Behind the veil: modern witchcraft in Ireland
From Shakespeare’s Macbeth to The Wizard of Oz, the media has not been kind in its depiction of the witch. She is haggard in appearance, with garish green skin and ragged black clothes, topped off with her signature pointy hat. She lives deep in the woods and feeds off the flesh of children who have strayed from home. She casts spells of malintent upon the virtuous townsfolk who have wronged her. However, from the infamous Salem Witch Trials to the tale of Ireland’s own Alice Kyteler; history has proven that the only scary thing about the witch, is society’s attitude toward her.
Ahead of Halloween, Galway Pulse spoke to some modern-day Irish witches to discover what witchcraft is really all about.
In recent years, witchcraft has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity; moving it from a fringe practice to something of the mainstream. It is particularly with young women that witchcraft has found its modern audience. In fact, it is somewhat of a feminist movement – emphasizing the reclamation of terminology and practices that were often used to vilify women. In this sense, Julia Nikiel, a 3rd-year student at the University of Galway and a practicing ‘eclectic’ witch, believes that witchcraft is a “pillar of feminism”.
“[Witchcraft] is one of the oldest rituals that unified all women, in more ways than one,” she explained. “Some were unified in their knowledge of herbs and healing – they learned from each other and had their own ways of dealing with ailments that are still very effective home remedies.”
History has seen many innocent women persecuted under the guise of heresy. Often, these women were not witches at all; but simply did not adhere to the narrow behavioural confines that were socially acceptable for a woman at the time. In this, Julia says, witchcraft unfortunately also united women in their suffering:
“These were knowledgeable women, doctors, healers, scientists, artists that upset the patriarchy and authority of the time in one way or another,” said Julia. “The easiest way of dealing with this disruption was to get rid of them.”
Ciara Mitchell, another Galway-based witch, has also found a sense of female solidarity in witchcraft; having originally been introduced to the practice by friends. For Ciara, astrology has been a source of inspiration on her journey: “I incorporate witchcraft every day with things like journaling, recognizing different moon phases […] seeing what planets are in retrograde and how it will affect me.”
Astrology – and moreover women’s belief in it – is notoriously a source of ridicule for men, as Ciara pointed out:
“It’s something men shit on us a lot for,” she explained. “But I think it’s a really cool thing that a lot of females take part in.”
The Christian narrative that shaped history’s view of the witch has seen her take rank amongst other monstrous figures such as vampires and werewolves; cavorting with Satan. Although some occultists may dabble in so-called ‘dark’ magic, most witchcraft is rooted in an appreciation of the natural world. This misconception also aided the growth of the cliché ‘hag’ stereotype. In reality, many witches follow their own spiritual paths and happen upon witchcraft for different reasons.
Kimberly Williams turned to witchcraft after college, when she began to feel disillusioned with Christianity. “I felt judged by the Christian faith and that people weren’t being ‘Christian’,” she told Galway Pulse. “I felt more in touch with nature […] I define myself as a naturalist witch, which is a combination of green / kitchen witch[craft].”
For Essex-born Roma Jean, who formed a coven at age 14, witchcraft is a mindful activity which she incorporates into her everyday life in “small, subtle ways”: “From stirring my coffee three times clockwise and visualizing what goals I want to achieve throughout the day, to lighting candles on my coffee table […] reflecting and taking a moment to breathe.”
Roma has also blended her passion for divination with her art, and sells handcrafted wooden spirit boards to fellow occult enthusiasts.
Hailing from Poland, Julia’s incorporation of Slavic paganism into her witchcraft helps her to feel connected with her roots. Julia was first introduced to witchcraft by her mother, when they moved to Ireland. “I had a hard time fitting in at school and was badly bullied in second and third class, this is when my mom introduced me to small, simple self-care rituals, spells and manifestations to help me boost my confidence.” These tasks became as common as brushing her teeth, for Julia, and developed into a lifetime interest. “I think it’s safe to say that I have been practicing some form of witchcraft, on and off, since I was about 7.”
The witch-y roots of Halloween
Ireland has taken to the witchcraft craze like a duck to water. Tarot cards, spell candles, healing crystals, and more are readily available across the nation; stocked everywhere from holistic shops to trendy clothing boutiques. The University of Galway is even home to its very own ‘Witches Call’ student-run society. Considering our Celtic roots, this comes as no surprise.
Halloween as we know it evolved from the Celtic celebration of Samhain, which traditionally welcomed in the harvest and ushered in ‘the dark half of the year’. Falling between the Autumn equinox and the Winter solstice, 31 October is said to be the day when the veil between Earth and the spiritual world is at its thinnest. It is a day of great significance for the pagan community.
For most, the end of October is marked by trick-or-treating or excessive drinking. For those who celebrate Samhain, it is a period to welcome in the new, while remembering the past: leaving offerings to ancestors and deities; reinforcing spiritual objects with the power of the new moon; creating food enriched with good intentions for the year ahead.
Much like the ways in which they practice witchcraft; Julia, Ciara, and Kimberly will be honouring Samhain in different ways.
Kimberly intends to “create some baked witchy goods” and light candles at her altar; while Ciara plans to perform an affirmational ritual, outlining her hopes and intentions for the month of November. Although currently on Erasmus, and far away from her supplies, it is Julia who has the most unique celebrations ahead:
“I am prepared to welcome some stray spirits into my home for the night if they get lost,” explained Julia, who currently lives cemetery-adjacent. “I’m expecting some high traffic this Sunday!”