Spooks and spooks: black magic and bogeymen
in Northern Ireland, 1973–741
On 5 August 1973, the Sunday News, published in Belfast, printed an article about the Copeland Islands, a popular spot for day trips and picnics just off the North Down coast. Adorned with drawings of a Baphomet-like goat’s head, the headline screamed ‘Black Magic Ritual Killings on Copeland Island Beach’. Quoting an anonymous expert on the occult and the local Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Inspector, the story described the purported ritual sacrifice of sheep and the discovery of a symbol-decorated site where a ceremony of some sort had apparently taken place.
On 8 September events took a more sinister turn. The burned and badly mutilated body of ten-year-old Brian McDermott, who had been missing from his home for nearly a week, was retrieved from the River Lagan in Belfast. Within days of his body being found, there were suggestions in the press, referring back to the Copeland Islands incident, that witchcraft might have been involved in the murder.2
Between then and the end of 1973, an unprecedented rash of articles referring to local witchcraft, black magic and satanism appeared in the press, north and south of the Irish border. I have located over seventy, unfolding in a spatial and chronological pattern. During the second half of October the stories were concentrated in the south-east of the area: south Down, north Armagh and north Louth. During the first fortnight of November they shifted north and west, to Armagh, south-east Tyrone, Fermanagh, and south and midAntrim. During the rest of November and early December they concentrated in mid-Ulster, particularly Tyrone. From an examination of the television news archive index at Broadcasting House, Belfast, there does not seem to have been any noteworthy TV coverage of these matters, at least on the BBC.
A few further stories appeared during early 1974. The most spectacular appeared in March: ‘Witchcraft brew found in gruesome ritual cave’, relating to a find in Island Magee, Co. Antrim.3 There were also stories about the film The Exorcist – culminating in autumn 1974 when it opened in Belfast – and evangelistic campaigns confronting teenage ‘dabbling’ in the occult.4 By