Not long before loyalist leader John McMichael was killed in a car bomb outside his house, he bought a St Bernard pup for his toddler son, Saul.
On the night of the murder in December 1987, Shirley McMichael needed to get something from the car before her husband went to deliver Christmas turkeys to prisoners’ families in Sandy Row.
But she couldn’t find the keys.
“I’d been at the doctor’s that day — I’d had a dread on me for days and wasn’t feeling great,” she recalls. “All the family were over from Scotland for Christmas and I’d to cook for everybody, so John said he’d take Saul out from under my feet.
“I needed to get some wee thing from the car before he went, but the keys were missing. John went to look up at a neighbour’s and I walked up and down the path looking for them in the dark, and then stopped to talk to the paper boy. The next thing the wee dog ran out past me and into the middle of the garden, where the keys were lying, and picked them up in his mouth.
“John came back then and said it was too late to bring Saul and that he’d run on. I came in and lay here on the couch under the window and looked out to see if John was being followed. Saul was standing by the living room door and didn’t the wee dog get hold of his trouser leg by the teeth and start dragging him away from it.
“The next thing — boom! and the door came flying through into the fireplace and the whole thing collapsed. If Saul had been standing there he’d have been killed outright. That gorgeous wee dog saved both me and him that night. I think he might have been an angel or guide — I believe that can come to us in animal form for a short time to protect us.”
Just over 25 years on from that terrible night in which a man seen as a progressive unionist voice was silenced, I’m sitting with his very likeable widow in the same living room, in her terraced house at the top of a low hill in Hilden, Lisburn. At 60, Shirley has peachy skin and a neat figure, laughs easily and sounds like Nell McCafferty without the Derry twang.
She has helped to banish the awful memories of what happened there by creating a peaceful, ethereal atmosphere in the room. A very beautiful and indifferent tawny cat stretches on the sofa in front of the cosy coal fire, and the late afternoon sunlight glints off the silvery blue wallpaper and the various brass Buddhas and Sun God and moon symbols that reflect Shirley’s pagan beliefs.
Most striking of all is a framed photograph of a very boyishly good-looking John McMichael at 37. He and Shirley were together for six and a half years before he died.
“That’s a very personal picture for me,” she says quietly. “It’s funny to look back at how young he was then. I still love him to pieces. I’ve never been out with anyone else in 25 years. He was the love of my life, not that other oul’ one (her first husband).
“John and I were a good match. But I’ve never sat down and said ‘poor me’, because death is part of life. I do think we’ll be reunited at some point — the way I look at it, we’re all droplets of a big divine ocean that we all return to after death.”
Their son Saul lives around the corner and has borrowed his mum’s car for the day. He plays in a signed Celtic Pagan band, Waylander.
“I sent him to Friends School (a Quaker school in Lisburn) which is what John would’ve wanted. He was always open to new ideas and he listened to everybody, no matter where they came from.
“I was very much into loyalism when we met, but we all grow a bit. There was never hate there; I always had Catholic friends and John was very keen on debating and chatting with them.”
Shirley would have had a much bigger family if it wasn’t for a series of miscarriages she suffered, as well as a stillbirth, on the Easter before John was killed. It was the beginning of a year of tragedy for her.
“We’d been in Cyprus on holiday. We were living here under real pressure and constant threat, and the police would be dragging John out at all times of the night and not being very pleasant about it, so stress might have been a factor in losing the child.
“We knew the child would be stillborn but she came quickly, after 34 weeks. In the hospital I felt the baby coming. I was on my own. I looked down and the cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck. It was an awful trauma, but I never had a chance to mourn her.”
No counselling was offered to Shirley. Six months later John was murdered by the IRA with the suspected help of UDA members, and the following year Shirley’s father died of cancer.
“It was three big incidents in a row. I never really got to say goodbye to the baby girl because there was no burial. It all came back to me about five years ago and hit me hard. I felt this terrible guilt — guilty that I hadn’t honoured this little soul.
“So I did a little personal ceremony here, on the floor, and just cried and cried. The child deserved the tears.”
Shirley also planted a tree for the child, and credits Paganism for helping her to come to terms with her loss, and also with the attempted sexual abuse by her grandfather when she was a child.
“He was nasty old get — a scary big man with a big nose. He’d hit Granny and one day when she was out he grabbed me in and tried to put his hands down my pants, but I got away.
“It annoyed me for years but through Paganism I got connected with my spirit group on the other side and they helped me to come to terms with it and learn lessons from it.”
Did she forgive him?
“No! I still say he’s an oul sh**e! But I did a healing ceremony to send him flowers and love. It’s important to send healing to anyone who has hurt you because you heal yourself in the process.”
