Monthly Archives: October 2013

Alice, Alice…who’s afraid of Alice? The First (and Worst) Witch in Ireland.

Alice, Alice, who’s afraid of Alice?


Ireland’s ‘first witch’ was a wealthy middle aged woman living in town called Kilkenny in fourteenth century Ireland. Her name was Alice Kyteler, she worked as a merchant and moneylender and had acquired four husbands. It was her step children from her fourth marriage (to Sir John le Poer) who raised the accusations of sorcery and maleficium against her around the year 1324, in which her other stepchildren joined. By that stage Alice was rich on the income from her accumulated dowers alone, a fact of which her accusing stepchildren were well aware and included in their list of accusations, saying that she had acquired her wealth through bewitchment and murder. These step-children complained bitterly that Alice had used sorcery to kill their fathers, and had persuaded and infatuated the others with witchcraft so that they had left all their wealth to her and her only son William Outlawe, and left them, the rightful heirs, nothing.When they took these complaints to the local Bishop Ledrede of Ossory he reacted swiftly by holding a formal inquiry early in 1324.

Image Alice’s House – now a pub

Bishop Ledrede, an Englishman, was educated at Avignon whose thinkers were at the vanguard of new theological developments in the areas of heresy and demonology and he brought all this new ideas to bear on Alice’s trial. Ledrede’s patron, Pope John XXII (1316-1334), had a fear of sorcery and claimed that his life was in danger from witchcraft, which he listed as a heresy in his bull Super illius specula. As a papal appointee, Ledrede attempted to put into practice in Ossory those inquisitorial techniques learnt at Avignon. Among the witnesses called were the dispossessed heirs from Alice’s previous marriages who “urged the bishop with public clamour, demanding remedy and aid.”1 Ledrede, however, once convinced of the alleged heresies took the matter further, unable to leave the charges at maleficium and multiple homicide. Dame Alice and William Outlawe, her son, were charged with being sorcerers, heretics and of leading followers into organised heresy and witchcraft.2 The group accused along with William and Alice were all Anglo-Irish, among them Alice’s servant Petronilla of Meath. Ledrede accused them of communicating with the demons, of having the name of the Evil One stamped on the Sacred Host and of offering sacrifices to Satan.

In all seven major charges were brought against Alice Kyteler and her associates: that they were denying Christ and the church; that they cut up living animals and scattered the pieces at cross roads as offerings to a demon called the son of Art in return for his help; that they stole the keys of the church and held meetings there at night; that in the skull of a robber they placed the intestines and internal organs of cocks, worms, nails cut from dead bodies, hairs from the buttocks and clothes from boys who had died before being baptised; that, from this brew, they made potions to incite people to love, hate, kill and afflict Christians; that Alice herself had a certain demon as incubus by whom she permitted herself to be known carnally and that he appeared to her either as a cat, a shaggy black dog or as a black man, Aethiopis, from whom she received her wealth; and that Alice had used sorcery to murder some of her husbands and to infatuate others, with the result that they gave all their possessions to her and her son, William Outlawe, thus impoverishing her stepchildren. Furthermore it was claimed that Alice’s fourth husband, Sir John Ie Poer, was being poisoned. The final accusation may have some truth to it as a description of him in 1324; emaciated, with nails fallen out and body hair all gone is consistent with arsenic poisoning.3 In Dowling’s Annals Dame Alice is said to have practiced spells in public by gathering the filth of the streets and piling it before the door of her son, while mumbling:

To the house of William my son

Hie all the wealth of Kilkenny town.4

What the group was eventually accused therefore went far beyond the original accusations of Alice’s children. Ledrede took the original accusations and embroidered them with many more. The details of Alice’s activities included grave-robbing, concocting powders, pills and ointments from herbs and a variety of other ingredients including unbaptized children’s swaddling clothes and of making candles from human fat.


