Almost a year ago I wrote a blog “The Curious Case of Lorna Byrne”. I expressed my concern that this Dublin born lady would become the greatest religious con artist in Irish history. Not much has changed since. If anything I remain even more concerned about the lady who once claimed to have the power to solicit the Archangel Michael to appear in human form in Mullingar.
The original blog was the product of a weekend of forensic reading of her book Angels in my hair. I intentionally read it devoid of respect for the layers of emotional rhetoric which can render one blind to its bizarre content. I took a pen and paper and wrote down every ludicrous statement uttered within its pages. What I recorded would astound and shock me to the core, so much so, that I spent the next twelve months on her facebook page trying to warn her several thousand fans they were most likely being conned in a most cynical fashion. (mostly in vain but with a few exceptions)
Lorna Byrne’s claims in her book Angels in My Hair include:
Predicting Illness: She claims she can see illness in a body before it is detectable by medical science. She claims she sees greyness of the bones or a moving forward of the heart in her visions. She even claimed to be able to predict the premature death of her future husband and claimed this was predicted by the angel Elijah.
Power of Invisibility: She claims that while working in her father’s garage shop, she witnessed a petty thief steal a cassette. The angels made her invisible so the thief would get away. For some strange reason she claims the angels told her not to tell her father about the theft.
Commanded by god to take the suffering of humans: She claimed that, when she was a child, after nursing a bird of prey back to health, the Archangel Michael, appeared to her and told her that god wishes for her to take the suffering of man as a sacrifice.
Predicting Terrorist Attacks: She claimed the archangel Michael told her that something bad would happen on the week of the Loyalist Dublin bombings and that a friend of a work colleague would be assassinated by the IRA.
Predicting when a terminally ill young girl would die: She claimed that she was told that a sick girl she used to visit would not be around the next time she visited.
Power to usher the Archangel Michael into human form: She claims that while on a holiday in Mullingar she went for a walk in the rural countryside and asked the Archangel Michael to appear in human form. He not only obliges but she claims locals saw him with her as a human and believed him to be a friend of Lorna’s. She claims that when they both reached a part of the road that was covered by thorny bushes, the archangel parted the bushes using miraculous powers so they could get down the lane.
Appearance of the Archangel Michael in feathered form in her garden as her husband Joe laid dying: She claimed the archangel Michael appeared in her garden in physical form and put his feathered arms/wings around her to comfort her.
Prediction of a dead baby case in Maynooth: She claims that the angel Arabia told her a baby had been murdered and abandoned under a bridge in Maynooth. Later that night according to her story, the spirit of the dead baby appeared to her in the shape of a human baby and got into the bed where she and her dying husband slept. She claimed it looked so human she wanted to touch it.
The bizarre and concerning nature of Lorna Byrne’s personality and ambitions is as lengthy as a proverbial infinite piece of string. However this blog is not about Lorna. It is about the media. Sceptics the world over have tried to educate and legislate to attempt to prevent the media from aiding and abetting the growth of these charlatans whether intentionally or due to factors such as journalists lack of critical thinking skills or religious beliefs that deter them from asking the necessary questions or simply falling for the superficial charm of the person they are supposed to be investigating. In some instances it can be for much more sinister reasons. Magical thinking sells. Have you ever seen the back page of a newspaper without a horoscope? Editors and TV anchors that succumb to the temptation to report magic as newsworthy material will achieve a larger profit or get higher ratings than those who don’t. The American television network is largely private and as such is much more profit driven than its Irish or British counterpart. This is one of the reasons why quack psychics such as the late Sylvia Brown get prime-time slots in the US such as interviews with Anderson Cooper on CNN etc. Israeli born Uri Geller used the insatiable profit driven desire of the US media to achieve lifelong fame despite being exposed as a con artist by James Randi. If you were to ask the average US citizen if they knew who James Randi is they would be very unlikely to know. However anyone the wrong side of 35 will have no doubt who Uri Geller is. Even after several failed libel actions, the guru of clocks, spoons and watches had an internationally successful career largely due to the American media. A favourable media, a population that values religion so highly and good old fashioned Uncle Sam styled capitalism make the US the mecca of the religious con artist world. For all these reasons America is a net importer of the world’s best religious con artists. Christina Gallagher took this route and established churches in Florida, Texas, Minnesota and Kansas. It appears Lorna now wishes to do likewise. She has already wooed the Huffington post and has preached that a spiritual revolution is about to take place in the US. She described on a facebook post in 2012 how she saw an angel in the financial district of New York City that she had never seen before. Here is the link to her Huffington Post US manifesto.
