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Bright I Burn by Molly Aitken: An Irish witch trial from the point of view of ‘the witch’

The Kilkenny woman Alice Kyteler is portrayed sympathetically, and as beautiful, desirable and sensual

Molly Aitken has written an imaginative, very stylishly written and entertaining book. Photograph: Alan Betson
Bright I Burn
Author: Molly Aitken
ISBN-13: 978 1 78689 838 8
Publisher: Canongate
Guideline Price: £16.99

The story of Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny, the first Irish woman to be tried for witchcraft, is well-known. She was an Anglo Norman who lived between 1263 and some time later than 1325. A moneylender, she married four times and inherited considerable wealth from her various husbands, all of whom died in fairly mysterious circumstances so that it was suspected that Alice had a hand in their demise.

Although condemned, she escaped, apparently to England and Flanders. Her servant, Petronilla, was less fortunate, and was burned alive – it is to Molly Aitken’s credit that she decided to spare us a graphic account of her execution.

Alice Kyteler’s history has always fascinated us, not least because there have been relatively few witch trials (official anyway) in Ireland – and everyone loves a witch. Molly Aitken’s is not the first novel about Kyteler, but it is the first to be told from her point of view. The author is sympathetic to her first-person narrator, who is portrayed as beautiful, desirable and sensual.

There is much lyrical description of nature, herbs, flowers and scents. Alice is sensitive to her surroundings, and Aitken’s lusciously poetic style reflects this perfectly, in prose that is rhythmical and often mesmerising. Alice’s love for her son William is convincingly depicted, as is her strong attraction for some of her husbands – especially the second, Alan de Blund. (The first she dispatches by pushing him down the stairs; others she may have poisoned – she has a little bottle of deadly potion hidden at the bottom of a chest in her bedroom).


Context is well-drawn as far as the built environment, the city, clothes, food and so on are concerned. The political climate is not explored – the “Gaels” are mentioned as a vaguely threatening force - and language scarcely at all. The novel is standard modern English – necessarily, given that Kilkenny residents in Kyteler’s day spoke some dialect of Middle English, or French – or Irish. But given Aitken’s obvious delight in language she may have missed an opportunity to delve into the linguistic aspect of the sorry story.

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Her research has been otherwise thorough, as she tells us in an afterword – she even describes Alice’s supposed dildo, a sort of clay pipe (sounds uncomfortable), which was used in evidence in the trial - sex in the 14th century, as for so many centuries afterwards, being something of a cardinal sin, which did not stop Alice in the novel having quite a lot of it.

It’s an imaginative, very stylishly written, and entertaining book.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest books are Selected Stories (Blackstaff, 2023) and, co-edited with Michaela Schrage Früh, Well, You Don’t Look It: Irish Women Writers Reflect on Ageing (Salmon, 2024)