butter witches’ here. These butter witches were dealt with through a range of countermagic measures through consultation with a Bean Feasa (wise woman) instead of church (or judicial) involvement.
In 1807 in the Presbyterian community at the townland of Carnmoney, County Antrim, an interesting case arose. A tailor by the name of Alexander Montgomery and his wife Elizabeth found that they were unable to make butter from the milk they took from their only cow. Elizabeth enquired with some of the older women in the area who explained that this was not an unusual occurrence, and all had heard stories of this happening before. They offered a couple of suggestions of countermagic that would help, including tying Rowan (also known as Mountain Ash) branches to the tail of the cow and hanging another talisman in the animal’s enclosure/byre. When this failed they got twelve women to pray around the cow and fed it vervain (a herb with magical association).
When these measures failed the women suggested enlisting the help of a local Bean Feasa/ Bean Chumhachtach (wise woman/woman with supernatual power) who specialised in curing bewitched cattle (but also dabbled in telling fortunes, finding stolen horses, and using divination).
Mary Butters was sought out and brought in to try and rectify the issue. Mary was born in Carrickfergus, a town famous for another high-profile witch trial featuring the ‘Islandmagee Witches’ roughly a century before (I will cover this case in a future article). She tried various remedies including trying to churn the butter herself while whispering an incantation, as well as drawing a circle around the churn and washing it out with south-running water. When these failed she instructed Alexander and another local boy to turn their waistcoats inside out and to go stand guard at the head of the cow and not move until she returned to them at midnight. She entered the house with Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s 20-year-old son David, and their elderly lodger Margeret. She blocked up the windows, doors, and chimney and took out a large pot/cauldron. Into this, she placed sulfur, milk from the cow, and some large iron nails and crooked pins. This countermagic relied on sympathetic magic in which the cauldron represented the bladder of the witch who cast the bewitchment. As it was heated it would cause tremendous pain in the target. Blocking up the windows and doors prevented them from entering the house and knocking over the pot/cauldron and breaking the counterspell. The pain would cause the person to subsequently break the original bewitchment on the animal.
Mary placed the pot on the fire and began the proceedings. Midnight came and went and as the hours passed on Alexander became worried and made for the house. He kicked the door in and found his wife and son dead on the floor with Mary and Margeret barely clinging to life. They were carried outside but Margeret died a few minutes later, with Mary coming round soon after. One source claimed that Mary was brought back to her senses after being thrown on a dungheap and beaten by the husband and some locals, although this appears to not be true.
The inquest was carried out on the 19th of August 1807 in front of 12 jurors. All deaths were declared as accidental due to suffocation as a result of the sulfurous fumes due to Butters’s ritual. A trial was held in 1808, but this was discharged by a grand jury.
An unpublished 19th-century memoir by W.O. McGraw claimed that there was more to Butters’s actions than met the eye. He claimed that she did it on purpose to murder Elizabeth and her son who allegedly had been instrumental in the conviction and subsequent execution of a relative of Mary Butters in 1803 for spreading messages of rebellion. According to the source, Mary had insisted that the son, who was married and living miles away, be part of the ritual. It also claims that she had on multiple occasions tried to force Margeret to not take part in the ritual and that it would be of great cost to her if she did. None of this however was included in the trial, not to mention the ritual (including the use of sulfur) was widespread. As such these claims appear unsubstantiated.
