As some scholars theorise, it may very well be the case that Ireland’s reverence for magic prevented a violent and extensive culture of witch-hunting from taking off when compared to our European neighbours.
In his paper, Witchcraft Beliefs and Trials in Early Ireland, Andrew Snedden acknowledges that there was an unwillingness among the majority Catholic, Gaelic-Irish population to “levy formal witchcraft accusation,” and that a belief in “demonic witchcraft” was “conspicuously absent” in Gaelic-Irish popular culture. Instead, witches in the Irish consciousness were “less threatening” and “benign” according to Snedden. These figures didn’t harm their neighbours, or conspire with evil forces, but were associated with agricultural mischief, such as stealing milk from cows or preventing butter from being churned.
Having said that, Ireland’s benign perception of magic didn’t completely protect women from being murdered following accusations of witchcraft. There are records of a number of women being persecuted, including Alice Kytler in 1324, Florence Newton in 1661 and eight young women in Islandmagee in 1711.
Throughout early modern Europe, however, thousands of people, mostly women, were being killed and tortured following accusations of witchcraft, while in Ireland, as Snedden notes, execution rates didn’t reach “double figures”. We know today that these people were not witches, but victims of isolation, torture and murder.
Nowadays, Ireland’s relationship with fairies, magic and the divine isn’t a relic of the past, it lives on, with a vibrant community of practitioners where a huge number of LGBTQ+ people find community, power and peace.
Today, the term ‘witchcraft’ can refer to a number of practices, including Wicca and other forms of Paganism, as well as individual covens and practitioners of magick (yes, with a K). Unlike many forms of organised religion where LGBTQ+ people are excluded and condemned, many queer people from all across the world have found solace in this broad encompassing of spiritual practices. I caught up with a collection of practitioners both here in Ireland and in the US to determine why LGBTQ+ people are drawn to witchcraft.
Gina, a County Clare-based Witch and Pagan, was raised to be a “good Catholic girl,” she shared. However, after her first marriage broke up, she noticed that when she attended mass, the sermons seemed to place undue blame on women.
“I noticed that every single sermon from the pulpit was about how wrong wives were who left their union, and how it was all the fault of the woman.”
“I decided to look for a religion or belief system that would accept me as I was. Eventually I found it. I can’t tell you how happy I was when I found that first little book on Paganism in a tiny bookshop in Galway. Here, there was no judgement, and even when I came out as bi, there was still no judgement, just acceptance. I so loved that.”
Gina theorises that the reason many queer people are drawn to witchcraft and Paganism is down to the inherent structure of these practices.
“Unlike organised religion, there are no hard and fast rules, no matter what anyone else tells you. Yes, there are ways of doing things, and times of year, and times of day, but that’s about it. We do have priests and priestesses, they usually oversee covens, who can be a little more on the strict side. But, unlike organised religions, if you are solitary, or a pair of solitaries, you are your own priest or priestess and as such answer to only the goddess or the god.”
Alexian, a US-based High Priest of Alexandrian Wicca, also had a grounding in Christianity before his spirituality shifted. While playing the organ in a Baptist church, Alexian would enter trance-like states, and later he became invested in Wicca’s teachings. As a self-proclaimed “gay bear,” Alexian has reflected a lot on why so many LGBTQ+ people are drawn to Wicca.
“Wicca beckons individuals from all walks of life, offering a sanctuary where acceptance, love, and understanding thrive,” he explains. “It is here that we find solace, unity, and the freedom to express our true selves without fear or judgement. This unwavering acceptance is what makes Wicca an attractive spiritual path for members of the LGBTQ+ community, providing a safe haven where they can fully embrace their identity and walk their spiritual journey with authenticity.”
Ken, from Dublin, does not have a specific word to define his own experience. As he creates and follows his own practices, and many different magicks, he feels that Pagan is a good description of what he does.
“Nothing about organised religions ever made sense to me,” he says. “There were too many people involved, many of whom believed that they were right and everybody else was wrong. Piecing everything together for me, I found myself relying on no higher power, but rather on the world around me and my place in it. Because I treat my magick as solely for myself, my place in the world and my mental health, I think other members of the LGBTQ+ community do similar. We are not accepted by traditional religions – or perhaps the people who practise them – so we just go and make our own.”
GCN’s own Stefano, a solitary practitioner of witchcraft, believes that members of the LGBTQ+ community are drawn to witchcraft because many see it as a way to reclaim power. “I’ve learned that there are a lot of marginalised groups who find their spirituality in witchcraft, and I do think it’s connected to the fact that you feel like you have a way to reclaim your power,” he says.
Stefano also points to organised religion’s track record on LGBTQ+ exclusion.
“Traditional religions can be very homophobic and transphobic,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of covens that are transphobic, but overall, I think witchcraft is a lot more welcoming to the marginalised.”
Paganism, Neo-Paganism, and Wicca encompass a wide variety of rituals, practices and festivals, but what exactly do they offer? Among the practitioners I spoke to, the answer appeared to be peace, confidence and mental solace.
For Stefano, his practice – which includes meditation, rituals and tarot cards – has been a journey of selfdiscovery. “I’m learning a lot of things about myself. Like a lot of patterns, or a lot of things I want to work on. The way I approach it is if nothing comes out of it, it’s just a way for me to reflect on myself and to challenge myself to do new things. I’m doing stuff I’ve never done before, like learning to hand-sew a puppet. Or when I got my altar, I found it online and rented a van. It was my second time driving in Ireland, and it was scary as hell, but I really wanted that desk to be my altar. Then I painted it, which I’ve never done before either. It does feel really empowering, it really brings a lot of joy and calm to my life.”
In Ken’s case, he doesn’t consider his magick to be a religion, a faith, or a belief. “It’s a practice and place of mental health,” he says. “It’s about observing and acknowledging a bigger picture of the world around, how it affects me and why”
Through his Wicca practice, Alexian felt he had discovered not only his home, but his purpose. “For me personally, Wicca and Paganism have offered a profound union and communication with my higher self, which in turn connects me directly with the Gods and the vast Universe,” he explains. “Within this sacred connection, I have discovered a deep understanding of my purpose on this planet - to be a teacher and a healer.”
Gina’s practice, which she describes as “eclectic,” has brought her peace of mind, and a sense of purpose. “I don’t feel like I’m being chastised every two minutes, or that I have to be miserable all the time,” she says. “I feel loved, I feel seen, and I feel a connection with everything around me, whether I like it or not. My life is good and exciting.”
Ireland’s modern witches are also very much in touch with the Pagans of the past, and our country’s rich magical history lives on, through rituals and festivities. Gina, for instance, feels connected to the witches who came before her, particularly during this time of year.
“There is always a connection to those who have gone before us, they surround us, especially at Samhain,” she says. “My wife and I were hand-fasted at Samhain, our favourite time of year. It was stunning. A lot of people view Samhain as an ending of things, of death, but they tend to forget that it’s also a rebirth, the circle coming around and moving forward.”