Space cadet

He graduated from weather forecasts for friends and family to telephone tarot readings that have earned him millions. Irish Psychics Live founder, Tom Higgins, talks to Donal Lynch about sceptics and space travel

Independent, Ireland/November 25, 2007

I'm feeling quite nervous as my credit card is authorised and I'm put through to a real live Irish psychic. What if she shuffles her tarot cards or her coffee granules (that's what some of them use, apparently) and can tell I'm just doing research for an article?

Saoirse puts me at ease as soon as she comes on the line. She doesn't have a mystical, Una Power-ish accent. She sounds young, probably from southside Dublin, and admits up front she can't say for sure if I'm going to win the Lotto or not.

After some preliminary chit-chat, she shuffles the cards (at least, that's what she says she's doing -- she could be watching Oprah on silent, for all I know). The cards say that I'm feeling frustrated, that I need to take a break, that I'm getting ready for the future and that I've experienced a breakdown in communication with someone recently. All of it true, all of it true of virtually everyone I know.

I'm disappointed to hear that my future sounds very much like my past. I was hoping she'd pull the Death card or the Hot Lover card from the deck. I tell her that my friends think I'm the gullible sort, the type who will buy even the vaguest, most half-baked advice.

"Hmmmm, let's see now," she begins. "I'm just looking at your card . . . yes, well, it seems you need to focus on your own needs . . . you're in a hostile environment. You need to get a plan of action and get things into order. Be practical."

After a few more minutes of soothing platitudes from Saoirse, the line seems to go dead and I fear she has pulled the "journalistic wind-up" card from the deck, but it's just a message telling me that I've been on for 15 minutes (but not that this means I've reached the €30 threshold). When we come back, I'm expecting Saoirse to try to keep me on the line -- after all, she's getting paid by the minute -- but maybe she's as bored as I am because she allows the conversation to finish naturally, telling me it's good to get in touch with my emotions. Later, I get a bill for €42, which would be good value for what Saoirse calls "a snapshot of the future" but probably a bit of a rip-off for half an hour of nebulous rambling.

It's easy (very easy) to sneer, but with thousands of calls like mine every day, Irish Psychics Live has rapidly grown into one of the most successful premium phonelines in the world. Realm Communications, the company which runs Irish Psychics Live, made more than €5 million in profits last year. It has more than 40,000 regular users, employs 120 people (100 of them psychics) and it has made its owner, Tom Higgins, a millionaire many times over.

Higgins has a portfolio of 10 properties dotted around the globe and, when in Ireland, divides his time between his Wicklow estate and the Donegal mansion he purchased from Daniel O'Donnell for almost €3 million earlier this year.

He has also diversified into other areas and now owns a property-rental business in Alicante, Spain and was the executive producer and financier behind Ghostwood, an Irish horror film starring Patrick Bergin. Formerly a fairly low-profile businessman, Higgins has emerged in recent years as very much the public face of Irish Psychics Live and has been involved in a bitter and public spat with Pat Kenny, who he embarrassed last year. Now, Higgins intends to become the first Irishman in space: he has booked his place for a space flight in 2009 at a cost of €200,000, which his business will pay for as a "publicity tool".

Higgins's rise to the ranks of the super-wealthy is all the more remarkable given that he left school at 16 without any qualifications before working on a few dead-end jobs. His main "talent" as a young man was for issuing amateur weather forecasts to family and friends in Naas, which he would form by looking at the sky and reading Met Eireann weather charts. He had a consuming interest in science fiction and a belief in the paranormal -- his mother, he claims, was psychic -- and he parlayed this into a career as a freelance journalist, supplying stories on "weird happenings" to newspapers and radio programmes, including the Gerry Ryan Show.

In 1991, Higgins made his first foray into the premium-line business. Having completed a correspondence course in meteorology, he decided to set up a weather forecast phoneline which would rival that of Met Eireann. Despite the fact that the national weather forecaster was at the time offering forecasts free over the phone, Higgins charged 48p a minute for his service.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was massively successful: many observers pinpoint this as the moment when Higgins first realised that there really is one born every minute. Higgins has always denied this, insisting that the service was more successful than Met Eireann's because it was more accurate and people trusted it. The premium line is still in operation, now known as WeatherTel and run in conjunction with the Irish Farmers' Association.

