Witch Trials and Witchcraft in Ireland: Alice Kyteler

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Alice Kyteler and the Kilkenny Witch Trial

In 1324 Richard de Ledrede , the then bishop of Ossory , declared his diocese a hotbed of devil worshipers.  Few knew the far reaching, dire consequences this declaration would have and the ripples it would send through the centuries. The woman at the center of all of this was Alice Kyteler, a wealthy woman from a Flemish merchant family. Her accumulated wealth over multiple marriages had led to the accusations of witchcraft in question.

Circa 40 years before the landmark case, Alice had married a wealthy merchant/moneylender and had a son. Following her husband’s death she married another wealthy man. He subsequently handed over his fortune to Alice’s son from the first marriage, much to the chagrin of his own children. This would later cause problems and ultimately become the impetus for the future accusations against her. Upon her third marriage, her son somehow benefitted financially again. Her final  and fourth marriage was to a knight, Sir John de Poer. At this point, her accumulated wealth at the expense of her stepchildren as well as de Poer showing signs of arsenic poisoning (hair and fingernails falling out and emaciated) led to the suspicion of Alice and the accusations of witchcraft. The changing attitudes towards sorcery and witchcraft, especially on the part of the church, would have a dramatic effect on this case, as would the machinations of the highly cunning bishop at the epicenter of the whole ordeal.

It was only a few hundred years prior to this case, in the 11th and 12th centuries, that sorcery/witchcraft was beginning to be seen as an inversion of Christianity. The practice of which would have been treated as a misdemeanor before this change in attitude. In 1258 Pope Alexander legislated in favour of inquisitorial prosecution for sorcery due to it’s new connection to heresy. This allowed the church to institute torture as a method to procure confessions from suspected heretics, witches and sorcerers. This in turn gave the church more power than secular court in these regards. Before this, it lay on the accuser to furnish proof of guilt. These ‘crimes’ had usually been dealt with in English law as a petty offense. Inquisitorial prosecution, it seems, was introduced into this case by Bishop Ledrede, who likely picked up the practice from his stay at the court of Avignon, the then Papal seat. Ledrede had originally been sent to Ireland in the years leading up to the accusations of Kyteler by the Pope (who was known to be terrified of sorcery) because of his “zeal for reform and strict adherence to the law of the church”.

In total seven charges were brought against Alice, including:

  • Denying Christ and the Church.
  • Cutting up living animals and scattering them at crossroads* as offerings to a demon called “son of Art”. *Crossroads are understood to be liminal spaces and are often employed in magical rites
  • Stealing church keys and performing rituals inside the church at night.
  • In a skull of a thief, her and her accomplices placed the entrails of animals, the organs of a cockerel, nails cut from bodies, hair from the buttocks and used clothes from baby boys who had died before baptism. Using these ingredients, they were said to have made potions to kill people and to make people hate Christians.
  • It was claimed Alice had a familiar with whom she fornicated. It either appeared as a cat, a shaggy dog or a black man.
  • That she used sorcery to convince her husbands to give their wealth to her and her son, and also used sorcery to kill them.
  • Poisoning her latest husband.

Ledrede had used a law Ut Inguisitionis (1298) to force secular powers to obey the word of a Bishop. Luckily a prior of the Hospitalliers of St John, a relative of Alice’s first husband, stood up for her and put a spanner in the works. Ledrede was told that he would have to hold a public prosecution and that she would have to be formally ex-communicated before they could go ahead with the charges. Ledrede attempted to have the Prior arrested on charges of heresy (and for harbouring heretics) but the prior had some powerful acquaintances, in this case the Seneshal of Killkenny. The seneshal had Ledrede arrested for 17 days to prevent the arrest of the prior. Ledrede used this to his full advantage to start to swing public opinion in his favour. He placed an interdict on the diocese, meaning that no baptism, marriages and burials could take place. Given the strong belief in hell during this period, this was obviously of grave importance to the eternal souls of all parishioners. He also used his influence while incarcerated to give masses in full regalia from his cell. During this time, the seneshal put criers in each outlying town to see if anyone wanted to lodge complaints against Ledrede.

