The Balla spancel of death

County View

County View
John Healy

PAUL McNulty, a food scientist by training, but an author by natural inclination, spent his early years in Castlebar, where his father was manager of the Bank of Ireland. Now an acclaimed historical novelist, as well as being a respected researcher, he is particularly known for his book, ‘Spellbound by Sibella’, based on a true but macabre event which took place in Mayo in the mid-eighteenth century.
The central event of the McNulty book has appalled and fascinated readers over the years, and was quite recently the subject of learned debate at Boston College, not to mention its more recent internet prominence under the heading ‘The tale of the 18th century baronet, his Irish mistress, and a horrific love charm’.
The story centres on the life and loves of Sir Henry Lynch-Blosse, landlord of Balla, and his mistress, Sibella Cottle, whose scandalous relationship was the talk of the upper classes - and indeed of the peasantry - of the day. Sir Harry’s English born father had been a Lynch of Galway extraction, but as a courtesy to his wife was obliged to add the Blosse suffix to his name as a condition of marriage.
Sir Harry, having returned with his parents to take over the Big House in Balla, became smitten by young Sibella from an early age, and their liaison had resulted in Sibella bearing her lover seven illegitimate children in the family home, where Harry had her ensconced against all protestations of family and friends. Sibella Cottle’s own background remains unclear. The contemporary Castlebar writer, Matthew Archdeacon, dismissed her as ‘a professional woman of pleasure, without education’, but the playwright TH Nally, claimed that she had come to Balla House as a governess, having been recommended by the Moore family of Moorehall, with whom she was friendly.
Sir Harry was elected to the Irish House of Commons in 1776, but during a particularly troubled period for his finances, he was urged by his fellow parliamentarian, James Cuffe of Ballinrobe, to banish Sibella in favour of marriage to a member of the aristocracy, where his reputation and financial solvency could be secured.
On learning of this development, and fearing for her own future, Sibella consulted a local woman, skilled in the dark arts of magic and sorcery, as to what she should do. The advice was to fashion an unbroken spancel of human flesh from a corpse which, when treated with special potions and prepared to a secret ritual of incantations, and then placed under the pillow of the lover, would guarantee his fidelity for all time. The unbroken strip of flesh was duly removed from the corpse of what was said to have been that of a daughter of Sir Harry, and the charm was put to work.
Whether it was the influence of the charm or not, Sir Harry went on to retain Sibella as his mistress, he never married, and on his death at the early age of 39, he left generous legacies to each of the seven children, decreeing that they should carry the name ‘Lynch’ after his death.
What became of the charm itself is a mystery, but local legend has it that, years later, it was discarded anonymously at the gable wall of Balla Chapel by persons unknown.
In 1916, TH Nally’s play, ‘The Spancel of Death’, was due to have been performed at the Abbey Theatre, commencing on the Tuesday of Easter Week. But the plans were shelved in the wake of the Rising, and the play never saw the light of day again.