Pagan and Christian Beliefs
[For information regarding ancient Ireland, see Celts.]
Although nominally Christianized, there is little doubt that
the early medieval Irish retained many remnants of their former
paganism, especially those with elements of magic. The
writings of the Welsh historian Giraldus Cambrensis (ca.
1147–1220) point to this. This is the first known account of
Irish manners and customs after the invasion of the country by
the Anglo-Normans. His description, for example, of the Purgatory
of St. Patrick in Lough Derg, County Donegal, suggests
that the demonology of the Catholic Church had already fused
with the animism of earlier Irish tradition. He states
There is a lake in Ulster containing an island divided
into two parts. In one of these stands a church of especial
sanctity, and it is most agreeable and delightful, as well
as beyond measure glorious for the visitations of angels
and the multitude of the saints who visibly frequent it.
The other part, being covered with rugged crags, is reported
to be the resort of devils only, and to be almost
always the theatre on which crowds of evil spirits visibly
perform their rites. This part of the island contains nine
pits, and should any one perchance venture to spend the
night in one of them (which has been done, we know, at
times, by some rash men), he is immediately seized by the
malignant spirits, who so severely torture him during the
whole night, inflicting on him such unutterable sufferings
by fire and water, and other torments of various
kinds, that when morning comes scarcely any spark of life
is found left in his wretched body. It is said that any one
who has once submitted to these torments as a penance
imposed upon him, will not afterwards undergo the
pains of hell, unless he commit some sin of a deeper dye.
‘‘This place is called by the natives the Purgatory of St.
Patrick. For he, having to argue with a heathen race concerning
the torments of hell, reserved for the reprobate,
and the real nature and eternal duration of the future
life, in order to impress on the rude minds of the unbelievers
a mysterious faith in doctrines so new, so strange,
so opposed to their prejudices, procured by the efficacy
of his prayers an exemplification of both states even on
earth, as a salutary lesson to the stubborn minds of the
Human Animals
The ancient Irish believed in the possibility of the transformation
of human beings into animals. Giraldus, in another narrative
of facts purporting to have come under his personal notice,
shows that this belief had lost none of its significance with
the Irish of the latter half of the twelfth century. The case is also
interesting as being one of the first recorded examples of lycanthropy
in the British Isles
‘‘About three years before the arrival of Earl John in Ireland,
it chanced that a priest, who was journeying from Ulster towards
Meath, was benighted in a certain wood on the borders
of Meath. While, in company with only a young lad, he was
watching by a fire which he had kindled under the branches of
a spreading tree, lo! a wolf came up to them, and immediately
addressed them to this effect ‘Rest secure, and be not afraid,
for there is no reason you should fear, where no fear is!’ The
travellers being struck with astonishment and alarm, the wolf
added some orthodox words referring to God. The priest then
implored him, and adjured him by Almighty God and faith in
the Trinity, not to hurt them, but to inform them what creature
it was in the shape of a beast uttered human words. The wolf,
after giving catholic replies to all questions, added at last
‘There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory,
who, through the curse of Natalis, saint and abbot, are compelled
every seven years to put off the human form, and depart
from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form,
we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they
chance to survive, two others being substituted in their places,
they return to their country and their former shape. And now,
she who is my partner in this visitation lies dangerously sick not
far from hence, and, as she is at the point of death, I beseech
you, inspired by divine charity, to give her the consolations of
your priestly office.’
‘‘At this wood the priest followed the wolf trembling, as he
led the way to a tree at no great distance, in the hollow of which
he beheld a she-wolf, who under that shape was pouring forth
human sighs and groans. On seeing the priest, having saluted
him with human courtesy, she gave thanks to God, who in this
extremity had vouchsafed to visit her with such consolation.
