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Column: How the Catholic Church and the media thought Satanic cults were a real danger to young people in the 1980s

If reports were to be believed, the Ouija Board rivalled the Game Boy in the popularity stakes with young people in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s.

Barry Sheppard

IN AN INCREASINGLY secular Ireland it easy to forget about a time when the Catholic Church in wielded a vast influence over much of the population, and a time when many youth pursuits came under its scrutiny.

In the eighties and nineties the Church had something of a preoccupation with notions of satanic cults among the youth. This may not surprise as the Church in Ireland has a long history of concerns relating to the dark arts and its influence on popular culture. However, what is interesting is the degree of ‘buy-in’ which the press had relating to the occult, music and its detrimental effect upon Irish youth. The degree of clerical and media interest is perhaps indicative of a tightly-knit Irish society.

From the eighties onwards, newspaper coverage of matters of the occult became popular. In an age when much concern was focused upon matters of international significance, such apprehensions seem quaint. That is not to say these international matters were not closely followed, it is more of a case that regional moral panic was given almost equal status in sections of the press.

Or as the Limerick Leader succinctly put it:

In an age of micro-waved noodles, cellular phones and Mutant Ninja Turtles it is hard to imagine witchcraft is surviving.

Not only was it surviving, it was something of a growth industry, with tarot readers, water diviners, witches and strong rumours of Satanism over the city and beyond.

Rural phenomenon

The majority of supposedly satanic practices seemed to be a rural phenomenon. Perhaps easily dismissed as wanton vandalism, nevertheless parents in Galway were urged to ‘be alert to any changes in their children’ who were vulnerable to the influences of Satanism and evil spirits in the wake of a church in Inverin being vandalised in the summer of 1992.

In the same period there were fears that ‘committed Satanists’ were at work in Wicklow after a number of gravestones were vandalised in Blessington. Advice was also sought in the county relating to a girl ‘who had been allegedly affected by heavy metal music’. The same article carried a stark sub-heading warning in no uncertain terms that ‘The Established Churches are worried’!

Ouija Board
If reports were to be believed the Ouija Board was rivalling the Game Boy in the popularity stakes with young people in the early nineties. In Letterkenny clergy called upon young people to refrain from using Ouija boards, following reports that their use was on the increase in the area. This tool of the occult raised the most concerns among clergy members. The Nenagh Guardian warned young people of its dangers, stating that such activity was potentially extremely dangerous especially for young people, with much trauma and even suicide likely to follow.

The Irish Independent reported ‘black magic was widespread’ in Cork, with Ouija board use common throughout the country. Not only that, six black magic groups were active in the Cork area! In the same month The Irish Press reported two individuals who were living in dread of a Satanic cult. Fr Louis Hughes in Montenotte, Cork told that the youths in question suffered hallucinations day and night, and that their Satanic tormentors were ‘working class youths in their late teens or early twenties’ who congregated in groups of 20-25 to worship Satan in a local house, enacting rituals which were the ‘reversal of Christian practices’.

Moral panic

Not all priests bought into the panic. Martin Tierney, Director of the Catholic Communications Institute believed people ‘should have a good laugh’ about reports of on demonic activity. Reports of Satanism were ‘absolute piffle’. Nevertheless, he warned Satan was in the world, he just wasn’t to be found in heavy metal records!

Increasing secularism from the nineties onwards left some within Catholicism at a loss to the decline of traditional religious values. Raising the question, were these warnings the last stance of a once powerful body unable to control its flock? By the middle of the decade the Church was beset with numerous sex and abuse scandals, somewhat relegating the spectre of Satanism to the periphery by both the Church and the media. For a number of years however, Satan and his minions were a clear and present danger to the young of Ireland.

Barry Sheppard is a mature MA history student. A previous winner of the Robert Dudley Edwards History Prize. He has written for various history sites and magazines such as The Irish Story, History is Now Mag, and Scoláire Staire and is interested in the history of rural agrarian colony groups.

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