A new age in Ireland

Isabella Noonan explores the ways that Trinity students are engaging with alternative spirituality

Like others in our late-Millennial generation, Busé Tobin, founder and auditor of the newly-created DU Astrological Society, initially encountered Astrology through internet memes. “The signs as – memes, I just love those,” she laughed.  She added: “I think that it’s a great accessible way into astrology. It’s not something you have to take seriously. You can just enjoy the memes if you want.”


Many Trinity students have doubtlessly encountered versions of the signs as they have talked about a crush’s birth chart with friends, experimented with the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, gotten a tarot reading at a party. But the majority of those tuned in to the current pop cultural flirtation with the occult and ambiguously-spiritual will stop at enjoying the memes.


Busé and friends instead decided to start a society dedicated to it. Having received CSC approval just before last year’s exams, 2019-2020 will be AstroSoc’s first year in full operation. With a Facebook page full of variations on the signs as and a slate of events centered around horoscope gossip and assigning birth charts to fictional characters, the society seems to be marketing itself on the current astrology-curious pop culture. “It’s kind of seen as, like, scary, occult if you’re not used to it,” explained Emily, AstroSoc’s inaugural Secretary, “so it’s nice to introduce new people in that way.” 


Busé promised “But if you do want to learn more, we’ll be there to teach you more.” Both Busé and Emily are third-year Classics and Drama students. The majority of new signups have been students one-or-two degrees of Arts Block separation away. “We did get a few STEM,” Busé said. “But I think STEM students are –”.

“They’re like, Astrology? No,” Emily laughed. “But it was a lot of Arts. Also Erasmus, and freshers. International freshers would come and be really interested.” She emphasised, however, that AstroSoc is nonetheless meant to be open to anyone. “We just want it to be a society where you can kind of chill, meet new people,” Emily said. “Analysing ourselves as people, you get into good discussions.”

“It’s a good way to bond, I think, astrology,” Busé agreed. “And it’s really good at parties, and it’s a really good way to make friends, because you’re kind of talking about yourself, but you’re also learning about the other person and their traits.” Ultimately, it’s that sort of self-exploration and evaluation that they see as the core of Astrology. “It isn’t about predetermination at all,” Busé said. “It’s kind of the opposite. For me, it’s more of a way of decoding the world, or decoding people.” Emily concurred. “I use it as a way of understanding who I am and why I’m in that place,” she added. “It’s nice to understand that there might be another reason for it. But I wouldn’t use it for decision making.”

 “Organised religion is so rigid and controlled.”

“Well, sometimes it’s good to know, Mercury is in retrograde, things are going to go wrong!” Busé laughed. But the joy of astrology seems less in having the answers told to you, and more in interpreting them for one’s self. “There’s no organisation that’s going to tell you how to believe, or who to believe,” Busé said. “Organised religion is so rigid and controlled. With astrology, it’s yours. You can pick and choose what you want to do with it. All you need to learn about it is an internet connection.”  

They attributed the growing popularity of practices like tarot and astrology to their flexibility. Astrology, after all, can be practiced or dropped at any time, can mean whatever the interpreter wants it to, and can be done by anyone and everyone with few barriers to entry. These factors, they believe, have led to the taking-up of these practices inside Trinity and across broader society.

“So many of my friends from Dublin and other places are buying tarot now,” Emily said. “My mom and her friends have started having little midlife crises: they’ve started going to tarot card readers in Bray and all these weird places. So it is kind of growing, in a way.” Busé nodded, concluding: “Astrology’s everywhere. Like, everywhere.” 

Astrology arrived into the modern public consciousness during the early 1970s as part of a spiritual package that came to be known as New Age.  A successor to earlier occultist, alternative, or non-mainstream-Christian spiritual movements in Western Culture, New Age serves as something of a catch-all term for a hodge-podge of beliefs and practices: a spiritual focus on individualism or self-growth, eclectic borrowing of bits and pieces of other spiritual systems, use of products like incense and crystals, a focus on healing via meditation, yoga, acupuncture, or other “alternative medicine” and, yes, astrology. Today, all these attributes are found in varying amounts in practitioners across North America and Europe, primarily.

Criticisms of New Age, like New Age itself, come in various varieties. Some religious organisations dismiss New Age as blasphemous. Many in the scientific community reject aspects of New Age, such as holistic/alternative healing, as potentially dangerous. The emphasis of New Age thought on individualism has drawn critique from some of those on the left advocating a focus on collective action. And, perhaps most difficulty, some strands of New Age practice have drawn criticism for veering on cultural appropriation – the average New Age practitioner, after all, is a young, white, middle-class Westerner. The ethics get complicated when these individuals draw on non-Western, colonialised, and otherwise marginalised spiritual traditions they have no history in.

“The ethics get complicated when individuals draw on non-Western, colonialised, and otherwise marginalised spiritual traditions they have no history in.”

