'I see spirits several times a day... people who have died, but come back for a reason'
Ahead of today's talk at the Hilton Hotel in Belfast, hosted by UTV's Frank Mitchell, international bestselling writer Lorna Byrne tells Una Brankin how angels comfort the bereaved and help us celebrate Christmas
Specially drafted-in Christmas angels are already out in force, showering the Earth with feelgood globes of illumination, according to Lorna Byrne. "I could see them above the buildings as I came here to meet you," she says, matter-of-factly. "They are enormous spirals of light and different from guardian angels; I only see them at this time of the year.
"They carry balls of light, of love, and they sprinkle it down on us. That's the only way I can describe it. I have no idea why I can see them and others can't. I am dyslexic and uneducated and have never read a book.
"I have to dictate my books into the computer. The only education I have is the education that God and his angels have given me, but that education is not recognised in this world."
The picturesque image of Dublin's Georgian Baggot Street, painted by the tiny Irish mystic, naturally stretches credibility, even for many religious people.
But her hundreds of thousands of followers all over the world have no difficulty with it.
Her number one best-selling debut Angels In My Hair (2008) was bought for six figures by the American publishers of The Da Vinci Code and translated into 30 languages.
The memoir, and her subsequent three books, have been published in 50 countries, and in March this year she signed a three-book deal with her London publisher Coronet, which is to include The Way Of The Angels - a follow-up to Angels In My Hair - to be published next year, as well as a book on prayer and a collection of children's stories.
In the meantime the Kilkenny-based widow's new book, The Year With The Angels, is a beautifully illustrated self-help manual aiming to assist readers in recognising their spiritual side through the different seasons of the year. "Life is not just about work, hurrying and deadlines," she says quietly. "We need to stop for a moment and see the beauty in people around us and allow the goodness of people to penetrate our lives.
"We need time, especially at Christmas, to sit down and have a relaxed conversation with family and friends, with people we may not know well, and sometimes with complete strangers," she says.
"We need to make the time to realise how lucky we are to be alive."
It's a well-worn message, but she certainly imparts it earnestly, at the behest, she insists, of the angels. We're about to have a very fancy lunch in Dublin's l'Ecrivain restaurant, in the company of the co-proprietor, and she and I prepare to tuck in without a thought for saying grace.
Lorna interjects with a secular line of thanksgiving for the meal, spoken so softly that no one feels awkward, and we go on to savour every bite and share the desserts.
Throughout, the eyes of the guest of honour often appear not to be on us, but on something we can't see.
When she does fix you with her gaze, it's ethereal and seemingly all-seeing - "spooky", as the Michelin-starred chef noted afterwards.
She explains what she's looking at: tall columns of pure light behind each of us. Our guardian angels, in other words.
"They can appear in human form, but it is just a disguise to make them less frightening," she explains.
"They don't always have wings, as such, but sometimes the light opens up and I can see a silhouette in the most beautiful colours, and, yes, sometimes golden and silver feathers.
"The important thing is that they are always with us and never leave us. Nobody dies alone. Your guardian angel takes your soul back to God. I saw my husband's angel take his soul in its arms when he died and bring him up to Heaven."
To a cynic it all sounds bonkers, of course, but the Irish woman isn't the first non-saint to have written of seeing the celestial beings.
Poets from William Blake to Rainer Maria Rilke, the celebrated German intellectual, described their experiences vividly.
Rilke saw his guardian angel as a strong, still, radiant, a pure divider "between the Here and There".
Blake saw them mingling with oblivious agricultural workers in a hay field outside London, and in a tree: their luminous wings "bespangled every bough like stars".
Various visual artists and actors, such as Denzel Washington and Gemma Arterton, have also spoken of their sightings. Lorna's experience is different, in that she says she is in constant communication with all sorts of angels - her own guardian angel, mine, yours, archangels, teaching angels, healing angels - the list goes on. Furthermore, her visions include the souls of the departed.
Our warm host at L'Ecrivain, Sallyanne Clarke, lost her much cherished 16-year-old son at Christmas four years ago when he took his own life, inexplicably and without any warning.
