What happens when you take a group of men and plonk them in the middle of a woodland or valley with nothing but raw materials and time on their hands? It is happening this weekend, on a patch of sodden wilderness in deepest Wicklow.
There are times when Diarmuid Lyng settles on the chosen location only days before the group gathers. A message pings with the co-ordinates. Attendees drive to a certain spot and once the car is locked, that world – of air conditioning and sat-nav and podcasts and work and home – is surrendered. Phones are ditched but are useless in any case: Lyng often sources those remaining pockets of Ireland where phone masts cannot reach. Nature ungoverned is what he wants to show them, with night’s true dark and the rawest light. Some weekends, the skies are paradisiacal and others, it lashes with a vengeance.
Guests are asked to bring very little and find less than that when they arrive. Lyng is both host and guide, and his concept of a retreat is a rebuke of the high-end world of spas and high-cotton count robes, of candles and fine dining. He cheerfully concedes that the word “pampering” can set him off on a rant. Reclaiming wildness is his hope and mission.
They cut wood, they forage, they build a rough shelter, they light a fire, they pitch tents. The food is primary and nutritious. Apart from a ceremonial poitín bottle, there is no alcohol – though he makes an allowance for stag parties. In the evening, the group sits around and use a “talking stick” to let the conversation fly off in whatever direction it may.
“I am not a shaman healer or anything,” Lyng says quietly. He’s 41 years old now, greyhound lean, his features cushioned by a freewheeling beard. When he’s listening, he has a habit of closing his eyes.
“I just try and bring people across a river to a more expansive patch of land in their lives. In the cold light of day, this can seem like too much. But over 80 hours, things come to the surface,” he says. “This is set up in a way that it is not about vulnerability, it is power ... not power in the sense of domination or control, it is the power of being your full wild self for a short period of time. So, you just get to taste and to know and to feel it. And when that spark travels around 20 people, it becomes something more.”
Lyng has held men’s retreats for the past couple of years, taking groups of adults and school groups and sports clubs away from civilisation, and submitting to what is around them. He’s easy-going and patient and encourages men to drop the shields with which they navigate the outside world – the humour, the sarcasm, the pulsing silences, the physical strengths – and to reveal whoever is behind those guises. Often, they do not have the first clue. For Lyng, the gatherings are about marking key thresholds in the passage of life. On summer weekends, for instance, groups of sixth-class kids come for retreats he runs with his partner, Siobhán de Paor, framed around music and fun and activities of pure exuberance.
“A celebration of their eight years in school together,” he says. “It’s the opposite of the message they often hear. ‘Get down off there! Don’t do that! Be careful!’ No, go further! Obviously, they are not hanging off cliffs. But this idea of going for a walk in the forest and never going off the path. What good is that? So instead of ‘Be careful’ it’s: ‘Be skilful’. Mind your step. Feel your feet against the rocks. Be present. Breathe. Invite all those skills to the surface.”
For secondary school groups, he’ll often just have the boys cook spuds and carrots on an open pot to prepare a simple meal. “Most are pretty useless at that,” he laughs. But the cooking is just a way into talking. Sometimes, the parents arrive to collect the boys and Lyng will have the group serve up food.
“This meal is presented to their parents as a mark of respect for all the meals cooked for them over the years. The parents can look at their now 18-year-old boy becoming a man and say, ‘Right; thank you too. I’ll try and respect you on your way. I’ll try not to go into the dark mother and dark father who tries to hold on because they are unable to say goodbye to their 18-year-old, because they are not ready themselves.’ Instead, send them off in their way. Make your break. Say what you need to say. Hold each other and celebrate each other. Sixth years are on the threshold of manhood. But often, there is no magic to it. If not now, when? Where is the space to make that acknowledgment?”
It’s a question that Lyng has spent decades asking himself. He grew up in the male-oriented culture of the GAA, excelling as a hurler and playing for his native Wexford through a decade when Kilkenny fielded omnipotent teams. Lyng experienced the various ids of Ireland’s predominant sporting culture – the lionised teenager who had the run of the school corridor; the key player for the club; the county star. He became a national name, known by his nickname Gizzy. He qualified as a teacher. His gifts as a communicator made him a natural for media work. He had “success” cracked.
Part of him loved it. Part of him constantly questioned what it meant. He travelled, burrowed his way into spirituality and returned home filled with wisdoms with which he insisted on annoying his team-mates. When he finished with county hurling in 2013, he felt physically and mentally hollowed out and tried to relocate himself by spending several winters in Ballyferriter, virtually penniless and car-less, foraging for seaweed. He says it was only when he met Siobhán de Paor, a poet and performance artist from Waterford, that he began to understand that whatever he had been tearing around the world searching for was located within himself.
The couple started to hold wild retreats near their home in south Kerry. The male-only groups originated from repeated enquiries. Sometimes, he bases a weekend around an ancestral practice. Last May, for instance, 20 men signed up for a weekend on deer tanning. Lyng sourced seven deer carcasses, killed in a cull in Killarney National Park, and had a total of 20 skins. A master butcher led the class. “All of us,” Lyng replies when asked if the group had been squeamish.
“The smell was intense. And the hard part is when the deer goes from being this beautiful animal to just ... meat on a butchering table. The actual skinning is a fairly quick process and it’s a very jarring thing to see.”
The traditional skin tanning process involves using parts of the brain liquefied by pestle and mortar and then applied: the size of the brain always corresponds to the size of the skin. The application takes hours and is laborious and painstaking. Lyng himself maintains a plant-heavy diet and constantly questions the ethics of meat-eating. The idea of the deer tanning was to acknowledge what it is to eat meat.