Every move on Ledrede’s part was carefully orchestrated for maximum effect. He left his cell in full high vestments. He turned up at the seneshal’s court, in full regalia holding the consecrated host before him (as any assault on him, would ultimately be an assault on Christ himself). He was not alone. In toe were Franciscans, Dominicans and an entire cathedral chapter. He also carried a decree concerning heretics. After forcing his way into the court, the seneshal asked him to get in the dock for questioning. He claimed that since he was holding the host, it would be like putting Jesus himself on trial, just like when he was tried by Pontius Pilate. Despite the best efforts of all involved, it was inevitable that public opinion would sway in the direction of the church and the bishop due to the constant attacks and insults. Upon seeing that public opinion was turning against her, Alice used her wealth to flee from Dublin and was never heard from again. Her not as wealthy associates and alleged co-conspirators were subsequently rounded up and arrested using a papal decree and under inquisitorial procedure, confessed. Unfortunately, only the poorest of these, Alice’s maidservant, Petronilla de Meath, bore the brunt of the whole thing. She was tortured, whipped and ultimately burnt at the stake (it was legal to torture under church law, but not secular), while all the others were released on payment of sureties. William Outlawe, the friar, was arrested and accused of heresy. He begged forgiveness and was released on the condition that he would pay penance in the form of saying multiple masses each day for a couple of years, and also by re-leading the roof of a church. He was later re-arrested for not carrying this penance out.

A quote from a Franciscan friar at the time, John Clyn, reads: “Moreover, even in olden days, it was neither seen nor heard of that anyone suffered the death penalty for heresy in Ireland”.

So, what had brought about this drastic change in attitude in Ireland that culminated in the barbaric  death of a poor, young maidservant? In short, Ledrede, the man at the center of all of this. It is very likely that Ledrede himself introduced the connection of demonic forces and witchcraft to Ireland. It is no surprise that the landmark case found its way into a number of annal entries at the time. Many people, in a European context, believe that this case was a development “of a phenomenon which, with its distinctive characteristics of diabolism” gave rise to the great witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries (of course the influence of the Malleus Malificarum cannot be ignored either). Before the Kyteler  case, these ideas had not really permeated beyond the Papal courts of Avignon. It was circa 1300 in France that learned circles started to disseminate the idea that a witch was connected to satanic sects and diabolical powers. To give further context to this, 17 years before this case, the King of France, Philip IV, had the Templar Order put to death on many similar charges and claims of diabolism. The pope of the time also fanned the flames by thinking his life was in danger from sorcery. Ledrede was appointed by the pope himself and had actually been present at court during the Templar trials. This of course is likely to have influenced his belief system and he is also likely to have had direct contact with the learned milieu who espoused the radical ideas of heresy.

Civil court up to the point of the case had seen  witchcraft as a minor crime, punishable only in terms of damage done to the victim. The church was not interested because there was no link with religion. It was even believed that in order to control demons, a sorcerer have strong faith and a devout belief in god in order for it to work (c.f Carey, The Nature of Miracles in Early Irish Saint’s Lives for a similar tradition in how miracles worked).

It would come as no surprise to anyone that five years following the death of Petronilla de Meath, Richard de Ledrede had overplayed his hand and was finally exiled from Ireland. Unfortunately for Petronilla, it was too little too late. So give a little thought this Samhain to all the women over the centuries who were executed under the guise of being “witches”.

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Bibliography:

Neary. A (1983), The Origins and Character of the Kilkenny Witchcraft Case of 1324, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History and Literature, Vol.83C , pp.333-350.

Williams. B (1994), The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler, History of Ireland, Vol.2, No.4, pp.20-24.

