PSYCHIC EPIDEMIOLOGY

by Professor Revilo P. Oliver

June 1986

The periodical "Magill," said to be the most widely circulated fortnightly in Ireland, in its issue for 16 May 1985, reported a symptomatic incident in Asdee, a hamlet not far from Ballybunion in County Kerry.

Ballybunion is a town on the western coast of Ireland, south of the estuary of the Shannon. Tourists who go to County Kerry usually go to the Lakes of Killarney, and few even hear of Ballybunion, although some aged Americans may remember the town that was the terminus of the Listowel & Ballybunion, a unique railway, the highly picturesque and hopelessly impractical product of some inventor's fantasy. Even Asdee may not be entirely unknown in the United States today, since its late parish priest claimed that the hamlet was the home of the ancestors of Jesse James, whom he made a local hero and for the repose of whose soul he celebrated a requiem mass each year.(1) The hamlet now has a Jesse James Tavern and some hope of attracting American tourists.

The wily founder of the most notorious gang of Illuminati, Weishaupt, once rubbed his hands joyfully and exclaimed, "O, marvelous mind of man! What can you not be made to believe?" The fatal human craving to believe the impossible is not by any means limited to religion and politics. If you want a chastening proof of what the human mind can do, procure a copy of Del Schrader's "Jesse James was One of his Names" (Arcadia, California; Santa Anita Press, 1975).Schrader, who describes himself as "a veteran metropolitan newspaperman" and claims to have drawn his data from the "James family archives," which were opened to him by "Jesse James III," describes in 302 pages "the Greatest Cover Up in History by the Famous Outlaw Who Lived 73 Incredible Lives." I can't begin to tell you about the wonderful historical revelations contained in this book, but readers of "Liberty Bell" may be particularly interested in learning that while Jesse James was being Henry Ford in 1922, he smuggled his close personal friend, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, together with latter's bride, Princess Hermine, out of Holland and brought them to West Virginia, having thoughtfully hired a 'double' to take his friend's place in Doorn, Holland, and thus avoid publicity. I purchased Schrader's book soon after it was published on the recommendation of an acquaintance, a graduate of one of the most highly reputed universities, who was agog over its sensational historical revelations. I was puzzled until I learned that my correspondent was a devout Christian. O marvelous mind of man!)

On 14 February, a young Irish girl, Elizabeth Flynn, went into the parish church, St. Mary's, from the adjacent school during her lunch hour to venerate the plaster images of Jesus and the Virgin. She soon emerged to tell her school fellows excitedly that she had seen the statues move. I should have speculated about optical illusions produced by the flickering flames of votive candles in the dim interior of the church or wondered whether the girl was suffering from strabismus, had not "Magill" published a full-page color photograph of Elizabeth. Her round face and brown eyes bore an expression of sly and sleek self-satisfaction, and I thought at once of the pair of adolescent girls who convinced poor old Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that they consorted with fairies and gnomes. (See "Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?," p.8.)

Of the children whom Elizabeth's sensational news brought into the church that noon, only a boy, it seems, saw the plaster Virgin's antics or, perhaps, was as gallant as Tom Sawyer and said he did; but within a few days thirty-six of Elizabeth's classmates were trying to participate in her glory by seeing the image become animated. And soon, some adults were beholding the same manifestation of God's Grace. Then some dunderhead connected the miracle with a scandal that was then agitating the Irish populace and inspiring Irish journalists, three of whom (including a candidate for the Irish parliament) were spurring their typewriters in a race to be the first to publish a highly spiced book on the Kerry Babies. (A teen-age girl is said to have delivered herself of an illegitimate child in a field one night and then to have wrapped her infant in plastic and thrown it into the sea. That brought to notice other clandestine births, some the result of incest.) Amid such moral depravity, a sure sign of the proximate End of Time, what was more likely than that the Mother of God should give her image a few jerks to reassure the Faithful that she was still on the job?

Naturally, children at Ballydesmond (named in honor of the legendary king), aglow with piety and local patriotism, saw an image of the Virgin in their local church emulate her counterpart in Asdee. The latter, not to be outdone, put more zip into her act and even grasped with her plaster hands the hands of a man and then of a woman, and pilgrims hastened to the hamlet to witness more miracles. In such phenomena, it is hard to estimate how much should be attributed to the auto-hypnotic effect of intensely emotional and unreasoning faith and how much to mendacity, vanity, and a pathetic wish to be important for a moment.

The issue of "Magill" that reported these events also stated that the excitement was subsiding, but that was a bad guess. Images of the Virgin began to twitch and shimmy all over southern Ireland, and Irish newspapers had to report every few days that another plaster St. Mary was showing symptoms of St. Vitus's Dance. For some reason, the popularity contest was won by a statue located in a grotto near Ballinspittle, a small village in County Cork, a few miles from the southern shore of Erin. Dr. Kirakowski, a Polish psychologist who teaches at University College in the city of Cork, came to see and, by gum!, he saw the statue move, actually move, and grabbed his rosary in a hurry, but he later said that whether or not the image had in fact jumped for him, he could explain his vision of it psychologically. Other Irish psychologists, who have not seen the statue disport itself, are investigating the psychic perturbations of crowds, but the proprietors of the now prosperous grotto declare that any suggestion that the statue's eccentric behavior is imaginary is "disrespectful to God and his Blessed Mother" and comes from wicked pagans who are trying to frustrate "Mary's plans," although they do not tell us what she has in mind. They quote Pope John Paul II as decreeing that "Science is powerless to prove the existence of God," thus crediting that deity with a distinction that he must share with leprechauns and pixies. It is indubitable that Mary's performances have been a blessing to some of her votaries, especially the innkeepers in Ballinspittle and the energetic fellows who hawk hamburgers, soda pop, and souvenirs to the throngs of simpletons who stand for hours and even days waiting for the image to start jerking, often staring at it through binoculars to be sure of not missing the least tremor.

News of the Hibernian miracles soon reached the United States. On August 15, the "Wall Street Journal" reported on its first page that the True Believers were assembling at the grotto in crowds of fourteen thousand at a time to pray and wait for Mary's statue to have the spasms by which she shows her favor to the more pious of her votaries. A nasty skeptic in Dublin asks,"What's happening to people's minds when they see a statue move?"

The contagion of psychic epidemics among crowds whose minds have been alienated by inculcated superstitions is a well-known phenomenon in "lapsychologie des foules" – pardon the pun – but it is rare that we have an opportunity to trace such an epidemic to its precise and trivial origin. I am sure that Elizabeth Flynn must now look even more sleekly satisfied with herself than she does in the photograph. It is not every little girl who can start an epidemic.

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(1) You should not laugh at Hibernian gullibility. The noted outlaw is the American Robin Hood and the subject of almost incredibly incredible tales that have found numerous believers. They are constantly being improved.