The Way We Were: Hippies with plans for Skerries

In 1969 the north Dublin village looked set for a commune but locals didn’t feel the love

In autumn of 1969, Skerries in north Dublin was abuzz with potential new residents. A group of hippies and squatters from London were preparing to buy St Patrick's Island, a small island off the coast, with a view to establishing a commune of 500 people. The squatters signed an agreement with Herbert Marriott, a Northampton estate agent who gave them first option to buy the island for £20,000. "We hope to build a society of love, trust and tolerance," one of the squatters, Frank Harris, said in an article on September 30th, "not based on the values of how much money a man has made". The Irish Times reported that five trustees were named in the deal; Harris, the American communist Harvey Matusow, the poet and American counterculture icon Allen Ginsberg, and Sid Rawle.

The fifth trustee was their finical backer, Swami Vishnu Devananda, also known as Vishnudevananda Saraswati, the peace activist, yoga teacher and disciple of Swami Sivananda. Two years later, Saraswati flew a “peace plane” from Boston to Northern Ireland, where he and the actor Peter Sellers went to the Unity flats in Belfast to spread a message of peace and love. “One day it may be possible like a fairy story for everybody in this whole world, not just here, not just anywhere, to live together in peace and happiness,” Sellers said at the time.

Mr Sivananda's attempt at head-sitting yoga contemplation had to be postponed because of the somewhat rough sea

In north Dublin, the reception wasn’t as welcoming. On October 3rd, it was reported that the Fianna Fáil TD Des Foley had written to the then taoiseach Jack Lynch, “urging him to use every means at his disposal to prevent London hippies establishing a colony on St Patrick’s Island, off Skerries”. This urgency came after a day of activity on the island, as reported in the newspaper on October 1st, 1969.

“A three-man hippy delegation, complete with camp followers, yesterday paid a visit to St Patrick’s Island off Skerries, Co Dublin, which they are considering buying. If the deal goes through, the deserted, rat-infested, 20-acre island, one and a half miles off the Irish coast will be turned into a centre for peace, love and meditation,” the report read. The delegation included Harris and Rawle. “Boatmen in Skerries did a thriving business yesterday as hippies and journalists were ferried over to the island. En route, Mr Sivananda’s attempt at head-sitting yoga contemplation had to be postponed because of the somewhat rough sea, but on the island he obligingly stood on his head for an I.T.N. camera team.”

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But the dream of the island commune was not to be. “Hippies Staying Away From Skerries Island”, a headline ran on October 18th. Harris said they had decided against following through with the deal on the basis that the island was too small and had no water. Instead, the group took a lease on a house on Portobello Road in London. Even before that decision was made, Harris’s thoughts were clearly drifting away from the island, and he began planning a three-day hippy pop happening in the Ring of Kerry.

Rawle, meanwhile, who was one of the central figures in the London squatters movement, was drawn back to Ireland, this time to the west coast. John Lennon, who was friends with Rawle, invited him to form a commune on Dorinish, an island he owned in Clew Bay, Co Mayo. That commune lasted from 1970 until 1972.