Castle Pook, September 8: In the small village of Doneraile, southwestern Ireland, Santa Claus is really a witch. Bev Richardson, a genial Englishman with a bushy, silver beard and twinkling blue eyes, dons a red suit and plays Father Christmas every year for the benefit of the local children. In real life, however, Halloween is more his thing.
"I'm a hedge witch, I make healing potions and small charms," Richardson said from "Castle Pook," his 18th century cottage nestling on a "coven" of 13 acres in county Cork. Salvaged and rebuilt by Richardson and his wife Del using plenty of recycled materials, including old supermarket fridge doors for windows, from the outside, Castle Pook does not look like a witch's pad.
Inside, however, the house is adorned with hand-carved wands, crystal balls, magic charms, and potions, the bookshelves are stuffed with tomes on mystics and fairies and at night, bats hover overhead.
A stone's throw away is the real Castle Pook, an imposing 12th century stronghold, whose fairy legends are believed to have inspired the character Puck in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
To celebrate festivals such as Halloween and the Pagan New Year referred to as Samhain, Richardson swaps his jeans for his ceremonial white-hooded gown and goes barefoot into the forest for a "circle" ceremony of prayer. The Richardsons have developed Castle Pook into a kind of magic conference centre where Pagans gather to celebrate festivals, discuss their spirituality or, increasingly, take part in witchcraft workshops.
There might not be instruction in broomstick navigation or levitation, but outside of a J.K. Rowling novel this is probably as close as you'll get to Harry Potter's Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Last month, more than 50 wizards, witches and druids congregated at Castle Pook for a weekend of ceremony and demonstrations. Spurred on by the success of these gatherings, which have attracted witches and wizards from California to Croatia, the Richardsons hope to establish a full-time witchcraft school.
Unlike Harry Potter, Richardson's witchcraft centres around preparing herb-based healing potions and organising spiritual ceremonies for other pagans. Visitors who take part in circle ceremonies at Castle Pook have sometimes remarked on their religious flavour. Born on the Isle of Man, Richardson has been a witch since his teens, when he was attracted to the teachings of Gerald Gardiner, the late founder of the Wicca movement, which is a nature-based religion.
He never uses the term "warlock" to describe himself as it is considered a religious slur in the Pagan community. He does not indulge in spells and has a straight forward message for anyone looking for a love potion: "Get a life."
Richardson's beliefs centre around nature. "I want to present my spiritual community as a peace-loving community, not a bunch of lunatics."
The Richardsons, parents of seven children, are part of a growing number of people in Ireland who define themselves as Pagan. Disappointment with the Catholic Church, whose influence in Ireland has crumbled over the past decade on the back of a string of sex scandals, is a significant factor in the increasing number of people turning away from the religious mainstream.
It is impossible to put an exact figure on the number of Pagans in Ireland as most of them are coy about publicising their beliefs and many prefer to practice their spirituality alone, but there are believed to be thousands.
Ireland's Celtic past, exemplified by the large number of stone circles, passage tombs and dolmen (stone tables) scattered around the countryside, has also made it a popular destination for Pagans from overseas.
Celtic folklore and legends are still taught at Irish schools and in some parts of the countryside, fields with fairy forts - small stone circles - are left fallow for fear of annoying the vengeful "little people." Catholicism in Ireland has a strong pagan vein running through it.