Irish mystic Lorna Byrne talks to angels. You may or may not believe her, but there’s one thing that’s in no doubt -- she’s not kidding. Angels In My Hair, Byrne’s memoir, is now an international bestseller that sold for a six-figure sum to the publishers of The Da Vinci Code, but she doubts all the money in the world will change her.
When you’re talking to someone who looks over your shoulder to greet an invisible angel it’s an eerie sensation.
But Lorna Byrne talks to the angels as casually as others might turn to speak to someone new in a pub. It’s odd to be in the presence of someone who’s conversing with invisible beings -- and it’s odd how quickly you can get used to it, too.
Adding to the strangeness of meeting her is the fact that Byrne doesn’t really look like the kind of person you’d expect angels to confide in. At 58 she’s slim, youthful and attractive, in enviable shape for her years. She’s also only five foot tall, which accentuates her girlishness.
As mystics go, she’s not exactly a textbook example. But the lingering sadness around her penetrating eyes hints at her difficult childhood and her early adult life.
Byrne grew up in poverty in the grim Ballymun and Edenmore council estates in Dublin, and she lost her young husband Joe to illness early on. Byrne’s supporters, who include famous names like Irish singing star Daniel O’Donnell, have total faith in her vision and have made her book a bestseller.
But her detractors have written that she’s a “despicable person who makes mountains of cash by selling complete nonsense to idiots.”
A recent poll in Time magazine showed that 69 percent of Americans claim to believe in angels. With those kinds of odds it would appear Byrne has her work cut out for her.
But what exactly does she see? We meet last week in the swanky foyer of the Ace Hotel in midtown Manhattan, a place I selected for its air conditioning and because it was the least likely setting for a discussion about the world to come.
“I see angels here,” she says flatly. “I see the light of the Guardian Angel behind you. Even walking down the street I see them.
“From the moment I opened my eyes as a child I can never remember not seeing angels. When I was tiny I didn’t know what they were at first. They were gorgeous and friendly, and I wasn’t afraid of them in the least.”
Why her, though? Out of all the billions of people in the world, why chose a girl with learning difficulties who lived in poverty in Dublin?
“I actually don’t know,” says Byrne. “I’ve asked God and the angels why me -- an ordinary person, uneducated, with learning difficulties. I was considered retarded as a child and I don’t know why God chose me. I give out all the time. They told me to say, ‘Why not you?’”
All right then, they chose her. So what does it look like to see the world through her eyes?
“The first thing I always see is the light of a Guardian Angel behind everyone.” Byrne nods at a young man who is waking toward the hotel’s exit: “I see an angel walking with him. It’s just natural for me to see them.”
Guardian Angels don’t open up completely for her, Byrne explains, because it would be too much.
“They’re brighter than any other angel. If I was walking down the street and the light of everyone’s Guardian Angel was open it would blind me. It would be too much to take in.”
Well now that we know what it looks like, what does it feel like? She looks surprised by the question.
“I’ve never actually thought of this. People always ask me what it looks like. It feels normal because I don’t know anything else,” she replies.
“Sometime you get a sensation or a smell. That would happen sometimes with the soul of my husband (who has passed on). He would come in around and sometimes I would get the smell of smoke because he would smoke cigarettes. But the angels would usually tell me he’s coming in advance.”
Byrne says that when she was a child an angel named Elijah told her that her husband would pass away before they grew old together.
“I said to him, why did you have to tell me that? It was very hard emotionally because the day I first set my eyes on him I was already in love with him, even though I didn’t want him to get the job,” Byrne recalls.
“I was so excited. It was because of what I knew -- that he would become ill. That was heartbreaking because I couldn’t tell him.”
It’s no secret that the Catholic Church is nervous of visionaries, but Byrne says she has never received an order to stop.
“I’ve had priests and nuns coming to me all my life. Just to talk to me. They have said nothing bad about me in the papers and the magazines. They have spoken very highly. I suppose that’s an acceptance in one way.”
It’s not hard to understand Byrne’s growing international celebrity. For her, the great mysteries of life are already answered, it seems. The curtain has been raised and she can see (she claims) what the rest of us just guess at.
“I wouldn’t mind if God took me right now. I would go. Because I know the place we call heaven exists,” she asserts.
“I know God exists, I know the angels exist. I know that every single human being here has a Guardian Angel. The other thing I know is that they all have a soul. So no one actually dies.”
Last year Byrne was a widow living on a widow’s pension. Now she’s making real money, so how has life changed?
“It hasn’t changed. I don’t have to worry about the electricity bill and things like that,” she says.
“I don’t go to parties. I’m not used to socializing because I never did it. Money doesn’t mean the same to me.”
If Byrne sees angels everywhere, isn’t it inevitable, considering the state of the world, that she would also see evil spirits too?
“This is the part that I don’t like talking about. Yes, God did test my faith once,” she confides.
“That was the time he introduced me to Satan, the Devil. (Across the wide coffee table, an elegant lady seated opposite us with a Louis Vuitton shoulder bag overhears this detail and spits into her coffee).
“I’m afraid he does exist. It is so easy for us all to fall into it. If someone hurts you or someone gives you a hard time at work, you can be hard back to them. That’s a person listening to the other side. And not doing the right thing.
“I’m grateful to God because he has never shown me Him sending a soul to Hell. I have always asked not to see that. But I know Hell exists because Satan exists. That evil and badness terrifies me.
“I couldn’t describe it in the book. If I speak of Satan he loves it. So I do my best to avoid it. But he exists. A lot of people are in denial about him and yet they have all the evidence around them.”
Byrne’s expression changes, darkens. “I have to talk about it more and more. I’m being told to talk about it to you. But I do find it hard,” she says.
“I’m experiencing the hurt and the pain that Satan has caused and it’s hurting me. I can’t even hear you now.”
For a moment she disappears into herself. It’s unnerving.
“Even though I felt a certain amount of the hurt and pain that’s in the world, a cloak of God’s angels encircles and shielded me from feeling torn apart. I know humanly I wouldn’t be able to survive it,” Byrne says.
I feel the lashes on my back. “You’re actually the first person I have spoken to this about and that’s because I was just told to. I’m surprised. I have never spoken about it to this extent in front of people.”
But Byrne’s message is to give back hope, to find your faith again. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, she says.
“You have a soul and I won’t give up on any human being in the world. I’ll fight for you. I won’t give up.”
Wondering if Byrne would have a traditional take on controversial issues, I was surprised by her responses. Her take on the crisis in the church is that they forgot their mission.
“They wanted to have the power. I was asked what they should do and I was told they should become like Saint Francis again,” she says.
The controversy over same sex marriage isn’t one that bothers her either.
“I have to smile when people ask this. God already knows before you were even conceived that you were going to be gay or not. I won’t judge,” she offers.
“I have met so many gay men and lesbians and they are such lovely people. We shouldn’t be judging. The world is changing and we have to accept the changes. I haven’t seen God condemn or strike down any gay couple.
“My heart cries when I hear of someone letting in Satan and killing or hurting a gay man or lesbian woman. They’re just listening to the devil.”
Byrne’s message is that’s there’s always hope. Never, ever, give up on others. Fight for them.
“In one way I am an example of faith. When I think of all they taught me. I can’t prove what I’m saying, maybe I am the proof myself.”