Tuesday, 5 December 2017

No Doubting the Dowsers

The UK press got very excited recently when it was revealed that most of the UK’s water companies use water diviners to find leaks. It prompted Christopher Hassall of Leeds University to say: “This isn’t a technique, it’s witchcraft” and “The statutory bodies need to be stepping in. It is analogous to using homeopathy and reiki on the NHS. These are unproven practices that waste time and money.”
Seemingly, only Northern Ireland Water and Wessex Water “did not rely on esoteric energies to find their leaks.”
How times have changed, here in the province.
Back in the 1950s, those responsible for providing water for homes and schools - and even hospitals – in rural parts of Northern Ireland would often employ water diviners.
We had a lot of faith in their abilities. For example, in May 1953, when a sub-committee reported to Derry Rural Council that the water supply to council owned houses in Edenreagh had dried up and that their engineers had drilled three wells without finding water, the council recommended that “the services of a water diviner be sought.”
Such was the strength of our faith in the diviners, that when those digging a well failed to strike water, it was rarely considered to be the fault of the diviner who had divined its location. In September 1951, at a meeting of the Tyrone Education Committee, when it was reported that, despite following the water diviner’s directions to the letter, the contractor had failed to strike water after sinking a well to 43 feet - by the diviner’s “calculations,” he should have struck water at 36 feet, the committee recommended that the contractor continue digging.
And in August of 1951, contractors working on behalf of Cookstown Rural Council had sunk a well to a depth of 70 feet – twice as deep as the diviner had specified, without finding water. The diviner complained that the contractor had dug the well two feet from where he had been told to dig it. So, at the 35 feet mark, the contractor began tunnelling. Still he found no water. The council’s solution? Keep digging.
Not everyone shared this faith in the diviners, however. At a meeting of the Dungannon Regional Committee in August 1939, the committee were trying to establish who was to blame for the waterless 60 feet deep well at the new primary school in Ballynahaye. Mr Leebody said the contractor was to blame because he had sunk the well, at a cost of £102, instead of boring it, which would have cost  £24. But Mr Busby blamed the diviner, and the punishment, he believed, should be severe. “I wouldn’t give you much for divining,” he said. “There should be an Act of Parliament decreeing that all sorcerers and such like should be burned. I don’t believe that any man can divine where there is water, because it is only savouring of witchcraft.”
But, at the end of this meeting, despite Busby’s feelings on the matter and Leebody expressing that “the whole procedure in connection with the well had been irregular,” the committee decided that, regardless of who was to blame, another diviner should be hired.
Why this strange devotion to these waterfinders? Why, as the Rev. David Graham asked the County Armagh Education in June 1954, “in these days of modern science, is it still necessary to employ a water diviner?”
Cost, Graham was told: geologists could find water, but diviners were cheaper. But is that accurate? Is that the only reason?
What if an organisation had the funds to hire a geologist and a diviner?
This was the scenario in Tyrone in September 1951, when the West Tyrone Hospital Committee was wrestling with the problem of the hospital’s inadequate water supply. According to the diviner they had hired, there was spring water, at a depth of 30 feet, in the ground of the hospital. Ballcocks, said the geologist who had surveyed the area.
The committee favoured the opinion of the dowser and instructed that digging should begin at the site he had identified.
When January came and they still hadn’t found water, rather than cut their losses, swallow their pride and bring back the geologist, the committee decided that the best course of action was to hire “one of the very best water diviners in Ireland,” Archdeacon Pratt from Enniskillen.
I have no idea if he was successful. If he was, the committee kept it to themselves.
  • The Derry Journal, 4 May 1953
  • The Guardian, 21 November 2017
  • The Londonderry Sentinel, 24 January 1952
  • The Mid-Ulster Mail, 12 August 1939, 18 August & 29 September 1951
  • The Northern Whig, 19 September 1951
  • The Portadown Times, 18 June 1954
  • The Telegraph, 21 November 2017