Buoyed by the success of the weather line, and already wealthy, Higgins decided in the late Nineties to plough some of the weather-forecasting capital back into a tarot- reading, premium-rate phoneline. He says that he started the business not to make money, but to see if he could convince the broader Irish public of the possibility of psychic powers.

He approached several psychics and tarot readers who he had met during his days as a journalist and asked them if they would be interested in working for him. Even the psychics were sceptical that anyone would buy a tarot reading on the phone but there were calls from day one and Higgins confidently claimed that Celts were "the most psychic race in the world".

A trickle of business turned into a torrent when the new service received apparent endorsement from Pat Kenny and Ryan Tubridy, who at the time was working as a researcher on Kenny's radio show. The reading that Tubridy recorded referred to him being influenced by an older, fair-haired man and indicated that Tubridy would soon be offered a promotion. Kenny professed on air that his "mind had been opened" and Higgins loudly credited a huge upturn in business to Pat Kenny.

Kenny was understood to be furious at this and nearly a decade later he interviewed Higgins on the subject of Irish Psychics Live. The broadcaster angrily attacked the service on air, alleging that Higgins was a charlatan and, according to Higgins, off air demanded to know why his (Kenny's) name was being used in promotional materials for Irish Psychics Live. The interview virtually descended into a shouting match at one point and Kenny was later censured by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission for allowing his own views to colour the tone of the interview, and forced to make an on-air apology.

The Commission made no ruling on the other part of the complaint (which was submitted by a psychic, Valerie Pemberton, who worked for Higgins) which related to the veracity of the claim that psychics are con artists -- and, in fairness, Kenny and his researchers put forward fairly irrefutable proof that Higgins is peddling an expensive charade to the extremely gullible.

But proof that psychic powers don't actually exist is nothing new: for decades organisations such as the James Randi Foundation have been trying to convince the paying public to think more critically about so-called psychics. Randi is a Canadian magician who demonstrates many of the techniques used by psychics (including Uri Geller) and has devoted his life to debunking paranormal myths.

Randi has made a long-standing offer of $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate under controlled, mutually agreed conditions that they actually possess a "psychic or paranormal ability". To date, nobody has stepped forward to claim the money.

In the area of psychology, those such as Professor Christopher French, an expert in anomalistic psychology at Goldsmith College, University of London, add their scepticism. French has published many articles in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology explaining how people can lead themselves to believe that a series of coincidences and the techniques of a skilled charlatan can add up to something that could not be possible.

"The fact of the matter," says Paul O'Donoghue of the Irish Skeptics Society, "is that, to date, no evidence has been offered by the scientific community as supporting paranormal or psychic abilities.

"We accept that people are entitled to believe, just as we would accept that they are entitled to believe in God," he continues. "It's when people make claims, be that for 'the power of prayer' or for 'the power of distance healing', that you really have to challenge it."

Many credit the rise of Irish Psychics Live and other similar businesses to the decline in the influence of the Catholic Church.

"It's certainly the case that, as the Church has gone through a rough few years, so we've seen a lot more of this kind of thing," one priest told me. "It's not just the psychics either -- you have homeopathy, reiki healing and all that stuff as well. It's all very a la carte, it can all be bought -- a little like the practice of forgiving sins for money in the late Middle Ages -- and it doesn't make the same demands on you that religion does, that's the key."

The defence Tom Higgins mounts for his service is couched in a series of careful caveats and exceptions. On the Irish Psychics Live website it says that: "Psychic prediction is available to those who acknowledge that there is a higher realm of knowing beyond the physical body." This forms the most common justification for a psychic not being able to predict the future to those who do not already believe in the paranormal, and is the catch-all exemption for getting things wrong. When a sceptic seeks a reading the "energy is negative" or the "vibrations are off". And forget laboratory conditions: no psychic could be expected to work in those.

Higgins acknowledges that no proof is possible but tells me that this is not the same thing as something not being true.

"Supposing you saw a UFO and nobody else saw it," he says. "Science won't have proven its existence but you'll still have seen it. Does this mean you won't believe it?"

I tell him I don't believe in UFOs, either. "Ah, you're a lost cause," he laughs. "But seriously, I challenge anyone to try it for themselves. Only when you do that can you say it's not real."