She then received from the priest all the rites of the church duly
performed, as far as the last communion. This also she importunately
demanded, earnestly supplicating him to complete his
good offices by giving her the viaticum. The priest stoutly asserting
that he was not provided with it, the he-wolf, who had
withdrawn to a short distance, came back and pointed out a
small missal-book, containing some consecrated wafers, which
the priest carried on his journey, suspended from his neck,
under his garment, after the fashion of the country. He then
intreated him not to deny them the gift of God, and the aid destined
for them by Divine Providence; and, to remove all doubt,
using his claw for a hand, he tore off the skin of the she-wolf,
from the head down to the navel, folding it back. Thus she immediately
presented the form of an old woman. The priest, seeing
this, and compelled by his fear more than his reason, gave
the communion; the recipient having earnestly implored it,
and devoutly partaking of it. Immediately afterwards the hewolf
rolled back the skin and fitted it to its original form.
‘‘These rites having been duly, rather than rightly performed,
the he-wolf gave them his company during the whole
night at their little fire, behaving more like a man than a beast.
When morning came, he led them out of the wood, and, leaving
the priest to pursue his journey pointed out to him the direct
road for a long distance. At his departure, he also gave him
many thanks for the benefit he had conferred, promising him
IONS Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
still greater returns of gratitude, if the Lord should call him
back from his present exile, two parts of which he had already
‘‘In our own time we have seen persons who, by magical arts,
turned any substance about them into fat pigs, as they appeared
(but they were always red), and sold them in the markets.
However, they disappeared as soon as they crossed any
water, returning to their real nature; and with whatever care
they were kept, their assumed form did not last beyond three
days. It was also a frequent complaint, from old times as well
as in the present, that certain hags in Wales, as well as in Ireland
and Scotland, changed themselves into the shape of hares,
that, sucking teats under this counterfeit form, they might
stealthily rob other people’s milk.’’
Witchcraft in Ireland
In Anglo-Norman times, sorcery, malevolent magic, was apparently
widelly practiced, but records are scarce. It is only by
fugitive passages in the works of English writers who constantly
comment on the superstitious nature and practices of the Irish
that any information concerning the occult history of the country
emerges. The great scandal of the accused witch Dame
Alice Kyteler did shake the entire Anglo-Norman colony during
several successive years in the first half of the fourteenth
century. The party of the Bishop of Ossory, the relentless opponent
of the Dame Alice, boasted that by her prosecution they
had rid Ireland of a nest of sorcerers; and, yet, there is reason
to believe that Ireland could have furnished other similar instances
of black magic had the actors in them been of royal status—that
is, of sufficient importance in the eyes of chroniclers.
In this connection St. John D. Seymour’s Irish Witchcraft and
Demonology (1913) is of striking interest. The author seems to
take it for granted that witchcraft in Ireland is purely an alien
system, imported into the island by the Anglo-Normans and
Scottish immigrants to the north. This is a possibility because
the districts of the Pale and of Ulster are concerned, even if it
cannot be applied to the Celtic districts of Ireland.
Early Irish works contain numerous references to sorcery,
and practices are chronicled in them that bear a close resemblance
to those of the shamans and medicine men of tribes
around the world. The ancient Irish cycles frequently allude to
animal transformation, one of the most common feats of the
witch, and in Hibernian legend most heroes have a considerable
working magic available to them. Wonder-working druids
also abound.
Seymour claimed that, ‘‘In Celtic Ireland dealings with the
unseen were not regarded with such abhorrence, and indeed
had the sanction of custom and antiquity.’’ He added that
‘‘. . .the Celtic element had its own superstitious beliefs, but
these never developed in this direction,’’ by which he meant
witchcraft. He lacked support for this observation. An absence
of records of such a system is no proof that one never existed,
and it is possible that a thorough examination of the subject
would prove that a veritable system of witchcraft obtained in
Celtic Ireland as elsewhere, although it may not have been of
‘‘Celtic’’ origin.