It must be said that many con artists and those with conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder become active participants in their own deception. They enjoy the role so much that they start to believe themselves. It may be possible that Lorna believes some of this or equally, she is quite possibly a cold hearted sociopath who doesn’t. However the methods used are incorporated with self-preservation in mind whether they are deliberately lying or harbour extremely narcissistic delusions. Lorna claims she can’t prove that she can detect medical conditions before medical science can or that she has psychic powers as claimed. However we know that you can, as this is how we determine the efficacy of drugs or medical procedures. The problem is she will not consent. This differentiates con artists, narcissists and sociopaths from ordinary credible people who may believe they have psychic abilities or other special powers. Many have taken the James Randi million dollar challenge. The problem though is that the professionals do not. Even worse they may threaten libel action against sceptic groups for even asking them to. The amateur believer will cooperate as they have the foresight to know people will be suspicious of them if they don’t. They have the yearning to be accepted as normal among their peers whereas people like Lorna do not have these social inhibitions. Having delusions or even hallucinations does not necessarily make one psychotic let alone dangerous. It is not that Lorna may be delusional that troubles me. It is the nature of these delusions that is the problem. The fact that the media and culture in general accept this as normal but eccentric is highly problematic as it inevitably leads to victimhood. The media likes to preach an eat your cake and have it approach to the false hope industry as both industries are mutually beneficial.
Lorna may have designs on conquering the lucrative US market but just like a young Irish footballer with dreams of playing in the British premier division, they have to prove their salt at home first. The Irish media has accelerated the growth of Lorna Byrne, some outlets more so than others. I have posted documents relaying my concerns about Lorna to RTE, TV3, the Irish independent and the Irish Times. I received written acknowledgement from RTE, presumably as part of their statutory obligations, but have yet to receive any response from the others.
I am too young to remember if Christina Gallagher was interviewed on the Late Late show. I have tried a google search but as it predates the internet, I am unable to find any useful source of information. We do know that the Late Late show under its current anchor Ryan Tubridy has been the first major TV exposure for the Ballyfermot self-proclaimed Knock visionary Joe Coleman. That same year RTE also broadcast a documentary called Apparitions again featuring Joe Coleman. The lack of questioning and degree of respect offered to this dangerously unhinged individual would lead to hoards of vulnerable faithful travelling to the site in Mayo where Irish Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared in August 1879. On two occasions Coleman would predict the return of the Virgin Mary to the Knock shrine where he said that the sun would roll about in the sky. Consultant Ophthalmologist Dr Donoghue at University College Hospital Galway reported a 500% increase in the incidences of solar retinopathy as a result of Coleman’s proclamations.
I mentioned before how the media courts magical fantasy for ratings. Here is that in action yet again. One has to ask is this suitable for any slot on the national airways let alone on the anchor show of a national station? Apart from the ramifications of promoting lunatics like Coleman to vulnerable people, I find the video itself cringeworthy and does nothing to further my respect toward the RTE chief or Ryan Tubridy.
Firstly this man, although nowhere on the manipulative scale of Lorna Byrne, should never have been interviewed. If the interview had to take place there should have been a sceptic present. The debasement of any sense of broadcasting ethics is largely because the more level headed of the population will not be influenced by people like this. It is the religiously vulnerable and the marginalised or mentally unstable who will be damaged.