The Darker Side of Folklore: The Story of Bridget Cleary

Ireland’s rich and vibrant oral tradition of storytelling captured the hearts and minds of generation upon generation of Irish people going back centuries, who passed the long cold nights by the fire absorbed in these tales. While it is easy for us to view them as just stories through a modern lens and dismiss them as simple superstition, they had a much more profound effect on the people of the past. Many of these stories would have originated as an explanation of events and phenomenon that people would not have had at the time such as inexplicable illnesses and features of the landscape such as ringforts. While even back then some would havedismissed them as make believe, many seen them as truth which sometimes ended in a disastrous outcome. This was ultimately the outcome with the case of Bridget Cleary in 1895 where the belief in fairy changelings culminated in the torture and death of the young woman at the hands of her husband Michael and a number of other people including a local herb/fairy doctor Dennis Ganey. The storytelling tradition was instrumental in the outcome of this tragedy and it is evident in the common motifs often found in changeling stories that pop up in this case such as; the attempts to banish the “fairy” (including the use of fire), the administering of herbs, the inclusion of the priest and also in the manner that Michael Cleary believed he could rescue his wife from the fairies. Jack Dunne’s presence and prestige as someone knowledgeable in fairy lore was also pivotal to the outcome of the incident. Another notable point was the proximity of the house to a Rath, often called fairy forts, and believed to be the abode of the “the good folk”. Changeling stories are very common and were described by Emily Lyle as “being among the most commonest of the tales of the Fairies” (Bourke, 1999: 37).

The use of fire in this case is very important as it is a common element in the stories concerning banishment of changelings. It is a method that pops up many times in the national folklore collection. Although in all the documented cases of changeling burning, Bridget Cleary is the only one that involves an adult victim (Bourke, 1999:

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The Fireplace where Bridget was murdered

38). Many other reports can be found throughout the 19th century of children being placed on red hot shovels, drowned or mistreated and only 11 years before this event a case was reported less than 15 miles away from where the Cleary’s lived that involved a red hot shovel. One of the witness statements at the court case that followed stated that at one point Bridget had a burn mark on her forehead administered by her husband with a red-hot poker (Bourke, 1999: 79). He also used fire after he knocked her to the floor while trying to make her eat and also when he doused her in lamp oil to burn the body while saying “she’s an old deceiver left instead of my wife, you will see her go up the chimney”. This method can be seen time and time again for scaring away fairies such as a story where a man took a red hot tongs out of the fire saying “I’ll scald you first and burn you afterwards” upon which the child turned into an old person in front of them and left, only for the real child to be returned (Gafty, 1862). Another story features both a fairy man and also the use of fire where a changeling is banished when the “wise man” threatens to catch its nose with a tongs causing it to leave (Kennedy, 1886: 90-92). It also occurs in the story “Garret Barry and the changeling” where a fairy child talks to the piper after hearing him play the bagpipes. The outcome of this is the same whereby the fairy departs up the chimney after being threatened by a reddened shovel taken out of the fire (Lenihan, 2003: 296).

 

As mentioned, Jack Dunne had a very important part to play in the events that unfolded and was no doubt the impetus for the gross mistreatment of the young woman from the moment he uttered the words “That is not Bridgie Boland”. (Bourke, 1999: 62) This could be alluding to her change in appearance due to sickness and in many of the stories we find that the physical appearance of people who had spent time ‘away with the fairies’ would be somehow different (NFC 437:104-105,Wexford, 1945) . He also mentioned that one of her legs was shorter than the other. This was also a feature of a story shared by Eamonn á Búrc. Dunne’s knowledge of herbs and his insistence of Michael seeing the herb doctor, Dennis Ganey, was what caused Michael Cleary to abandon the idea of using real medicine in favour of using what they later called in court “fairy quackery”. A herb often associated with fairies foxglove (often called fairy thimbles), are the most attested and heavily documented herb in relation to fairies and a witness was even asked if lús mór (foxglove) was used. The fact that the herbs were boiled in new milk or beestings (Bourke, 1999: 78) as it is known is also important as new milk is often seen as being attractive to the fairies. In a quickly modernising world where people like Dunne, with his esoteric knowledge, were quickly losing the prestige and respect that they would have once had, then it is no doubt that he would have taken every opportunity to exert his dominance in the situation. Michael Cleary himself had said in court that were it not for the insistence of Jack Dunne he would not have done it.