Instead of political debates, these days Shirley hosts meetings of her Pagan group, which includes a barrister, an artist, a woman with long red hair and flowing dresses who likes to think of herself as a Celtic goddess, and “a gay friend”. On the recent full moon, they burned fragrant herbs over a fire pit to “send healing” to the universe. She attends similar events at Halloween in the Mournes and
Struell Wells. There’s nothing spooky about it, by the sounds of it. Tea-light candles are floated on a stream at midnight and twigs and leaves and pumpkins are arranged in harmless nature-honouring rituals and ceremonies designed to “send healing to our ancestors, the blood line we carry with us”.
The ‘spirit group’ Shirley refers to includes her late mother, aunt and mother-in-law, all of whom she feels she has connected to, through her friend, the blind psychic Sharon O’Neill.
“I’ve no time for these charlatans who charge people a fortune to contact the dead on tap, but I do think some psychics like Sharon do have a gift. She did a wee reading for me out of the blue one time at a Summer Solstice and my Aunt Lil came through. She was old-fashioned and was cross with me for getting divorced from my first husband, and was cold to me the last time I met her on the street. I was hurt. Anyway, she came through and told Sharon to tell me she was ‘really sorry the way she left things.’
“Then my mother-in-law came though — Sharon got her name right and said that she was sitting in front of a big spread of sweets on a table, saying ‘Tell Shirley I can eat all the sweets I want now’. Sharon had no idea that my mother-in-law had been a diabetic and that I used to buy special diabetic sweets for her.
“I can’t explain that; the important thing is to keep your mind open. There’s more to life than what we can see physically.”
What would John have made of all this?
“He would’ve been supportive of my Paganism. He was very into Celtic mythology and legends and he reawakened my interest in them. He used to say we’d become far too English since partition and banished all our leprechauns and lost our own rich heritage. I certainly identify far more with the Scots and Welsh — the Celts. We’re all a mixture of British and Irish here.
“I’m very pro-Irish language — it’s not a republican language — it’s unionist too!”
Shirley was brought up in the Church of Ireland. Although her parents were not church-goers, she attended Sunday School. When the Troubles began, Shirley’s interests became more political.
“The Goddess went to sleep in NI for those years,” she smiles. “What really awakened me was Sixties feminism. I started asking where were the women in religion? It seemed to be all Eve’s fault we could get nowhere, we had to be submissive like Ruth in the Bible.
“And at least Sinn Fein and the republicans brought the women in, but the loyalists didn’t. Then after John died I had more time on my own to think about religion and embrace it. I put aside all the dogma and realised Paganism was the best path for me.
“There’s nothing scary about it. One of the things I like most about it is that you can connect to the Divine yourself, with no intermediaries. It gives you more sense of place, more control over your own spirituality. You live on your own terms, by your own moral code. You don’t need to go by anything written 2,000 years ago that’s been reinterpreted and distorted, like the Bible and the Koran.”
For the past 13 years Shirley has served as a Community Engagement Worker on the Policing Board, and is the only member so far of the Police Pagan Association in NI. She was a lab technician in her youth and later worked in marketing in Gallaghers. She took five years off after John died, then joined Gingerbread and Extern. She was also part of the NI Victims Forum, “an amazing experience”, where she “made great friends on both sides”.
Since the 25th anniversary of John’s death last December, Shirley has been contacted through Facebook by loyalists of all ages cu
rious about her Paganism. It’s all about people exploring their spirituality, that’s all.
“Pagans get stereotyped. Pagans are normal, but we are curious. We’re on spiritual journey; we’re not here to live in a veil of tears. We believe in grabbing life and being happy.”
Paganism involves guided meditation, though which Shirley believes she has connected to her grandmother and her mother, who died two years ago.
“It was six months after my mother died and in the meditation I had a vision of a cottage in the woods and my grandmother was there. It was so real and vivid, a lovely feeling. She told me she would always be there for me.
“Then last May in Glastonbury, at the Chalice Wells Gardens at 7.30am one morning, there was this wee robin on an ornate archway and it hopped to the well, and I felt my mother’s presence so strongly. My sister and I always associated Mum with a robin, she loved them. I closed my eyes and heard the wee bird singing, and when I opened my eyes it was sitting on a branch looking at me, and I thought ‘My Mum’s here’.”
Shirley would like to spread the Pagan message throughout Ireland and is setting up a website. She’d like to see more women in politics — and hasn’t ruled out a possible political role for herself.
“Who knows? If it’s meant to be, it will all fall into place. Trust in the universe, that’s what I say.”