Witches of Ireland
Ireland has many tales of witches and their evil ways. My personal favorite is that of Seamus Rua’s housekeeper. Partially because I like Yeats’s collections, but also because Seamus is Irish for James. Before we get to the main dish, though, let’s take a short look at some other famous Irish witches. Perhaps just enough to whet your appetite for now.
First up is Dame Alice Kyteler, who owned the Kyteler Inn, in Kilkenny, where she would lure local businessmen with her charms, taking their gifts and money. She survived four husbands, although gossip has it that it was through her own machinations. Between those possible murders and her talk against the Church, she was ill looked upon. She was the first to be accused of witchcraft in Ireland, although she managed to escape and was never heard from again.
Next is Biddy Early, who was born in 1778, County Claire. She had been taught herbal cures from her mother, until she became an orphan at 16. Being an outcast, she started talking to the fairies and learned how to use them against others. She, like Dame Alice, was married four times, one of whom was her stepson from a previous marriage. As time traveled on, she started to make a name for herself as a healer, with legend saying her powers came from a mysterious blue bottle. This bottle was brought to her by a dead relative from the Irish Otherworld. She denounced the Catholic Church and was accused of witchcraft in 1865. She was acquitted, and later repented on her deathbed. Her blue bottle was never found after her death, with the locals whispering that the fairies came back to collect it.
The last witchy appetizer is Florence Newton of Youghal. She supposedly cursed the maid of a local prominent figure. Being a beggar, Florence asked the maid for scraps, and when the maid refused, Florence grabbed her and gave her a cursed kiss. The maid started to have seizures and, when Florence was brought into the maid's presence, started vomiting needles and pins. Florence was arrested, where she was then accused of causing the death of her jailer. It would not be a far-fetched assumption to think that she was found guilty and hanged, but all the records were lost, and so we do not know. Perhaps she used her magical powers to escape?
Also from Youghal, there is the annual Halloween festival that goes with the legend of An Bhean Uisce, The Water Woman, of whom you can read about here, from the excellent folklorist Pollyanna Jones.
Now for the main attraction! The Witches’ Excursion.
Seamus Rua (Red James) woke up one night from a very deep sleep, as voices wafted up from the floor below. He crept down the stairs and saw half a dozen old women sitting around the fire in his kitchen, joking and laughing, one of whom was his housekeeper. He thought briefly back of the bedtime drink she had brought to him, which he had left untouched on his bed stand, for which he was happy to have skipped for the first ever time.
They were passing around a jug of his whiskey one noticed it was empty. She stood up and cried out “It is time to go, my sisters!” She placed a red cap upon her head, grabbed a bundle of yarrow, and changed “By yarrow and rue, and my red cap, too, away and hie over to England!”
Before the last word was out of her mouth, she flew and disappeared up the chimney. The other women copied this action and, as they all started away, Seamus leapt out and grabbed his housekeeper. He took the yarrow and red cap away from her. “If you don’t mind, I will take this for myself. By yarrow and rue, and my red cap, too, away and hie over to England!”
The moment the words were out of his mouth, he shot up through the fireplace. He flew over the Wicklow hills, across the Irish Sea, skimmed the Welsh mountains, and sped headlong over the ramparts of a large castle. He went through an open door, down many flights of stairs, and was bracing himself for impact as he neared a stout door, not even breathing a sigh of relief as he flew through the key hole, unharmed, finding himself in the kitchen cellar.
Groggy and confused from the ride, he found himself astride a stillion (a cradle for beer vats). Lights were flashing around him, and he didn’t even notice his hand held a tumbler of wine before he started drinking it, joining the old women who had flew in before him. They were laughing as loud and lustily as they had in his own kitchen.
He attempted to keep up with their drinking, but was soon left under the table. He woke to rough hands pulling him up, dragging him up the stairs, and then slamming him down in front of the Lord of the castle. The sheriff was called and Seamus was taken to jail. Found guilty in no time at all, he was roundly ridiculed for the story he told of how he had turned up in the cellar.
A gallows was prepared and soon he was in a cart, the horse taking him to his final destination. He had a sign on his back that told everyone he had been draining the casks of the Lord's estate every night for the past month, to the jeers of the throng who had come to watch him twist in the wind. Evidently his housekeeper and her fellow witches had been doing nightly visitations for some time, quaffing quite heartily!
Along the way he spied in elderly woman who yelled to him “Seamus Rua, are you going to die in such a strange place without your caipin dearg?”
Recognizing his birth language, Irish, term for red cap, Seamus smiled and nodded a thank you. He turned to the lord and humbly asked. “My Lord, I would very much like to die with my red cap on, which should still be in your cellar.” The aristocrat relented and sent a servant to get the article of clothing. In a matter of minutes it was handed back to James, whereupon he put on his head and looked out at the crowd as he was marched up onto the gallows.
“My good people please take my plight as a warning... By yarrow and rue, and my red cap, too, away and hie my way back home!”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth when he astonished the crowds by suddenly flying into the air, heading west back over the English countryside to his home in Ireland.
So now, my gentle reader, I wish you all spooky Samhain dreams and haunted Halloween treats. I hope this story, retold with my own inflections, adds to your scary merriment, this October season!
Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts -- Patrick Kennedy
The Celtic Twilight -- W.B. Yeats
Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry -- W.B. Yeats