Seymour’s book nonetheless is most informative on those
Anglo-Norman and Scottish portions of Ireland where the belief
in sorcery followed the lines of those in vogue in the mother-countries
of the immigrant populations. He sketched the famous
Kyteler case; touched on the circumstances connected
with the Earl of Desmond; and, he noted the case of the Irish
prophetess who insisted upon warning the ill-fated James I of
Scotland on the night of his assassination at Perth. It is not stated
by the ancient chronicler whom Seymour quotes where in
Ireland the witch in question came from—and undoubtedly she
was a witch because she possessed a familiar spirit, ‘‘Huthart,’’
whom she alleged warned her of the coming catastrophe. This
spirit is the Teutonic Hudekin or Hildekin, the wearer of the
hood, sometimes also alluded to as Heckdekin, well known
throughout Germany and Flanders as a species of house-spirit
or brownie. Trithemius alludes to this spirit as a ‘‘spirit known
to the Saxons who attached himself to the Bishop of Hildesheim’’
and it is cited here and there in occult history. From this
circumstance it might be inferred that the witch in question
came from some part of Ireland that had been settled by Teutonic
immigrants, probably Ulster.
Seymour continued his survey with a review of the witchcraft
trials of the sixteenth century; the burning of Adam Dubh; the
Leinster trial of O’Toole and College Green in 1327 for heresy;
and, the important passing of the statute against witchcraft in
Ireland in 1586. He noted the enchantments of the Earl of Desmond,
who demonstrated to his young and beautiful wife the
possibilities of animal transformation by changing himself into
a bird, a hag, a vulture, and a gigantic serpent. One full chapter
was devoted to Florence Newton, the witch of Youghal, who was
one of the most absorbing in the history of witchcraft.
Ghostly doings and apparitions, fairy possession, and dealings
with fairies are also included in the volume, and Seymour
did not confine himself to Ireland. He followed one of his countrywomen
to the United States, where he demonstrated her influence
on the ‘‘supernatural’’ speculations of Congregationalist
minister Cotton Mather.
Seymour completed his survey with seventeenth-century
witchcraft notices from Antrim and Island Magee and the affairs
of sorcery in Ireland from the year 1807 to the early twentieth
century. The last notice is that of a trial for murder in
1911, when a woman was tried for killing another (an old-age
pensioner) in a fit of insanity. A witness deposed that he met
the accused on the road on the morning of the crime holding
a statue or figure in her hand and repeating three times, ‘‘I
have the old witch killed. I got power from the Blessed Virgin
to kill her.’’ It appears that the witch in question had threatened
to plague the woman with rats and mice. A single rodent
had evidently entered her home and was followed by the bright
vision of a lady who told the accused that she was in danger,
and further informed her that if she received the senior citizen’s
pension book without taking off her clothes and cleaning
them and putting out her bed and cleaning up the house, she
would ‘‘receive dirt for ever and rats and mice.’’
Modern Occultism
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
Celtic mysticism and legends of ghosts and fairies received a
new infusion from Hindu mysticism through the Dublin lodge
of the Theosophical Society and the writings of poets William
Butler Yeats and ‘‘AE’’ (pseudonym of George W. Russell).
Through the society, Russell was profoundly influenced by
Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad-Gita and came to understand
that mysticism should be interfused with one’s everyday
social responsibilities. Russell wrote mystical poems and painted
pictures of nature spirits.
Yeats became a noted member of the Hermetic order of the
Golden Dawn, a ritual magic society. Its teachings had a primary
influence on the symbolism of his poems and on his own
mystical vision. He was also impressed by Hindu mystical teachings,
and collaborated with Shri Purohit Swami in the translation
of Hindu religious works.
After the death of Yeats and Russell, occultism did not make
much headway in Irish life and literature. The occult and witchcraft
boom of the 1950s and 1960s was largely ignored in Ireland.
Janet and Stewart Farrar, both neo-pagan witches trained
by Alexander Sanders, did take up residence in the Republic
of Ireland. Stewart Farrar has written a number of books on
witchcraft, including the early neo-pagan classic What Witches
Do The Modern Coven Revealed (1971).
