FILID, FAIRIES AND FAITH: The Effects of Gaelic Culture, Religious Conflict and the Dynamics of Dual Confessionalisation on the Suppression of Witchcraft Accusations and Witch-Hunts in Early Modern Ireland, 1533 - 1670
Available at: http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/theses/327
Date of Award
MA in History
Dr. Thomas Trice
The European Witch-Hunts reached their peak in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Betweeen 1590 and 1661, approximately 1500 women and men were accused of, and executed for, the crime of witchcraft in Scotland. England suffered the largest witch-hunt in its history during the Civil Wars of the 1640s, which produced the majority of the 500 women and men executed in England for witchcraft. Evidence indicates, however, that only three women were executed in Ireland between 1533 and 1670. Given the presence of both English and Scottish settlers in Ireland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the dramatic discrepancy of these statistics indicate that conditions existed in early modern Ireland that tended to suppress the mechanisms that produced witchcraft accusations and larger scale witch-hunts.
In broad terms those conditions in Ireland were the persistence of Gaelic culture and the ongoing conditions of open, inter-religious conflict. In particular, two artifacts of Gaelic Irish culture had distinct impact upon Irish witchcraft beliefs. The office of the Poet, or fili (singular for filid), seems to have had a similar impact upon Gaelic culture and society as the shaman has on Siberian witchcraft beliefs. The Gaelic/Celtic Poet was believed to have magical powers, which were actually regulated by the Brehon Law codes of Ireland. The codification of the Poet’s harmful magic seems to have eliminated some of the mystique and menace of magic within Gaelic culture. Additionally, the persistent belief in fairies as the source of harmful magic remained untainted by Christianity throughout most of Ireland. Faeries were never successfully demonized in Ireland as they were in Scotland. The Gaelic Irish attributed to fairies most of the misfortunes that were otherwise blamed on witchcraft, including the sudden wasting away and death of children. Faerie faith in Ireland has, in fact, endured into the twentieth century. The ongoing ethno-religious conflict between the Gaelic, Catholic Irish and the Protestant “New English” settlers also undermined the need for witches in Ireland. The enemy, or “other” was always readily identifiable as a member of the opposing religious or ethnic group. The process of dual confessionalisation, as described by Ute Lotz-Huemann, facilitated the entrenchment of Catholic resistence to encroaching Protestantism that both perpetuated the ethno-religious conflict and prevented the penetration of Protestant ideology into Gaelic culture. This second effect is one of the reasons why fairies were never successfully associated with demons in Ireland. Witch-hunts were complex events that were produced and influenced by multiple causative factors. The same is true of those factors that suppressed witchcraft accusations. Enduring Gaelic cultural artifacts and open ethno-religious conflict were not the only factors that suppressed witchcraft accusations and witch-hunts in Ireland; they were, however, the primary factors.