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Inside Northern Ireland’s satanic panic

John Meagher: The Divil’s Own is a mind-boggling tale of collective nightmares, visions and ghosts.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Are you ready for a “story of goat theft and devil worship, thrash metal and murder, bogeymen, blarney, black mass and black ops”?  Because the comedian John Meagher keeps having nightmares – nightmares that take him back to his childhood in Newry, County Down, about spectres in white hoods chanting around a fire, then chasing him down. Only “they don’t feel like nightmares, they feel like memories”. He’s determined to figure out where these recurring dreams come from, “or, if nothing else, make a light-hearted documentary from Northern Ireland that’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the Troubles”.

This is storytelling at its best: a mind-boggling tale told at high speed – narration, interviews and audio dream sequences blend together to create a programme as muddling and disorientating as its subject matter.

There is humour in the darkness, but let your mind wander for a moment and you’ll miss what’s going on. Fortunately, your mind won’t wander: events are too compelling for that. Meagher isn’t alone in battling memories of the supernatural. Friends and folk artists share similar stories – rumours of animal sacrifice, satanic rituals, witches and black magic.

“Was Northern Ireland some sort of Ghostbusters-style portal to the end of the world?” Meagher wonders as his tale takes increasingly strange turns. Attempting to separate fact from fiction, he enlists the help of a therapist, a thrash metal musician and an expert in psychological warfare. Even seemingly simple questions such as, “Were devil worshippers performing black masses in Newry?” don’t have straightforward answers. Because it turns out this isn’t a light-hearted documentary that’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the Troubles after all. These nightmares share a deeper truth: one inextricably tied to the British military forces stationed in Northern Ireland through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and which still haunts the country today, with real life reimagined by children processing their trauma through superstition and make-believe. Perhaps this programme can help lay some ghosts to rest.  

John Meagher: The Divil’s Own
BBC Radio 4, 21 April, 7.15pm; available on BBC Sounds

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran