6.9.14

BLACK MAGIC AND BOGEYMEN

Richard Jenkins. Black Magic and Bogeymen: Fear, Rumour and Popular Belief in the North of Ireland 1972-1974. Cork University Press, 2014.

Northern Ireland forty years ago was in a very dark place indeed, with violence on a scale which dwarfs our current concerns with terrorism. It was a place of sectarian/ethic warfare waged by both 'Republican' and 'Loyalist' paramilitaries, neither showing any actual loyalty to the 'really existing' Irish Republic or United Kingdom respectively. The normal everyday assumption that if you went out in the morning there was an overwhelming probability that you would come home safely in the evening no longer applied. It was a time or fearful rumour and paranoid suspicion.
 
In the middle of this crisis, in August 1973, a local Sunday newspaper presented a lurid tale that on the beach of the main Copeland Islands, a picnic spot in Belfast Lough off the coast near Bangor, the remains of four slaughtered sheep had been found, along with 'occult symbols'. A 'leading authority' claimed that these were Satanic Rites, to coincide with either Beltane or St John’s Eve (neither of which were in August).

This story might have died the natural death of all such silly season stories had it not been for the horrific murder in September of a 10 year old boy, whose body had been burned and mutilated. This then became linked with tales of slaughtered dogs and a 'black magic' moral panic ensued on both sides of the sectarian divide. As with most of these things, fear of the occult ranged through a whole variety of beliefs and behaviours, in which, for example, playing with Ouija boards became conflated with sacrificing dogs and murdering children.
 
Occult and spiritualist beliefs and practices, were thus often confused, for example the belief that 'republicans' were engaging in occult rituals in order to contact the spirits of dead members of the IRA. On both sides of the sectarian divide heterodox forms of spirituality were seen as snares of the devil.
 
Jenkins places these fears within the context of the traditional lore of Ireland and of an “enchanted” worldview, in which ghosts, fairies, banshees, faith healing and the like were envisioned. Among these were such bogeys as the 'Black Man' or 'Big Man of Arden Street, a sinister figure that tapped on the windows of those about to die.
 
Much of this is pretty much the general popular lore that might have been encountered in any British town. What these other towns did not have to content with was the possible manipulation of this folklore by state agencies. The controversial whistle-blower Colin Wallace claimed to have been involved in spreading some of these stories; bogeymen being convenient devices for keeping youngsters off the streets at night, and perhaps to further unnerve the population.
 
Jenkins also traces the rise of the myth of Satanism in this period, based largely on the works of Dennis Wheatley. This was exploited by alleged 'survivors' and converts such as Doreen Irvine. This myth was in some ways an outcome of fantasies and conspiracy theories surrounding the Profumo scandal and much of it can be found in works such as Sellwood and Haining’s Devil Worship in Britain (1964), in which post Profumo paranoia was mixed with anti-immigrant paranoia.), and the infiltration into Northern Ireland of a largely American inspired apocalyptic tradition.
 
This is an important book in which there fears and fantasies of a very specific period, perhaps mainly lasting only a period of a few weeks, are placed in their specific historical and cultural contexts, in this case a society torn apart by violence, where the normal boundaries of human conduct were being steadily eroded. -- Peter Rogerson
 

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