Witchcraft in Mayo

When I researched the history of the Anglo-Norman Lynches who settled in Galway, I never expected to find a story of witchcraft. Of special interest was an 18th century tale in which SIBELLA COTTLE was urged to spellbind her lover, SIR HARRY LYNCH-BLOSSE of Balla, Co Mayo. Guided by a local midwife, the red-haired beauty made a powerful love charm from the skin of a corpse. Known as the spancel of death, she would use it to spellbind the 7th Baronet should he decide to abandon her.

This story has fascinated me ever since its discovery in Legends of Connaught in which Sibella was described as “a professed woman of pleasure.” T H Nally later called her “a governess from Moore Hall” in his 1916 play, The Spancel of Death. Whatever her provenance, Sibella bore seven children by Sir Harry before his death in 1788. In his will, Harry surnamed all his children by her as Lynch, and left substantial bequests to each.

Sibella resorted to witchcraft only after JAMES CUFFE MP of Ballinrobe advised Harry to banish his Catholic mistress and marry a wealthy Protestant lady. Such a union would have eased the financial pressure on his estate of 20,000 acres. Terrified for the future of her children, Sibella approached her midwife, JUDY HOLIAN, who recommended the spancel. Judy guaranteed that the powerful love charm would spellbind Harry to her for life. Although shocked by a process that required the flaying of skin from an exhumed corpse, Sibella agreed to carry out the dastardly deed out of desperation.

She was even more horrified when told that the corpse was that of Ellen Colgan, an illegitimate child of Harry in a previous dalliance. In the ritual that followed, Sibella was required to walk around the corpse seven times quenching a candle after each round, while Judy chanted a spell in Gaelic. A strip of skin was flayed off the young girl. The witch embedded seven hairs from Harry’s head into the skin using animal blood before covering it with silk. Sibella was instructed to place the love charm under Harry’s pillow at night. When the cock crowed in the morning, she was to remove the spancel and hide it in a safe place.

For those who might doubt the authenticity of this story, I would refer you to the Reverend Caesar Otway who recorded the use of witchcraft by three Catholic girls in Belmullet. They had made good matches above their station in life having flayed the corpse of a Trappist monk to produce a love charm. Local people believed that the spell was made more powerful through the use of such holy and chaste skin. Otway was surprised to find that “Protestant females … of the better sort,” also used a practice that had originated in England.

Whether Sibella Cottle actually applied the spancel to Harry is not known. Nonetheless, the existence of the spancel was reputedly confirmed when it was found dangling from the gable end of Balla chapel. It may have been discovered in the thatch of the witch’s cabin and dispatched from there to the chapel.

We know that Harry never married the rich Protestant lady recommended for him, or anyone else for that matter. Instead, he remained loyal to Sibella as his mistress in the Big House until he died – a practice that scandalized the local community. Thereafter, nothing is known of this extraordinary woman. Did she go mad, wracked with guilt, as suggested in The Spancel of Death, a fate prompted by Lady Wilde’s rendition of “The Fatal Love Charm?” Adele Dalsimer, the late Professor of Irish Studies at Boston College, has suggested that Sibella may have survived the trauma of her witchcraft. If true, she must have been a strong and resourceful woman who put the past behind her in order to rear her seven illegitimate children. I have adopted this latter approach in my on-going research into her fate and the fate of her children.

My debut novel published by Club Lighthouse in 2013

My debut novel published by Club Lighthouse in 2013