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How the British Army Spread Rumours of Black Magic and Witchcraft in 1970s Northern Ireland

They wanted to smear paramilitary organisations and scare kids into staying indoors.

by Yann Desfougères
02 October 2015, 11:25am

An Irish newspaper front page from 1973 reporting on fears of black magic in the north of Ireland

Between 1972 and 1974, rumours about black magic spread through Northern Ireland while the country was on the brink of civil war. Press headlines raising the spectre of black masses, animal sacrifices and child abductions started appearing alongside the usual articles about the political crisis and the assassination and bombing campaigns that followed.

Over the following 40 years, Richard Jenkins, professor of sociology at Sheffield University, investigated this phenomenon, gathering material in libraries and speaking to witnesses. During his research, he discovered where these fears may have originated: the British Army.

The main source of these allegations is Captain Colin Wallace, already well-known for his previous revelations about the Army's unorthodox methods employed during the Troubles. These revelations got him sidelined and framed: he spent six years in prison on a conviction of manslaughter which was later quashed in the light of new forensic and other evidence (which was investigated in Paul Foot's book, Who Framed Colin Wallace?).

The former officer of information of the Army's psychological operations unit (known as Information Policy) told Jenkins that his small team had set up mock ritual sites by in various places like ruined houses or an abandoned churchyard. They hanged upside down crosses made of tomato crates, drew magic circles and displayed black candles and blood from the Army's kitchen. They also wrote fake reader's letters to several newspapers, provided scripts for unattributed briefings with journalists, and helped zealous citizens to write misleading ads for the press.

The Information Policy group may not have started the rumours, but they fed them in order to smear paramilitary organisations. It was only one aspect of a broader black propaganda strategy, which also relied on more "classic" defamatory rumours involving misappropriated money, communism and drug trafficking. Their aim was to establish a link in the public opinion between the rise of paramilitary groups' violence and things that both the protestant and the catholic communities would find objectionable. Ireland's strong religious culture and supernatural folklore gave the military the idea of this new kind of threat which could also encourage people – especially children and teenagers – to stay home at night.

I called Richard Jenkins up for a chat about this weird phenomenon.

VICE: How did you get interested in these black magic stories?
Richard: In 1973 I was a student in Belfast, studying social anthropology. I read the newspapers and also encountered the rumours as word-of-mouth, in Belfast and in my home town of Larne, County Antrim. As someone with an anthropologist's interest in religion, witchcraft, and so on, it was impossible not to be interested.

What was the content of these rumours?
In the north Belfast Catholic neighbourhood of Ardoyne during the weeks around Hallowe'en 1972, tales circulated – particularly among children and teenagers – about a mysterious "Black Man" who was apparently practicing black magic and sacrificing dogs. The Black Mass in question was said to involve upside-down crosses and black candles. These stories soon died away, and they did not make the local newspapers.

Nine months later, on the 5th of August 1973, the Belfast Sunday News published a sensational story about the "black magic ritual killing" of sheep on the Copeland Islands, in Belfast Lough. Then, on the 8th of September, the mutilated and burned body of Brian McDermott, aged ten, was found in the River Lagan, near Belfast's Ormeau Park. Three days later rumours that he had been killed as part of a black magic ritual appeared in the newspapers. By the end of September, however, the Copeland Islands story had been debunked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC – now the Police Service of Northern Ireland) in the absence of evidence, and by mid-October it was clear that the police were no longer interested in black magic as an avenue of inquiry in the McDermott case.

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Then a new theme emerged in newspaper stories about teenagers in Belfast "dabbling in black magic". This referred to the use of Ouija boards and the like, sometimes in order to contact people who had recently been killed in the violence. Propped up by recycled references to the Copeland Islands and Brian McDermott, this story ran in papers north and south of the Irish border. It became one of the stock themes in local newspaper coverage of the rumours about witchcraft and black magic.

By mid-October 1973 other rumours appeared, of human sacrifice and perceived threats of ritual violence to children. More specific rumours concerned the dangers to fair-haired, blue-eyed children, particularly young girls. Customary Hallowe'en fun was reportedly curtailed, in response to these fears. Threats to domestic and farm animals were also rumoured: goats, sheep, dogs, and cats were all said to have been sacrificed. No bodies were found, however. Occasionally, places where Satanic rituals appeared to have been carried out appeared in the newspapers. For example, in mid-October a deserted castle on the outskirts of Newry was said to have been the site of an attempt to contact the recently dead. There were also references to a derelict house in north Belfast in which symbols and other traces of ritual activity had been found.

What was the authorities' position on these rumours?
By mid-October, the first in a series of RUC denials that there was any evidence of black magic appeared. These denials did not seem to make any immediate impact on the rumours. Witchcraft and black magic rumours circulated in Catholic and Protestant areas. The reports peaked between mid-October and the third week in November, clustering around Hallowe'en. In 1974 the rumours declined almost to vanishing point.

What was your personal opinion on this matter back then?
Mostly that I wanted to know more, but I doubted that the north of Ireland had suddenly become a hotbed of Satanism and witchcraft. In this respect, my view hasn't changed.

The psy-ops theory was reported by republican news-sheets at the time. Did it have many followers or was it considered a conspiracy theory?
This is hard to answer with any precision. However, the suggestion of Army involvement in the black magic rumours did not only appear in Republican news-sheets, and it did not even appear there first. On Sunday, 26th October 1973, the Dublin-based Sunday World newspaper quoted an "expert" as saying just this. An on the 2nd of November, The Argus, published in Dundalk, quoted a priest making the same suggestion. So at least some people had their suspicions. How many people were wise to what the Army was up to is impossible to know, however. And there were people, perhaps many people, who took the rumours seriously, as something authentic.

How would you describe the involvement of the population in this "black magic fear"?
Northern Ireland in the early 1970s was not "in the grip" of a black magic scare. Some people, some of the time, were to some extent genuinely concerned about the threat of black magic and witchcraft. Those concerns and fears appear to have had some life of their own, independent of the newspaper coverage. In particular, children and young people were enthusiastic rumour-mongers. However, many other people found the rumours to be unbelievable, either because of consistent official denials or their own scepticism. And some youngsters took the rumours with a pinch of salt and enjoyed the opportunity to play pranks and have some fun, particularly around Hallowe'en. The Hallowe'en festivities were at worst dampened, rather than cancelled.

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Was there a difference in the reactions between Catholics and Protestants to these rumours?
I do not believe that the Catholic community was more subject to fears about magic... although that was a suggestion sometimes made in the press at the time [a suggestion which might have been planted by Colin Wallace and his colleagues]. The fact that the rumours were much less present and prominent in the counties west of the River Bann might even suggest that the Catholic community was less fearful. More generally, in the early 1970s Catholics, particularly in Belfast, may, if anything, have felt that the republican cause was in the ascendant; i.e. that they might be about to "win". On the other hand, they were also took the brunt of Army actions, and were on the receiving end of the horror of the loyalist assassination campaign. It was a very difficult time for everyone.

What was the Protestant mindset and how did that affect their reaction to the witchcraft rumours?
Many, and perhaps most, felt betrayed and abandoned by the rest of Britain and the Westminster parliament, and they feared that the republican cause was indeed "winning". Many were also ill at ease with much loyalist violence, particularly the assassination campaign. In addition, many of the actively religious Protestants felt that they might be in the time of the "Last Days". The religious component of the witchcraft rumours was pretty much all Protestant. Protestants were no less affected by the rumours.

Thanks, Richard.

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