There is also significant debate within communities lumped under the New Age label as to whether they all belong under that umbrella. Though some embrace the term, just as many reject it – for example, many modern pagans. “There’s a bit of a Venn Diagram between New Age and paganism,” Ralph Moore, Chair of the DU Pagan Society, explained. “There are some pagans out there who are very anti- being associated with it. But I’m certainly not someone who’s hostile to the label, and it does intersect with a lot of things we’d consider pagan in a broad sense.” Neo-Pagans, after all, do practice an “alternative” religion to mainline Christianity. However, Paganism as a concept dates back to far, far before the 1970s, is found in places far beyond the West, and comes in vastly differing varieties.

Like New Age, pagan means different things to different people. Pagan Soc alone has had a huge diversity of membership: reconstructionist members, for example Hellenists who by-and-large revive ancient Greek religious practices; eclectic practitioners of, say, versions of Wicca that might draw indiscriminately from Egyptian, Greek, Celtic, and other traditions. Even practitioners of established traditional religions like Shinto that related more to the pagan label than other options are available in Dublin. “We’re very broad,” Ralph commented, “even if we’ve a Eurocentric bias in terms of representation.”

Though some might see the vast differences between the beliefs of Pagan Soc members as a negative, Ralph sees it as a strength. “In Paganism, there isn’t really an emphasis on orthodoxy,” he explained, “as we aren’t interested in making other people pagan. It’s more of a, ‘Hey, we exist’ sort of thing.” If anything, Pagan Soc expresses a desire to see representatives from more spiritual traditions and non-Western backgrounds, and to open modern Paganism up beyond the demographics it has been recently associated with.

Like AstroSoc, Pagan Soc sees a mix of dedicated believers and momentary experimenters. “Especially within the kind of liberal bubble we have here in Trinity, there’s a lot of people dipping their toes in other waters,” Ralph said. Most members, he would estimate, attend society events to try out different beliefs or learn more about what paganism is. “Paganism is something that’s very mysterious to many people. It’s something that can take people years to get into,” he explained. Continuing, he added: “We haven’t had many people who are very devoted to it unless they’re already very experienced, or mature students, or postgrads coming in who have had time to cement their identity.”

Ralph is optimistic that changing portrayals in popular culture may serve to demystify Paganism for some. “I really got into paganism from engaging with mythology as a child, and eventually moving into realising, well, actually people do take this seriously. This isn’t an old, dead thing that only exists in fiction,” he recalled. Much like Astrosoc’s success with memes, current media portraying pagan-adjacent topics like witchcraft – such as Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, the Charmed reboot, and the continued output of Harry Potter related material – may lead others to make the same realisation.


Yet despite these recent phenomena, Dublin lags in comparison to the cultural awareness of Paganism and alternative spirituality broadly present in other cities. Pagan Soc is something of a microcosm of this. It was initially founded by an American PhD student frustrated by the lack of diverse religious options on campus, and though it has gained Irish members, the majority founders were British, American, or otherwise international.

“A lot of cities have at least one place where all the pagans will gather.”

The same was true in terms of the cities where society members lived. “In Dublin, in comparison to a lot of cities in the UK, there isn’t much of a trend towards New Age or Paganism,” Ralph described. “A lot of cities have at least one place where all the pagans will gather. Here, there’s a tiny occult section in Hodges Figgis.”

Busé echoed that sentiment. “In San Francisco, in certain places you can get a tarot card reading each block,” she described. “But I don’t think Dublin has really had a culture for spirituality since the Catholic Church came to Ireland. It’s really a small, small subculture. I don’t think God is the problem,” she clarified. “It’s organised religion. I think organised religion has been so bad for women, for minorities.” Though the cultural importance of Catholicism in society can stop people from pursuing alternatives to organised religion, Busé expresses a hope that people will come to define their spirituality more for themselves. “I think as society gets more open, and starts seeing the world the way it is, we’ll start doing the things we want to.”

Though Ralph seemed to agree that there is a general unawareness of other religious options, the most pressing issue stopping the development of a pagan community in Dublin isn’t a lack of willingness to learn. For the most part, those he has encountered has been pleased with Pagan Soc’s activities for bringing greater diversity to campus. The issue comes in building physical spaces for the community – finding the resources to create “occult” businesses, meeting spaces, even tarot shops. “Dublin isn’t a really conducive place for that kind of small business at the moment,” he said. “The problem isn’t so much whether it’s in a Christian or conservative area, but that it’s a pretty ruthlessly capitalist area.”

Making pagan, New Age, or otherwise-alternative spiritual systems a visible part of society and culture, would therefore require significant dedication – time, work, and, most crucially, capital. Whether any of the current fascination with alt spirituality will translate into constructing spiritual communities beyond the constraints of campus, or even individual level commitment beyond reposting memes, remains to be seen.