Sunday, 19 November 2017

A Profane Spook

In 1906, a “spook” was entertaining the people of Clonmel, County Tipperary. Even though it caused quite a stir and nobody seemed to know who was responsible for the “extraordinary and mystery manifestations,” no one was pushing the supernatural angle too hard.
The first report comes from the Irish Independent of Tuesday, 29 May 1906.
Particulars of a series of extraordinary and mystery manifestations which have set the inhabitants of Clonmel all agog for some time are sent to us by our correspondent in that Tipperary town, who states that the singular occurrences which he relates are at present the subject of investigation by the local police, who have so far failed to find a solution to the uncanny affair.
The mystery, says our correspondent, concerns the residents in two business houses adjoining in one of the chief thoroughfares in Clonmel, and it manifests itself in rapping at the walls and the use of “terrible language” – of which separate complaints have been made to the police by both parties – together with pilfering, upsetting of goods and household fittings, locking and unlocking of doors, and other inexplicable happenings.
Prior to these manifestations anonymous letters of an extraordinary nature were received daily by the residents alluded to, the missives being dropped through the letter-box into the hall. A watch was kept on one occasion for over three hours by one of the house holders, and nothing occurred; but no sooner had the watcher left the hall than a note was slipped through the letter-box stating: “There is no use in your watching; you won’t catch me.”
On another occasion parties of police were stationed, unknown to one another, in the two houses at the same time, and some extraordinary things came under their notice. They both heard the rapping and unspeakably foul language uttered in a disguised female voice.
Immediately after they left a mysterious letter was dropped in through the letter-box giving a detailed account of the conversation that had passed between the owner of the house and the police, while the same female voice bade the R.I.C. men welcome when they came and good-bye when they left, and inquired in a mocking tone why he did not ask them to have tea, having kept them so long.
Complaints are continually being made of goods in shops being pitched about, furniture overturned, beds tossed, and water thrown on them. Meat is also taken out of the safe and only the bones left. It is altogether an extraordinary and most unpleasant affair, and it is hoped that the mystery will be soon and satisfactorily cleared up.
Two days later, the Irish Independent brought its readers up-to-date with the latest goings-on.
The Clonmel “spook” mystery, the story of which was told in Tuesday’s “Independent,” still continues to excite extraordinary interest in that town. On Tuesday night hundreds of people blocked the street where the “haunted” houses are situated, and a large force of police, in charge of District Inspector Tweedy and Head Constable Brady, were on duty up to a late hour moving them on. As already stated, the trouble takes the form of a loud rapping on the diving wall between two houses, and the use of exceedingly bad language, in a disguised female voice.
In addition to the pilfering of the meat beforementioned, it is said that soap was found in the kettle, and salt in the teapot; beds that had been made up were immediately afterwards found tossed and water poured over them; the owner’s day shirt was thrust into a ewer of water while he was in bed; statues of saints and pious pictures were removed from brackets and walls and defiled – all this on the authority of the people themselves. The anonymous letters, which, as previously stated, have been received, have been handed over to the police, who are worked off their feet in connection with the matter, and have failed, so far, to find a clue to the origin of the strange occurrences.
In early June 1906, the police claimed that they had solved the mystery. However, they said nothing about who was behind the shenanigans - or how or why they did it. 
And about two weeks after the police “solved” the mystery, the “ghost” delivered its final letter to one of the house owners.
“I am sorry for all the trouble I caused you, I beg your pardon, and I promise I’ll never do it again.
“Yours truly, The Ghost.”
The Independent, on printing the letter, commented: “We fear there are some clever practical jokers in Clonmel.”
  • Irish Independent, 29 & 31 May and 5 & 15 June 1906

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Ireland's Consulting Witch Detectives

