In the Dark Ages, mediums were branded heretics and burned at the stake. But over the centuries there has been a gradual loosening of attitudes towards the supernatural and a growing fascination with mediums.
Celebrity clairvoyants draw in millions of television viewers, captivated by their special brand of psychic-centred showoffery.
But despite this voracious appetite for psychic phenomena, I have never been inclined to visit a medium, and could never really understand other people’s docile acceptance of them. Surely it was all just hocus pocus, a combination of guesswork and sly conversational tricks. Weren’t they just charlatans, exploiting the bereaved for money? Or deluded people helping delude others?
And yet, here I was hanging on the telephone, my mouth dry, my stomach doing more somersaults than a Russian gymnast as I waited to hear if Sharon Neill, Ulster’s internationally acclaimed blind psychic, would be able to commune with the spirits and deliver a message to me from beyond the grave.
It was a telephone reading and after pleasantries were exchanged, the line went eerily quiet as Sharon tuned in to the spirit world; the only sound I could hear was the blood pumping in my ears. I was at my desk in work, waiting to hear from those on the other side; Sharon was at Belfast Harbour enjoying the clement October weather.
The silence was interminable and then....’’Sorry, Helen, I’m not getting anything,’’ she said.
I didn’t know whether to feel deflated, relieved or vindicated.
Sharon had warned me that no one might come through. ‘‘I can’t force it,’’ she had cautioned earlier. ‘‘If it happens, it happens.’’
I was a bit peeved. Why didn’t anyone want to get in touch with me..I mean, enough loved ones in my life had died - parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends.
But according to Sharon the fact that no one had come through this time, signalled that all was hunky dory in my little world. ‘‘It’s good,’’ she said. ‘‘All is well in your life.’’
I had met Sharon about a week earlier at her Glengormley home, a modest cul-de-sac property which doubles as the headquarters of Northern Ireland’s first pagan church, The Order of the Golden River.
I don’t know what I expected her psychic parlour would be like, but it wasn’t the fairground cliché of the gilded tent with crystal ball and tarot cards – just a normal living room with a comfy corner sofa. I was struck by the ordinariness of it all.
Her friend Patrick Carberry, a pagan priest and fellow psychic, was there when I arrived - good-humouredly berating me for being late. So too was our photographer Arthur.
(Patrick informed me he was doing a ‘house clearance’ later - not, as I initially assumed, removing furniture, but rather poltergeists from a Belfast hairdressers. Yikes!)
The talk turned to an ornamental pyramid in a display cabinet, jostling for space alongside an array of knick-knacks and Buddha statues (Sharon is a Buddhist, as well as a believer in paganism).
She was given the pyramid some years ago as a present and believes it has a special healing energy and cannot be photographed.
‘‘Every time you try to take a picture of it, it doesn’t work,’’ she said matter-of-factly.
‘‘There was a guy in here one time who tried to take a photo of it and every time he tried, the picture came out blurred.’’
Hoping to disprove her theory our photographer decided to have a go.
To our amazement it wouldn’t photograph - the camera simply wouldn’t focus on it.
There’s probably plenty of logical explanations for this, but still....Arthur and I exchanged looks. This was all a bit too weird.
Sharon Neill, 51, is an international celebrity psychic, with the ability to draw audiences of up to 2,000 to her live shows.
Her list of private clients includes Van Morrison, Ash and Coldplay and she has a legion of fans. She has made numerous radio and television appearances and currently presents Psychic Today on Sky’s Channel 886, has written her autobiography entitled Second Sight, and has another book in the pipeline.
The first time someone asked her how long she had been a medium, she replied naively that she’d always been a size 10. As a 17-year-old student who had just moved to a college for the blind in Surrey, she had never before heard the word applied to someone who experienced the voices that had been part of her life since she was around five years old.
‘‘I used to say to my family when I woke in the morning ‘why is it in the nighttime I can see, but in the daytime I can’t?’ It was frightening for me as a child because I couldn’t understand. It wasn’t the fact of being able to see things that was the problem, it was being in the room on my own but actually hearing people talking to me - like I hear you now.’’
She has a team of eight people she works with, not managers or publicists but spirits who rely messages to her from the other side and have been ‘‘teaching’’ her from birth.
‘‘Every day I am communicating with people who have passed over; it is not a question of just having people here for appointments, I talk to them (the spirits) all the time.’’
Her ‘team’ consists of a Zulu warrior.
‘’He was the very first one who used to teach me when I was growing up. I nickname him the ‘chief’ - he was a Zulu warrior chief.’’
The other members of the team include ‘‘two gentlemen that used to be doctors on the earth.’’
