In March 1711, the last witch trial to take place in Ireland occurred in Co Antrim.
Eight women were tried in Carrickfergus Assizes for the demonic possession of an 18-year-old called Mary Dunbar at the Islandmagee home of James Hattridge.
According to a report 122 years later in the Dublin Penny Journal about what became known as the Islandmagee Witch Trials, the women were Janet Mean of Braid-island; Janet Latimer from the Irish Quarter in Carrickfergus; Janet Millar from the Scotch Quarter in the town, Margaret Mitchel from Kilroot and four Islandmagee women Catharine M’Calmond, Janet Liston, Elizabeth Seller and Janet Carson.
It had long been believed that the Hattridge’s house was haunted by evil spirits. However the women were accused by Mary Dunbar of tormenting her, after she suffered fits, bouts of swearing, trances, threw Bibles and allegedly vomited feathers, pins and cotton yarn.
Dunbar claimed she developed this behaviour after discovering a missing apron on the parlour floor of the Hattridge homestead with five strange knots which she loosened.
It was also claimed at the trial that the House was prone to strange noises such as whistling and scratching, that bed covers were frequently taken off the beds and made up into the shape of a corpse and that there was a sulphurous smell in the rooms.
However a University of Ulster academic, Dr Andrew Sneddon, who lectures in International History and has been researching the trials for a book on witchcraft and magic in Ireland between 1586 and 1946, believes Dunbar faked her demonic possession to escape censure for her unruly behaviour.
“Being possessed allowed her misbehave without consequence, move from invisibility to notoriety within her community and attack her elders at will,” Dr Sneddon claimed last year on the 300th anniversary of the witch trials.
“Dunbar chose to blame her possession on the witchcraft of the Presbyterian Islandmagee women because they had reputations locally as witches and failed to meet contemporary standards of female behaviour and beauty.
“Some were physically disabled, others swore and drank alcohol. All were poor. The local male authorities believed Dunbar’s version of events because she was beautiful, educated and from a respected family.
“The accusations were also used to further local political goals at a time of intense party political conflict between the two main political parties of the day, the Whigs and the Tories.”
The eight women were convicted and sentenced to a year in prison as well as being put in the pillories four times during their imprisonment on market day where they were pelted with cabbages and other objects. The Dublin Penny Journal claims in one case, one of the women lost an eye while in the pillories.
The Islandmagee Witch Trials continue to fascinate to this day and are one of the inspirations for a new short film ‘Imbolc’ which last weekend scooped Best Director in the International Short Film Category at the Canberra Short Film Festival in Australia.
Produced by husband and wife team, Laura and Colin Graham, the 16 minute film was shot on location in Helen’s Bay and Belfast and combines the Islandmagee legend with Celtic mythology around the Springtime and the Feast of St Brigid.
‘Imbolc’ begins with a mother and son, Brigid Liston (played by the artist Maria Noonan McDermott) and Quinn (Ryan McParland) scattering the ashes of her own mother.
In a voiceover Brighid tells us that Quinn is the first male in her family for generations and she is uneasy about his plans to settle in the United States with an academic, Dr Janet Hattridge (Lesa Thurman).
Dr Hattridge, who is on sabbatical from Boston, is studying her Ulster-Scots ancestry and her family’s link to a witch trial.
The conflict between the two women naturally has tragic consequences.
‘Imbolc’ is beautifully directed by Laura Graham, evocatively shot by Rory Moore and intelligently uses sound effects to create an air of menace throughout the film.
It is no surprise to learn that Lesa Thurman is in contention for a Best Actress prize this weekend at the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival but McDermott, McParland and Maeve McGreevy also turn in assured performances.
Those who also managed to catch this short during the Belfast Film Festival will no doubt feel that the ingredients are there for a full length feature film and one cannot help but be reminded of Conor McPherson’s supernatural thriller ‘Eclipse’ starring Ciaran Hinds and Aidan Quinn.
Prior to heading to Boston, producer Colin Graham told eamonnmallie.com ‘Imbolc’ had its roots in his wife’s final year installation for her Fine and Applied Art degree at the University of Ulster.
“Laura based her project on the transcripts of the Islandmagee Witch Trials and managed to get relatives who have a legal background to dress up in their wigs and re-enact the trial as she filmed them,” Colin said.
“But while the Islandmagee Witch Trials form a part of the story – our academic is called Hattridge for a start – we were also very interested in the old Celtic and Pagan rituals that have existed for centuries – the practice of people making Celtic crosses and Brighid corn dolls. Those beliefs have always fascinated me.
“We wanted to contemporise all of that. If it rekindles an interest in Imbolc, Islandmagee and all of that, then great.”
The shoot lasted four days, with the interiors in the Grahams’ house in Helen’s Bay and also in Belfast, where Laura was the artist in residence in the Linenhall Library.
“From the money we received from NI Screen, Laura and I made sure the actors were paid and it covered the cost of the equipment but we were also very fortunate that there were many people who worked for nothing,” Colin, who graduated with an MSc in Documentary Practice at Ulster, revealed.
“We did not really expect an awful lot out of this, I have to say. So, we’re delighted with how ‘Imbolc’ has been received – not just in Canberra but also in the Lucerne International Film Festival where we received a Certificate of Merit.
“Laura and I have also learned a lot from the problems we had getting ‘Imbolc’ made and we are working on a number of other projects.
“Hopefully, more people will get to see our film – especially in Northern Ireland.
Among those projects is a collaboration with the musician and film critic turned moviemaker, Richard Jobson (who made ’16 Years of Alcohol’ and was a former member of the Scottish punk band, The Skids).
We await the fruit of that collaboration with bated breath because if Laura and Colin Graham’s ‘Imbolc’ is anything to go by, they could prove to be a formidable filmmaking team.