Troubled Soil: Islandmagee’s Hidden History

Updated On: November 07, 2023

Islandmagee History Seafront Image at ConnollyCove

Hidden in the rocky hills of County Antrim’s east coast lies Islandmagee, a grassy peninsula town epicentre to the nearby ports of Larne and Whitehead. Sparsely populated and distant from the glaring lights of Belfast city, the town’s coastal areas are widely visited by photographers and beauty-seekers alike for their clear skies, oceanic views and an incredible ambience found in few other locations across Ireland.

Islandmagee History Blog Sketch Image
A sketch of an old view south of The Gobbins, close to the sites of both the 1641 massacres and the Islandmagee Witch Trials. Credit: Eddie McMonagle.

A Jagged Peninsula

Matching the richness of Islandmagee’s beauty is its extensive history, believed to have its earliest roots in the mesolithic period, where the culture of the hunter-gatherer flourished with more sophisticated ways of life. Tools and weapons became more developed, whilst methods of burial and agricultural production saw a marked transition into what is now recognised as the neolithic period. Certain traditions were retained in Islandmagee: locals famously adhered to a programme of crop rotation where beans were grown to supply nitrogen to their seaside soil. The term ‘beaneaters’ emerged as a nickname for Islandmagee’s people, and has persevered into modern times.

Bloodied Soil

Each stage of civilisation in Ireland can be traced back to the blood which has soaked the soil of Antrim’s eastern peninsula. The earliest name of what we now know as Islandmagee was Rinn Seimhne (The District of Seimhne), believed to have originated from one of Ireland’s warring factions of Celtic tribes. Beyond the influence of Celtic tribes, Islandmagee is also said to have received part of its title from MacAodha (Magee), then a prominent and well-armed family in the area.

The hills of Islandmagee served as one of the main stages in which the terrors of the War of the Three Kingdoms would be acted out. Commonly referred to as the Eleven Years’ War, the conflict saw civil war rage in Ireland, England and Scotland under the royal leadership of King Charles I. Initiated in a 1641 rebellion by Irish Catholic gentry who sought to seize control of the English administration in Ireland, an ethic conflict saw old English and Gaelic Irish Catholics battling Protestant colonists. Thousands of settlers in Ireland were to perish at the hands of English Parliamentarians and Scottish Covenanters, with many of the conflict’s darkest and most bloody horrors notably absent from the pages of history.

Carrickfergus Castle History Blog Image
Carrickfergus Castle, from which the 1641 massacre at Islandmagee was directed, and the guilt of the 1711 witches confirmed.

A Night of Terror

The English administration met the Irish Catholic rebellion with terror at Islandmagee. On the 8th of January 1641, English and Scottish forces emerged from the corridors of Carrickfergus Castle with orders to kill. All of the Irish Catholic inhabitants of Islandmagee, estimated at over 3,000 men, women and children, were slaughtered across the course of one evening. The massacre was recognised as the first in any conflict between Ireland and England, and generated considerable public disgust: at the time of the massacre, the Irish Catholic population of Islandmagee were one of the few in Ulster not to have declared open rebellion against the English administration.

Islandmagee War Image
Above: Charles I, ruling monarch at the time of the Eleven Years’ War and opponent of the Irish rebellion

Notably, public awareness of the massacre was close to non-existent up until 1840. Agents of the Irish Ordnance Survey arrived at the peninsula, gathering information on its population and geography, compiling local memoirs as they went along. The residents of Islandmagee recounted stories of horror, passed down successive generations of families. Locals told of shocking events nearly two centuries previously, which saw much of the area’s population slain by colonising troops – with many fingers of blame pointing towards Scottish settlers based in Ballymena.

From War to Witchcraft

The 1641 horrors at Islandmagee added a bloody, yet rarely-opened page to the unwritten books of Ireland’s forgotten history. The 1840 visit to Islandmagee by the Irish Ordnance Survey demonstrated the power of storytelling: a lack of documentary evidence was supplanted by a strong oral tradition which kept the 1641 massacre alive in Islandmagee’s collective memory. Events which followed the War of the Three Kingdoms, however, endured in public interest. Of these events included Ireland’s final witch trials, which marked the end of a bloodthirsty suspicion which claimed the lives of thousands of women across Europe.

March 1711 saw further persecution directed from the courts of Carrickfergus. Eight women were locked in stocks, before being pelted with rotten fruit and stones. Following a sensational trial came public humiliation doled out for a participating public, before the women were jailed for a year. The eight women were found guilty of the demonic possession of the mind, body and soul of a teenage girl: a shocking verdict which continues to echo in Antrim’s hidden history.

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A medieval illustration depicts the trial of an accused witch. Women were bound by the wrists and feet before being cast into the water. Death by drowning was certain. Image: University of Glasgow Library

Trials of Horror and Ashes

According to historians and anthropologists, suspicion of witchcraft and the dark arts was a concept brought to Ireland by settlers from England and Scotland. Indeed, the Scots-Presbyterian heritage of Islandmagee was strong amongst its then-300 residents. Scotland saw the worst of the practice: whilst common law in England and Ireland saw few individuals convicted, Scotland witnessed the prosecution of over 3,000 individuals, with over 75% of those persecuted sentenced to death by burning or strangling.

The basis for the controversial case lay in the words of teenager Mary Dunbar, who exhibited all of the supposed tell-tale signs of demonic possession: shouting, swearing, screaming and vomiting up pins and nails. A manic Dunbar claimed to have seen eight women appearing to her as spectres. With eight women accused following an identity parade, evidence was secured against these women in their inability to say the Lord’s prayer. The women, marginalised and powerless to the decision of the court, met all of the key descriptions of a witch: unmarried, outspoken and extremely poor.

What became of Mary Dunbar and the eight convicted ‘witches’ of Islandmagee is unclear. As interest in the case was revived in the early 20th century, a more modern conflict in Ireland led to the destruction of relevant documents and public records. The chaos of the Irish Civil War (1921-23) saw the destruction of the Public Records Office, with many Church of Ireland documents concerning the witch trials surrendered to the flames.

Ireland’s history and culture is laced by the lore of myth and legend. To find out more about the island’s alternative history, check out our entries on ConnollyCove – your site for Ireland’s best travel destinations.

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