Lorna Byrne made her debut appearance on the Late Late show in November 2008 to publicise her book Angels in my hair, the book which I have based my original blog on. Ryan Tubridy was to repeat the mistake again in April 2012 and Lorna Byrne would make yet another appearance. Seeing programmes like this and the inevitable harm that arises from them is what kept James Randi and other sceptics motivated to try bring about a change in culture. I believe both Atheist and moderate religious people alike can both agree that this type of media coverage amounts to the lowest common denominator of sensationalist media drivel. Many of you may believe Lorna to be a harmless deranged simpleton or one who has serious mental health issues. I do not believe her to be harmless and whether or not she is delusional, I believe her to be incredibly manipulative. But let’s take the view Lorna is entirely innocent albeit delusional. It would still amount to the exploitation of her by RTE like a freak show of years gone by. It would still serve no useful purpose other than to entertain the mob at the expense of vulnerable believers who fall for her charm. Here is the youtube link to her 2012 Late Late show appearance.
The programme Seoige sisters that was broadcast on RTE in June 2009 is particularly alarming. Whether a sincere but naïve belief in Lorna on the part of the Galway born sisters or a quest to get the highest ratings, such a programme is a prime example of why we need a radical change in policy when it comes to broadcasting standards. The precedent of these people in Ireland from Christina Gallagher, Anne of direction for our times and Joe Coleman have all resulted in people being financially, emotionally or physically damaged. It is also true that women are more susceptible to this type of scam so it is entirely possible that the two Seoige sisters are very sincere in their regard for Lorna Byrne. However it does not lessen their responsibility and that of the director of programming at RTE to prevent people from being put at risk as much as is practically possible.
Seoige Sisters RTE 2009 youtube link
Lorna Byrne was also featured on RTE’s late night iwitness religious programme as being an authority figure on angels. Later in the blog I will show just how harmful such pseudo-authority figures can be to vulnerable people, as I myself deceive her fans on facebook under my alter ego Mike Byrne.
Despite being a private entity, TV3 have taken a much more responsible approach to Lorna Byrne. Having watched the Ireland AM interview from June 17th 2008 on Lorna’s page, I have a high degree of respect for Mark Cagney. This is the minimum level of scrutiny that someone like Lorna Byrne should be put through. On another occasion in 2012 on the same programme she did not receive sufficient interrogation when interviewed by others. Here is the link to the 2008 Ireland AM interview. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kJLVU3_V8Q
The Irish Independent stands alone as being the worst offender when it comes to the promotion of Lorna Byrne. A google search of the terms “Lorna Byrne Irish Independent” showed 9 articles all definitively promoting her.
In June 2008 Sue Leonard wrote an article that was laced with more than a hint of irony. She wrote
“I went to meet her with a typical journalist’s scepticism — and came away feeling strangely energised”
Sue as someone who is passionate to the core about scepticism. You or most other journalists are simply not sceptics when it comes to miracle claimants. Quite the opposite is true and the reason sceptic organisations exist is largely because journalists who are trained to question in areas such as politics, crime etc. either get manipulated by these people or even worse cynically write a story, as sceptics know that publishers who shamelessly endorse these people will get higher readership. That is not to say that you or the Irish Independent are deliberately employing this tactic. However I can say as a mainstream media outlet you have the worst record by a considerable distance when it comes to the critical evaluation of people who make these claims. Sue if you had a keen journalist’s scepticism why did you not mention the bizarre claims that Lorna made in her book? Presumably you read it before the interview? The reason you have not, if you are being honest, is that you were overcome with emotion when reading it. Emotional rhetoric, sob stories and portrayal of victimhood all supress our ability to think critically and also make us more trusting of the claimant.
Sue you go on to list Lorna’s endorsements.
“Jim Corr, Daniel O’Donnell and Coronation Street’s William Roche have all given her glowing testimonials”.
