I have had my fortune told three times. The first time I was warned of a secret pain, the second I was told I was ugly, and the third that something good would happen to me in a theatre. These prognostications were spread out over more than 25 years, and there’s no reason they can’t all be true, though I’d prefer to gloss over the “ugly” part.
In the meantime, one friend was told he would marry an Australian. He forgot all about this until the night before his wedding, yes: to an Australian.
Just like horoscopes in newspapers and magazines, a great many predictions by fortune tellers are vague or generic enough to be applicable to a wide range of people. Get to a certain age and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have health concerns about a parent, or to have lost a close family member. So why do people go to fortune tellers, and why do they keep going back?
Asking around in an admittedly unscientific fashion, more than three-quarters of the people I spoke to had been to a fortune teller, and half had gone more than once. Some of my most logical, rational friends believed there was “something in it”, and many had stories of specific and uncannily accurate prophecies. So what’s it all about?
My first brush with fate was more than 20 years ago, on a hungover morning in New York. I remember that unsettling feeling that I ought to do something significant to mark my last day in the city, but being too tired to do anything about it.
New York is also one of those places that can overset you with what you’re meant to want, and upset you if, deep down, you don’t want those things at all. I was wandering around the Lower East Side, and saw a sign “Tarot Card Reading $10”. What better way to while away half an hour?
Down in the basement, nestled among fringed shawls and in one of a pair of grotty armchairs, was an enormous but friendly woman. On receipt of the requisite $10, she produced a smallish pack of tarot cards. I shuffled them, she dealt them out.
“You’re very creative,” she smiled. This, she possibly deduced from my green leggings and purple top – it was two decades ago. “But you have a secret pain.” I wondered if she was alluding to my hangover. “I can take away that pain,” she said. I was delighted. Who knew tarot cards could also combat an oversupply of martinis? “I’ll need a bigger set of cards: they’re very special,” she said. “It’ll be another $10.” I handed the money over. The larger pack appeared.“Oh yes, it’s a deep pain. People are jealous of you, but you have demons. I can take them away . . .” And yes, you guessed it, it would need a bigger pack and $20.
I told her I was fine with my demons, and I’d better get going. “But there’s darkness inside you,” she said. “You don’t want to live with that darkness. You’re lucky something brought you here today.” I thought about it, and reckoned that most people I knew, the best of them certainly, had plenty of darkness and demons, and just on the off chance that she wasn’t talking absolute rubbish, I’d prefer to hang on to mine.
I left to her assuring me terrible things would lie ahead if I didn’t let her help.
Fortune telling like this is illegal in New York, though it's a law that is seldom, if ever, enforced. In 2014, the Atlantic reported on a woman who had given Tammy, of "Psychic Readings by Tammy, $10 Walk-In Special" $55,712.72 to remove a "curse".
A great many of us seem waiting to be give our money away – who can forget Psychic Readings Live? The €2.44 per minute late-night phone-in show aired on TV3 in 2012, and was cancelled that year after multiple complaints were upheld by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. That's the first argument against fortune telling: it provides an opportunity to prey on the vulnerable.
My second experience was about 10 years later on a trip to Mauritius. We were entertained with a happiness theme: happiness cocktails, happiness yoga, happiness consultations. These turned out to be led by Chinese fortune tellers.
My fellow travellers emerged from their sessions with happy stories of promotions, new relationships, windfalls and wanted pregnancies. I couldn’t wait. The fortune teller, an elderly man with a satisfyingly mystical white beard, smiled and asked my name, then grasped my hand.
“Ahh, Gemma,” he said. I gazed at him expectantly. “Even though you are not so pretty, men like you.”
“What the f***?” I replied, accidentally.
“No, you don’t understand. You are not the prettiest girl, in fact you’re not so very pretty at all, but for some reason, somehow, men actually like you.”
