THE CASTLETOWN WITCH
© The Estate of Mervyn Wall, February 2015
Not long after the publication of The Unfortunate Fursey (1946) and The Return of Fursey (1948), Mervyn Wall engaged in a brief correspondence with Gerald Gardner, who had written to Wall to tell him how much he enjoyed the misadventures of Brother Fursey. Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), an ardent promoter of the modern Wiccan tradition, also told Wall that the Fursey books were favourites among England's witches. Although not directly named, the following article, which appeared in The Irish Times in 1956, details Wall's chance encounter with Gardner while on holiday on the Isle of Man. The article appears here by kind permission of the Estate of Mervyn Wall.
Into Darkest Manxland
I had selected a resort in the West of Ireland for a quiet holiday in early June. It offered a very good hotel, some of the best cliff scenery in the country and a hinterland laced with trout streams, but an acquaintance came whispering: “How unenterprising! Just glance at this brochure issued by the highly efficient Manx tourist authority. First class fare is just half of what it is to the West of Ireland: a similar hotel will cost you only three-quarters as much. And you will see a new country.”
Now, when I was a small boy, a middle-aged man with an artificial leg used to be pointed out to us. We were told that he had fallen under a horse tram in the Isle of Man, and with adult shaking of the head it was implied that he was a sad example of the result of drink. The point is only to be fully appreciated by one who has seen the Douglas horse trams, which amble along at five miles an hour. To become the victim of one is on a par with being knocked down and crippled by the Pony Express in the Zoo: while sympathy would not, of course, be withheld, there would be every reason to doubt the victim’s sobriety.
So I grew up with the conviction that while it was quite all right for children to be brought by their parents to a quiet place like Port Erin, the only other people who visited the Isle of Man were unattached young men of doubtful respectability who wore navy blue suits and travelled in groups. I understood that it was usual, as the boat approached Douglas Pier, for at least one of the party to fall overboard in his anxiety to land. I noticed that even now anyone who had been there, to whom I spoke of the projected adventure, seemed to feel the need to explain away his own visit to the island. “You’ll find it very pleasant,” I was told, “if you keep away from Douglas.”
“I’ve every intention of keeping away,” I said. “I’m going to an hotel deep in the country. I’m looking for quiet.”
I dislike air travel not only because I keep wondering whether the plane will continue to stay up in the air where it’s supposed to be, but because it’s too smooth, quick and efficient. You lose the sense of travelling. So, one evening in early June, I might have been seen on board the M.V. Manxman, on its maiden voyage from Dublin to Douglas, carefully copying on to a scrap of paper the notice prominently displayed on the front deck: “This space . . . is certified for 99 First-class passengers when not occupied by cattle, animals or other encumbrances.” I had already in my pocket a Customs leaflet which warned me that the penalties were severe if I tried to bring into the Isle of Man concealed about my person explosives, opium, hashish, muskrats, grey squirrels, plumage or foreign reprints of copyright works. Obviously, adventure attends you from the moment you leave the port of Dublin.
My first day on the island was the final day of the Tourist Trophy Races, and, to avoid the sound of motor-cycle engines, I boarded the crazy old train for the ancient capital, Castletown, which was far removed from the T.T. course.
Castletown, huddled under the walls of a great castle, was delightful, the more so as all the shops were closed and practically the whole population away staring at the daring young motor-cyclists. Before long I began to notice a particularly insistent notice which was to be seen in many shop windows and even at the corners of the streets. It urged you to follow the arrow and come to “The Witches’ Mill, the Only Museum of Magic and Witchcraft in the World.”
I did what I was told, and, ten minutes later, was drinking coffee at a counter on the ground floor of the museum, with broomsticks and instruments of torture hanging from every wall in sight. The coffee-bar attendant was listening to a radio commentary on the T.T. race and paid no attention to me, so I began to look through some books spread out for sale on the counter.
Then I made a discovery. The author of one of the books had sent me an autographed copy with his compliment, some five years before. I had written thanking him at the time, and had since completely forgotten his name. I now discovered that he was the Director of the Museum. I turned to the title page of a second book by the same man, which lay on the counter, and found that he described himself as “Member of one of the ancient covens of the Witch Cult which still survive in England.”
Painting a Circle
I had never met a witch (the word is used of males as well as females) so the opportunity seemed too good to be missed. I explained to the attendant that I had exchanged letters with the Director of the Museum some five years before, and now found myself by accident on his doorstep, as it were, I would like to pay my respects.
“He’s upstairs,” said the attendant, “painting a witch’s circle on the floor.”
“Then perhaps he’d better not be disturbed.”
“Not at all. He won’t mind. Go on right up. Top floor.”
I toiled upwards, passing many glass cases in which amulets, ritual swords and other magical gear were tastefully laid out. On the top floor I came on an old man on his knees, his shirt open to the waist, busily painting an enormous green circle on the linoleum. He had a long thin white beard and white hair brushed so that it stood up like two horns on his head. He bounded to his feet when I introduced myself, and bent from his great height to shake hands. He assured me that a couple of books which I had written many years ago about a character called Fursey had been read with the greatest interest and amusement by every witch in Great Britain.
I asked him was it not the case that such results as witches claimed to achieve were brought about by hypnotism and suggestion. He appeared to agree, and with lightning motion drew a knife from a sheath at the back of his belt. I know that I suddenly found myself staring at the point of a seven-inch blade within a foot of my heart. What came into my mind was that this was some witch’s method of determining whether or not I was hostile.
“A genuine witch’s knife,” he explained. “There are the witch marks. Very ancient. Protects whoever carried it.”
A young couple, visitors to the Museum, came up the stairs just then. I felt rather relieved. As I walked down the stairs with him, so that he might autograph and present me with a copy of his latest book, he explained to me that witches can kill people by pointing sharp instruments at them.
I read his book and went back to see him a week later. He was a most charming and courteous host, and I sat and drank tea with himself and his wife in a chair in which, I was told, a ghost has frequently been seen sitting. His book makes the claim that witchcraft is an ancient religion, knowledge of which has been handed down in a few families for over two thousand years. This I knew to be disputed by many writers on the subject. I heard from him that the Isle of Man had always been a hotbed of witchcraft, and that the Manx had always taken witchcraft so much as a matter of course that they had never prosecuted practitioners of the art.
In his book I read, with some astonishment, that the witches of England had in 1940 raised a cone of power against Hitler so as to dissuade him from invasion of Britain, just as their great-grandparents had done when Napoleon was standing on the French cliffs staring across the Straits of Dover.
To read an extract from an interview with Wall in which he talks about the origins of The Unfortunate Fursey, click here.
All contents of this page are © Brian J. Showers 2003-2015. All individual copyrights are retained by the creators.
Nothing may be reproduced without written permission.