Niall MacSiurtain: 'At first my family were very concerned about whether I was joining some sort of cult’
Forget women in black hats cackling around a cauldron – today's followers of paganism are more likely to offer you spiritual healing, says Andrea Smith
Niall MacSiurtain (27), known as Abhainn, is originally from Sligo; his family moved to Leitrim when he was a teenager. He has just completed the first year of a master's degree in English literature at the University of Limerick.
I first started looking into modern witchcraft when I was around 15. I remember getting a copy of Robert Graves's 'The White Goddess' from my local library, after reading online that many Wiccans recommended it to people seeking the craft. I thought it was a bit too wordy, to be honest.
Being so young, there was no hope of a traditional Wiccan coven initiating me, and I also lived quite far away from any listed online. So I resigned myself to working as a solitary witch, and opened up to learning more about Irish traditions and customs – and myself – in the process.
After a while, I began to crave formal training for my spiritual and magical practice and found myself researching a magical group called the Magical Order of the Aurora Aurea, a modern Golden Dawn order founded by author and magician Nick Farrell. Joining MOAA meant travelling abroad for initiation, but I found a home in it.
The Golden Dawn is an initiatory system of magic originally founded in 1888 that uses a blend of Egyptian, Jewish and Neoplatonic influences. It trains and prepares people to work magic as magicians.
At first, my family were very concerned about whether I was joining some sort of cult and what might become of me if I got too involved in it all. They come from an Irish Catholic background, so stepping outside of that was always bound to get people to pause and question things.
For the most part, they've seen me flourish in my chosen life path and even embarking on an academic career.
The way I usually describe myself for convenience is as an existentialist pagan. I do believe there is a divine energy immanent in the world, but I shy away from defining it. Like many other witches and magicians before me, I can hold equal respect for God in a Christian church, Jewish synagogue or elsewhere.
Since I work by myself, I generally wear my everyday clothes, unless it's a sabbat or esbat. The Golden Dawn uses what is called a tau robe with an Egyptian-style headdress, called a nemyss. Together, these symbolise the Egyptian anhk, a symbol of eternity within the tradition.
Each member has a sash with added symbols for the grade into which they are initiated. The sash of the poet WB Yeats, who was a member of the Golden Dawn, is on display in the National Library of Ireland with a sample from the archives there.
I offer, and have done, tarot-card readings from time to time, but usually find that most people prefer a cup of tea.
Magic is a wonderful tool for change, but also very much one to consider as it works on the spiritual as well as the psychological level. I'm hoping to re-launch my university's Pagan Society, but if I get that up and running, it'll be very humanistic in approach.
The people I've met through witchcraft show a side of themselves that really demonstrates their strength, resilience and compassion. The negative side can be some of the harrowing personal stories people have come to me with.
Unlike trained professionals – whom I'd never seek to replace – people who need us often have ways outside of 'office hours', so to speak.
Many pagans are open to ridicule at times, and regarded simply as people lacking substance and into flowery new-ageism. If only people knew the work witches and magicians offer to their communities.
The practice of modern witchcraft can take on a lot of forms, often depending on the witch themselves. Many people think that witchcraft or magic are just about changing one's circumstances, but quite a bit of it is about looking within, which isn't always an easy thing to do.
For me, this means looking to the Irish traditions for hints to becoming a more rounded human being.