Lucifer over Larne, Lurgan and Lisbellaw

 

© Cork University Press

 

When I was eight years old, I lived in a tiny village near the border between Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.  Thinking back, I suspect that when my neighbours saw me they’d whisper, “Look – there’s the most gullible child in the village.”

 

No doubt they thought I was gullible because I readily believed any old guff people told me, especially in relation to things that, scientifically speaking, didn’t exist – i.e. manifestations of the supernatural.

 

I was a sucker for ghost stories.  For instance, an uncle once told me about the Cooneen Ghost – a tale involving a local family who supposedly were tormented by poltergeist-type knockings on the doors and windows of their house.  Horribly, when they tried to escape the entity by emigrating to North America, it travelled with them.  The phantom knockings continued in their cabin on board the ship and then at their house in the New World.  After hearing that, I lived in dread of similar knockings starting on the doors and windows of our house.  God help us, I thought, we’d never be rid of the thing.

 

From strangedaze.doomby.com

 

I also believed that fairies were real because a girl in my primary-school class had assured me that one day her mother had been in the family’s stick-house (Northern Irish for ‘wood-shed’) when she’d heard crying sounds coming from a block of wood.  Presumably these were made by a fairy whose home was in the tree that’d been chopped down for the timber.

 

I even believed in banshees because an older boy spun me a yarn about how, one night long ago, his father had heard a hideous screeching noise out in the darkness; and soon afterwards, someone well-known to his father had died unexpectedly.

 

So you can imagine my alarm one day when a couple of my primary-school classmates started talking about devil worshippers being active not only in Northern Ireland, but in the town of Enniskillen a few miles along the road from us.  They talked about a family in Enniskillen who were rumoured to draw all the curtains in their house as soon as it got dark and then spend the night performing black-magic rituals.  They described the carcasses of freshly-sacrificed goats that’d been discovered beside the river in Enniskillen with their hearts removed.  Most alarmingly, they related how a child, about our age, had been abducted by devil worshippers and later been found dead and cut into pieces.  I swallowed every word of this.  I took it as gospel truth.

 

Talking of the gospel, I’ll say in my defence that I belonged to a fairly religious community of Northern Irish Protestants.  We were a paradox – on one hand, priding ourselves on being rational and not superstitious, unlike those silly Roman Catholics who believed in saints and visions and rosary beads; but on the other hand believing everything that was said to have happened in the Bible because it was the Word of God.  And since the Bible said the devil existed – he did exist.  Our local clergyman confirmed this.  I remember him telling us sternly during a Sunday sermon that if you believed in the existence of God, you had to believe in the existence of the devil too.

 

So if the devil was real, surely it followed that evil people who worshipped him by slaughtering humans and animals were also real?

 

© Hammer Films

 

In the decades since, I’ve often wondered how my primary-school classmates got hold of those grisly stories about devil worship in early-1970s Northern Ireland.  Well, I’ve finally found the answer.  I recently read Black Magic and Bogeymen, a 2014 book by Richard Jenkins, Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield and a one-time undergraduate at Queen’s University in Belfast.  This investigates a “wave of rumours about black magic, Satanism, animal sacrifice and child abduction” that “swept across the north of Ireland in late 1973 and early 1974.”

 

According to Jenkins, “(b)etween 5th August and mid-December 1973, sixty-five items about witchcraft and black magic appeared in the mainstream press north and south of the Irish border: news reports, features, editorials, letters to the editor, church reports, and what appeared to be religious announcements…  Most of the reporting concerned the east of the province: Belfast and counties Antrim, Armagh and Down…  The reports peaked between mid-October and the third week in November, clustering around Hallowe’en.”

 

At their height, these reports seemed to reflect genuine panic in parts of Northern Ireland – adults concerned that their children might be kidnapped and sacrificed, and children generally scared witless.  (I was one of them.)  Predictably, as Jenkins observes, children were also among the worst culprits for spreading the rumours.  They “seem to have actively elaborated or invented stories about bad people doing bad things” and were “likely to have contributed to the meagre ‘tangible evidence’ of supposed witchcraft and black magic practices.”

 

Jenkins explores the many factors likely to have fostered these stories of devil worship, black magic and ‘witchcraft’.  (My apologies to any Wiccans or other practitioners of white or pagan magic reading this, but to 1970s Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics, witchcraft was devil worship and vice-versa, end of.)  He describes the heightened interest in the occult in Western culture at the time, signified by such things as the sensational black-magic novels of Dennis Wheatley and high-profile movies like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973).  He devotes a chapter too to “the supernatural lore that was part of the enchanted world-views that could be encountered in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s” and no doubt made some people believe the rumours more readily – supernatural lore that includes not just the ghosts, fairies and banshees that so worried my eight-year-old self, but also traditions of faith and folk healing and a great enthusiasm for celebrating Hallowe’en.