Eventually all the accused were found guilty. Alice, meanwhile, had managed to escape from Kilkenny and made it to Dublin where she was given some help by the Bishop there (who was not a fan of Bishop Ledrede) . Alice was related to many of the most powerful Anglo-Irish families in Ireland and those connections served her well. Back in Kilkenny though her co-accused were suffering. The fortunate members of the group escaped with public flogging, or excommunication, but, her servant, Petronilla of Meath was burned alive, based on her detailed confession obtained by torture. When Ledrede eventually requested Alice’s return to Kilkenny from the diocese of Dublin it appeared that she was allowed to flee from there and escape Ledrede’s persecution.5 She was never heard of again. Her son William Outlawe did not flee with her and in 1325 Ledredee saw a useful way to further the faith and save himself some money. William was required to purge his alleged sin of heresy by undertaking to roof the chancel and adjacent Lady Chapel of the Cathedral at Kilkenny with lead at his own expense. It was so heavy that the roof collapsed.2

This witchcraft trial in Ireland is extremely important with regard to the genesis of the witch belief in medieval and Early Modern Europe. The accusations against Alice and her co-accused are seen as the first link between previous representations of heretics in the Middle Ages as secret, nocturnal, sexually promiscuous devil-worshippers to also being practitioners of low magic. Alice and her co-accused were accused of using witchcraft but also of belonging to a set of heretics that met at night, renouncing the Christian faith and of making sacrifices to demons. Importantly, Alice was also accused of copulating with a demon. That is why this trial is so important as charges of magic became intertwined with charges of heresy and devil worship and it reflects for the first time the belief that witches were organised in a devil-worshipping heretical sect. Without this belief in the sabbat the witch hunts would have been a much smaller affair in the rest of Europe.

Intriguingly this trial is one of a handful of witch trials that took place in Ireland. The witch hunting craze never caught on and many reasons have been proferred for this. A clue, perhaps, as to why the Gaelic Irish and Anglo-Irish inhabitants (remember the island was split into spheres of power between English and Irish) didn’t show much enthusiasm for joining in the witch hunt might be seen in a speech given by a relative and friend of Alice Kyteler, Arnold le Paor who was the Seneschal (sort of a governor) of Kilkenny

He said of Bishop Ledrede – ‘if some vagabond from England has obtained his bull in the pope’s court, we do not have to obey it unless enjoined on us by the king’s seal.’ He also claimed: ‘As you well know, heretics have never been found in Ireland, which has always been called the ‘Island of Saints’. Now this foreigner comes from England and says we are all heretics and excommunicates … Defamation of this country affects everyone of us, so we must all unite against this man’.

Alice’s trial brings up all sorts of interesting questions about cultural affiliations and loyalties; about Crown vs Church power and about how these factors drove and influenced the very obvious lack of enthusiasm for witch trials which is such a feature of medieval Ireland.

So, yes, she might have slept with a devil but because a foreigner said so, in the clannish, suspicious and independent world of medieval Ireland then…nobody was going to punish her for it and that was that!

1 Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, (London: Sussex University Press., 1975),ibid., pg 198.

2 ibid., pg 198.

3Bernadette Williams, The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler, History Ireland, vol. 4, issue 2 (1994)

4 S. Malone, Church History of Ireland, Vol. 2, pg 3.

5 S. Malone, op. cit., pg 7.

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Independent Women: Poetry, power, art and looking for love in medieval Ireland


ImageI have mentioned before how, after women married in the Irish tradition they could control the goods they brought with them to the marriage. A favourite way for women to dispose of any such income was to commission poetry. The (grateful) bards, who lauded these women’s personal wealth, celebrated the extent to which Gaelic wives could control their possessions (and the extent to which that control could benefit the bards – natch). Here’s a fourteenth century poem addressed to Sadhbh Magauran makes explicit reference to her personal wealth. The poet states that:

Every poet-band shares her wealth nor is there any whose

desires she grants not; Sadhbh, Branch of Gabhair, has

attained high fortune but not higher than her excellence1


Another woman who was typical of these wealthy patrons was Margaret the daughter of Conor O’ Brien and wife of O’ Rourke, lord of Breifne. When she died in 1513 she was lauded as the;

‘…radiant paragon of the Gaels, to whom God gave prosperity and royal state and great wealth; hearth of hospitality and maintenance, humanity and charitable entertainment for scholars and ollavs, the weak and the wretched and all, whether mighty or outcast, who stood in need thereof; one who never as long as she lived denied any man craving a boon; died after Unction and Penance and was buried in the monastery which she had herself built to the honour of God and St. Francis, namely the monastery of Creevlea.2


The Gaelic Irish wives who encouraged and supported poets left behind them a legacy of poems, which praised them in life and eulogised them after death.3These women upheld a tradition of the Gaelic world that was often carried on by their daughters. A mid fifteenth-century poem makes reference to Fionnghuala, the daughter of Calvach O’ Connor Faly and his wife, the famously generous Margaret O’ Carroll. The poet also indicates the status and power of Fionnghuala as a wife as well as her wealth.