He asks me if I've ever read Einstein: "His theories support the possibility of someone having psychic powers. He said that at the quantum level, the past, present and future are the same. Human consciousness exists on the quantum level."

I put this to Professor Peter Hogan, a UCD-based physicist and specialist in Einstein's theory of General Relativity.

"I don't know what motivates the psychics," Prof Hogan told me. "I guess the mention of Einstein, who is universally known, even by people who have never studied him, is to add an air of seriousness-by-association to their claims, or an air of sensationalism if their claims run counter to something he may have contributed to."

It's easy to dismiss it as a bit of harmless fun or to say that people are entitled to waste their money however they choose, but one of the most persistent objections to Irish Psychics Live is that it preys on vulnerable people and that the psychics act in a quasi-counselling role -- something they are not qualified to do.

"That's ridiculous," Higgins counters.

"My critics are obsessed with evidence for psychic powers but where is their evidence that our customers are damaged or vulnerable? They really must have a very dim view of these people's intelligence if that's their opinion."

I asked Tom Higgins if I could speak to some of the customers of Irish Psychics Live, but tracking them down proved surprisingly difficult.

"It's not something people want to admit to using," he conceded. "I'll have to see what I can do."

Eventually, I spoke to two women, but both agreed to talk only on condition of anonymity.

Mary, from Dublin, said she contacted the service regarding her son.

"He had fallen into bad company, he was getting into trouble," she told me. "The psychic told me there was someone I needed to pay more attention to."

Mary's husband was initially a sceptic, but he listened in one night and was, she says, "fascinated" and "convinced". The psychics, she says, described the house she was going to move into.

Jessica, from France, told me she had always believed in psychics; she was brought up in a household that was "open to psychic beliefs" and a psychic told her she would move here. She had contacted Irish Psychics Live "the odd time", usually, it seems, on low-level problems such as whether a house deal was going to go through or not. She dismissed the idea that Irish Psychics Live is, for a lot of people, just someone to talk to.

"I have plenty of friends," she explained, "but this is something different. It wouldn't be the same if they didn't have these powers. But I don't think it's for everyone."

In England and the US, much of the criticism of psychics has centred around the practice of trying to locate missing people or dead bodies. The parents of Shawn Hornbeck, a young boy from Missouri who went missing four years ago, were visibly distressed as they were told live on television by psychic Sylvia Browne that their son was dead and that she had seen his body. Shawn was found alive earlier this year in the home of convicted paedophile Michael Devlin, who is now serving multiple life sentences. Such cases present a huge possibility for publicity for a working psychic, but also leave them open to charges of being exploitative charlatans. I ask Higgins if he would consider having his employees see if they could locate Madeleine McCann.

"I have been tempted, to be honest," he tells me, "but it would have to be somebody really good, who was really sure. I wouldn't want to be accused of exploiting the family or the situation."

If cornered on a point, Higgins tends to say that people should "give it a try", "keep an open mind" and, finally, that people should relax because it's "only entertainment", which seems like a huge cop-out when in the same breath he's telling you that he really and truly believes that it works.

He speaks with the relaxed satisfaction of knowing that the hazy guff of the paranormal will always be more saleable than scepticism and that for every James Randi there are a thousand Uri Gellers. The more journalists and others try to point out the impossibility of Higgins's claims, the more his business grows and the richer he gets. But of course it's not about the money. It's about "opening people's minds".

Higgins now opens minds as far afield as Australia and there are plans to expand the tarot service to Spain, the UK and Portugal. Next year will probably (he can't say for certain -- even the psychics aren't sure) see Higgins in space. He's already met Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and undergone training in the US (which was overseen by NASA). He's still waiting to hear back if he or Bill Cullen -- renowned as Ireland's "Mr Renault" -- has the elusive first place on the spaceship. According to Higgins, he had his name down first and has paid, but Cullen is mates with Richard Branson, who owns Virgin Galactic, which is sending the spaceship into space.

Higgins, ever with an eye to publicity, wanted there to be a space quiz on the Late Late Show to decide the owner of the seat on the first space ride but Cullen apparently would not agree to this and now a draw is supposed to take place.

"I'll get there," Higgins tells me. "It's like Irish Psychics: the more people try to tell me I'll never make it, the more I try to prove them wrong. I live for the challenges."

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