 

Obviously, something that casts a huge shadow over Jenkins’ subject matter is the Northern Irish Troubles.  In their fourth year when the rumours began, the Troubles had already claimed an appalling toll – 467 people killed in 1972 alone.  Jenkins discusses how “social conflicts may be symbolised and re-worked in supernatural imagery and stories, not least in threats such as witchcraft and fears of spiritual jeopardy”.  The Troubles figured in the rumours in more tangible ways too, for example, through tales of teenagers getting embroiled in the occult after “trying to contact the souls of those killed in the Troubles, using Ouija boards or other methods.”

 

Jenkins attributes considerable blame for the scare to the province’s local newspapers, which generally reported the stories with ‘very modest facts’ that were ‘inflated and misrepresented’, ‘framed with unconnected material’ and ‘ornamented by apparently authoritative, if somewhat imprecise, anonymous information.’  Admittedly, those newspapers were under massive pressure.  A few years earlier their main stories had been about ‘livestock sales’ and ‘the Women’s Institute’ but now they were regularly covering ‘intimidation, murder and mayhem.’  Thus, standards weren’t high among their beleaguered journalists.

 

© Carrickfergus Advertiser

 

Fascinatingly, another possible culprit identified is the British Army, which depending on your political viewpoint was then in the province as protectors or oppressors, peacekeepers or occupiers.  Jenkins provides evidence suggesting the army was happy to stir the pot of black-magic rumours.   It conducted ‘black propaganda’ operations promoting the belief that, yes, diabolical things were going on and religious and / or superstitious Northern Irish parents should keep their offspring off the streets at night.  On those streets, they were actually unlikely to tangle with devil worshippers; but they could tangle with paramilitaries or the security forces.

 

Jenkins prints an interview conducted in 1993 with the legendary Intelligence officer and ‘psychological warfare’ expert Colin Wallace, who claims he and his men went around Northern Irish properties mocking them up with magic circles, esoteric symbols, blood, bones, candles and inverted crosses to make it look like unspeakable rituals had taken place in them.

 

Tragically, one element in the stories was real – the child who, my classmates had told me, had been ‘cut to pieces’.  Jenkins devotes a chapter to the murder of ten-year-old Brian McDermott.  Brian was reported missing from his home in east Belfast at the start of September 1973 and his remains, ‘burned, mutilated and partially dismembered’, were discovered in the River Lagan a week later.  Although the police dismissed the idea that the murder was the result of some occult ritual, Jenkins notes how “a ‘black magic’ interpretation of the murder of Brian McDermott became an established tale of the Northern Irish Troubles.”  Officially the crime remains unsolved, though in 1989 the journalist Martin Dillon claimed that British Army Intelligence suspected the murderer as being John McKeague (himself killed in 1982), one of the conflict’s most notorious and feared loyalist terrorists.

 

Richard Jenkins conducts his investigations with academic thoroughness, analysing certain stories and rumours from different perspectives as he goes through the various actors in the drama – the Troubles, religion, superstitious belief, the media, the army, etc.  His approach is exhaustive and may seem exhausting to the casual reader.  However, I found Black Magic and Bogeymen fascinating – well, I was there at the time – and it’s surely the last word on the subject.

 

Returning to my own experience, I recall being asked in December 1973 if I wanted to go to the Christmas pantomime being held at Enniskillen High School and telling my parents flatly that no, I didn’t, because Enniskillen was full of witches and devil worshippers.  My Dad went ballistic at me for believing such a ‘pack o’ nonsense’ and then demanded to know who’d told me those stories.  I gave him the names of my guilty classmates.  “More fool you,” he raged, “for listenin’ to them slabberin’ eejits!”  And that was that.  I stopped worrying and agreed to go to the pantomime.  That brief, angry burst of rationality from my Dad cured me of my fears.

 

Surprisingly, decades later, I remember my Dad – who originally hailed from Country Cavan in the Irish Republic – having a whiskey with an old Irish friend.  The pair of them started talking about their childhood in the Irish countryside and how, once the sun went down, their family members would tell ghost stories.

 

“I’m not kiddin’!” marvelled my Dad.  “After dark, ye’d be too terrified to step outside the house!”

 

“I think,” said his friend, “that was why they told us them stories.”

 

Which proves I wasn’t the first member of the family to be troubled by tales of ghosts, fairies, banshees, black magic and bogeymen.

