Yawn of the dead

Hugh McCafferty took a trip down to this year’s World Ghost Convention in Cork to learn a bit more about witchcraft, spiritualism and ghostlore in Ireland

Hugh McCafferty took a trip down to this year’s World Ghost Convention in Cork to learn a bit more about witchcraft, spiritualism and ghostlore in Ireland

These days, it’s all too easy to be cynical. In an age when technology and science wrap us up in a warm blanket of perceived certainty and rationality, when information and gratification go hand in hand in their instant accessibility and paranormal activity is something created in a special effects studio, there’s a tendency to forget that there was a time, not too long ago, when the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” was not popularly perceived as being exactly clear-cut.

Of course, if a stranger told me that they’d seen a ghost, I’d probably think that they were a bit mental. So, when the organisers of the eighth annual World Ghost Convention e-mailed us to see if we had any interest in attending the event, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at a generally derided sub-culture. There was also the promise of an audience with Helen Barrett, the White Witch of the Isles and leader of the country’s several thousand white witches and wizards.

The event took place on Hallowe’en night in Cork City Gaol, a building, unsurprisingly, thought to have its own fair share of ghosts. As the taxi pulled up outside, the old gate’s massive walls illuminated against a particularly starless night sky, I had to admit that there was something distinctly creepy about the place. Inside, early guests were stamping their feet and engaging in small talk at a makeshift reception. Flashing our improvised press IDs, we made our way through to the courtyard and on to the main jailhouse, where the convention was to take place.

For those of you unfamiliar with the ghost convention, it is a self-funded, non-profit event that has been taking place annually since 2001. The intention is to gather together academics, spiritual healers, psychics and other figures with an interest in the paranormal to talk about their particular field of expertise. In turn, it is hoped that the profile and, perhaps, credibility of supernatural activity and alleged experience thereof will be enhanced and that those with first-hand experience will feel more comfortable in coming forward and speaking about what they have seen or heard.

Founded by Richard T. Cooke, a figure “well known in the Psychology, Heritage and Music field,” as I am informed by the press release, the event has proved most successful indeed. This year, tickets sold out and the Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr. Brian Bermingham turned up to officially open the convention. Before anything had kicked off, and while the mayor posed for some publicity shots inside the jail, I chewed the fat outside with his chauffeur, Pat. An amiable man of about forty, he had a sort of boy-like, mischievous glint in his eyes and as we had a smoke out in the cold, we cracked a few of the inevitable jokes that one cracks on finding oneself at a ghost convention.

Despite the piss-taking banter, Pat seemed to have a “whatever you’re into” attitude about the whole thing. I shared these sentiments, but I hadn’t come down all the way to Cork just to get messed up on Trinity News funds. Well, OK, that was partially why I was here, but I was also hoping to have my own attitudes about the paranormal and those who claim to have experienced the supernatural at least somewhat challenged.

I bummed another smoke off a second man outside and we talked about the convention. A spiritual healer by trade, Darren seemed well used to facing the popular, perhaps condescending, impression most have of his profession. He talked about his work in a level-headed and reasonable manner and it was clear that he was no fool. Before he returned inside, he asked me if I was a student. I enquired as to what made him think that – might this be some form of psychic intuition at work? “Well, you’ve got no money for cigarettes and your breath smells like booze,” he laughed. I returned a smile, but couldn’t help but feel a twang of what felt a little like guilt.

As more and more attendees arrived, I went back into the main jail hall to see if any of the guest speakers were around and available for a wee chat.

In the front row of seats, beside an improvised stage, sat Dr. Margaret Humphreys and Jenny Butler, both from UCC’s Folklore and Ethnology Department. Despite the interesting nature of their fields of study, I was more interested in talking to witches than academics. Dr. Humphreys drew my attention to a man sitting behind her, Michael Anthony, a spiritual cleanser and healer. A quiet man with a slightly sheepish look on his face, Anthony didn’t seem especially forthcoming, so I cut to the chase and asked if Helen Barrett was knocking around. Dr. Humphreys pointed her out, a woman in black, making her way towards the exit, no doubt to greet some guests. I eventually caught up with her later on, a little awkwardly, as I practically bumped into her outside the bathroom.

A stout woman of about fifty, Barrett wore what appeared to be a jet black wig and spoke in a self-assured, if somewhat distracted manner. I asked her how much public interest there was in witchcraft in Ireland. “Last year, I was in UCC and there were about two hundred people there; this year, there were four hundred, which goes to show the rising interest,” she explained.

Then, she moved on to her recent trip to the States and the fate she foresees for president- elect, Barack Obama. “He has a short lifeline and he’s going to die young. That’s a prediction going back in our archives.”

Barrett has previously claimed to have foretold the deaths of other figures, such as John F. Kennedy and Lady Diana. Earlier on in the year, she told The Irish Voice that Obama would die at the age of forty-eight (he is currently forty-seven) and that his wife would have a notable political future. Don’t despair, though, it’s not all doom and gloom. “The year 2008 is a year of prosperity,” she continued and then, in order to elucidate further upon that point, “we’re going to have an awful lot of prosperity.” At that point, a young friend of hers by the name of David came along and she introduced us. “I make a prediction that David – because he, by the way, is an actor – is going to be even more famous than Rhys-Meyers.” Smiling self-effacingly, David briefly described his budding acting career, which included a recent bit-part in The Tudors.

We moved on to Helen’s minor celebrity status.

