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The Vacuum Issue 11 spacer Issue 11
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Underground Cults And Clubs Of Belfast

by Neal Alexander
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Cults and secret societies are by no means the same thing, but they are brought into close proximity through the semantic overlap that exists between the terms 'sect' and 'faction' - terms that have a particular resonance in the North. As John Morrow (no stranger to these pages in the last few weeks) might point out, 'sects' is a pleasurable activity for both sexes, which is ideally suited to these long winter nights. However, sects are also familiar to - some would say synonymous with - Northern Ireland outside of the vernacular. Beyond the hoary old Catholic/Protestant divide is the fabulously variegated array of Protestant schisms and fundamentalisms, with their attendant paraphernalia of tin tabernacles and gospel halls, meeting houses and faith missions, locusts and wild honey. Presbyterians (Free, Non-Subscribing, Common or Garden), Methodists, Pentecostalists, Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Quakers, Shakers, Pocket-Watch-Makers and more besides. Evangelism retains a strong hold here, allowing the globetrotting German evangelist, Reinhard Bonnke, to preach to a large and enthusiastic audience in the Odyssey Arena. And while this evangelical fervour may not (to my knowledge) have extended to embrace the teachings of the Raelians - who believe that "extraterrestrials [Š] are Elohim, the God of the Bible. They are eternal. They come from another planet. [Š] They are coming!" (www.rael.org) - Ulster's version of that old time religion can, in it's own way, prove equally surreal. Besides the familiar exploits of Paisleyites and placard-bearers (still to be encountered in Donegall Place of a Saturday), it's also hard to drive through mid-Ulster without having every other roadside tree remind you solemnly that THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH and YE MUST BE BORN AGAIN. This can be avoided, of course, by steering clear of mid-Ulster wherever possible.
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An interesting (?) development in Evangelical circles is the proliferation of webpages devoted to cult-watching, an activity that involves scrutinising a vast range of religious splinter groups, then employing an arsenal of scripture quotations in order to debunk their teachings and expose the various charismatic leaders behind these movements for the false prophets and charlatans they are. Bickering and name-calling are often the order of the day. Cult Watch, which is affiliated to the improbably named journal, Balaam's Ass Speaks, is one of the most comprehensive, employing a slightly surprising veneer of sardonic humour and incorporating a 'Fundamental Baptist Loonie Bin' as one of its features (see www.balaams-ass.com/journal/housechu/cults.htm). It also provides a link to 'The Belfast Berean' (www.thebelfastberean.co.uk), a website created by David McAllister of We Care Ministries, and dedicated to "leading the fight against the deceptions of GOD TV". McAllister writes all of the articles with a grim and utterly humourless zeal, methodically tearing apart the doctrines and reputations of the world's leading televangelists: Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyers, Reinhard Bonnke etc. Which is fair enough - it's hard to have any sympathy for McAllister's reptilian, Armani-suited victims. His pronounced anti-Catholicism and self-righteous bile, however, are less easy to take, and it's fitting therefore that in this cyberspace of scriptural jousting The Belfast Berean also has its own debunkers, principally the Catholic apologist, Dr Art Sippo. After much tedious refutation, Sippo gets down to the serious business of telling McAllister off:
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Son, you need to REPENT and believe the Gospel that Jesus preached and abandon the rebellious pretensions of sinful men. Neither Luther, nor Calvin, nor Paisley can save you and God will not be impressed by their names. You must join the one true Catholic Church outside of which there is no salvation. Otherwise, you endanger your eternal soul. There is very little time left! Don't delay.
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Dr Sippo is, as one may clearly infer, a North American gentleman.