“For sure, it doesn’t sit easily. If we are eating meat at all, the idea of this is to get closer to the animal. To respect the animal. Everything is used in this process. There is a profound respect to the animal in the commitment to use every single part. I don’t know how in two generations we have stopped growing food in our gardens, why we subcontract out health, food, medicine. I don’t see people getting healthier or happier for it. So, I had to start asking questions and I met people on the fringes who were doing things I hadn’t seen before or hadn’t been taught before. It is about going back to the practices of our grandparents and great-grandparents.”
The men on the deer tanning retreat were strangers. One guy flew in from Canada. Another worked as an engineer in the Middle East. Strangers coming together can be liberating when it comes to honest conversation and revelation. Lyng believes that what draws people to the retreats is “the sense of being weighed down by some kind of dissatisfaction where they want to change their life or job or relationship and don’t know how”.
The tanning camp was particularly spartan: tents, a big jug of water, a bar of soap. “You had to be a stayer,” Lyng remembers.
Occasionally, one of the men would leave their post during the tanning, frustrated by the work. “But whenever someone got up, someone else would start working on their skin.”
Over the next two days and nights, the group gradually let their fears and scars spill out. Often it was the usual sources – stoic fathers, childhood traumas, “maybe men who grew up in the last of the rigorous Catholic mentality” that formed the basis for their stories. There were tears, unabashed shows of vulnerability. That group has stayed in touch, which thrills Lyng.
He knows how all of this can sound when delivered out of context; men seeking solace in the wild is a tale told everywhere, from Deliverance to Iron John, the self-help book which was distilled in testosterone and sold by the crateload in the early 1990s. Lyng laughs when it is put to him that people could just dismiss the whole thing as a bunch of lads wilding out for the drama of it, smearing the blood on their cheeks and howling at the moon.
“Ah sure it is a bit of Iron John, too! And we are f***ing daubing blood on our faces, and we are howling at the moon. That is not on the timetable. But sometimes it’s the most primal energy that comes out,” he says.
“Anybody can stand on the edge and say that it is ridiculous or cruel. And look, I do care about scorn. I want to be part of the tribe as much as the next fella. But howling at the moon seems better to me than your 15th drink in a nightclub or doing lines of cocaine – stuff that is all over the country now; fellas not having any inkling of the power or potential within themselves. So, if the beholders of the system that creates this disenchantment are going to scoff at what I am doing ... attending to thresholds in a boy’s life, in a young man’s life, or for the stag parties who instead of going off to Amsterdam to do drugs and maybe pick up a venereal disease are consciously honouring a stag as being a good man ... well, then if this is weird, fine. To me, it is more of an assertion of masculinity.”
Anyone who attends the retreats says that it is Lyng’s personality – mischievous and positive and lit with an absolute sincerity – is crucial to whatever alchemy occurs.
“It really was a rare experience. There were many layers to it,” says a coach with a Dublin-based sports team; he prefers to remain anonymous as the retreat became a pact for the group.
“There was a survival element of it – mind you, for a load of guys from south county Dublin, that may not take much. What, no Starbucks! The camp was very remote. It wasn’t a macho thing. But it was very, very primitive. The big point for me would be that people who allow themselves to be vulnerable can be the most resilient people you can meet. Because, they are able to strike that balance between being able to release that tension and building resolve on facing those challenges.”
What Lyng is seeking to do is an extension of what he started with himself: strip away the social constructs and talk about who is “in” there. For sports teams, the dressing room hierarchy just dissolves. Hidden aspects to personalities reveal themselves. It’s the same with school groups.
“We go to an all-boys school. Diarmuid hurled all his life and was very successful in it, so he understood a bit of where we were from,” says Con Lenihan, a Leaving Certificate student in St Brendan’s in Killarney.
“What you would call lads culture, I suppose. And he helped us to open up a bit and get to a different place. To see each other as fully rounded people. The tasks were to help each other in cooking and building shelter. He talked about – he didn’t harp about it too much – but about getting in touch with the feminine side and the masculine and feminine side to every person. We all know we are friends and care about each other but that is never vocalised. You begin to understand whoever you meet more as a person rather than just a figure in your life.”
Mish O’Donoghue, a music teacher who organised the retreat for the St Brendan’s group, remembers watching the boys that evening as they emerged from the camp to meet their parents. She had heard about the men’s circles through a friend of her son’s, and contacted Lyng on a hunch. They arranged a one-day gathering.
“There was a lot of hanging around and the conversation was still going on at that hour of the night. Something had opened. Now, there were a few it didn’t work for, and I could see that, too. There is a teenager growing up in every boy and they are struggling with their whole identity. I really think there is a need for an area there where they can explore their emotions. It can be hard to do that in a classroom.”
This weekend will be Lyng’s final retreat of the year: the deep winter is just too inhospitable. But the past two years have convinced him that he has stumbled on a deeply ingrained need for men – of all ages and all nationalities – to begin to speak to one another with honesty. He is weary of the debates and theses that he says, “get lost in the intellectual about what is wrong – and what is wrong with men”. Now that he is encouraging other males to have the same conversations he had with himself a decade ago, he is hopeful that he can help others to arrive at a clearer understanding of their masculinity.
“They have this power, and now they are being told that that power is the source of all evil in the world, the source of the patriarchy. Yes, they need to soften and be more feminine. But there is part of the male experience, too, of the masculine, that the female experience can’t ever know or fully understand. What I want to do is to go into that and work out where the shadow is and what causes that – and how we can use that power or energy as a source that feeds society. You must be willing to run the gauntlet a bit. And I’m just a boatman in this. Better people will come along and do this work in a better, more skilled way than me. But they are not doing it now. And there is a need for it.”
For information on future retreats, see wildirishretreat.ie