How Ireland’s Hare Krishna Island went from dream to folly to recovery

In the early 1980s Ireland’s tiny Hare Krishna community made a bold decision: it bought an island.

Inis Rath, a nine-hectare (22-acre) 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 tranquil, midway between Dublin and Belfast, and appeared ideal for a new headquarters.

But Hare Krishna Island, as it came to be known, struggled. It was isolated, costly to maintain and froze in winter. People left to seek jobs and start families. The Hare Krishnas decided to sell up in 2002, the dream seemingly dead.

Twenty years later, however, incense still wafts from the temple, the vegetable garden is blooming, the cows, peacocks and deer are thriving, and the island is preparing for an influx of visitors next week.

“It’s a rare jewel,” said Manu, chair of the temple council, whose non-Krishna name is Martin Davies. “We are surrounded by water and that’s good for meditation. The canopy of trees we have – you can’t buy that.”

The community is busy renovating and upgrading facilities to turn the island into a retreat for visitors from Ireland, Britain, India, the US and elsewhere. This week, drilling and hammering competed with the tinkle of bells.

The community’s survival here will be an additional reason for celebration on 18 and 19 August when hundreds of visitors are expected for Janmashtami, a Hindu festival that marks the birth anniversary 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, persistence and globalisation.

“An island is like a jewel in the crown. We probably should have built up our presence in other locations 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, was growing in Belfast and Dublin, boosted by support from high-profile adherents 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 opportunity to escape hostile scrutiny. “The Catholic church was a bit on top of us for supposedly taking their sons and daughters,” said Manu.

Plus, there was the confidence of 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 about brainwashing, drugged ice-cream and kidnapping.

The group’s reputation recovered but the winters were harsh, the little barge connecting the island to the mainland often broke down and it was difficult to sustain jobs and families. By 2002 the permanent population dwindled to about 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 about £60,000 a year, and others visited to help maintain the property, 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 astonished to discover an island dedicated to a branch of Hinduism, said Manu. “When they see Paddys here in the temple worshipping, they can’t believe it.”

Coachloads visit during festivals and open days, their number swelled by tourists and officials from Fermanagh district council, which provides 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 an amazing place,” Nanda Grama Mahi Dhari, 58, originally from Latvia, said as she weeded the garden. “It helps you to find yourself. Off 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 consumed on the island.

There is electricity, running water and patchy wifi but fire and building regulations prevent the island hosting visitors overnight. 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.”