Sue if you were genuinely showing a typical journalist’s scepticism you would know that you are invoking what psychologists and sceptics term the authority bias. We are more likely to trust perceived figures of authority. By writing as if you were a sceptic you are to be presumed unintentionally encouraging others to perceive you as being an authority figure in this area where you are obviously not. It would not matter if the director of CERN endorsed Lorna. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is not uncommon for individual scientists and medics to hold and proclaim the most ridiculous of beliefs. I have personally met some who have. They are skilled, extremely competent in their work yet hold beliefs that would embarrass a child. Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri is currently believed to be the right hand man of Al Qaeda. In his spare time he is also a physician and has a master’s degree in surgery. You need to familiarise yourself with the term cognitive dissonance (the ability of humans to simultaneously hold conflicting beliefs). Doctors, scientists or journalists are no more equipped to make non evidenced based revelations than the most uneducated of citizens. Extraordinary claims in the absence of evidence are to be ignored whether they come from celebrities, presidents, Kings or commoners. As humans we need to understand that we are intuitively more likely to trust figures of authority for very good evolutionary reasons that predate the scientific method. In past times such figures would have rallied communities together and where belief formed a more unifying function rather than an ability to understand what is real and what isn’t. The greater irony is that you cite Jim Corr as one of Lorna’s faithful. If you had googled his name you would have seen that he has kept many sceptical societies in discussion material. I have just entered his name into google and its predictive text from third down include crazy, illuminate, and new world order. William Roche is not exactly a persona with his feet on level ground either and as for Daniel o Donnell, I would be more than eager to determine what lessons in critical thinking with regard to dubious claims of supernatural ability we could learn from him?
In May 2008 Niamh Horan revealed in the Irish Independent that Lorna accepted the donation of a house from an elderly lady in Kilkenny. Despite the title of the article being “Elderly angel gifts house to author Lorna”, Niamh goes on to state as if it were fact.
“Money isn’t important to Ireland’s most-famous mystic Lorna Byrne, who is talking about the worldwide success of her Angel books. I’m not rich. I never had money so it doesn’t appeal to me the same way as everyone else,” says the author, who is promoting her latest offering A Message of Hope from Angels”.
Niamh how can you state as a matter of fact that money is not important to Lorna Byrne? Has she given you access to her tax records? Have you monitored her movements to ensure money hasn’t gone to off shore accounts in the Cayman Islands? Have you gone with Lorna to every old, sick and vulnerable person she visits and recorded every transactions that took place? How can you be certain she has not buried bars of gold in some remote forest in Ireland? Several Indian gurus lived what appeared to be a frugal lifestyle but were later shown to have amassed millions of dollars and properties. One of the first rules of being a successful religious charlatan is to avoid excessive displays of wealth. Christina Gallagher appeared to be living frugally here too until News of the World reported she had multiple residences in Britain. She was even given charitable status by the Irish revenue service. Had they employed a sceptic they might have been able to put a halt to her tax evasion at a much earlier date. I cannot state as a sceptic that it is entirely financial reward that motivates Lorna either as I do not have access to any of the above information. I have on several occasions raised the fact that her behaviour is incredibly suspicious and concerns me in many different ways, not least that as a person claiming to be on a mission to spread the word about the existence of angels, she is accepting donations. This would be highly controversial in politics: it is even more controversial in this respect given the history of miracle and supernatural claimants. Money isn’t the only thing that motivates miracle claimants though and it is entirely possible that at least some of her motivation may lie elsewhere. As I mentioned earlier narcissists need devotees. This is why this business has more than its fair share and I can see no reason why we should believe anyone who says the things Lorna does. So if money doesn’t concern her perhaps it is the devotion of millions that she is seeking. The history of this business has shown that money and power are indeed the prime motivators. The quest for power is so alluring that many narcissists engage in a high degree of self-deception. Others that don’t actively deceive themselves have found ways of relieving their guilt (If they perceive such emotion in the first place) and justifying their deception of others in terms of arguments such as what’s the harm in giving hope to people? The blunt reality is they are instilling false confidence in emotionally vulnerable and fragile people that they hold supernatural abilities when all the evidence is they don’t. It is deception and it is wrong. Who are you or I to say let her carry on as her victims need to be told lies to keep them happy in their miserable lives? The evidence also shows that such mentally imbalanced people that are capable of lying like this pose a much greater threat to the general public and that is reason enough for sceptics to try and stop them in their tracks. However a media that lacks the requisite degree of scepticism to see through deception or one that actively colludes with the deceivers makes the job of sceptics difficult to virtually impossible. This is precisely why I have put the media in the firing line in this blog.
