A modern séance and a Dublin medium from history

Ouija Board (Halloween Vectors by Vecteezy).

BY Dermot Carmody

It’s the time of year when we celebrate the supernatural and listen closely for messages from the dead souls who move among us. The ongoing success of The Bram Stoker Festival, which celebrates the Gothic horror of which Stoker, the creator of Dracula, was a master, demonstrates that we are still fascinated and entertained by the scary supernatural.

Dracula was published in 1897 at the height of the late 19th and early 20th century obsession with psychic phenomena and the paranormal. Mediums who were believed to channel communications from the dead were widely popular in Ireland as in other parts of the world.

Many a psychic took to the stage to amaze or hoodwink their audience with apparent knowledge of their dead relatives, and many a respectable drawing room hosted séances, attempts to converses with dead.

This year the Bram Stoker Festival revives this activity in the form of a unique theatrical experience which occurs in total darkness in a 24ft shipping container.

Séance comes from writer Glen Neath and director David Rosenberg, whose company Darkfield creates a unique immersive theatrical experience for audiences of ten to 20 people at a time using binaural sound in complete darkness.

Binaural recording creates realistic 3-D soundscape for the audience, each of whom wears headphones. Séance uses this technique to “bombard” the audience with “suggestible material”. The audience begin to believe there is a person moving around them in the dark, whispering in their ear. And maybe there are entities other than a living human present.

The show explores the psychology of suggestibility, demonstrating that mental states can be affected and emotions evinced using technological trickery, despite the fact that the 2019 audience knows it is artifice and trickery.

Everyone is aware of what is being done, they know it’s not real, but a hundred years ago things were different. Paranormal and psychic phenomena were for a time taken very seriously by many, including men and women who regarded themselves as taking a scientific approach to communication from the dead. 

One such woman was Hester Dowden. Hester was born in 1868, the daughter of Edward Dowden, Professor of oratory and English literature at Dublin University and a resident of Wellington Road at the time of Hester’s birth.

Edward Dowden was friends with many notables in literature and art at the time, including Jack B Yeats, who painted Hester’s portrait when she was eleven years old. He also knew WB Yeats (who was critical of Dowden, regarding him as a “West Briton”) Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker himself. 

The young Hester planned a career as a musician and moved to London to study music when she was 21. She returned to Dublin when her mother died, and looked after her father until he remarried in 1895.

Both she and her sister Hilda had an interest in spiritualism and joined the Dublin branch of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). They both experimented with “automatic writing”, a process by which the spirits of the dead were supposed to communicate through the mediums writing their messages.

Hester was actually quite skeptical, but her sister was deeply affected by the experiences and seems to have suffered some sort of a nervous breakdown.

In his 1951 biography of Hester Dowden, Edmund Bentley claimed Hester applied this rigorous skepticism to all her psychic experiences, saying that she followed a “golden rule of non-absorption” and never allowed herself to be “dominated by discarnate influences.”

Hester and the head of the SPR William Bennett used a custom version of the ouija-board to communicate with the spirits. This was a table covered with a sheet of glass beneath which the letters of the alphabet were distributed in a random pattern. The hand of the medium, Hester in this case, would hold a pointer through which the spirit who was talking via Hester would use to spell out their message. She published an account of their experiments in 1919 entitled “Voice From The Void”.

The spirits who made their presence felt through the medium in this way were referred to as “controls”. These included Eyen, who claimed to be an Egyptian priest of Isis in the reign of Ramses II and Sharma, who said she was Hindu and was Hester’s spiritual guide.

One of the early controls was an Irish American spirit calling himself Peter Rooney. Hester, however, researched this person and was satisfied that the spirit had lied about his identity.

On one occasion during a séance she held in the company of the playwright Lennox Robinson they were contacted by a spirit claiming to be Sir Hugh Lane, director of the Municipal Gallery in Dublin.

Hester knew Hugh Lane but did not know what his supposed spirit now told her, which was that he had been aboard the Lusitania which had sunk days before and had drowned. Hester again researched this and while in essence the spirit was truthful, she discovered that a cabin number he had given her as well as the name of a fellow passenger were erroneous. It seems that her skepticism only went as far as taking with a pinch of salt what spirits told her rather than doubting their existence.

Hester went on to publish more of the results of her séances including “The Scripts of Philip”, dictated by a Greek spirit who said he had known Christ and described his teachings and also meeting him after the resurrection, and conversations with Oscar Wilde.

Among other things, Wilde’s spirit relayed his extremely poor opinion of the writings of James Joyce in a series of put-down remarks which Joyce himself then satirised in Finnegans Wake.

Hester Dowden died in London in February 1949 and was cremated in Golders Green. To the best of our knowledge she hasn’t been heard from since, but then we haven’t attended Séance at the Bram Stoker Festival yet.

Séance is presented by the Bram Stoker Festival and Darkfield at Wolfe Tone Square, 23 Jervis Street, Dublin 1 Fri 25 Oct – Mon 28 Oct. Tickets are €13 (incl. €1 booking fee). For more information and to book visit bramstokerfestival.com.