Historically, being a witch in Ireland has always required a certain amount of versatility. You had to be good with animals as well as people, and as adept at curses as you were at cures. 
And you had to be able to solve crimes.
In 1916, PJ McCorry sought the help of a witch when his local police proved incapable of providing either clues or suspects in the short time they devoted to investigating a burglary at his home.
The thief had taken £50 while the farmer laboured in the fields in Aghadalgan, near Crumlin, County Antrim. It was a significant sum, and McCorry wanted it back.
So, he travelled to Belfast to meet a witch (unfortunately, her name is not given in the article). At their meeting, she not only produced an image of the thief on a mirror, she also told McCorry that his money would soon be returned to him.
On the morning after McCorry’s meeting with the witch, the local postman returned from his round to find that someone had left a parcel on a window ledge at the post office. The parcel was addressed to PJ McCorry. Inside was £45 10s.
Despite getting most of his money back, McCorry wasn’t entirely satisfied. But at another meeting, the witch reassured him that the balance would soon be repaid.
Regardless of whether or not McCorry got the rest of his money (I haven’t been able to find a follow-up), it was still a good result. This isn’t always the case, though.
In May 1867, when two dresses and a jacket were stolen from Margaret Martin of Lisburn, County Antrim, Martin employed the services of Moses Wilson instead of contacting the police. It didn’t end well.
The following exchange took place in Belfast Police Court on 19 August 1867.
Mr Orme - Why did you go to him and not to the police?
Plaintiff - Because it was said he could do such things (laughter).
Mr Orme - That he could work miracles?
Plaintiff - Yes; I asked him what he would charge. I said if he would cause the parties to carry my clothes back that took them I would give him 10s.
Mr Orme - That was a rise (laughter).
Plaintiff - I gave him a shilling, as part payment, on the 31st July. That day week I gave him 6s. 6d. He then asked me if I had any daughters, and if they could write. Having answered that I have two, he got them to write their names, for which he gave them threepence each. Three weeks after he went to Hillsborough. I inquired about the detainment of the clothes, when he told me that he would have to touch the pins on which the clothes hung (Laughter).
Mr Orme - Had he a staff or a wand in his hand? (Laughter.)
Mr Orme (to prisoner) - What object had you in getting the daughters’ names, or in touching the pins where the clothes hung - to make the persons return them?
Prisoner - That is a thing which I could not do, nor any man on earth (laughter).
Mr Orme (to plaintiff’s daughter) - I wonder that you, an intelligent girl, should allow your mother to be imposed on by a scamp.
So, Margaret Martin got conned. She lost some clothes and some money, and she was humiliated in court. But it could have been worse. A lot worse.
In August 1807, a cow kept by Alexander and Elizabeth Montgomery was producing milk that couldn’t be churned into butter. Local gossip helped convince Elizabeth that the cow had been bewitched.
A number of “spells” were recommended and tried. At one point, twelve local women encircled the cow and blessed it. Nothing worked.
The family were told to contact Mary Butters, a witch living in Carnmoney, County Antrim, who had a bit of a reputation. Butters arrived and tried a number of “cures.” Again, nothing worked. Unperturbed, she announced that, as soon as it became dark, she would perform a spell “that would not fail.”
Seemingly, this spell "that would not fail" would compel the witch responsible for the bewitchment to come to the Montgomery house - in her true form. It would require Alexander Montgomery and another man to wait with the cow in the cowshed - armed with a knife and a Bible - while Butters performed the spell in the house with Elizabeth; the Montgomery’s son, David; and Elizabeth’s friend Margaret Lee.
But, having spent the night, uneventfully, in the cowshed without being called by Butters, Alexander returned to the house, where he found his wife and son dead, and Margaret Lee dying. Only Butters survived.
At the inquest, the Coroner said: “It is the opinion of the Jury, that the deceased Elizabeth Montgomery came by her death from suffocation, occasioned by a woman named Mary Butters, in her making use of some noxious ingredients, in the manner of a charm, to recover a cow.”
Margaret and David, according to the Coroner, had died in the same way.
  • Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 5 February 1916
  • Caledonian Mercury, 29 August 1808
  • Dublin Daily Express, 21 August 1867
  • Larne Times, 3 May 1951