Equally balanced are Brian’s son and his wife; so that neither

scale sinks down, a hero like Aodh being weighed against



Fionnghuala’s splendour is so great that no woman

can be set above her


From her girlhood-high praise! – her mother’s nature shows

in her; ‘ere she came to a husband she was pregnant with


The ‘mother’s nature’ referred to was that of Margaret O’ Carroll. She was a remarkable woman, who was lauded at her death as,

Mairgreg (Margaret) … was the best of the women of the Gaedil, and the one who made most causeways, churches, books, chalices and all articles useful for the service of a church; and she issued two general invitations in one year, at Killeigh at the feast of St. Sinchell and at Rathangan at the first festival of Mary.5


Margaret’s fame rests on the two general invitations referred to there, which she issued to the learned men of Ireland in 1433 and which are mentioned in her obituary. These were essentially huge feasts for poets.6 A description of the feasts can be found in the annals where Margaret is described as sitting at the feast clad in cloth of gold and surrounded by friends as well as judges and clergy. Her husband is described as overseeing the orderly dispensation of provisions and seems rather sidelined as all the emphasis is on Margaret as principal patron.7


Because of all this lavish spending, Margaret was, of course, a favourite of the poets. A poem by Seithfín Mór, which celebrated the martial exploits of her husband, also included her in its acclaim.

Margaret’s fame has established her protection; palm-branch who

breaketh not her words; a lady who has not learned to refuse; darling of

the blood of earls; flowing tresses whose fosterer is Jesus; heart bounti-

ful and pious. To drink feasts she never forsook her prayers – a woman

who lives by rule. She protects herself against our art, her words are on

our side’.8


Gaelic wives patronised poets for a number of reasons; to show off, to display one’s largesse and cultural leanings but, most importantly, because it served a very important function in Gaelic society. Bardic poetry acted as propaganda for the chief and his family and it was an important duty of the wife to see to it that the right type of poetry was written about her (i.e. her husband’s) family. The great fear was that poets would be displeased and a disaffected poet satirising those who had offended him could ruin a family’s reputation. It was also believed that a poet’s curse could have a serious debilitating effect on one’s health and wellbeing so there is an element of blackmail going on here with the interactions between patrons and poets.


The wife needed the poet to make both her and members of her family look good and the poet needed her patronage for him to survive and prosper. This symbiois was mutually beneficial most of the time. Personal attributes of the lady were often topics of great praise in poems commissioned by them which, frankly, isn’t a surprise. A poem addressed to Gormlaith, the daughter of Brian Magauran, spends most of the time praising her hair for example. Gormlaith’s husband may have been dead by this stage and such concentration on her physical attributes may have been signalling her readiness to find another husband.

Brian’s daughter has hair as Eimhear’s, a young maid

Braiding it, her head of hair is like a bright gold bracelet;

Like too (to Eimhear’s) is the arrangement of the curls in

the back of it


In her plundering of gold (from her husband) for young

Poets, in her brow with its curling dark crest, in her noble-

glancing eye, in her blushing face showing no anger at

rough word’.9

Medieval Irish poetry….the online dating game of its day 🙂


1 Lambert McKenna, The Book of Magauran (Dublin, 1947), verses 19, 20 and 23, p. 414.

2 A. Conn., 1513.2

3McCauley, Roisin, Female Patrons of Bardic Poetry ( M. Phil dissertation, University of Dublin, 2000) pp 20, 24.

