For as long as she can remember, Lorna Byrne, 56, has been talking to angels. As a child she assumed that everyone could see them, but her parents soon became worried by her constant staring into space.
In 1960s Ireland, when every kind of mental and physical disability was shrouded in shame, Byrne’s parents took her staring spells as a sign of mild mental retardation.
But in conversation with the youthful looking author you’ll discover she’s a perfectly normal woman, with one remarkable exception. To her, invisible angels are as real as your own family members.
Although to anyone else that’s an extraordinary claim, Byrne, a native of Co. Dublin balances it out by saying that she also has to deal with the challenges and setbacks of everyday life just like everyone else. What’s hard to take in is that although she doesn’t look or sound odd, her claims are completely amazing.
“The angles told me to call the book 'Angels In My Hair,'” she says, in her matter of fact voice. “They didn’t mean it literally, they just wanted people to know how present they are in our everyday lives. They’re communicating with us all the time, even if we don’t realize it. They never give up on us.”
Nowadays Byrne is overwhelmed with letters asking for help, and her debut book, which is already on top of the bestseller list in Ireland, goes on sale in the U.S. on April 28 and is certain to keep all those letters coming. The growing numbers can only encourage her publishers Doubleday, which brought the world 'The Da Vinci Code' and bought the rights to Byrne’s book for a six-figure sum.
“What I see now is the same thing I did when I was a child. Every single second of the day, whatever people are doing, I always see the beam of light three steps behind every person. But it’s not every time that each and every guardian angel would open up, because that would be too much for me,” she says.
Her own family was the first to be concerned by her unusual behavior when she was a girl, and some of their responses still rankle her. Her parents, and in particular her father, often treated her like she wasn’t worth his time.
“I used to feel hurt and sad about that because I couldn’t tell anyone my secret. I couldn’t tell them why I often stayed silent. I would see their angels, and that kept me separate.”
There were other good reasons to keep what she was seeing to herself, she recalls.
“It was the angels who told me when I was very young that I must keep it a secret and tell nobody. As I got a little older I realized why -- because I was being considered retarded,” Byrne says.
“I also heard my neighbor tell my mother when I was a girl that I was lucky I wasn’t in an institution. All that made me keep the secret.”
Some might wonder if all the enforced isolation might have had something to do with the sudden appearance of angels in Byrne’s childhood, but she denies this. They’re as real as you and I, she insists.
“Back then in Ireland if a child was slow they were marked for the rest of their life. So they wouldn’t include me in anything,” she says.
“But you have to remember I had the greatest playmates ever. They’re they best teachers in the world. Everything I know they taught me.”
Byrne’s book was the subject of a bidding war in the U.S., where it is expected to be a bestseller. Yet the irony is that Byrne herself has dyslexia and cannot read or write well. She recorded her words on to a voice-activated computer, which was later transcribed.
Regardless of how she produced it, you can’t begrudge her the success now – she’s had a hard life, growing up in near poverty in the grim Ballymun and Edenmore council estates in Dublin, then losing her husband Joe early on in life, and living off a widow’s pension that barely kept her family fed and clothed.
So the book isn’t all joy and light, far from it. Nor is it a book of predictions about what’s to come.
“I don’t go out and tell fortunes. It’s not that I don’t know, I just don’t call myself a psychic. Sometimes the angels do tell me things that will happen, but I don’t make predictions or anything like that,” she says.
A more typical example of the help that Byrne gives to people can be found in the help she gave to a childless woman who came to see her.
“She couldn’t have children, but she and her husband desperately wanted to. The doctors ran tests but could find nothing wrong with her. So in her desperation she came to see me,” Byrne recalls.
“She was terrified, she said, because she thought I was a fortune teller, a quack. But her guardian angel told me she would have three children, but that she had a hormone imbalance. I told her to get it checked out, and when she did her issue was resolved. Now she has her three children. She wrote to thank me for my help.”
Byrne can have a clear premonition relating to a person’s imminent death, but she says she would never reveal what she knows.
“I would never tell anyone because that person still has their life to live. If a person comes to me with cancer, for example, I would pray for a remission, and it would be granted sometimes, and I would tell them to live life to the full. One thing that the angels have told me is that I’m dealing with people’s emotions and to be very careful.”
In the 1970s, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Byrne worked in Penney’s Department store in Dublin. She was then in her early twenties.
One day she noticed an angel was gently cradling the young man who worked in the baggage department, although he was completely unaware of what was happening to him. Looking closer, Byrne saw that the angel was unlike any she had ever seen before. It didn’t glow or shine, but it had immense beauty and a deeply compassionate face.
This angel, she was told, was the angel of death, but it wasn’t the terrifying angel from the books and movies -- and this angel was actually working tirelessly to prevent people from dying, not carrying them off.
Byrne understood that the young man she was looking at was in danger of dying soon.
“But imagine if I had gone up and said that to him?” she says. “Would that have made any difference if his life was still going to end? The most important thing was that he continued to live his life as well as he could, and I could tell that the love in his life was so important to him.”
The young man was seeing a Protestant girl in Northern Ireland. Weeks later he was shot dead on a Dublin street. That his death had been foretold was no comfort to Byrne whatsoever, because like her own husband, the man died young.
“At times I don’t know how I got through my husband’s passing,” Byrne says. “I was aware all my life that it was going to happen and that it couldn’t be changed because it was meant to be.
“I find it hard to describe to the emotion. But now that his body has died he’s perfect and there is no more suffering, and that’s a comfort to me.”
A bestseller in the U.S. could change Byrne's life financially, but you get no sense from her that she’s bothered about what it might mean. For Byrne the point is to get the book published so that people can hear her message. “Loads of people are looking for me but I’m just not able to see them. What I’m being told now is that I have to write and give all the possible information I can out there. In a sense the world has to play its part as well,” she says.
“I’m already inundated, I get loads of letters. One of the most common responses I get is that my book has given people back hope, and that’s wonderful.”