 

© Hammer Films

 

My personal British bucket list

 

From enchantedlearning.com

 

Regular readers will know that, as the referendum on Scottish independence in September draws near, Blood and Porridge is leaning towards a yes-to-independence vote.  (This is largely due to a succession of great – I use that adjective ironically – political minds from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties urging Scots to vote no-to-independence.  If creeps, windbags and knuckle-draggers like George Osborne, George Robertson and Ian Davidson tell you to do one thing, it’s surely sensible to do the opposite.)  However, there’s still a part of my identity that considers itself ‘British’.  And if that sounds like a contradiction, I would direct you to an article that a while ago Edinburgh author Irvine Welsh wrote about this subject for the website Bella Caledonia:

 

http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2013/01/10/irvine-welsh-on-scottish-independence-and-british-unity/

 

In his article, Welsh argues that Scottish independence would allow the Scots to get on with running their country free from the hindrances and injustices (real or imagined) that they see as emanating from Westminster under the current system.  They could also get on with being happy geographical citizens of Britain, or the British Isles, or the British and Irish Isles, and with being good neighbours to the peoples who share the island, or islands, with them.  It’s similar, Welsh says, to how you can be Swedish, Danish or Norwegian and still be a proud Scandinavian and participate in the Nordic Council.  (In fact, there’s a body called the British-Irish Council, which has summits twice a year and has a membership comprised of British Prime Minister, the Republic of Ireland’s Taoiseach, the First Ministers of the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and the Chief Ministers of the Guernsey, Jersey and Isle of Man governments – but as the council exists outside the ‘Westminster Bubble’, it’s entirely ignored by the London-centric British media.)  Welsh even sees no reason why an independent Scotland shouldn’t continue to have Scottish athletes competing within the British team at the Olympics.

 

Anyway, the British part of me was interested to see in a newspaper last weekend an article about a ‘Great British bucket list’ – i.e. a list of fifty British-related activities that everyone should attempt to do before they die.  The list was compiled by the search engine Ask Jeeves and it consisted of the fifty most common ideas that came up in a survey of 1000 British adults:

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/10774840/The-Great-British-Bucket-List-fish-and-chips-and-a-picnic.html

 

I have to say, though, that I was disappointed when I read through the Great British bucket list.  Some of the British things-to-do-before-you-die seemed depressingly lame: “Eat fish and chips on a seaside pier…  Go on a historic London pub tour…  Watch a box-set of Only Fools and Horses.”  Some other things seemed to involve cheesy tourist-tat Britain at its worst: “Attend first day of a Harrods sale…  See Oxford Street Christmas lights in London…  See the trooping of the colour.”  At least one thing was not such much a thing-to-do-before-you-die as a thing-to-do-to-make-yourself-die: “Be at a recording of The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.”  However, it at least gave me the idea of compiling my own bucket-list of things to do before you die, based on my experiences of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

 

Here, then, are thirty (I couldn’t think of fifty) things I would urge you to do, while you still draw breath, in the four nations that – currently – make up the United Kingdom.  As this is my list, the activities are heavily biased towards walking, cycling and pub-crawling.  Also, I’m afraid I don’t know Wales and parts of Northern and Midland England very well, so those places are under-represented or not represented at all – my apologies to any Welsh people, Northern people and Midland people out there.

 

(c) BBC

 

Pay a visit to one of the UK’s cosy little arthouse cinemas – for example, Cinema City in Norwich, or the Tyneside in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, or the Cameo in Edinburgh – and watch a film you wouldn’t normally see in a multiplex.  Have a pint while you’re on the premises too.

 

Visit the scenic island of Barra in the south-western Outer Hebrides and go for a walk along its main road.  Keep walking along that road and you’ll eventually end up where you started from.  If you fly in, you’ll land on the only airport runway in the world that gets washed every day – for it’s actually a beach called An Traigh Mhor.

 

Attend a Borders sevens-a-side rugby tournament.  Melrose Sevens is the most famous one but any of them is worth attending.  I’ll use that as an excuse to plug this year’s Peebles Sevens on April 27th:

 

http://www.kingsofthesevens.net/sevenstournament.asp?town=Peebles

 

Attend a gig at Brixton Academy – preferably a drunken, raucous one.  Primal Scream are always a good bet.

 

After an evening out in Glasgow, eat a chicken tikka masala – the UK’s favourite spicy dish – at an Indian curry house.  Chicken tikka masala, as any good pub-bore will tell you, was quite possibly not invented in India at all, but in the Shish Mahal restaurant in Gibson Street in Glasgow.

