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Religion, Spiritualism and Occultism in Irish Literature: Nineteenth Century to the Present

Friday 7 January 2022, 9.30AM to 8 January 2022

‘In 1900 he believed in fairies; that was bad enough; but in 1930 we are confronted with the pitiful, the deplorable spectacle of a grown man preoccupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India’

- W. H Auden’s ‘The Public versus the late Mr William Butler Yeats’, 1939

For the prosecutor in W. H Auden’s ‘The Public versus the late Mr William Butler Yeats’, Yeats’ spiritualism marks him as a man out of time, a relic from an earlier, more superstitious and illiberal age. Yet for the defence, Yeats’s eccentric esoteric beliefs are part of his fierce critique of modern ‘liberal capitalist democracy’ and its ‘mechanical and…unequal civilization’. As these conflicting responses suggest, Yeats’s spiritual and occult preoccupations are multiple and complex, and deploy entangled in wider political, social and cultural currents.

This conference will explore how the Victorian proliferation of interest in spiritualism and the occult shape Irish literature during the nineteenth century and in its aftermath. In Paddy and Mr. Punch (1993), Roy Foster draws out a connection between the threat of decline which the Protestant Ascendancy faced, and a turn towards the occult in Irish Protestant writing. This provides them with a sense of ‘escapism motivated by the threat of a takeover by the Catholic middle class’. His argument is corroborated by Valeria Cavalli in a recent essay — ‘The Cup of Madness: Religious Insanity in A Lost Name’ (2016) — on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, in the context of the Irish Protestant attempt to identify and assert their own sense of place and belonging. Indeed, occult and esoteric explorations inform the works of Irish Protestant writers. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu turns to Swedenborg. So does Yeats, and his work further shows the allure of psychic research and communication in collaboration with his wife as a spirit medium, Georgie.

And while the sense of displacement experienced by Irish Protestants might attune them to arcane theologies, the sweeping political, technological, religious, and social changes in the nineteenth century also open them up to variously ecumenical experiences of faith, and some embrace the very threat of Catholicism. For Bram Stoker, the sacramental power of the crucifix is a powerful tool in warding off evil. Apostasy and myth grow prominent as we move into the twentieth-century and encounter the writings of James Joyce. To Samuel Beckett, everything threatens to vanish into a spiritual void. Iris Murdoch grapples with the concepts of good and evil, but holds that we can no longer view God as an all-powerful, supernatural being. Seamus Heaney views Irish poetry as negotiating two visions, pagan, and Christian, likening the poet to a medieval Celtic scribe.

This conference seeks to explore the intricate patchwork of spiritual and religious practices, occult and esoteric beliefs, and spiritualist endeavours found in Irish literature from the nineteenth century and up to the present. We therefore encourage papers investigating, but not restricted to, the following topics:

  • Religion and secularisation in Ireland 
  • Theology and theological symbolism 
  • Mysticism, occultism, and esotericism 
  • Mediums and parapsychology 
  • Hauntology
  • Ecumenical explorations of faith
  • Spiritism and spiritualism
  • Religion, politics, and history
  • Religious expressions and national identity 
  • Magic and superstitiousness

The symposium is a two-day online event from 7 to 8 January 2022. The full programme is available here: 

Please email the organisers at for Zoom access or with any other questions.


Location: Online via Zoom