Widow of UDA leader: I'm spellbound by pagan way of life
All witches are pagans, but not all pagans are witches.
So Shirley McMichael explained patiently when asked if she was a member of a coven of witches.
The Policing Board worker, who lost her UDA leader husband in an IRA attack, has spoken about her strong beliefs and spirituality for the first time to the Belfast Telegraph.
The widow described herself as a pagan rather than a witch — although she does have a small ceremonial broomstick, a wand and casts spells.
“Wicca (witchcraft) is more structured than our Pagan Voice group but we have quite a lot in common” she said.
For Mrs McMichael, paganism — the worship of natural forces often personified as a god and goddess — is a way of being in tune with the environment.
The 60-year-old was raised in the Church of Ireland but said “I think I was always a pagan”, and recalled her mother thanking water spirits when her brother survived a fall near the River Lagan.
She also sees paganism, witchcraft and shamanism offering women more equality and respect than other religions.
The mother said that even as a teenager in the 1960s “I couldn’t reconcile the way women were, and still are, treated in religion”.
“I also started to question why the three major religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam were from the Middle East, a place I felt no connection with,” she added.
The breaking point came at a service in memory of her husband, the UDA chief killed by an IRA under-car booby-trap bomb outside his Lisburn home in December 1987.
“I think the preacher was Free Presbyterian, but it was a real eye-opener... hellfire preaching and you must be born again... John never agreed with any of that,” she said.
It took 10 years of research and thought before she formally joined a pagan group, of which she is now ‘crone’, or the oldest female member.
She writes ceremonies for the group, such as a naming ceremony for a baby held last weekend in Londonderry.
Like witches, most pagans celebrate eight main sabbats a year. They are celebrated fully clothed, in the case of her group, though some others “work sky-clad” or naked.
A favourite spot for pagan ceremonies is Strule Wells near Downpatrick.
She believes “you can feel very positive energies” there, and even see orbs of light arising when the magic circle in which the ceremony is carried out is formed.
Paganism comes from the Latin paganus, or countryman, and refers to nature worship in remote areas. The modern version seems more like new age spirituality, with bits borrowed from yoga and angel workshops, than a primitive fertility cult or black magic.
“We aren’t dogmatic,” she explained. Some believe in angels and most practice guided meditations, or shamanic journeys.
“We aim to help people or resolve problems,” the community engagement worker added.
Shirley McMichael (60) is community engagement worker with the Policing Board. She believes she is the only member of the Police Pagan Association in Northern Ireland, though the UK-wide body, which supplies pagan chaplains to some other forces, plans to expand here.
Shirley is also the widow of John McMichael, the UDA leader who was killed by an IRA booby-trap bomb outside their home in 1987. She turned to paganism partly to help her come to terms with losing him.