 

From sv.wikipedia.org

 

Pay a visit to the Chinese New Year festivities at one of the country’s several Chinatowns, which range in area from the reasonably big (in London) to the tiny (in Newcastle).

 

Take a stroll through Constable Country along the Essex / Suffolk border, taking in such places as Capel St Mary, Dedham and Flatford.

 

Go for a tramp around Dartmoor – and keep tramping until you encounter some wild Dartmoor ponies.

 

Don some black clothes and swig a pint of cider in the Devonshire Arms (alright, I know it’s now called the Hobgoblin, but to everyone who goes there it’s still the Devonshire, or more popularly still, the Dev), the greatest Goth-metal pub in Camden, in London and possibly in the UK.

 

Enjoy a pub-crawl among the countless temporary bars that spring up in and around the venues for the Edinburgh Festival and then disappear again after enjoying a mayfly-like existence of a couple of weeks.  You can, of course, attend a few shows while you’re at it.  You can even, if you’re feeling ironic and post-modern, attend the Edinburgh Military Tattoo as well.

 

Hike up the Eildon Hills, the trio of peaks that provide the Scottish Borders with their most famous landmark.  Watch out for the Eildon Tree, where medieval bard and seer Thomas the Rhymer is said to have encountered the Queen of Fairyland and acquired his powers of prophecy.  And don’t forget to visit Melrose Abbey, either before you go up or after you come down.

 

Set aside any prejudices you might have about Freemasonry and visit the Freemasons’ Museum in London – preferably while a tour of the premises is taking place, so that you get a chance to view the design and symbolism of the most remarkable Art Deco building in London.

 

Drink a pint outside Newcastle’s Free Trade pub, located on a rise above where the River Ouseburn joins the River Tyne.  The elevation allows you to look up the Tyne and over Newcastle’s famous bridges, and it’s one of the best views in northern England.

 

Take a picture of yourself draped over one of the volcanic slabs at Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, like one of those worryingly young and worryingly naked models pictured on the cover of the Led Zeppelin album, Houses of the Holy.

 

(c) Atlantic Records

 

Drive through Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands on a misty day.  Keep your eyes open for the Skyfall Estate, the home of James Bond’s parents, which might just appear through the murk.

 

Play a round of golf at St Andrews.  If you’re an inverted snob, you can thumb your nose at the town’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club and play mini-golf instead.  (That’s what I did.)

 

Take a stroll along the top of one of the remaining sections of Hadrian’s Wall.

 

Ride a bicycle along the A686 east of Penrith, up the Hartside Pass to a height of 1904 feet.  It’s gruelling but you’ll feel a sense of achievement when you reach the top.  Then you can luxuriate in the gradual descent on the other side, all the way to Alston, the highest market town in England.

 

Follow in George Orwell’s footsteps and go hoppicking in Kent.  Although nowadays it might all be mechanised and you can’t go hop-picking in Kent.

 

Visit that wonderful little museum in London, John Soanes’ House, and make sure you’re in the picture gallery at a time when an attendant pulls back the hinged walls and reveals a hidden cache of paintings by William Hogarth.

 

Go to Land’s End in the middle of winter, when it’s rainy, windy and desolate and there’s nobody else there.

 

Go perch-fishing on Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

 

Have a look around Aberdeen’s Marischal College, the second-largest granite building in the world.  It was rumoured that Adolf Hitler admired it more than any other British building and planned to move into it once he’d invaded and conquered the UK.  But that was just an urban myth started by some naughty Aberdeen University students.

 

Connect with your inner socialist and attend the yearly Miners’ Gala in Durham.

 

Visit Nottingham’s Newstead Abbey, which was the home of the young Lord Byron, Britain’s greatest romantic poet.  It even has a dress-up-as-Byron corner where you can don a big baggy white shirt and then inspect yourself in a mirror to make sure you look suitably Byronic.

 

 

Taking a walk along the North Norfolk coast – preferably along a route that takes in the eerily desolate salt marshes west of Wells-next-the-Sea.

 

Have a wander around Roslyn Chapel, south of Edinburgh, and see how many pagan green men you can count carved on its walls.

 

Admire the streetmurals in Belfast, surely the UK’s largest (and most contentious) open-air art gallery (http://www.belfast-murals.co.uk/).

 

Get on the Metro in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on a Saturday morning and nip along to Tynemouth Station, where you can check out the antiques, crafts and curios market that every week is arranged across the platforms there.

 

Take a trek along the top of the historic York City Wall, the biggest defensive wall still standing around the centre of a British city or town.  And feel free to drop in on any pubs you see along the way.