Despite the highly alarming nature of the last article, the editor of the Irish Independent Claire Grady took the decision to publish several more favourable articles about Lorna, the latest one being published as late as Christmas 2013 in the weekend supplement. Claire I have wrote to you highlighting my concerns about Lorna and have yet to receive a response from you. I am willing to put these lapses of journalistic professionalism down to your team having been seduced by Lorna. However I will not be so generous in my judgement in the future. None of your articles have highlighted the sheer frightening degree of narcissism behind Lorna’s claims or even worse why no one seems to even notice? If you continue to publish insufficiently researched articles in relation to Lorna Byrne I will assume you are being driven by a cynical desire to achieve profit targets and will launch a campaign to boycott your newspaper.
The Irish Times
The Irish Times are the clear winners and deserve a tremendous amount of respect. I could not find a single article in relation to Lorna Byrne on a google search of “Lorna Byrne Irish Times” I have no doubt that their business model is tragically losing money by its commitment to honest newsworthy journalism. If the State is serious about having a properly functioning media, it needs to try to incentivise media outlets that show the highest degrees of journalistic integrity. I sent a letter congratulating the editor of the Irish Times Kevin O Sullivan for this achievement.
Lorna charity and the media
In the spirit of fairness I will acknowledge Lorna Byrne did raise €20,000 for the ISPCC in which she chaired an event with Grainne Seoige at the Gaiety Theatre in 2012. While I was on her facebook page in 2013 she also raised money for the Simon Community and AIDS Partnership Ireland, a religious organisation that works with HIV sufferers in Africa. She claims to donate 10% of the proceeds of her book to charity. Could there be a genuine benevolent side to Lorna? It is certainly a possibility. One other possibility is the use of charity as a business model. To answer such questions would necessitate the asking of further questions such as what would be the net return on investment from being seen to partake in charitable work versus not being involved in any? Would the public face of a charity worker be more immune from attack by sceptics? Can we find evidence that doing charity work is compatible with harbouring a ruthless desire for money and fame? Finally does Lorna have a history of charitable behaviour or community work prior to becoming an internationally successful author?
My reading of Angels in my hair would lead me to believe Lorna has never done any form of meaningful community work if one discounts telling the sick and vulnerable about angels etc. Surely the Archangel Michel would have bestowed the importance of community work. One would not need to be rich to help out at their local St. Vincent De Paul or homeless shelter. It is quite possible she did and if so it would change my opinion of her somewhat. However she has not mentioned any references in the book. I would require evidence of a long standing commitment to voluntary work before fame and fortune met her in order to ease my cynicism somewhat. Even if such evidence were to arise, her claims would still concern me greatly. Such absence of this only compounds my worries about the nature of Lorna’s enterprise.
It is also worth noting that Lorna did not display any mention of charitable work from when I started following her posts on facebook in early 2013 until the latter half of the year. In the few months that would follow, she appeared to do several charitable events in near succession. It could be entirely coincidental that by June 2013 several sceptics including myself had made their views repeatedly known on her page on a daily basis. I looked back to the start of her appearance on facebook in 2009 and could see no references to the donating of the proceeds of any gigs to charity up until mid 2013. Again this does not constitute conclusive evidence of not participating in charity work. It merely begs the question as to why such work was so extensively publicised from June 2013 onwards?
One could also form the opinion that charity work is good for business. It is not just Lorna who declares her love for sick and marginalised children. The McDonalds fast-food company established the charity Ronald McDonald house that donates money to children’s hospitals and organisations. The group organises fund raising activities throughout the year. Lorna may donate the proceeds of some of her events to worthwhile charities, so too does McDonalds. They have a yearly McHappy Day where they donate €1 from the proceeds of every big mac sold to Ronald McDonald House.
