By Gerry Moran
Almost 700 years ago, a young woman was dragged though the streets of Kilkenny, publically flogged, tied to a stake and burned to death. It was November 1324 and it was, purportedly, the first ever burning of a ‘witch’ in Ireland. But there was a problem. The wrong woman had been burned to death. The woman the authorities wanted to burn at the stake was Alice Kyteler better known as ‘Kilkenny’s Witch’.
I was telling the story of Alice Kyteler to a group of American tourists in Kyteler’s Inn in Kilkenny, once the home of the infamous Alice. I told them how Alice was anything but a toothless, old hag but an ambitious woman who had no problem attracting men. However, she specialised in elderly, wealthy widowers. In 1324 Alice was on husband No. 4, Sir John le Poer, her previous three husbands, elderly, wealthy widowers having died in mysterious circumstances leaving nothing, not a red cent, to their children. Instead, Alice Kyteler inherited everything making her a very wealthy and influential member of Kilkenny society.
In 1324, Alice’s John le Poer was visited, in Kyteler’s Inn, by the children from his first marriage. They were shocked when they saw him. Records tell us that he was “reduced to such a state by powders, pills and potions that he was totally emaciated, deprived of his nails and his hair had fallen out” – classic symptoms, we now know, of arsenic poisoning.
Those children, along with the children of Alice’s previous three husbands approached the Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede, alleging that by witchcraft Alice had poisoned their fathers and induced them to leave her all their money. The upshot of it all was that Alice was tried for witchcraft. One of the charges was as follows: “…. in order to inflict death or disease on the body…..she made powders and ointments containing certain horrible worms, curious herbs and dead men’s nails which she cooked, with various incantations over an oak fire in a vessel made from the skull of a decapitated thief.”
Alice was found guilty and sentenced to be burned at the stake. However, thanks to her wealth and friends in high places (the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Roger Outlawe, was her brother-in-law) she slipped quietly out of Kilkenny, slipped quietly out of Ireland, and was never heard of again.
Frustrated that Alice had slipped the net, Bishop de Ledrede needed a scapegoat; her name was Petronella of Meath, Alice Kyteler’s lady-in-waiting. It was this 24-year-old who was publically flogged until she confessed to witchcraft. It was this innocent, young woman they burned at the stake in 1324, the first ever burning of a so-called ‘witch’ in Ireland.
Having finished my story about Alice Kyteler, a gentleman approached me and said: “Gerry, my name is Harry Griffith and I am here with my wife who is a direct descendent of Alice Kyteler.”
I am intrigued. Over a drink I chat with Idona Griffith from Austin, Texas who, according to her meticulous research, told me that Alice Kyteler is her 23rd great, grandmother! I was fascinated. Idona reminded me that Alice Kyteler had one son from her first marriage, William Outlawe; she also had a daughter, Alicia, from her fourth marriage to John le Poer. According to Idona’s research, Alicia married and travelled to England where she gave birth to a daughter, Isabelle. Idona has traced her lineage back to Alicia and Isabelle.
Isabelle and her people settled in England for almost 300 years before emigrating to America, arriving in Virginia around 1630 which is where Idona and her family came in.
Idona then astounded me by telling me that she, like her infamous ancestor, has had four husbands! I am gobsmacked and sheepishly ask Idona what became of her previous three husbands. She tells me that one has passed away but that the other two are alive and well.
“Unlucky in love?” I ask.
“Too young and immature,” Idona replied.
I then jokingly ask about the health of her fourth husband, Harry. “Hale and hearty,” Harry piped up.
Is Idona Griffith, from Austin, Texas, a direct descendant of Alice Kyteler, Kilkenny’s Witch? I don’t know for sure. But this I do know: Idona, with her charm and intelligence, most certainly cast a spell on me.
* Alice and Idona: Two of a Kind? was broadcast on RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, on October 30, 2022