St. John's and the Black Abbey, and Witchcraft in Kilkenny

J. Stirling Coyne & N. P. Willis
c. 1841
Volume II, Chapter XIII-7 | Start of chapter

There are one or two other very fine remains of architecture at Kilkenny—St. John's and the Black Abbey being in a very picturesque stage of decay. The former was called the "Lantern of Ireland," from the great number of its windows. It is now used as a parish church, somewhat to the detriment of its beauty. Kilkenny is a famous town for many reasons; one of which, and it will be no light honour, is its having been the birthplace of Banim, one of the first of the Irish novelists. It is also famous, however, as the scene of the persecutions for witchcraft, which find a parallel in the horrors enacted at Salem, in Massachusetts. "The Lady Alice Kettell," says one writer, "was summoned, in or about 1325, before the bishop, to answer the charge of practising magic, sorcery, and witchcraft. She and her accomplices, Petronilla and Basilia, were accused of holding nightly conferences with an imp, or evil spirit, called Robin Artisson, to whom, in order to make the infernal thing obedient to all their commands, they sacrificed nine red cocks in the middle of the highway, and offered up the eyes of nine peacocks. The Lady Alice, by means of this imp and his associates, caused every night the streets of Kilkenny to be swept between the hour of complin-prayer and daybreak. And for what did she do this? To sweeten the town and make it agreeable? no such thing. Witches are not so benevolently inclined; but it was for the good of her greedy son that she did it, one William Utlan, a great land-pirate, an avarus agricola, a fellow who monopolised all the town-parks, and grasped at great possessions. So the cunning mother had all the filth of the city raked to her son's door, to help him to manure his meadows; and such of the inhabitants as ventured to go out at night heard unearthly brooms plying over the causeway, and fearful-looking scavengers were at their dirty work, who, scouring away to slow chorus, chanted as follows:—

'To the house of William, my son,

Hie all the wealth of Kilkenny town.'

But this was not all: the Lady Alice beat even Captain Freney the robber, and all his Kellymount gang, in riding amid the darkness of night. No sooner were the nine peacocks' eyes thrown into the fire, than up rose Robin the imp, and presented his potent mistress with a pot of ointment, with which she oiled her broomstick; and then mounting as gay as Meg Merrilies the Scotch hag, and having along with her Petronilla and Basilia, her dear friends, she performed a night's journey in a minute, and used to hold a Sabbat with other enchanters on the Devil's Bit, in the county of Tipperary.

"This business made a great noise at the time. The Lady Alice Kettell, having powerful friends, escaped to foreign parts: her accomplice, Petronilla, was burned at the Cross of Kilkenny. William Utlan suffered a long imprisonment. On searching the Lady Alice's closet (as Hollinshed relates) they found a sacramental wafer, having Satan's name stamped thereon, and a pot of ointment, with which she greased her staff, when she would amble and gallop through thick and thin, through fair weather and foul, as she listed."

To this account Mr. Crofton Croker replied by the following interesting letter, published in the Dublin Journal;—

"The persecution of the Lady Alice Kettell, at Kilkenny, for witchcraft, is perhaps one of the earliest upon record. The Bishop of Ossory is stated to have been her accuser, and to have charged her and two companions with various diabolical acts; among others, that of holding a conference every night with a spirit called Robin Artisson, to whom, as you have related, they were said to sacrifice nine red cocks and nine peacocks' eyes.

"In this ecclesiastical persecution, the object of which appears to have been to extort money to cover the roof of St. Mark's Church, in Kilkenny, the connection with the fairy creed is obvious from the name of the evil spirit. The appellation of Artisson any Irish scholar will at once perceive has had its origin in the sacrifice said to be nightly offered up, as the translation of it is chicken-flesh; and, with respect to the name of Robin, I cannot help thinking, when Sir Walter Scott tells us that, 'by some inversion and alteration of pronunciation,' the English word goblin and the Scottish bogle come from the same root as the German kobold, he might as well have added poor Robin, if only for the sake of good fellowship, as Robin's punning namesake, Thomas Hood, would have said.

"That Robin, however, was the popular name for a fairy of much repute is sufficiently well known; but since the mention of his name has accidently occurred with that of Hood, I may be allowed to observe that the title assumed by, or applied to the famous outlaw, was no other than one which had been appropriated to a denizen of fairyland; Hudikin, or Hodekin, that is, 'little hood,' or 'cowl,' being a Dutch or German spirit, so called from the most remarkable part of his dress, in which also the Norwegian Nis and Spanish Duende were believed to appear, 'Un cucurucho tamano,' to use the words of Calderon.

"This long digression, like the treacherous Friar Rush, might readily lead me on from 'the merry green wood,' until I became bewildered in the mazes of conjecture. Allow me, therefore, to return to Kilkenny, the scene of Alice Kettell's conjurations. That town appears to have been peculiarly fatal to witches. Sir Richard Cox, in his History of Ireland, mentions the visit of Sir William Drury, the Lord Deputy, to it in October, 1578, who caused thirty-six criminals to be executed there, 'one of which was a blackamoor, and two others were witches, and were condemned by the law of nature, for there was no positive law against witchcraft in these days.' From that it would appear that the statute of the 83rd of Henry VIII. against witchcraft had either become a dead letter, or had not been enacted in Ireland.

"Ireland has been, in my opinion, unjustly stigmatised as a barbarous and superstitious country. It is certain that the cruel persecution carried on against poor and ignorant old women was as nothing in Ireland when compared with other countries. In addition to the three executions at Kilkenny, a town the inhabitants of which were almost entirely either English settlers, or of English descent, I only remember to have met with an account of one other execution for the crime of witchcraft. This latter took place at Antrim, in 1699, and it is, I believe, the last on record. The particulars of this silly tragedy were printed in a pamphlet entitled The Bewitching of a Child in Ireland, and from thence copied by Professor Sinclair in his work entitled Satan's Invisible World Discovered, which is frequently referred to by Sir Walter Scott in his Letters on Demonology."