In 1324 Dame Alice Kytler was tried for witchcraft in Kilkenny. Alice Kytler was born into a rich merchant family in Kilkenny. She married William Outlaw, a rich banker and brother to the chancellor of Ireland. William was twenty yerars older than alice and their son was also named William. Alice’s husband died under mysterious circumstance leaving all his wealth to Alice. Alice married another banker, Adam le Blont. He died after a drinking spree and left all his riches to Alice. Alice was fast becoming the richest and most powerful woman in Kilkenny. In 1311 Alice married a rich landowner from Clonmel named Richard de Valle. When he died suddenly Alice came to inherit all his property.
Rumours circulated that Alice was in league with the devil and had taken a demon, named Robin, as a lover. The young girls who served Alice was also supposed to have taken part in demonic rites. One of those girls was named Petronilla of Meath.
In 1320 Dame Alice married her fourth husband, John le Poer, who three years later began to suffer from unknown illnesses. His hair fell out in patches and what remained turned silvery grey and his finger nails fell out. He fled the house and went to the local monastery but it was too late, he died shortly afterwards.
The most learned men in Europe had concurred that Christendom was under siege by an international organization of witches. Witches were to blame for all the ills of the world.
The Bishop of Kilkenny (Ossory), Richard Ledrede, freshly arrived from the continent where witchcraft was greatly feared said that Alice was a witch and Petronella part of her coven. A charge of witchcraft was a pretty excellent way to get rid of someone you did not like or who was too powerful. Ledrede was having difficulties with relatives of Dame Alice. Alice was tried with seven other women and four men accomplices for devil worship and sorcery.
Dame Alice and her witches cast curses and love spells on their neighbours by boiling up a true “witches’ brew” composed of chicken guts, worms, corpse fingernails, babies’ brains and some herbs for seasoning, heated in a skull over an oak fire. Alice was tried and sent to prison. However she had become so rich and powerful that it was the Bishop who ended up in gaol. The Loord Chief Justice managed to release Bishop Ledrede after seventeen days and sought to imprison Dame Alice. Dame Alice and her disciples were condemned to be whipped through the streets, tied at the back of a horse and cart after which Alice, as chief priestess and instigator would be burned to the stake. Alice managed to make an escape and is said to have disappeared off to England, never to be heard of again.
Alice’s handmaid, Petronella of Meath, was whipped and confessed to everything her torturers wanted. She said she had denied Christ and summoned up demons. Petronilla claimed to have been present when Lady Alice met with the demon Robin.
A huge bonfire was erected outside the Market house in Kilkenny and poor Petronella was burned alive while the chanting mob looked on. Burning at the stake ensured that the condemned had no body to take into the next life and the fire cleansed the soul. There were three different types of burning at the stake. The first was to build a heap of firewood and then attached the prisoner to a wooden stake. This ensured that everyone had a good view of the witch. The next was to tie the prisoner to the stake and build firewood all around them and the witch died behind a wall of fire. Not so good for onlookers. And the third type was to half strangle the witch with a rope so that she was unconscious and probably died of smoke inhalation. Again less fun than watching a woman being burned alive and screaming in her suffering. A body could be reduced to ashes in an hour in one of these bonfires.
On November 3, 1324, Petronilla was burned alive, the first accused witch to die in Ireland, one of the first in Europe. She was only twelve years of age. It is claimed that some two hundred thousand people were burned for witchcraft in Europe in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only four recorded witches were executed in Ireland
William Outlaw, Dame Alice’s son from her first marriage, was also charged with being in league with the devil. William was ordered to hear three masses a day for a year and paid for a new lead roof on the cathedral in Kilkenny. Money talked even then. The Bishop continued to have disputes with the local landowners and officials and is said to have died when the new lead roof of the cathedral fell on him.
In 1649 a Castlejordan woman named Ellen McGilway was burned at the stake by order of the Governor of Tycroghan for making away with her illegitimate child.