Likewise the international charity, the Coca Cola foundation, was established in 1984. Their website declares they have raised $355 million worldwide for worthwhile charities including the setting up of water systems in developing countries. They also engage in outreach and educational programmes for the disadvantaged. If the two largest food and drink companies on the face of the earth can combine charitable work with ambitious profit goals then it is a distinct possibility Lorna may do so also. Why should we acknowledge the charitable work of one business venture without doing the same for all?
“There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” —Former US President George W. Bush, Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 17, 2002
One of my last acts on Lorna Byrnes facebook page would be carried out by my alter ego Mike Byrne. Mike is a fictitious character that is entirely the product of my imagination. He is a pharmacist living in Charlotte, North Carolina. I once visited this city so it sticks out in my mind. His mission would be to get more facebook likes than any of the tributes to one of my all-time heroes Nelson Mandela. Lorna had posted a tribute to the great man and I was about to show how easily vulnerable minds could potentially be manipulated to give more praise to a character, that if real, would almost certainly show sociopathic tendencies.
Mike’s debut post on Lorna’s page would contain a cocktail of psychologically manipulative traits, many that Lorna and others may use as well as some of my own.
1) The authority bias: We are more likely to trust figures of authority. Hence Mike is a senior pharmacist.
2) The social bias: We are more likely to trust people of the same religious or political persuasion or those who have similar traits as ourselves. Hence Mike’s mimicking of the love Lorna’s fans feel for her.
3) The confirmation bias: We are less likely to be sceptical of those who preach the same ideologies we do. Lorna’s fans want to believe so one can openly employ pseudoscience to fake authority. They will not question my pseudoscientific claims. On the contrary it will make them trust me even more.
4) The use of emotional rhetoric: Writing in highly emotive terms reduces the capacity for critical thinking and reinforces trust.
5) Portray the idea of being marginalised and misunderstood. This gains sympathy and as many followers of Lorna fit into this category, they will self-identify with Mike’s persona.
6) The use of callous lies. We rightly abhor callous liars so when we hear someone lie about something highly emotional and sensitive we are more likely to believe them.
7) Finally infuse a toxic potion of false hope.
Sceptics who observe the behaviour of religious charlatans inevitably learn the theory of deception themselves. The theory is not difficult and it works. Mike’s debut post got 5 facebook likes. It may not sound like much but It was posted 2 days after the original post by Lorna. Despite this, it got more likes than almost any tribute to either Nelson Mandela or Lorna at the time of posting. Ironically the responders attacking Cyril’s sceptical posts got most likes of all. More people were likely to hate sceptics than were to either like Lorna, Nelson Mandela or indeed Mike Byrne! The only post that equalled the popularity of Mike Byrne was one of the first tributes to Nelson Mandela by a white South African! 24 hours later and after one girl declaring how brave Mike Byrne was; I emailed everyone who had liked the post to let them know. I also let everyone on the page know that Mike did not exist and that people should find real comfort with their family and friends. Here is his post.
Mike Byrne To all the sceptics out there. Please open your heart to the possibility of an afterlife. I moved to the States when I was ten and one of my closest childhood friends died of cancer last year. She was more religious than me as I’m a pharmacist but the night she passed. I was in the on call room tired and having a cup of coffee and for no reason I started to think of her, as she was in the hospital I worked in for weeks previous. I could sense a calmness come over me and a deep connection with Imelda. Later I found out she had passed about a few minutes before. Please people we all need hope in our lives. We don’t know for certain that death is terminal several conscious anaesthesia cases (including a documented case in the hospital I worked in) exist as well as multiple accounts of near death. experiences as studied by medical professionals. As a senior pharmacist I’m too scared to let people know how I feel about such things but I know one day science and religion will unite. I firmly and passionately believe that both science and religion will evolve as both are imperfect. Life is not random. We are here to love and learn and everything has a meaning.
One can only hope that this blog will help in some small way to foster a degree of scepticism and corporate responsibility when it comes to the media and those peddling dubious supernatural claims. When it comes to Lorna Byrne and the use of emotion, one should certainly not judge a book by its cover.
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