In the early 1980s, Ireland’s small Hare Krishna community made a bold decision: it bought an island.
Inis Rath, a nine-hectare wooded island on Lough Erne, just inside Northern Ireland, was available for £125,000.
There was a tradition of monks inhabiting Irish islands, and this one was quiet, halfway between Dublin and Belfast, and seemed ideal for a new headquarters.
But Hare Krishna Island, as it came to be known, struggled. It was isolated, expensive to maintain and froze in winter. People left to find work and start families. The Hare Krishnas decided to sell themselves in 2002, the dream apparently dead.
Twenty years later, however, incense still flows from the temple, the vegetable garden flourishes, the cows, peacocks and deer thrive, and the island prepares for an influx of visitors next week.
“It’s a rare jewel,” said Manu, head of the temple council, whose non-Krishna name is Martin Davies. “We are surrounded by water and it is good for meditation. The canopy of trees we have – you can’t buy that.”
The community is busy renovating and upgrading facilities to make the island a haven for visitors from Ireland, the UK, India, the US and elsewhere. This week, drilling and hammering competed with the ringing of bells.
The community’s survival here will be an added cause for celebration on August 18 and 19 when hundreds of visitors are expected for Janmashtami, a Hindu festival marking the birthday of Krishna, the eighth of the 10 incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu.
Hare Krishna Island’s zigzag from dream to folly to recovery is a story of naivety, perseverance and globalization.
“An island is like a jewel in the crown. We probably should have built our presence elsewhere first,” said Manu, 63, a soft-spoken Dubliner.
In the 1980s, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a branch of Hinduism known for chanting and vegetarianism, grew in Belfast and Dublin, bolstered by the support of high-profile followers such as former Beatle George Harrison.
The symbolism of a headquarters between the capitals of Northern Ireland and Ireland appealed. So did the price, the inclusion of a large Victorian house – an earl’s former hunting lodge – and the ability to escape enemy scrutiny. “The Catholic Church was kind of on top of us for taking their sons and daughters,” Manu said.
In addition, there was the confidence of the youth. “We were in our 20s. It was very exciting. Not everyone buys an island.”
Controversy followed in 1987 in the form of a fabricated and eventually discredited story of brainwashing, drugged ice cream and kidnapping.
The group’s reputation recovered, but the winters were harsh, the small barge connecting the island to the mainland often broke down and it was difficult to maintain jobs and families. In 2002, the permanent population dropped to around 12 people.
A German pop star, among others, expressed interest in buying the island, but the Hare Krishnas ended up keeping it. Volunteers raised funds to cover running costs, currently around £60,000 a year, and others visited to help maintain the grounds, meditate and pray. Manu, who runs a gallery in Dublin, visits weekly.
The growing Indian community – now estimated at 45,000 in Ireland and 15,000 in Northern Ireland – drove a turnaround. Having come to work in healthcare, IT, engineering and other sectors, they were surprised to discover an island dedicated to a branch of Hinduism, Manu said. “When they see the Paddys here in the temple worshipping, they can’t believe it.”
Busloads visit during festivals and open days, and numbers are boosted by tourists and officials from Fermanagh District Council, who provide financial support. Recently, an estimated 1,500 people gathered on the island.
Ukrainian Hare Krishnas who live in nearby Ballyconnell visit several times a week.
“It’s a wonderful place,” said Nanda Grama Mahi Dhari, 58, originally from Latvia, as she weeded the garden. “It helps you find yourself. Outside the island, it’s harder to know what your goals are.”
Beetroot, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, rocket and tomatoes grow under vegetable tunnels, all to be eaten on the island.
There is electricity, running water and spotty wifi, but fire and building regulations prevent the island from accepting overnight visitors. Donations and fundraising events, including crowdfunding appeals, are paying for the upgrades that will allow overnight retreats.
Madan Mohan Das, 38, who has lived on the island for a decade, said conditions were not always easy. “You can have this cold, wet feeling. If the ferry doesn’t work, you have to row to the other side.” He wouldn’t live anywhere else. “It’s a spiritual place.”