“It’s always been the way that the deeper we go into crisis, the more we need hope. That’s why I was on five radio shows today back to back and I don’t know how I did it all,” she laughed. “It’s always like that on Hallowe’en and then it’s all over and you’re back to normal.”

A group of Barrett’s friends walked by and while she greeted them, I exchanged some idle chit-chat with David until it was clear that the convention was about to begin. Before she made her way to her seat, Barrett left me with the rather cryptic words: “Tonight at three o’clock, or tomorrow at three o’clock, Obama’s future will be decided.” It’s easy to be dismissive of figures like Barrett – she is, for want of a better word, odd. However, you have to give her credit for saying what she feels she must, regardless of the negative reactions she, no doubt, meets on a regular basis. Also, travelling to the States and proclaiming the imminent death of a then-presidential candidate requires some serious conviction.

I returned to my own seat and awaited the commencement of proceedings. I was looking forward to hearing what the various speakers had to say and was eager to keep an open mind. Perhaps there was more to this supernatural lark than I had previously thought – maybe there’s something more substantial to the apparently outrageous claims of those who allege to have had supernatural experiences. As these hopeful thoughts scurried, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, around my head, the host for the evening, Kevin Power of UCC, announced the first item on the schedule. And with that, things took a turn for the silly. Adopting a camp-vamp Vincent Price voice, Power informed the audience that they were to be treated to a song by the, er, Spooky-Wooky Creepy-Crawly Cork City Gaol World Ghost Convention Band. With that, several fully-grown men and women wearing sheets over their heads took to the stage and began to play an acoustic guitar-led song. I can only presume the lyrics related to the convention in some way – it was hard to make out with all the ghostly wailing. Once this musical treat came to an end, the ghosts made their way off stage (some struggling with their sheets to see through the eye-holes) and Power returned to the podium to announce the first speaker of the evening, Mary Maddison. Maddison is a spiritualist and psychic, with over forty years of experience. A small, old woman, her voice was a little weak but bright nonetheless and her gray hair and conversational tone reminded me of my granny. She spoke at length about various experiences she had had, communicating with ghosts and spirits. She gave the impression that ghosts and spirits were generally benevolent entities. For Maddisson, everyone has the potential to see such entities; it’s just a matter of opening up the sense within you that will allow you to do so.

Although her stories were diverting – especially the one in which she drove a distressed spirit home one night in her car – it was clear that Mary wasn’t going to change my life. She stated each of her stories in a matter-of-fact manner and moved quickly on to the next with little reflection. In short, there was no sense of debate, no mention of what detractors have said to her, no real engagement with the argument of credibility.

Of course, it’s doubtful that Mary is especially concerned by cynics; credibility isn’t going to be an issue when you are dealing with something so inherently experiential. At the same time, though, the whole point of the convention was to foster an environment wherein such experiences would be taken more seriously and, in order to do that, it’s necessary to address the specific reasons for widespread cynicism: namely, the question of credibility. Next up was Jenny Butler from UCC, to whom I had talked briefly beforehand. She delivered a purely academic lecture on the historical background of Hallowe’en. Although interesting, I soon found my attention wandering and, as the heaters were on full blast, my eyelids getting heavier and heavier. Butler was followed by Michael Anthony, whom I had seen earlier. A tall, healthy-looking man, he would have looked more at home coaching a hurling team rather than addressing a crowd at a ghost convention. Like Mary, Michael rattled off a number of stories. However, he offered a little more insight into his gift.

At one point, he admitted, “Sometimes I feel like a lunatic, but I work away anyway.” It was clear that he was an honest man, that he wasn’t lying when he spoke about his experiences. Anthony didn’t necessarily understand his gift or why he had been imparted with it, but he got on with his life nonetheless. Sitting there, amongst the assembled crowd, on an uncomfortable chair, listening to a speaker expound upon spirituality in an old, stone building, I suddenly felt like I was at mass. Then again, given the at times confessional tone of the speeches, I could also have been at an AA meeting. Of course, that was the point of the convention: to create an atmosphere of acceptance, in which people could speak without fear of judgement or mockery. While it might have done so on a small scale, though, there was no sense of engagement with society on a wider scale.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the evening was the uneven tone. If the point of the exercise was to raise the profile of paranormal activity in the doubting eyes of the public at large, then what was the deal with putting respected academics and the Spooky-Wooky band on the same bill? And why were a significant proportion of audience members wearing Hallowe’en outfits and making silly noises down the back of the room? Well, of course, the answer to the latter question was that it was Hallowe’en, a night for laugh-having. And as it drew nearer and nearer to ten o’clock, my photographer (and, every other day, Trinity News Editor) Martin and I began to worry that any later merry-making might be scuppered by this nation’s cruel licensing laws. Once Anthony wrapped up, Power announced the intermission and, after grabbing some of the speakers for a few quick photos and sound bites, we departed into the night. As we ran around the dark back-streets of Cork city, we were gripped not by the fear of ghosts or paranormal creatures but, rather, by the terror of not finding a nearby off licence within the next ten minutes. The eighth annual World Ghost Convention, then, was an interesting if somewhat uninspiring affair. It’s very tempting to label those who claim to be in touch with paranormal forces as foolish. However, they constitute a legitimate sub-culture in this country and across the world and are by no means idiots. Indeed, perhaps it’s more idiotic to run up and down the hills of Cork city on a cold October night for the sake of a warm shoulder of Huzzar.

Regardless of whether or not I was convinced, the sell-out crowd that night suggested that the World Ghost Convention is sure to continue for years to come.