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My Irish grandmother, Margaret McCaffrey, was a psychic. “Pooh! Not possible,” you say. Maybe, maybe not, but here’s the story. You be the judge.
One fine May week when Dad was in first grade, his class was scheduled to have a picnic on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. At the time, the family was living in Montreal, Quebec. Like many Irish women, Dad’s mother was very religious and especially devoted to the Virgin Mary. Her church of choice was Notre Dame de Bon Secours (Our Lady of Good Help) down by the wharf in the oldest part of town.
The church has been standing in that spot for more than two hundred years. It’s small but breathtakingly beautiful. Dedicated to the Virgin Mother, every stained glass window depicts a scene from her life. Behind the altar, there’s a huge painting of Mary’s Assumption into heaven. Atop the bell tower, there’s a golden statue of the Virgin as Star of the Sea. She is supported by cherubs and has her arms outstretched to the river, Eastern Canada’s Gateway to the Sea, blessing the ships as they sailed away to foreign ports and welcoming the mariners home safely again. Inside the church, interspersed among the chandeliers, hang miniature replicas of ships that plied the world’s waters, all built by sailors in gratitude for Mary’s protection on their voyages.
Grandma McCaffrey attended Mass at Notre Dame de Bon Secours every day and on each visit she lit a candle praying that her family would always be guarded by the Virgin Mother. On the night before Dad was scheduled to attend the school picnic, Grandma dreamed that the Virgin’s statue on the bell tower shook her head from side to side. Taking this to mean ‘no,’ Grandma did not let my dad join his classmates for the outing. The boat carrying the children capsized in the middle of the St. Lawrence and all aboard drowned in the icy waters. It remains one of Canada’s worst school tragedies.
Margaret McCaffrey wasn’t the only psychic in Dad’s family. His sister Violet was quite tuned in to ESP as well. I will never forget sitting spellbound at Aunt Vi’s tiny kitchen table while she read my tea leaves and told my fortune with playing cards. Dad read cards too, as did his oldest sister Mary whose daughter became a well-known astrologer.
Pooh-pooh all this psychic stuff if you will, but the Irish tradition of divination is as old as the hills of Ireland herself. Druid shamans used Oghams, line carvings usually on lengths of yew wood, that were employed to augur future events or seek insight into situations.
The origin of the Ogham lines is murky. According to legend, the Celtic god of light and enlightenment, Oghma Grianaineach (the Sun Face), invented the Ogham lines as a means whereby mortals might communicate with the Divine through a set of sacred symbols. The tale is similar to the Norse god Odin’s invention of the Viking Runes, which may have had some influence on the Irish tradition.
The 9th century Irish epic Tochmarc Etain (The Wooing of Etain) tells that Mider, a hero of the Tuatha de Danaan fairy folk, kidnapped the beautiful but mortal Queen Etain from King Eochaid. Though he searched high and low, the king had no luck finding his beloved until a Druid’s services were enlisted. “The King sent to every part of Ireland for news of Etain, but his messengers all came back without having been able to find her. At last a Druid named Dallan learned, by means of ogams carved upon wands of yew, that she was hidden under Mider’s sidh [fairy mound] of Bri Leith…”
Unlike Europe’s Tarot cards, China’s I Ching, and the Viking Runes, all of which correspond to a wide spectrum of natural phenomena and human behaviorisms, Oghams are unique in that, almost exclusively, they represent particular types of trees, the royalty of the plant world. That the Irish should fixate on trees as their means of communicating with the invisible Divine is not surprising. Until the 16th century when England decimated Ireland’s forests to build an armada, the island was home to vast swaths of dense woodlands.
The Ogham meanings are drawn from trees’ natural properties. The mighty oak, which can withstand even gale force winds, symbolizes kingly power. The rowan’s berries bear a five-pointed star that since ancient times has been believed to protect one from malicious enchantments. The yew, whose drooping branches can take root and form new trees where they touch the ground, represents regeneration. Holly, which can withstand a direct lightning strike, imparts protection to home and hearth. Anyone interested in investigating this ancient Irish system of divination further, can find complete meanings in the book Ogham: The Celtic Oracle of the Trees or The Celtic Tree Oracle, a set of cards and reference text.
How tea leaves came to be used as an Irish divination device has much more modern roots. While the custom of drinking tea dates back to the 3rd millennium BC in China, the beverage did not reach Europe until the 16th century AD when Portuguese and Dutch traders brought the beverage from the Far East. England’s involvement in China and India led to the British East India Company acquiring a monopoly on the tea trade in 1832, making tea the most popular drink not only in England but also Ireland by virtue of the Anglo-aristocracy that had settled on the island.