The Fellowship of Isis, headquartered at Huntingdon Castle,
Clonegal, Enniscorthy, has become an international association
of neo-pagans and witches. It is devoted to the deity in
the form of the goddess, and publishes material concerning
matriarchal religion and mysticism.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. IRELAND
Irish writer Desmond Leslie was coauthor with George Adamski
of the influential book Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953)
an important early book introducing the topic to the Englishspeaking
public. The book was eventually translated into 16
Psychical Research & Parapsychology
Although Ireland is traditionally a land of ghosts, fairies,
banshees, and haunted castles, there have been few systematic
attempts to conduct psychical research there. The exceptions
have been some interest in dowsing (water-divining), and the
work of medium Kathleen Goligher. In 1914, then 16 year-old
Goligher came into the world’s attention by Dr. William Crawford,
in Belfast. Goligher was from a family of physical mediums,
but considered the best of them. The phenomena demonstrated
consisted of raps that reportedly shook the room, and
levitation of a ten and a half pound table, often for as long as
five minutes. Crawford photographed the manifestations that
supported the levitations-ectoplasmic structures that resembled
rods. Harry Houdini saw the pictures that Crawford had
intended to use in his book. He remained completely skeptical
and decided that Crawford was insane. Following Crawford’s
suicide in 1920, another photograph of plasma coming out of
Goligher’s body was thought to be genuine. By 1922 Dr. E. E.
Fournier d’Albe claimed she was a fraud after 20 sittings with
her. Following a ten-year period of retirement, it was reported
in 1933 that Goligher produced cloth-like ectoplasm. Researchers
did not investigate that claim, so no verification could
be made. That Crawford introduced technology to verify the
investigation is what remained of prime interest historically.
Currently, the Belfast Spiritual Fellowship, a group ascribing
to Spiritualist beliefs, can be contacted at 44 Barnsmore
Drive, Belfast, Northern Ireland BT13 3FF.
AE [George W. Russell]. The Candle of Vision. London Macmillan,
1918. Reprint, New Hyde Park, NY University Books,
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Curtin, Jeremiah. Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World,
Collected from Oral Tradition in Southwest Munster. London D.
Nutt, 1895. Reprint, Dublin Talbot Press, 1974.
Dunne, John J. Haunted Ireland Her Romantic and Mysterious
Ghosts. Belfast Appletree Press, 1977.
Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do The Modern Coven Revealed.
New York Coward, McCann & Geoghegan; London Peter Davies,
Giraldus Cambrensis. The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis,
Containing the Topography of Ireland, and The History of the
Conquest of Ireland. Translated by R. C. Hoare. London Bohn’s
Antiquarian Library, 1847.
Gregory, Lady. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. 2 vols.
New York George Putnam’s Sons, 1920. Reprint, U.K. Colin
Smythe, 1970.
Harper, George Mills. Yeats’s Golden Dawn. London Macmillan,
McAnally, D. R., Jr. Irish Wonders The Ghosts, Giants, Pookas,
Demons, Leprechawns, Banshees, Fairies, Witches, Widows, Old
Maids and Other Marvels of the Emerald Isle. Boston Houghton
Mifflin, 1888. Reprint, Detroit Grand River Books, 1971.
O’Donnell, Elliot. The Banshee. London Sands, 1920.
Seymour, St. John D. and Harry L. Neligan. True Irish Ghost
Stories. London Oxford University Press, 1915. Reprint, New
York Causeway Books, 1974.
Spiritualist Webring. Available at http
Washington, Peter. Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, A History of
the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America.
New York Schocken Books, 1993.
White, Carolyn. A History of Irish Fairies. Cork, Ireland Mercier
Press, 1976.
Yeats, W. B., ed. Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.
London Walter Scott Publishing, 1888. Reprint, New York
Grosset & Dunlap, 1957.