Co Down writer Herbie Brennan, who has sold 10 million books, talks about his lifelong fascination with mysticism and the paranormal
“It’s not just Northern Ireland: I’m not at all well known anywhere except perhaps in Italy.
"It’s a situation of my own making. I never know what to say in interviews like this and I’ve always been a better listener than a talker.
"I only managed to become known in Italy when the Press there decided I had prophecied the election of Pope Benedict XVI. I hadn’t, but a lot of Italians still believe it.”
Now aged 82 Brennan, who writes under the name JH Brennan, has devoted much of his life to the study of magic and the paranormal.
He was determined from an early age to become an accomplished
practitioner of magic.
This led him to conduct a series of fascinating experiments over the years — including hypnosis (first carried out on a classmate when he was nine), astral projection, spiritualism, past-life regression, testing the power of the I Ching, and numerology.
The results, which he reveals in his new memoir, were often startling.
In Enchanted Life: The Memoir of a Magician, he writes affectionately about the host of captivating characters who have played a large part in his story: both those immersed in spiritual thinking and connected to higher planes and the larger-than-life, often roguish, characters he met as a journalist in the North of Ireland (he was a reporter at the Portadown News, the Portadown Times, Lurgan Mail and Ulster Star) and in Dublin.
Did he always know he'd like to be a writer?
"For a while I had ambitions to become a BBC news reader, but eventually I heard my voice recorded and that put paid to that.
But he enjoy his time as a reporter?
“Loved it! (Except for a stint on the Belfast Telegraph when I was afraid of the news editor.)”
However, his childhood growing up in Gilford was not so happy.
"In a word, it was miserable.
"Gilford at the time was a little mill village with small emotional boundaries and a limited tolerance of anything that didn't fit the conventional belief patterns.
"I remember being told firmly that man would never get to the moon and it was stupid to believe that he might.
"It was wartime with all the resultant shortages. Nobody had enough to eat.
"On the personal front, things got worse after my father died when I was four.
"I was bullied at school and terrorised by the headmaster. As a result, I was afraid all the time.”
Herbie, who has advanced Parkinson’s, lives in Carlow in a “delightful old rectory”.
“I’m fortunate enough to be married to the Master Medical Herbalist, psychotherapist, author, graphic artist, world class chef and garden designer, Jacquie Burgess.
"I have two children, both girls, from a previous marriage.
"The elder, Aynia, lives in Denmark and is a fantastically good nature photographer. The younger, Sian, is an actor and script-writer who lives in the Irish republic and also creates special effects for movies.”
Herbie says he isn’t entirely sure how his fascination in mysticism came about, but in Enchanted Life: The Memoir of a Magician) he traces it back to reading a book on yoga that he discovered in my Aunt Madeline’s bookcase.
"But that’s only replacing one mystery with another: how did a young child from a conventional Northern Irish background become interested in such an obscure subject? It was the same with the hypnotism.
"I can understand that a bullied child might see it as a means of self-defence. But where did I go to learn it? Where did I find the books? I came across an account of Eastern mystics who hypnotised people by using a shapeless blot on a piece of paper. But where did I get the courage to try it for myself?”
And for one so ensconced in mysticism and the paranormal, it comes as no surprise when he says he’s seen a ghost.
“I saw a ghost on my 32nd birthday, when I was living in a gate lodge in Dunboyne.
"Part of the tenancy agreement allowed me to have use of the gardens which surrounded the main house.
"I was working in advertising at the time, but since it was a beautiful summer’s day I decided to take time off and sunbathe.
"I was lying on a rug in the walled garden when a young woman in evening dress appeared from the direction of the main house.
"I thought perhaps she was a guest of my landlord, trying out a dress for an evening event.
"There was nothing at all strange about her and as she reached me I called out a cheery hello. but she ignored me completely and walked on bye.
"She disappeared while I was watching her only a few yards further on. It was almost exactly like watching the transporter effect in Star Trek and it frightened the life out of me.”
He describes his new book as a “memoir teetering on being an autobiography” – pointing out an autobiography is a complete life story; a memoir is an account of a particular part of your life.
"I’ll be 83 next month and sick. I was finding it more and more difficult to write. I woke one morning and decided it was time for me to quit.
"I’d written every day of my life for half a century and I wanted to smell the coffee. I should have left it alone at that point, but I got fancy inside my head and started to think in terms of life patterns and destinies. “Surely with so many books written, I was something of a literary phenomenon and needed to complete the circle of my life with one more book.
"It would have to stand as a monument to my life’s work, an explanation of my philosophy, a presentation of my deepest, most important thoughts.
"As a symbol of my gratitude for what the country had given me (I lived tax free for many years, among other things) I would find an Irish publisher—I’d only ever been published in Ireland once before: a teenage horror novel so bloodthirsty that one English editor not only turned it up up up up up, but also said she hoped no other editor would buy it.
"It was all pretentious nonsense, of course, brought on by old age and depression.
"I never thought of my work like that. If anything, I wrote to please myself, often to learn more about something that interested me.
"I have no ‘author’s message,’ and I doubt I ever will have. At best, I’m just something of an entertainer.”
Having Parkinson’s, he says, has affected his writing.
“It has slowed me down to a frightening degree.
"There was a time when I was able to write 20,000 words in a day. Now I’m lucky to manage 500.”
So, will there be any other books from this prolific writer, whose teenage novel Faerie Wars achieved the New York Times best-seller status in the US, and who has been described as
and is now part of a five book series?
“Oh yes. Dammit, I'm only 82."
*Enchanted Life: The Memoir of a Magician is available in bookshops and online at sweeneyodonovan.ie and on Amazon for €20.00.