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O Brother, Where Art Thou? - Underground Cults And Clubs Of Belfast
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It's probably best to leave these two to their squabbling and move on to 'factions'. Robert McLiam Wilson's novel, Eureka Street (1996), memorably satirises Belfast as "the city of the three-letter initial on walls" by having the enigmatic legend, OTG, appear on walls across the city. The point being that this 'faction' cannot be added to the pantheon of paramilitary organisations because nobody knows what the letters stand for. Moreover, the contemporary plethora of armed factions can, in many ways, be related to a much longer tradition of agrarian and secret societies - both Catholic and Protestant, republican and loyalist - that proliferated across Ireland from the mid-seventeenth century: Catholic Defenders, Whiteboys, Ribbonmen, Oak Boys, Hearts of Steel, Peep-o'-Day Boys, and most famously, United Irishmen. Captain H.B.C. Pollard, author of The Book of the Pistol and Automatic Pistols, aims to trace the history and character of many of these in his book, The Secret Societies of Ireland: Their Rise and Progress (1922), although he has very little to say about the various Protestant societies. As might be expected, Captain Pollard takes a stiff-necked, 'British' approach to the subject: "The motives of members of Irish Secret Societies appear to a Briton to be wholly criminal; [Š] to my mind, the root of the matter lies in the inability of the Gael to conceive the abstract fetish of Law as it appears to the Briton and other dominant northern races." There is an unmistakeably Aryan authoritarianism to this stereotypical picture of the lawless Gael, and, as a good imperialist, Pollard is clearly still reeling in the aftermath of the 1916 rebellion. Against a background of Civil War and imminent Independence, he insists that 'patriotism' is a disastrous concept in the hands of the Irish: "In these days of political instability there is a wide-spread confusion of ideas; and the conception that crime attributable to or covered by a gloss of political grievance is not true criminality is spreading dangerously, and moral values are being usurped." It makes perfect ideological sense, therefore, that Pollard devotes considerable effort to condemning the ideals and actions of the United Irishmen in the strongest possible terms, but the means by which he chooses to do so are unusual. Besides being a shower of seditious bally schemers, Wolfe Tone and co were apparently in cahoots with the Illuminati, a shadowy and ostensibly diabolical group of 'beings' who were thought to be the driving force behind the omnipresent evils of Jacobinism. In his recent book, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1999), Umberto Eco shows how the Illuminati, with their Jacobin and Masonic connections, served as the bogeymen of anticlerical propaganda in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and also played an important part in paranoid Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, such as those contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a text that eventually found its way into the hands of one Adolf Hitler. All of which serves as a complex gloss on Pollard's faith in "the abstract fetish of the Law" and its administration by the "dominant northern races."
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It's little more than a sideways hop from 'secret society' to 'brotherhood' - Pollard's chief stalking horse is the Irish Republican Brotherhood - and the latter term straddles the divide between 'sect' and 'faction', or religion and politics, in a variety of ways. In Ireland, the most famous examples include the Orange Order and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, although trade unions and men's social clubs also fall within the designation. Brotherhoods originated in the medieval period, both developing out of monastic orders and arising from the various town and city guilds to which artisans were affiliated. They were characterised by complex ceremonials, esoteric symbolism, elaborate regalia, passwords, secret signs, and a rigidly hierarchical structure. These not-so-secret societies saw a significant resurgence of interest in the Victorian period, when they were to be found springing up all over Ireland, particularly in Belfast. Anthony D. Buckley's and Kenneth Anderson's pamphlet, Brotherhoods in Ireland (1988), details a great number of the principal groups. Besides the Freemasons - or rather, The Order of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of Ireland - there were/are The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, The Independent Order of Odd Fellow, The Ancient Order of Foresters, The Free Gardeners, The Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds, The Archconfraternity of the Holy Family, The Order of the Knights of Columbanus, The Rechabites and many others. In the main, these preposterously named organisations appear to have simply provided an arena in which Victorian gentlemen could meet others who enjoyed dressing up and funny handshakes. The convivial social aspect of the various Brotherhoods seems to have been the important thing to many of their members, and in this respect they were not unlike the many gentlemen's 'clubs' which also flourished contemporaneously. On the other hand, the various 'Friendly Societies' - such as the Odd Fellows - were active in promoting communitarian and charitable activities, often drawing their members from the working class. Most claimed to be non-sectarian and non-partisan - although this is clearly not true of the Orange Order, the Black Preceptory, or the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Besides these, it appears that only the Freemasons and the Buffaloes remain active in Belfast, although, in many cases, the other brotherhoods lasted well into the 1980s. The Freemasons Hall occupies a symbolically central position in the city, located as it is in Arthur Sq, between Alcatraz Army Surplus store and Barratt's Shoes, and the Co. Antrim Lodge headquarters are in a handsome neo-classical building - complete with commemorative plaque to the United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken - in Rosemary St. And just around the corner from the Factotum 'offices', in Church St., is the District Lodge of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, where members are said to make "kangaroo leaps" around a blindfolded candidate while singing the traditional refrain, "We'll Chase the Buffalo", as part of the initiation ceremony for the Order's first degree. Which, as wives of the honourable members have been known to observe, is a fine thing for grown men to be doing when there's the childer to be fed and washed, not to mention the dog.
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