The thing is, we go to fortune tellers to find answers, and we’re most likely to go – unless roped in by friends or presented with it on holiday – when we feel in need of answers, and those times, by definition, are our most vulnerable.
My final fortune-telling experience was in January of this year. A friend had gone, and wanted my opinion. Was this woman amazingly accurate? Was it coincidence that she seemed to know everything? I made the appointment by phone, giving my first name, and then turned up on a day of torrential rain, to a perfectly ordinary house in a perfectly nice housing estate.
A smiling woman let me in. Fortune telling seems to breed smiles. We went into a room dotted with dream catchers and crystals, and I found myself once more shuffling tarot cards. This time there was no “secret pain”, and no requests for more money: the hour-long session cost €60, including a CD recording of what was said.
“You’re a writer,” she announced. “And there’s art there too. Are you an artist as well as a writer?”
“I write about art,” I said, breaking my self-imposed rule; give nothing away.
She told me I would have the most amazing year. That I couldn’t fail. She told me my family would enjoy excellent health, and that large sums of money would come my way – earned, not gifted. She told me I’d meet the man I’m going to marry before the end of March, and that I must go to the theatre, not the pub. She told me there were two men in my life – one of whom I shouldn’t touch with a bargepole (I’m paraphrasing). I wasn’t quite sure how they’d fit with “Man Before March”.
I left the session feeling amazing. Instead of being just another person scrabbling around in a random world, I now had a Destiny. Everything was tinged with meaning. Everything that occurred, even if it wasn’t initially pleasant, would now be significant. Like Loki, Tom Hiddleston’s character in Marvel’s Avengers, I felt Burdened With Glorious Purpose (BGP). It was also nice to know that the family were well.
Now that the end of March has come and gone, I’m looking back on my predictions. Obviously some of the people I approached with brilliant schemes for financial glory didn’t get the memo about me not being able to fail. Neither were any of my employers in on the “vast sums of money” message. After a while, the BGP wore off, and life felt normal again.
I didn’t meet the “Man Before March”; not that I know of, anyway. With hindsight I think I may have confused the don’t-touch-even-with-a-long-pole person with the other one, but never mind.
That’s another thing about fortune telling, the stories are so compelling you start to try to fit the facts of your life to the prophecies, discarding the bits that don’t fit. I went to the theatre twice, but nothing earth-shattering took place. Maybe she meant the operating theatre? I hope not the theatre of war.
I think, alongside the charlatans, and there are plenty of them out there, the “good” fortune tellers, by which I mean the ones who believe in what they’re doing, and who may also be ethical and even sometimes accurate, are probably people gifted with exceptional empathy.
They trust their intuition – which, let’s face it, we all have – but most of us tend to learn to ignore it as we grow up and get knocked around a bit by life. They use these tools as a basis for creating stories, with us at the heart of them.
And those who go to see them do so because, in this random chaotic world, it can be comforting to feel that life has meaning, and that its chance events are part of a greater pattern.
Who, after all, doesn’t want to be at the centre of their own story, to be, even if only for a while, burdened with just a little Glorious Purpose?
Fortune tellers and psychics: is there anybody out there?
People tend to discover fortune tellers by word of mouth, so it’s tricky to get an idea of how many are working in Ireland – there’s no regulatory body governing who can and can’t “read” fortunes.
The Golden Pages currently lists 26 results for fortune tellers here.
Online, eirepsychics.com is a phone service (€2.44 per minute) with 204 psychic readers on its site
Psychicsofa.ie, another phone service (€1.75 per minute), had 33 readers available online at time of going to press.
According to Geraldine O’Brien, who runs Holistic Fairs Ireland, while there may be many people claiming psychic abilities, “there are probably only about 40 good ones”. She says that between eight and 10 attend each of the fairs she organises.
Freddy Roberts of Psychic and Holistic Fairs Ireland says “There are at least a few hundred reading professionally in Ireland, mostly from their own homes. In addition there are thousands who read for family and friends on a private basis.”