Hard-pressed Hare Krishna followers have put their island home on Lough Erne up for sale. But they and many local residents still hope an alternative to leaving may yet be found, writes Roisin Ingle
On the way through rain and floods to visit the Hare Krishna community at its Lough Erne island retreat in Co Fermanagh, a song by the late George Harrison comes on the car stereo. The Beatle was a supporter of the religion; he half sang, half chanted in My Sweet Lord and quietly funded many Hare Krishna projects around the world.
The predicament of the dwindling number of Hare Krishnas on Inis Rath on Upper Lough Erne might also have won his support. Since 1984, they have been attempting to establish a viable community here despite the isolated rural location. But with people leaving to get married and have families - a life they were unable to sustain on the island - there are only 10 followers left now and Inis Rath is for sale.
So far, there has been interest from a German pop star and a Co Fermanagh couple, but the community is still waiting for an offer it can't refuse, says Martin Davis of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. "Ideally, we would like to find a way to make a go of it on the island," he says.
Local support and recognition for their activities - the Hare Krishnas established a heritage centre here and have won awards for their voluntary work - has given them hope that an alternative to leaving might be found.
The rain has been unrelenting for the past week, causing the worst floods in the area for several years, and the island barge (which the community raised funds to buy) is out of action. But the journey by rowing-boat takes only five minutes. Approaching the shore, you see huge laurel trees bent low after the stormy weather, but, even as the wind howls, the sense of tranquillity that attracted monastic settlements more than a millennium ago is immediate.
Inside the house, people in robes and overalls paint the walls of the room where devotees come to worship. A magnificent gold-plated altar shipped over from India dominates one end of the room. A little girl wanders happily around. The retreat may be on the market, but she and her mother are joining the community here.
Davis, a softly spoken devotee from Dublin, who has been involved in the retreat since the beginning, gives the background to the purchase of the island in the mid-1980s.
"We were looking for a retreat somewhere between Belfast and Dublin. Our president at the time found this place and thought it was fantastic," he says. "The fact that the Christian monks had been attracted here made sense. The peace we found here is incredible, and we had great hopes that we could make a sustainable life here."
The island and several acres on the mainland, where Davis and other members of the community have houses, cost the Hare Krishnas £190,000 sterling back then. Funds were raised from the organisation in India and from the proceeds of sales of Hare Krishna literature.
Sotheby's in Co Down, which says it is one of the most widely advertised properties it has ever handled, is now offering the whole lot for £950,000 sterling, but staying would be preferable to selling, Davis says.
The main problem has been the location of the island; if they sell, the members of the community will look for another retreat closer to Dublin. Inis Rath has proved too far away to attract the numbers of followers and visitors needed to maintain the house, gardens and ferry service.
In the summer months, the island has developed into a relatively popular tourist spot. The community has provided heritage tours, organised open days for hundreds of visitors and welcomed large numbers cruising on the Erne waterways. On the shore, they have set up the Crystal Lotus Glass Studio where locals can take classes in glass-blowing.
Their efforts won them recognition locally when they took five of the International Year of Volunteers Special Awards run by Fermanagh Volunteer Bureau (FVB) and the local district council. Anne Foster of the FVB, a neighbour of some of the Hare Krishnas, says many of the locals would be sorry to see the community go.
"They are extremely active citizens," she says. "They have got on well with the locals, their children go to local schools and people have definitely reconsidered their old perceptions of Hare Krishnas as brainwashed zombies who are in a cult." She praises their open days, when the community cooks "beautiful vegetarian food for a multitude", and also the volunteer camp they organised, where 50 young people came from all over the world "to fill potholes in rural Fermanagh".
"But what I feel is most important is the diversity they bring to the community. Their presence helps to take the focus off the two main divided groups in Northern Ireland. They offer something not available anywhere on this island, a retreat for people of that faith, and they have contributed strongly to the local area," she says.
Jim Ledwith of Fermanagh District Council says their robes, their chanting and their shorn heads "add a bit of colour" to the streets. "The place will be poorer if they do go; it is a pity they haven't been able to hack it," he says.
As far as Ledwith is concerned, there is still an "underlying suspicion" about the religious beliefs of the community. "It is seen as a city institution . . . they are seen as city people who have gone astray, but they pose no threat to the community here and they have been left to get on with things," he adds.
Most residents appear to have accepted the Hare Krishnas as their neighbours, whatever views they may hold on their religion. A local farmer describes them as "first-class people"; others welcome the way they have developed the island as a summer tourist attraction.
"It is a shame they are going," says one woman. "You wouldn't see them that much, but we have all been over on a few occasions and what they are trying to do there is very worthwhile."
The community was recently awarded a tiny tourism grant of £200 sterling, but, as a religion, the Hare Krishnas find it almost impossible to secure funds that would allow them to develop the house and grounds in a way that would safeguard their future. At one point there was talk of the old boathouse being converted into a vegetarian restaurant like the successful eaterie run by the community in Aungier Street, Dublin. "The problem is that these communities don't fit into any square boxes, so there isn't equality when it comes to accessing any of the peace money," says Anne Foster. "They could have a thriving money-spinning project there, to sustain a community and continue their good works, but there is only so much they can raise on their own."
Back on the island the remains of lunch, a vegetarian feast, are thrown to the peacocks that roam wild and Davis takes the oars for the journey back across the lough. The sun shines brightly now, a hint of summer, and by July the community will make their decision whether to stay or to go. "We are leaving it in the hands of the Lord," says Davis, rowing methodically to the shore. "If we are meant to go, we will go - but we would love to find a way to maintain this as a place of retreat for many more years to come."
To contact the Lough Erne retreat, e-mail email@example.com