A darker weave - review of the Spancel of Death

The Spancel of Death recital produced by Aoife Nally

Treadwells bookshop.  Friday 5th April 2019


History is strange, like a fractal we can only ever see a part of it and whilst it encompasses all of human experience the fragments we see are so fleeting and easily forgotten and there is always more hidden deeper in the weave.   This is why I think that Aoife Nally has done us all a service by finding a lost gem and polishing it into something to be treasured and remembered.  The Spancel of Death is a genuine horror, a true story which when placed within the lens of history and amid the mundane horrors of the day such as starvation, feudalism etc, shows how real people approached magic and witches to help them live.

The core of the story is that of desperation where hungry, frightened people will do anything.  If we throw love and the desire for love into the equation anything can happen as we risk our souls to balm our hearts.  A young woman Sibby Cottle in love with Sir Henry Lynch-Blosse finds that he is about to cast her aside after seven years together.   In desperation she turns to a local wise woman; Judy Holian and is instructed in how to make the spancel from a corpse.  The whole procedure is rather grim and visceral and well described in the recital.  The story itself escalates in its gripping tension and there are moments when you dare not turn away but are horrified at what might be shown next.

The dialogue was great and whilst my first thought was that it would be hard to understand the accents in the recital, my brain worked it out pretty quickly and I was tuned into the voices within a few minutes.  There was also lovely use of (presumably) period expressions as well such as  “Sun shine behind you, snow at your back…”.  The whole story fitted together perfectly and time flew as we all became caught in the story.


I was absolutely delighted to make the trip and witness this recital and I could see that the whole audience were also mesmerised.  I really hope this play goes far and that Aoife writes a book about her experiences researching the play and her family origins in the story.  Especially since the play has a dark history.  It was originally written by Aoife’s ancestor T.H. Nally and produced by W.B. Yeats in 1916.    So magicians of Yeat’s calibre have been involved throughout.    Yeats was deeply involved with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and was once described by the celebrated Aleister Crowley as a “lank disheveled demonologist” AC and WBY famously never got on and I rather suspect it was because Yeats was the better poet than Aleister Crowley.  However performances of the play were apparently doomed with events such as the Easter rising preventing its performance.


The whole story is rather sad as well as gruesome.   Sibby was very much a victim of the aristocracy and sexism of the time.  In these days it was a perfectly reasonable idea to visit  a cunning woman and seek magical help.  As I write this, I shall light a candle for Sibby and hope that whenever she is now she is happy and at peace.

If you get a chance to go to a recital or see this wonderful play that Aoife has produced I truly recommend that you do.