Words Emily Carson
Photography George Voronov
We went in search of the people making a living from tarot, astrology and mediumship to find out what it means to forge a career in mysticism in the modern world.
A first tarot reading is an experience filled with trepidation and nervous laughter. This particular table is set, but it’s more like a cheerful Mediterranean restaurant than a surface pregnant with the power of foresight. The deck of choice is a 15th century-style Medieval Scapini deck. It’s decorated with illustrations of period costumes and thrones, dragons and cherubs, holding aloft enormous coins or cowering from gigantic swords. The translations don’t always match the scene. Some morbid figures signal new beginnings. While seemingly innocuous titles like the ‘five of cups’ can signal emotional tantrums, abuse and deep-rooted family anguish.
A tarot reading is like an expedited therapy session. Without owning up to your most corrosive personality traits, the tarot reader zones in and offers at times vague and then precise evaluations about how you might proceed. Some pronouncements feel like boilerplate assertions for people in their 20s: ‘You’re not in your life’ or ‘you’re too self-critical’. There are always some predictions that feel spookily apt.
There’s less and less reason to shell out for a one on one with a fortune teller without any promise of deliverables. FaceApp can tell you what you’ll look like in 40 years time, dating apps can evaluate your romantic prospects and your Fitbit can help predict your likelihood of suffering a cardiac arrest, or at the very least corroborate evidence against your murderer.
But while you’re more likely to find an Instagram ready photo booth at the office Christmas party than a tarot reader, there are parts of Irish society where the occult is alive and thriving. The advent of the Internet has created new networks and opportunities for those in mystical fields, and new age sensibilities have got everyone pocketing a crystal or burning some sage in the hopes of enlightenment or, at the very least, reduced anxiety.
But while you’re more likely to find an Instagram-ready photo booth at the office Christmas party than a tarot reader, there are parts of Irish society where the occult is alive and thriving.
Arcane advisers are no longer confined to velvet curtained back rooms of yore. We went in search of the people making a living from tarot, astrology and mediumship to find out what it means to forge a career in mysticism in the modern world.
We heard stories of astrology charts drawn up for financial investors; readings for clergy members; and, phone calls requesting remote exorcisms and cures. No social class or professional background precluded people from seeking out spiritual guidance, with bankers and lawyers just as likely to reach out as career criminals and refugees. Some non-English speakers even come with translators.
Trish has worked as a tarot reader for more than 30 years, raising her children as a single mother and putting them through school on her unconventional wage. Tucked away in an unassuming suburban estate, her home is an eclectic mix of esoteric prints and card packs, gigantic crystal balls and homemade dream catchers juxtaposed with trite kitchen magnets and the trappings of a conventional homestead.
Her family ran the O’Connor’s Jewellery business in Harold’s Cross where The General staged one of the biggest robberies in the country more than two decades ago. A dying woman who felt Trish would have an interest in tarot cards gifted her with a pack. Trish began teaching herself to read them instinctively, practising alone until people began asking her to read them professionally.
Over the past 30 years Trish has worked around the globe, reading tarot, running a healing centre and even mentoring younger readers. She records her sessions onto an old Roland CD recorder, allowing you take your reading home with you for further dissection.
She reads fast, almost reflexively, frequently reminding the sitter that what she’s describing is ‘in your cards’ rather than inexorable fate, like a disclaimer. For her, tarot seems to be a way of translating the feeling she gets when she’s tuning in to someone, something she can access even when she’s not in a session:
“I can get a sense of somebody very easily but I wouldn’t say ‘oh your granny’s dying and you need to do something about it.’ You can’t do that to somebody, I wouldn’t have the permission to do that.”
Readings aren’t always positive, and tuning in to so many people’s energies can be exhausting. Trish says she used to “carry 50 to 100 people in my head going ‘I hope they’ll be ok, I hope that relationship will work out, I hope the job will work out for that person,’” before taking a counselling course to help both herself and her clients to process what she was learning.
The cards frequently point out affairs, health issues and money problems, but Trish has only had to inform people about their own demise twice.
“One was delighted. It was an older person and they wanted to make sure they didn’t live past 65… she didn’t want to be dependent on anyone. With one woman I gave her a week and she died a week later. She wasn’t sick but she’d had a miserable life.”
These instances place Trish in a position of extreme power, wielding potentially devastating information. But none of her client’s have become belligerent or disrespectful towards her. Instead, she often finds clients arriving with gifts, from the classical bunch of flowers to those who feel compelled to cross her palm with solid silver dollars. Her main issue is people becoming too keen, with one client arriving on her doorstep every day demanding a reading until she had to involve the police.
When it comes to turning people away, it’s this infatuation with readings that tends to be the only thing that will preclude her from taking out her cards. However, she recalls denying a reading to a man who approached her at a convention, as she knew instinctively that he was a paedophile: “I just felt it and I walked away. Two other people refused him as well.”
Reading at everything from clairvoyant conferences to Christmas parties and hen dos she encounters plenty of sceptics, whom she “loves”. The influx of foreign workers into Dublin during the past decade has also given her a remote network that she still reads for over Skype, now that they’ve returned to their home countries.
Now Trish splits her time between Dublin and Spain, letting her clients know when she’s available to meet either in person or virtually. “I do feel I get a respect and people are very grateful,” she says. “Every day I wake up and I’m so grateful for what I do. That’s why I’ll never retire.”
Susan conducts clairvoyant and medium readings from the back room of a Crumlin beauty salon. She summons spirits in a small, clinical room, overseen by a set of declarative silver letters spelling out ‘Glam’. It seems a little incongruous, but Susan says it does little to affect the experience, as she’ll often find lights switching on and off autonomously.
