Shamanism: We tried a session with Irish practioners of the ancient practice

As shamanism grows in popularity, Rita de Brún tries a session with Irish practioners of the ancient practice
Shamanism: We tried a session with Irish practioners of the ancient practice

Gwyneth Paltrow is never short of media coverage. Yet, manicured eyebrows were raised when it emerged that at her website’s first wellness summit in June, her Goop brand’s resident shaman played a central healing role.

Given that interest in shamanic healing is now officially fashionable among the celebrity set, we shouldn’t have been surprised when British singer-songwriter and Strictly Come Dancing drop-out, Will Young, recently announced that he had sought the help of a shaman for porn addiction. But we were, and when he announced that he wouldn’t talk about the process because it was “beyond words”, we were intrigued.

As a centuries old art form, shamanism has its roots in indigenous cultures, and has long been linked with revelation, concealment and mystery.

For Cork-based shaman, Barbara Hess, shamanism is a nurturing, curative tradition, one she has been practising for the past ten years, having first stumbled upon it 15 years ago, when she received shamanic healing for issues that arose following the death of her twin sister. The healing had a profoundly positive impact on her, and today she provides shamanic services described as emotional healing, soul- retrievals, house-clearings and more to a bevy of loyal clients.

John Cantwell and Karen Ward are co-founders of Slí An Chroí Shamanism. Like Hess, they don’t describe themselves as shamans, but they are that.

John Cantwell and Karen Ward
John Cantwell and Karen Ward

As for what it’s all about, Cantwell says: “It’s rooted in nature and the legacy of our ancestors who lived in the closest harmony with the natural cycles of energy throughout the seasons. It’s an ever unfolding wisdom tradition; a path of realizing one’s authentic truth, healing wounds and living a life of destiny and freedom. It is humanity’s oldest and most progressive way for natural soulful empowerment.”

For all that it is, shamanism is not a religion; which is possibly why Cantwell and Ward have noticed an upsurge of interest in it amongst 20-25-year-olds in the past five years. Hess agrees: “For whatever the reason, demand for shamanic healing in Cork has never been greater.”

There are more than 1,200 trained shamans in Ireland today. This may surprise many given that shamanism is typically linked with blood-sacrifice, trance and nudity.

Unwillingness to dance naked in circles under starry skies is neither a deal-breaker nor an issue for wannabe shamans.

“We facilitate and do not impose anything that is not already within,” says Cantwell somewhat mysteriously, and I get the impression that there’s a fair to middling chance that even the most repressed amongst us may cast off our inhibitions along with our lingerie or long johns, if the wild spirit of the ancestors is awakened within us, by the methodical beat of a shamanic bodhrán.

As for what’s ‘out there’, as in shocking in the field of shamanism, that depends on the culture. Most of us might balk at the sight of avian blood being spilled by a tranced-out shaman in far-away lands, and I was glad when Cantwell assured me that he has come across no blood sacrifice in ‘modern shamanic contexts’ at home or abroad.

While his words were reassuring on one level,, the linking of the words ‘modern’ and ‘shamanic’ in that context was to me somewhat oxymoronic, but then I don’t pretend to be familiar with the process, and in truth I don’t think he was playing with words to conceal a covert tradition of blood-sacrificing among the doubtless kind and decent shamanic healers of Ireland.

But whereas the spilling of innocent animal blood, avian or otherwise, should rightly upset us all, you’d be wrong in assuming that Irish women would be adverse to offering their menstrual blood to Mother Earth, or would recoil at the idea of awakening their full sexual power from the ancient Celtic goddess Síle of the Vulva (yes, you read that correctly), whose image is apparently carved into many sacred sites in Ireland.

Karen Ward’s Moon Mná Women’s Celtic Circle hosts such gatherings and promotes links between “like-minded women”, and it’s worth bearing in mind that that Circle’s page on the website echoes demand for these endeavours by Irish women who deem them dandy indeed.

The retrieval of souls and parts of lost souls is part of a shaman’s job. In the process, spirits both good and bad may be met. As a seasoned, well-trained shaman, Cantwell seems unfazed at the prospect. “As in all life, there’s light and dark; what is regarded as luminous and in shadow. All energies, whether light or heavy, are seeking attachment and growth. We dissolve the tension and drama around severely negative or heavy energies by holding the maxim that ‘All energies are trying to make a living.’”

To find out more, I popped along to a Slí an Chroí One Day Introduction to Shamanism course. I was one of a dozen or so women who showed up. All strangers. All curious. A lovely crew.

I was expecting weirdness, but that wasn’t the vibe. Ward met us at the door. A pale-skinned redhead, she exudes the feminine radiance of a satiated woman. Cantwell sports a tan, earrings, and an impressive man-bun. He talks of her with a definite reverence. She talks of him as one soulmate does of another.

Personable, well-educated and well-spoken, they bust the myth that shamans are necessarily scary. Still, I had no difficulty imagining them, long hair worn loose, ecstatically conducting shamanic ceremonies and rituals of an enigmatic kind, beneath moonlit brightened skies.

While Ward went off filming, the rest of us sat in circle; something I haven’t done since I was a Brownie. With Cantwell leading the day, there was much shared laughter among the group, and even though we began as a pretty diverse and eclectic gang of strangers, so clan-like was the vibe that some shed tears along with the weight of long- repressed and poignant revelations as the day wore on.

There was an openness among us that reflected the feeling that we were in a healing space, one in which newly realised truths and fresh goals could be revealed without fear of judgment or anything else.

For sure there was strangeness. Rituals involving bunches of fresh rosemary, fire, stones, and the passing from one to another of what looked like a long, gnarled walking stick saw to that. But for all the oddness of the rituals, the ambience was surprisingly nurturing and feel-good, and the circle felt like a safe, restorative space.

As for what it’s all about, the secrets were never going to be revealed in one day. But a love and respect for the Earth and our ancestors’ traditions were central, as was the healing process.

As for us novice participants, wrapped in individual blanket-style ‘nests’ we lay side-by-side in circle in a dimly-lit room.

There, eyes closed, we were lulled into trance so deep by our shaman’s soulful drumming that we went journeying in our minds.

Through mountain-lanes I was accompanied first by a fox, then by a chestnut-coloured horse with a long blonde mane. I watched this scene from a height as in, I could see it in my mind’s eye, unfolding beneath me; short-sightedness clearly not being an issue on shamanic journeys.

Then came a magnificently antlered stag. He accompanied me along a gentle incline to a hill top clearing where we were met by someone who matters a lot to me. We were both wearing full-length cloaks with hoods up. Words were neither exchanged nor necessary. But standing face-to-face I felt a knowing, one that brought me a sense of peace, of the sort for which I had been searching for a while.


More in this section