4 Aithdioghlum Dana, ed. Lambert McKenna, (Dublin, 1939) i, pp 73-4; ii, p. 44,

5 A. Conn., 1451.2.

6 Katharine Simms, ‘Guesting and Feasting in Gaelic Ireland’, J.R.S.A.I., 108 (1978), pp 91-2.

7 A. F. M. 1451, note t.

8 Osborn Bergin, Irish Bardic Poetry (Dublin, 1970), pp 284-5.

9 McKenna, Book of Magauran, pp 312-6.



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Don’t mess with a medieval Irishwoman

Don’t Mess With A Medieval Irish Woman: Discovering Female Agency in Gaelic Ireland


The question of agency and of how medieval women exerted it is a topic that interests me. One bonus of studying the history of medieval Ireland is that, during the later period (post 1170) there were two very distinct societies on the island. The society of the Gaelic Irish and that of the English in Ireland. I am particularly intrigued by the status of women in these contrasting societies as expressed through the laws and traditions governing women’s behaviour during this period. These different societies assigned different methods (and levels) of exerting agency to women but what I am (very briefly) going to look at today is the phenomenon whereby Gaelic women could keep control of their dowry upon marriage which allowed them (I think) a measure of said agency in conducting their own and their family’s affairs.

In Gaelic society dowries usually consisted of movables (cattle etc) and at the top of society women could be given valuables, sometimes soldiers (including galloglass/mercenaries) as their dowry.


Galloglass (on the left) nonchalantly chatting but always tough, note how everyone else is keeping a distance 🙂

Yes, that’s right, a Gaelic bride could go lovingly to her new husband escorted by a crack team of soldiers who were hers. The Annals of Loch Cé, for example, refer to the thirteenth century marriage of Aedh O Conor and Ailin, the daughter of Dubhgall MacSomhairle, upon which the young wife brought as her dowry one hundred and sixty galloglass.1 In the early fourteenth century Angus Óg, Lord of the Isles, married Agnes, the daughter of Cú Mhuighe O’ Cathain of Ulster, and he is said to have received a dowry (or a tocher, as it was known in Scotland) of 140 men of every surname in O’ Cathain’s territory with his new wife.2 This made for interesting situations when women chose to exert their control over these ‘dowries’ of soldiers.

One famous situation stands out. In 1315 during the Bruce wars Dervorgilla [Dervla] who was the wife of O Donnell joined her husband in making war on Rory O Connor in Carbury. She is recorded as leading galloglass (mercenary soldiers) in an attack on a church. It is not clear as to whether they are hers but, they may well have been. The following year Rory O Connor made peace with O Donnell. However, Dervorgilla refused to acknowledge the peace her husband had made and hired another band of galloglass to which she offered a reward for killing Rory. It is interesting that she hired different galloglass as one gets the feeling that this is how she circumvented being asked/told not to use her own men. Importantly she had the means to pay the galloglass she hired, independently of her husband. The galloglass did their job and Rory was killed in direct contravention of the wishes of her husband.3


Here’s a woman attempting to beat up a monk, it seems (*Dervorgilla-lite)

Gaelic wives’ independence and willingness to join their resources with their husband’s in making war ensured that some were formally acknowledged by the authorities as being both troublesome and dangerous to both Church and State. In 1315 Donal O’ Neill, his wife Gormlaith and their son, John, issued Letters Patent, in which they promised to the harassed Archbishop, Dean and Chapter of Armagh that they would no longer make any demands upon ecclesiastically owned lands and tenants for themselves or their allies’ troops. They also promised to restore all church lands, which they had seized and to deliver pledges for good behaviour.4 The following year, in 1316 the Justiciar of Ireland was ordered to ascertain whether the release from prison of Mór, the wife of O Hanlon, who was being held in Drogheda, would be prejudicial to the keeping of the peace, or injurious to the interests of the king.5 High ranking women in the Gaelic world were, therefore, active in the political happenings and associated crimes of their day. Their continuing control of their own assets (dowries) enabled them to exert agency in their and their family’s affairs.

Now if you look at the situation of the ‘English’ women in Ireland, a very different picture emerges but that’s for another blog post!

1 A.L.C., 1259.

2 Rosalind K. Marshall, Virgins and Viragos: A History of women in Scotland from 1080-1920 (London. 1983), p. 29.

3 A. Conn., 1315.20, 1316.2.

4 ‘Calendar of the register of Archbishop Fleming’, ed., H. J. Lawlor, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 30 C (1912-13), no. 170,

5 Brendan Smith, ‘The Medieval Border’ in Raymond Gillespie and Harold O’ Sullivan (ed.) The Borderlands; essays on the history of the Ulster-Leinster border (Belfast, 1989), p. 50


October 16, 2013 · 12:42 pm