Years ago, while waiting to be served at a bar in Glandore, I met a pair of witches over on holiday from England. After they told me that, they both kind of stood there waiting, clearly expecting a bit more of a reaction. What they couldn’t have known, of course, was that over the years in West Cork, we’ve seen waves of foreign new-agers, alternative life-stylers, hippies and artists come and go, all with different belief systems and claims. Having someone tell me they were a witch wasn’t really that shocking. Once, someone in Bellydehobb insisted he was a robot. Another person I went fishing with was convinced he was half-rock. It gets a bit weird down there sometimes.
We got to talking but, during the conversation, I noticed how Alice and Deirdre – although she pronounced it ‘Dear-dree’ – kept steering the conversation back to magic and witchcraft. It was obviously a subject of some personal importance and, although they were nice to talk to, they both gave off a tangible sense of desperation in the way they seemed to be seeking acceptance or recognition of the title.
At one stage, a few drinks later, Deirdre told me she had the power to cast spells and a particular expertise in secret Irish/Celtic rituals and esoteric knowledge. When I asked her how she’d learned all this, given that I’d never heard of them and they were – well, secret – she admitted to learning them from ancient Celtic manuscripts. Well, actually the more modern, English translations of those manuscripts. Given that the Celts didn’t generally write, she probably meant the documents written by Roman (and, later, English) commentators about the Celts as opposed to documents written by the Celts themselves.
Like some people, Deirdre was under the illusion that Ireland was crawling with witches and that witches were part of our culture. Of course, the truth is that we never really had witches, at least not in the way she meant it. The word ‘witch’ is an interesting one (believed to be derived from the Old English noun – wicca – but even that derivation is pretty vague) and there isn’t really a Gaelic equivalent. We use ‘cailleach’ but that’s better translated as ‘hag’ in the sense of land goddesses and also ‘bean feasa’ but again that’s in a similar vein to ‘cailleach’.
Fortunately, Ireland was spared the witch hunts and trials that plagued Europe from the mid-1400s and the States in the late 1800s. That wasn’t of course because we were had an increased level of sanity or any kind of moral superiority (hah!) but because of the particular vagaries of culture, power and authority at the time.
All entities that hold unchecked authority (political, religious, administrative etc.) invariably act against the people they’ve been set up to represent. Generally, this is done through institutional self-protection – a bid to oppose any threat to that entity’s authority – real or perceived. This is a fundamental characteristic of human society and one that will always undermine our attempts at becoming a civilised society.
So it was, in the early 1200s, that the Catholic Church – the most powerful entity in Europe at the time – driven by a need to counter the growing influence of the competing Catharist movement, launched the Albigensian Crusade (a military crusade against the Catharists in Southern France and northern Italy that lasted twenty years). This bloody, massacre-filled conquest subsequently led to the creation of the Dominican order and the Medieval Inquisition. Given that the ‘inquisitors’ in charge had been given a free hand by their masters to do as they pleased as long as any threat to the Church’s power was countered, they went on to abuse that power, commencing a pogrom that served their own political and personal goals. The rest, of course, is common history.
In Ireland from the 1200 to the 1600s however, the country was a very isolated place and there was no real national authority that could impose its will on the population (although the English crown achieved military control from the early 1600s onwards). Nevertheless, outside the Crown-controlled centres, their authority was ignored. In addition, any intent of the Catholic Church to instigate witchcraft trials was countered not only by the Protestant English Crown but by the fact that the communities the priests lived in were small and they needed the support of the local population to survive. Burning people at the stake, obviously, would not have helped to ensure that support.
For this reason, there were few witchcraft trials in Ireland over that period. Where they did occur, they tended to be restricted to the English settler population as opposed to the native population.
With the gradual reform and Catholic Emancipation from the late 1800s and early 1900s, the power and influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland grew once more. It’s from this time onwards that we start to see the Catholic Church once again flexing theological and social muscle in its attempts to crush any alternative belief systems (particularly where it came to pre-Christian – pagan – beliefs). Most witch stories in Ireland tend to be derived from this period and although the Church could be cruel at times, it didn’t – fortunately – have the power to kill anyone for having conflicting beliefs. A classic example of this is the manner in which they treated the famous herbalist, Biddy Early.
Since the sixties, we’ve seen an increase in the resurgence of paganism, Celtic Reconstructionists, Wicca and so on. In many ways I see this as a more positive alternative to the existing religious institutions but it does make we wince when I encounter some of the shaky Celtic/Irish concepts on which they base their rituals and theologies. Several years ago I was at a pagan wedding ceremony where the celebrants ended up praying to the Salmon of Knowledge, something that’s just so out of context it’s completely barmy. In fairness, this is probably a poor, single example but it does explain how I ended up drinking beer with some nice English ladies who thought they were witches.
They were, at least, much more fun than the robot.