‘‘One of them is Glaswegian. He trained in Glasgow University and then moved to Bristol. He was killed on the way to see a patient - it was the winter time and his car skidded. He is my main medical person.’’
There’s also an Egyptian queen and a Romany gypsy lady, who helps her if she is doing tarot card readings (she uses braille cards).
‘‘The others I can’t really go into because some of them are from here,’’ she says.
I ask if they are friends.
‘‘Of course they are friends,’’ she says in a kind of exasperated, ‘wise-up’ way.
‘‘Are they here now?’’, I ask. ‘‘Of course. They are always here,’’she says.
‘‘Are they telling you anything about me or the photographer?’’ I venture.
‘‘Not at the moment. You are doing an interviewing now, so I am not actually communicating with them - but they are here.’’
She explains her own first psychic experience.
‘‘My grandmother passed away when I was 14 and that was a big thing for me because she was like my mum. When I came back from England I explained to my family that my grandmother had communicated with me because at that time I was going to a spiritualist meeting in England.
‘‘Whenever I mentioned that she had been communicating with me, one of my aunts said - ‘well, sure she’s dead, how is it possible?’
‘‘And I described to her a particular set of clothing that my granny used to wear which was a black and white dress and a grey cardigan, My granny used to wear the cardigan rolled up to the elbow - but I didn’t know that - but I described all this. I started telling them different things that I couldn’t have known about family members that had passed over before my time.’’
Sharon started attending a spiritualist church in Belfast, but was basically told to leave as she was too advanced for the training.
Does she believe she has a gift? ‘‘It is a gift, but I also believe it is an extension of our instinct.
‘‘ I believe that every single person has this ability and either they know about it or they don’t. But that’s just my own personal opinion.’’
I ask Sharon if people ever thought she was crazy or schizophrenic?
‘‘I never discussed it until I came back from England because to me, what was the point in discussing it whenever it was something that everybody could do. I didn’t know I was any different - I thought everybody could do this. To me it was normal.’’
Sharon is a trained counsellor and social worker.
‘‘I used to do it (counselling) at one stage but then I stopped it because I wanted to go into the psychic work instead. I would consider myself now a holistic counsellor.
‘‘I can bring both my skills together because holistic counselling can mean working with the person energetically and maybe a little bit of healing as well.’’
Over the years she has helped the UK police with murder enquiries and missing persons.
She claims to be able to see and experience what the victims saw, where and how they were killed. She would then inform the police, often helping them to discover the body or the murderer.
‘‘I can feel what happened to the victim as if it’s me - which is why I wrote in my book ‘I’ve been strangled, I’ve been shot, I’ve been stabbed, I’ve been raped ‘- but I’ve never had any of those things happen me physically.
‘‘You actually feel what that person is going through or has gone through because you have to be able to explain it to the detectives at the time. You’’ve got to be able to explain what you’re picking up because you’ve got to validate your evidence.’’
She was recently involved in two missing person cases in the Ukraine.
‘‘The first one was traumatic for me because it was about the suicide of a young girl over bullying in school and on the internet.
‘‘The other one was about a girl who was very badly disfigured and it was basically about helping her to understand why she was like that in this life. That affected me because I am disabled myself and I understand what she would have been going through.’’
Although Sharon says she has been trained, from a counselling perspective, to shield emotionally, there are still times in readings when she is ‘‘in bits’’ afterwards.
‘‘Like when it’s dealing with someone who has lost a child and they ask you the question ‘why did it have to be him or her - why couldn’t it have been me’. That sort of question still affects me.’’
Sharon Neill is a likeable lady with a strong Belfast accent. She’s from the south of the city, but grew up in the east with two brothers and a sister.
Her blindness was caused by being deprived of oxygen when she was born three months prematurely.
But she doesn’t dwell on her disability and certainly doesn’t let it hinder her.
‘‘I call it an inconvenience, not a problem because it has never stopped me doing anything I’ve wanted to do,’’ she says firmly.
She’s been plagued by chest problems and asthma and says she ‘‘nearly passed over’’ last year, but dying doesn’t scare her.
‘‘If I was to pass over tomorrow it wouldn’t worry me in the least because I know that it’s just the next stage of the journey.’’
She comes across as smart, determined and independent.
She is single, and likes it that way.
‘‘I have never had a physical partner - not because I have anything against relationships; it’s just I have never felt the need for one. I have lived on my own for 16 years and I love it. I am very happy.’’
She loves what she does and enjoys travelling and meeting people.
‘‘I feel very honoured that people take the time to come to me for an appointment because it’s not me that’s doing this, it’s the spirit world - I am only the channel and I have never taken credit myself because it’s not about me, it’s about them.’’