This is a very difficult time of year for the family, and Lorna acknowledges how tough it is for Sallyanne.
"He is around you all the time, you know that," she says, barely audible in the bustling dining room.
"He came up to the table with the waiter when he was bringing the wine to us.
"He was smiling and said it was his, for some reason. I don't know why but I know he is happy and that he is at peace."
Sallyanne blinks back the tears. I'm speechless. The wine she'd chosen, in advance, is a favourite of hers, a lovely rosé called - wait for it - Whispering Angel.
That's how she thinks of her lost son, although Lorna explains that souls and angels are two separate entities, and that our departed loved ones cannot become angels, as such.
Our souls, she asserts, are sparks of the divine light that is God, satellites of the mother-ship to which we return when we die, whereas angels are messengers and guides.
And some souls - including Lorna's husband Joe - are allowed to return to Earth to comfort their loved ones, even if they can't be seen, she claims.
"I see spirits several times on most days - people who have died and gone to Heaven and have come back momentarily for a particular reason," she says casually, with no fear of ridicule.
"Many people can feel the presence of a loved one who has died near them. Your guardian angel lets this spirit in to give you support or advise you, particularly at times when you need help. That spirit is there briefly to help you, and then it returns to Heaven.
"Occasionally, you might even be allowed to see that spirit briefly. When I see a spirit, I am shown a faint human form, with light radiating from it.
"Sometimes they will give the appearance of the age they were when they died, and sometimes they may show themselves in their prime.
"I see them around loved ones, talking into their ear or touching their arm in support.
"Occasionally, like here in the restaurant, I will see a spirit sitting beside someone to give then support and comfort. It's strange, but it may seem it is easier for us to feel the presence of a spirit than the presence of our guardian angel, or another angel."
I'm busy imagining l'Ecrivain full of ghosts and shards of angelic light. Graveyards are full of the latter, too, especially at funerals, according to Lorna. Whatever your beliefs, her advice for the bereaved is comforting, especially at Christmas time.
As she says: "If you feel the presence of the one you love who has died, don't doubt it. Frequently when someone dies, their soul will come back accompanied by angels to help those left behind.
"Sometimes people are so numbed by grief that they feel they have lost all touch with the person who has died. When this happens, the angels and the spirit of the person who has died may make contact via someone else. It might be another family member, or it could be a complete stranger. Somebody may give you their favourite flowers, hum their favourite music or say something that sounds exactly like what they would have said.
"When this happens, don't doubt that it is your loved one trying to comfort you from the other side. Don't dismiss - as many do - precious moments as imagination."
Duly comforted, our host tops up the wine glasses and the conversation returns to the wonderful food. It's easy to scoff but, one-on-one, Lorna is plausible and well-meaning. She leads a simple, no frills existence at a farmhouse in Kilkenny bequeathed to her, and channels a generous percentage of her earnings into charitable organisations working to help children affected by war, environmental disaster, poverty and illness.
Describing herself as a peace ambassador, she invited Belfast-born Nobel Laureate Betty Williams, of the Peace People, to an event in New York to help promote peace between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims and, in 2011, she received the World Harmony Run Torch Bearer Award for inspiring communities through her life and deeds.
"I've been guided by God and the angels to help transform the world into a more loving place," she concludes. "My aim is to promote peace and to help the world achieve it, and to give hope to people. I get contacted by loads of people - and children - through social media and the website, telling me that my books gave them back hope in their lives. That's why I write the books. Those messages mean so much to me."
Lorna Byrne In Conversation With Frank Mitchell takes place at the Hilton Belfast Hotel today at 1pm. Tickets (£20) from www.bit.ly/LornaByrneBelfast. Proceeds in aid of the Lorna Byrne Children's Foundation's three chosen children's charities - Unicef Ireland (www.unicef.ie), APA - A Partnership with Africa (www.apa.ie) and Blue Box (www.bluebox.ie). Lorna Byrne's new book, The Year With The Angels (Coronet, £9.99), is available from all good bookshops and Amazon