Mary appears to have moved from Carrickfergus to Carnmoney following the ordeal and continued to be hired by the locals for many magical services for decades following the incident. Another point to note is that the case is interesting for the fact it took place in a presbyterian community (with Butters herself being Presbyterian), showing that the Irish (based in catholic communities) tradition and belief in butter witches transferred into Protestant and Presbyterian communities. The excerpt of the poem at the beginning of this article is a contemporary poem and is the possibly only extant poem we have relating to Irish witchcraft. The full poem is as follows:
In Carrick town a wife did dwell,
Who does pretend to conjure witches
Auld Barbara Goats and lucky Bell,
Yell no lang to come through her clutches ;
A waefu’ trick this wife did play,
On fimple Sawney, our poor tailor,
She’s mittimiss’d the other day
To lie in limbo with the Jailor :
This fimple Sawney had a Cow
Was aye as sleekit as an otter
It happen’d for a month or two,
Aye when they churn’d they got nae butter;
Roun-tree tied in the Cow’s tail,
And vervain glean’d about the ditches ;
These freets and charms did not prevail,
They cou’d not banif h the auld witches :
The neighbour wives a’ gather’d in
In number near about a dozen,
Elfpie Dough and Mary Linn,
An* Keat M’Cart the tailor’s cousin,
Aye they churn’d an’ aye they fwat,
Their aprons loos’d and coost their mutches
But yet nae butter they could get,
They bleft the Cow but curft the witches:
Had Sawney summoned all his wits,
And fent awa for Huie Mertin,
He could have gall’t the witches guts
An’ cur’t the kye to Nannie Barton ;
But he may fhow the farmer’s wab
An’ lang wade through Carmoney gutters,
Alas’ it was a fore mis-jab
When he employ’d auld Mary Butters;
The forcereft open’d the fcene,
With magic words of her invention,
To make the foolifh people keen
Who did not know her bafe intention,
She drew a circle round the churn,
An’ wafh’d the staff in fouth run water
An’ fwore the witches fhe would burn,
But fhe would have the tailor’s butter.
When fable night her curtain fpread,
Then fhe got on a flaming fire,
The tailor ftood at the Cow’s head
With his turn’d waiftcoat in the byer;
The chimney cover’d with a fcraw,
An’ ev’ry crevice where it fmoak’d,
But long before the cock did craw
The people in the houfe were choak’d,
The muckle pot hung on all night
As Mary Butters had been brewing,
In hopes to fetch fome witch or wight
Whas entrails by her art was ftewing
In this her magic a’ did fail
Nae witch or wizard was detected;
Now Mary Butters lies in jail,
For the bafe part that fhe has acted.
The tailor loft his fon an’ wife,
For Mary Butters did them fmother
But as he hates a fingle life,
In four weeks time he got another;
He is a crufe auld canty chiel,
An’ cares nae what the witches mutters
He’ll never mair employ the deil,
Nor his auld agent, Mary Butters;
At day the tailor left his poft,
Though he had feen no apparation
Nae wizard grim nae witch nor ghoft,
Though ftill he had a ftrong fuspicion
That fome auld wizard wrinkled wife,
Had caft her cantrips o’er poor brawney
Caufe fhe and he did live in ftrife,
An’ whare’s the man can blame poor Sawney;
Wae fucks for our young laffes now,
For who can read their mystic matters
Or tell if their fweet hearts be true,
The folk a run to Mary Butters;
To tell what thief a horfe did fteal,
In this fhe was a mere pretender
An’ has nae art to raife the deil
Like that auld wife, the witch of Endor
If Mary Butters be a witch,
Why but the people all fhould know it,
An’ if fhe can the mufes touch
I’m fure fhe’ll foon descry the poet,
Her ain familiar aff fhe’ll fen’
Or paughlet wir a tu’ commiffion,
To pour her vengeance on fhe men,
That tantalises her condition.
‘An Diabhal Inti’ TG4 Documentary, Episode 05, First broadcast 12.04.22.
‘Representing Magic in Modern Ireland: Belief, History, and Culture’ Andrew Sneddon
Dictionary of Irish Biography: https://www.dib.ie/biography/butters-mary-a1313
Crone, John S. “Witchcraft in Antrim.” Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vol. 14, no. 1, 1908, pp. 34–37. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20566332. Accessed 26 May 2022.
‘Witchcraft and Magic in Ireland’, Andrew Sneddon