Why Were There Only a Few Irish Witch Trials?
It starts with the Sidhe, good readers, The Good Neighbours, or the Fairies as you may know them.
The Irish have a very matter of fact view of the Sidhe, whatever we call them by. Today and tomorrow, hawthorn trees and bushes will be left right alone, because the fairies like to rest there. Best not to disturb them, just in case. It is happening somewhere in Ireland every day, by people who would not, not ever in a million years, think of themselves as any sort of Pagan type.
The fairies are still respected, and largely feared. You don’t annoy them, neither through ignorance or thoughtless action. And a lot of us here in Ireland couldn’t even tell you – or wouldn’t at least – why this is so.
At a time when (mostly innocent) people were being burned and hanged all across Europe, in the tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands – figures are unclear, even yet, but 9 million seems a little on the excessive side), Ireland was relatively unscathed.
Were there less odd old women in rural villages here? Anybody walking through a rural village in Ireland today will likely find themselves tripping over odd old women, so that seems unlikely.
They are a staple of Irish village life, in all their muttering moustachioed glorious strangeness, and I seriously doubt the Middle Ages were any different. So why the lack of burning or hanging for the odd old Irish women, compared to contemporary European counterparts?
A theory of mine is the sheer practical integration of the fairy culture over here. Picture the scene in a small German village (Germany displayed perhaps the most voracious of appetites for witch rooting and killing, whole villages were decimated) – odd happenings abound, milk turns sour, butter won’t churn, children and animals sicken, even die… the villagers begin to look around suspiciously for the cause.
Often, suspicion alights on the odd old woman who lives at the edge of the village, smells a bit peculiar, maybe has a bit of extra knowledge about animals, plants, or healing, and before you know it, the poor oul one finds herself tied to a ducking stool and taking a bath she hadn’t planned for. You get the picture – clichéd, certainly, but these things are clichés for a reason.
Same deal, in an Irish village… the villagers instead begin to wonder if someone has been throwing their dirty wash water out in the wrong place, and look to their own homes for the remedy – a little extra butter left out, or whiskey or cream, a few other bits and pieces of fairy friendly house or farm work that might need to be picked up on again, and that’s that. The odd old woman on the edge of the village gets to stay smelly and dry and muttering to herself for a wee while yet.
And it still holds today. The average Irish person now probably won’t be integrating fairy culture into their everyday life, but when they come across it, either from a modern Pagan type or the old boy down the pub who still remembers, it’s given a respectful listen at least, even if it’s then usually passed over with a casual shrug.
But if it comes in the form of a warning, the listening gets a bit more careful, and there might even be actions taken, or not taken as a result. When asked directly, they will say they don’t believe in fairies, for the most part – but maybe that there’s no harm in being careful.
Better safe than sorry, right?
Excerpt from ‘A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality’, by Lora O’Brien
2012, Wolfpack Publishers, Ireland.