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Proofs of Immortality

While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Belfast lecture was a big hit with all those who like that sort of thing, his presence here wasn’t universally celebrated. In fact, his visit triggered the sort of protests normally reserved for those trying to interfere with the flying of the Union Flag on public buildings.
Anyway, Doyle wasn’t scared, and he stayed to deliver his second lecture, “Proofs of Immortality,” on 14 May 1925. The following account is taken from The Northern Whig and Belfast Post of 15 May 1925.
Psychic Photography
“The Proofs of Immortality” was the title of the second lecture given last evening by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on Spiritualism in the Ulster Hall, Belfast.
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10068 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Mr. Joseph Irwin, who presided, said one of the most encouraging things at the present time was the spirit of enquiry that was abroad. They were, therefore, glad to have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with them, because he had specialised in the subject of psychic phenomena. Some people were satisfied to accept the assurances given them by religious teachers and what was in the Scriptures regarding immortality. But there was a great mass of people and, he thought, the thinking people, who found themselves quite unable to accept such assurances. They wanted a more solid foundation for their faith.
Sir Conan Doyle said he had received many questions, but he could not answer them at that meeting. He would answer one gentleman who was very anxious to know if there was such a place as hell. He could assure him that according to their knowledge there was no eternal institution, but those who did evil in this world would have to enter chastening circles for a time.
Proceeding, Sir Conan narrated experiments in what he described as a great science at its beginning. He related how ectoplasm, emanating from mediums, became an animate form. The substance had been chemically analysed, and it was found to consist largely of the constituents of the human body. One of the slides shown depicted the small house where in 1848, the lectures said, there took place occurrences which gave rise to the Spiritualist movement. A pedlar had been murdered in the house, and some years later a family named Fox went to reside there. Two girls in the family were mediumistic. Loud noises and rappings were heard, and one of the little girls said to the unseen spirit, “Do as I do.” The whole story was gradually received from the pedlar, whose spirit it was. Efforts were made to find the body, but without success, and this was quoted against Spiritualists. But in 1904 the house was taken away by Spiritualists - to be erected in another place - and they found beneath the foundations the skeleton of a man, and beside it a pedlar’s tin box.
The lecturer went on to speak of psychic photography, of which he showed several examples on the screen. Three French experimenters arranged a seance, and had ready a bucket of paraffin. They asked the spirit to place his hand in it, and he did so. They then asked him to place his hand on the table, and afterwards to dissolve. When the figure dissolved they found on the table a paraffin glove. Sir Conan said he was always prepared to admit the existence of a certain amount of fraud, but where sitters knew their business it would be impossible. Mediums should be tied in their chairs. The experiments made by Sir William Crooks with the medium Florrie Cook were described, and photographs shown of the spirit, a female figure, who said her name had been Katie King. After appearances extending over two and a half years she said her mission was finished. The spirit had come down, the lecturer declared, to manifest to people that immortality was a scientific fact. All this happened fifty years ago, but so misled was the human race that it would not accept the testimony.
In spite of cruel persecution and wicked falsehood they had some excellent psychic photographers. The ordinary standards of photography, Sir Conan added, should not be used to judge psychic photography. He described what took place at Crewe, where he went in the hope of obtaining a spirit photograph of his son. The result proved that spirit photographs were not emanations from the brains of persons present when they were taken. When the plate used on this occasion was developed there was a message welcoming “Friend Doyle,” and signed “T. Colley.” This was, the lecturer said, Archdeacon Colley, who had been dead ten years. He afterwards got a photograph of his son, but the likeness was not a good one.
Another photograph showed a tablet with writing upon it in some language.They eventually discovered it to be Singalese, and the words were the first two verses of St. Mark’s Gospel. This use of a practically unknown language, said the lecturer, showed how clever they were on the other side - they wanted to give a convincing proof. Two “ghost photographs” were then shown. Ghosts, the lecturer explained, were the earthbound spirits of human beings who died, but had not mounted up because they had been so engrossed in the tasks of the world. Having lost all spiritual sense they wandered for a time on the earth plane, until the time when through some agency they turned to more spiritual matters. In conversation with these undeveloped spirits he gathered that they do not realise they were dead. They saw people who, not seeing the spirits, walked on and took no notice of them. The spirits appeared, as it were, in a sort of nightmare. He knew one man who had been dead 76 years.
The lecturer showed a spirit photograph of Abraham Lincoln, who had been, he said, a Spiritualist, and had received help from the great fathers of the American Republic at a crisis in the American Civil War. Several other remarkable photographs were exhibited on the screen, and Sir Conan denied emphatically that spirit photographs taken at the London Cenotaph were faked.
The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 15 May 1925