“I like those synchronistic things, because it’s almost like they’re confirming what you’re saying is correct,” she says.
Susan remembers feeling different as a child, knowing things that others didn’t and having an instinctive sense of what would happen in the future. She got in trouble for being too direct and for speaking “truthfully” as she puts it.
She describes her childhood as “traumatic” and says it fostered a need for control in her. Her first experiences of reading cards gave her “a bit of a fright because I was right and I’m thinking ‘but how can you be right?’”
She practises under the moniker ‘Diadem’s Light’, a name given to her during a naming ceremony with other clairvoyants that refers to a crown worn by princesses. She has recently taken time off to care for her elderly mother as well as herself in the wake of an MS diagnosis, but is hoping to begin practising more frequently.
Susan works both clairvoyantly, by intuiting the future, and through mediumship, where spirit guides come to her and assist her in her readings. She recently took a course with TV psychic detective Tony Stockwell in the UK and even assists people remotely with invasive spirits in their homes.
Susan doesn’t believe, however, that her vision and opinion is the be all and end all, and rather that her insights are just that: tools to help her customers live better and make better choices within their own lives. She’s disparaging of others in her industry who claim to be gurus.
“I find a lot of people who work in this industry can be very ego-driven. They can be very ‘look what I can do for you’ whereas I would be more like ‘look what you can do for yourself.’”
The nature of her work causes an emotional response in people, from those who feel she might pry into their thoughts to those that think she preys on the emotionally vulnerable.
“[People] would come up to me and start attacking me emotionally and verbally,” she says. “They think I know everything, and I don’t, they think I’m reading their minds and I don’t, saying: ‘you shouldn’t be doing that, preying on people’ and I don’t prey on people. I don’t take advantage of people because I know what that feels like.”
Susan’s work is about offering people solace and hope. People come to her looking for light at the end of the tunnel or simply looking for insight into their futures.
Susan believes that the spirit world helps her commune with those that have passed over and that her clairvoyance can divine everything from physical ailments to personality traits but she’s adamant that her role is less that of a problem solver and more of a problem seer:
“I can’t fix anyone. It’s hard enough to fix myself and I haven’t even succeeded yet.”
For relationship astrologers Margaret Gray and Armand Diaz, their work has the potential to help couples, friends and family members work out their issues before they occur. By mapping out the astrology charts between various interpersonal relationships they can to help their clients better understand one another and anticipate where stresses and difficulties might lie ahead in their lives.
Margaret works out of an unassuming Georgian building where you’d be just as likely to perform a downward dog as an astrological investigation of your life. New York-based Armand Skypes in for dual sessions, offering an alternate perspective on readings for their clients.
When we meet, Armand is having difficulty with his microphone, which Margaret rationalises as ‘mercury in shadow – of course!’ They frequently collaborate on blogs and articles, as well as a web series detailing upcoming astrological events. Armand has even penned several volumes on how astrology can affect personal relationships.
Ahead of a consultation the pair will request the birthday, time and place of birth from prospective clients who then come to find out how their charts connect with one another and where this will lead to supports or weaknesses over the course of a relationship. But Margaret laments that people are unlikely to pay them a visit when it would be most beneficial to them: “before they start a relationship, in the dating phase, instead of waiting until we’re in a major crisis where both people are under a lot of pressure.”
They get clients of all ages and relationship types, but 2017 saw many parents coming to have their charts read in relation to their adult children. They also cited addiction as one of the main stressors they saw time and again in their consultations, and even parents requesting information on their children’s sexuality via the charts in order to reinforce their homophobic behaviour or beliefs.
“Things like sexuality and gender aren’t in charts, you don’t know if a chart is male or female or a trans person,” says Margaret. “What is in charts though, regardless of sexuality, is how we relate together.”
Where relationship astrology really seems to benefit their clients is in the way it renders typically intimate information impersonal, taking the sting out of an astute characterisation:
“[We’re] talking in terms of the moon: your emotions, or mercury: communication. So it becomes your mercury and his or her mercury and it depersonalises it from say ‘well actually you never listen to each other’ because you’re saying to somebody ‘your mercuries are very different, how you hear things is very different.’”
For people that might otherwise shy away from putting their emotions under scrutiny this determinism presents a welcome alternative. A transit in Pluto on an airy chart might be an easier scapegoat for your gloom than a personal choice or decision.
Margaret and Armand are certainly evangelical about the potential of astrology to help people make informed decisions about their lives. This year will see them present a one-year certificate course for would-be relationship astrologers to ‘work in a soul-centred way with clients’ as well as continuing their work with an ever-growing roster of clients.
“I think because astrology works,” ruminates Margaret. “People will only pay money for something that works.”
There’s something quite comforting about the fact that unknowable practices such as tarot, astrology and mediumship haven’t suffered extinction in the wake of a data-driven future. Practitioners have put their children through school, sought further education, published books and travelled across the globe to espouse their own particular beliefs and skills.
“It’s not hard because when you really believe, you know it’s true,” says Susan. “Stay with your own truth, I think that’s a strong message and then nobody can push you to the side.”
Listening back to the recordings, it’s interesting to note just how your mind jumps on coincidences and broad assumptions on your character. It’s as if once you’re in, an otherwise cynical mindset becomes willing to gloss over inaccuracies.
A friend pays Trish a visit a few weeks after we meet, and later we listen back to her own personal recording to see how it measures up against my own. There are similarities in her reading of our hopes, fears and creative drive as well as the fact we’re not living in our forever homes, but then the similarities end and Trish’s proclamations seem to crystallise into scarily specific and insightful assertions. They become more urgent, more familiar and more empathetic and there’s one prediction in particular that feels calculable; something we could point to as a proof of concept should it come true and so we’re waiting for it to manifest.