The proximity of the fort and also the way in which Michael thought he could still

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Michael Cleary

“rescue” his wife following her death is also a conventional motif in fairy abduction stories. These forts were commonly referred to in the locality as places where fairies lived (Bourke, 1999: 11) and oral tradition marked the particular fort near their house as not being linked to normal human behaviour. (Bourke, 1999: 17). The association with the forts and the fairies is well attested and widespread and even Lady Gregory on her travels while collecting stories mentioned that they are always fairy haunted and are identifiable to the locals as such (Bourke, 1999: 47) Roads quite often avoid them and calamities often befall those who tamper with them or are in any way disrespectful to them. In regards to the rescue of Bridget, a witness Johanna testified in court that she had heard Michael talking specifically about the fairies and that his wife was up at Kylenegranagh fort and that they would go up Sunday night to rescue her. There he expected to find her on a horse and that if he cut the cords she was tied with that she would stay with them (Bourke, 1999: 16). He was later seen with a crowd of people with a knife to retrieve her. Two stories collected in the book “Meeting the Other Crowd” echo this. The first features Corbally fort where a man spotted a woman on a white horse being led by a group of fairies. The man was able to rescue her by pulling her off the horse. This story also mentions something left in her stead (Lenihan, 2003: 278). The second is the story of a brother that dreamt of his sister who had being “carried”. She could also be rescued if her feet touched the ground (Lenihan, 2003: 276). Another interesting story concerning a wife being stolen can be found in the national folklore collection. This specific story is interesting because it contains a few elements that are found in the Bridget Cleary case. The appearance of the wife had changed (“An ugly auld yoke instead of her”, as the husband put it) and the man visited a fairy doctor. He had administered herbs although in this case it was to enable the man to see the fairies. He was to go to a specific place at a certain time and he could pull his wife off the horse. As soon as he had retrieved her the thing in the house disappeared (Carroll, 1945: 105).

Many might look at Michael Cleary’s explanation as simply an excuse to cover up the mistreatment and murder of his wife but I think we have seen there are many elements that show how a clearly superstitious man under severe psychological stress got caught up in the events that unfolded. Even though they lived in a quickly modernising world, the stories still told at the fireside would have greatly influenced their world view. The interference of a man who would have commanded some respect due to his esoteric knowledge of the supernatural world (however waning this respect now was in the new world that was emerging) was central to the outcome of the case. Charlotte Dease says that the best place to find a mixture of ancient traditions mixed with modern is to look to the more rural areas of Ireland (Dease,1918:46). I think this was ultimately the case for Bridget Cleary.

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The Cleary’s House

Bibliography
Bourke,A (1999). The Burning of Bridget Cleary, London, Pimlico, pp.1-111.
Dease.C, Religious Traditions Of Gaelic Ireland, Irish monthly, Vol.47, No.567 (Jan 1918),pp.45-50.
Gafty,A.(1862), A holiday in Ireland in 1861, Dublin, Bealoideas 3, pp.368.
Hedderman, B.N. (1917), Glimpses of my life in Aran, Bristol, John Wright and sons Ltd.
Kennedy,P. (1866), Fictions of the Irish Celts, London, MacMillan and Co. pp.90-92.
Lenihan,E. and Green,C.(2003), Meeting the other crowd, Dublin, Gill and macmillan.
National Folklore Collection, Iml 437,Page 104, Mrs.John O’Carrol, Wexford, Thomas O’ Ciarda, 1945.
National Folklore Collection, Iml 48, pp16-22, Micíl Uí Fionnagáin,65, Priónseas ó Ceallaigh, Cork.