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

In May 1925, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to Belfast. After visiting the Giant’s Causeway and the Dark Hedges and getting wrote-off in Fibber Magee’s [1], Doyle gave the first of two lectures at the Ulster Hall. 
The following account is taken from The Northern Whig and Belfast Post of 14 May [2].
The Best Gift of All
“The New Revelation” was the title of a lecture delivered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before a large audience in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, last night.
The Rev. Canon R. W. Seaver presided, and explained that he was there as a seeker after truth, and spoke for himself only, and not for any church or body. Personally he had never attended a seance in his life, but he believed that the great enemy of modern life was not Spiritualism but materialism. (Applause.)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was given a hearty reception on rising to speak, said that Spiritualism was by all odds the most the most important question to-day, and proceeded to explain how he came to take an active part in it. He first took it up in 1886, and during 38 years he had never ceased to read and investigate the subject. During the last nine years he and his wife had devoted almost the whole of their time to its study. His experience in thinking out detective work had enabled him to deal with many rascally camp followers.
He left Edinburgh University an agnostic, believing in the superiority of matter. Shortly after he started practice as a doctor his best patient asked him to come to seances he held. He went, stating frankly, that he had no belief in the thing and what he saw appeared childish and crude. But it arrested his attention and he began to read about the matter both for and against it. He mentioned a few of the great names who believed in it. It was impossible to put them all down as insane or rogues. He gradually found out that those who opposed the subject usually had never been to a seance to investigate it.
Altogether he had collected the names of about 100 professors at universities who had subscribed to the existence of psychical power. Some endorsed the phenomena, and some saw as well the religious implications. He could not see the meaning of it all.
When the war came the whole world was saying, “Where are our boys who went forth and disappeared? Are they still individualities? Are they alive, and what sort of life is it they are leading?” No clergyman or scientist could answer.
It was then, said Sir Arthur, he began to understand the futility of the Spiritualistic phenomena; they were only signals. It was as if there came a knock at the door and they discussed the knock without trying to find out who was knocking; as if they sat round discussing a ring on a telephone bell without attempting to take down the receiver.
The pattern was becoming clear, he continued, and he next described messages received through automatic writing from four young soldiers who were dead by a lady who visited his house. He watched carefully to make sure that there was no fraud or self-deception, and, finally finding none, decided that he would be a moral coward if he did not believe. The difference between believing and knowing, he added, was a great thing.
He and his wife decided to bring across to the race of men the message that was so important that beside it politics and economics sank into insignificance. It involved breaking up their home, dislocating their lives, and interrupting his literary career, but he never regretted the course he had taken.
Proceeding, he narrated certain experiences in Spiritualism. He told how his son came back a year after his death. He (the speaker) was at Southsea. A Mr. Powell, a Spiritualist, visited him, and with three friends there in the evening they tied Mr. Powell up with a rope, so that he could not move, in a corner of the room. Then they turned out the light.
He explained why physical seances were held in the dark. There was a material, he said, which was the basis of spirit phenomena, known as ectoplasm, which emanated from all people in the form of vapour. A medium was one who had a greater amount of ectoplasm than others. But ectoplasm was soluble in light.
Suddenly, went on Sir Arthur, there came from the dark his son’s voice and spoke to him of a thing known only to himself and his wife. The others present substantiated what had taken place. If they could not substantiate a thing by the evidence of people in the room, how could they substantiate any fact.
He related the true story of two boys on the South Coast of Australia who went out in a yacht and were never seen again. At a seance not long afterwards a medium went into a trance, which meant that his soul left his body for a space, so that another tenant might come, and one of the boys, through the medium, told the father that they had been drowned and that his brother had been eaten by a shark of a most unusual kind. Later, near Geelong, an unusual kind of shark was caught by fishers, and on being cut open was found to contain a watch and studs and some other small articles identified as those of the boy in question.
“What is the good of trying to explain the thing,” said Sir Arthur, “except that the boy did come back and tell his message through the medium.”
The real importance of Spiritualism for them, he continued, was that by getting into touch with higher spirits even than their dear dead ones Spiritualism gave them something more solid than faith. To get into touch with higher knowledge that explained the ordinations of God Almighty and the fate that awaited them, that was the pinnacle of Spiritualism.
Learning from messages he told them what they knew of death. Death was pleasant, like sinking into a sweet sleep; the illness before was often painful. On the other side those who loved them were drawn to receive them. Every man had a second body, an ethereal body, like the one he now had, with the same mind and character. He was first of all taken to a place of rest, where he passed a period in coma to give him strength to take up the new life.
The world there was like the world here reproduced on a higher plane, and each one lived with those most congenial to him. It was not what they believed but what they had done and what they were that determined their place in that world. If one died an old man, one became rejuvenated and a child, grew up to normal manhood.
That world, however, was not the final heaven. Everything was graduated, until ultimately they came to the final blaze of glory beyond the imagination. As they got higher desires they passed on until they reached them.
God was infinitely kinder than they had ever imagined. The majority of people, leaving out saints and criminals, passed on straight to that extraordinary happiness.
In the course of remarks on Christianity, Sir Arthur said that the New Testament was crammed with Spiritualism. Christ was the greatest of all psychics. All the gifts of the modern medium St. Paul took as signs of saintliness.
In conclusion, he said that death when they did not know where they were going was dismal and bleak. But once they knew they had no fear. Death was a glorious and beautiful thing. The best gift life had for them was the last gift of all. (Applause.)
The Chairman said that the speaker had given them a new idea of God. Spiritualism was largely Christianity as it ought to be expressed.
The meeting concluded with the singing of the Doxology.
A bouquet of flowers was presented to Lady Doyle.
1. Only one of these is true.
2. I have made no corrections to the text.
The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 14 May 1925