The Irish free spirits running Britain’s alcohol-free festival
There’s no booze or drugs at Buddhafield, and no corporate sponsorship, but the event brings 3,500 happy campers to Devon – and a crew of Irish emigrants are at the helm
Danaraja and Gary Bedford during set-up at Buddhafield
For all the changes of the past 20 years, Ireland’s reputation abroad often remains entwined with Catholicism and alcohol. It’s striking, then to find Irish emigrants at the heart of Buddhafield, the organisation behind Britain’s best-known alcohol-free festival.
Like many other festivals, at Buddhafield you’ll find people being unusually friendly, and ridiculously relaxed. But these festival-goers are not tipsy on beer, high on MDMA, or baked on marijuana. Neither alcohol nor drugs are tolerated at any of their events.
Beginning in the early 1990s as a meditation space and cafe at Glastonbury, Buddhafield’s flagship event has grown into a highlight of the boutique festival calendar in Britain, drawing 3,500 people each July to the Blackdown Hills on the Devon-Somerset border, with a group of Irish emigrants at the helm.
In the lead-up to the festival, in a vale by the river Culmhead, former Dublin schoolteacher Wayne Bedford, who uses the given name Danaraja, leads six people in meditation in an empty field that will become the festival site.
He and his volunteers are not sitting around for long. On a nearby disused second World War airstrip is an 18-tonne truck, containing the charity’s structures. Within hours, Danaraja and his team have set up a compost toilet, a makeshift crew kitchen, their own tents, and nascent site infrastructure before the arrival of 15 more volunteers the following day.
“It’s all about community. Setting up the festival is, for us, the path – work as a tantric guru. You need to come up against reality when it doesn’t suit you,” he says.
“We establish a Sangha [community] to support the practice. You look around and know that these are the guys you’re going to set up a famous festival with. And some volunteers turn up year after year. It’s pretty satisfying to enter an empty field, and be the last to leave that same empty field a month later.”
Each morning during setup, the volunteers begin with a 40-minute meditation, before reporting in on their wellbeing, and then getting to work assembling the structures. Most are based on old British Army tent designs, although some are geodesic domes made from hazel wood.
Forty-one-year-old Danaraja – the name means “king of giving” – moved to the UK in 2012, inspired by Buddhafield’s total immersion retreats. Ordained into the Triratna Buddhist order in 2016 by another Irish teacher, Ratnagosha, Danaraja is now a trustee of Buddhafield charity.
“You have to be true to what you’re talking about,” he says. “We’ve turned away from two industries that cause so much harm – alcohol and advertising. Alcohol is where the money is at for festivals, but we aim to provide somewhere you can love rather than fear.”
“It does change the atmosphere,” says Ratnadeva aka Sean Quigley, from Stillorgan in Co Dublin, who moved to the UK in the 1980s for a career as a contaminant hydrogeologist, after being involved with Opus Dei. “I found it was an intellectually circumscribed life,” he recalls. “Yet they were sincere people with lots of integrity.”
It has a flavour of genuine openness and family-friendliness. People really buy into being intoxicant-free
Ratnadeva (which means “spirit of the awakened mind”) leads rituals at the Buddhafield festival, combining a mix of Dharmic pageantry and native Celtic animism in the opening, closing and Saturday night ceremonies at the five-day festival.
For the one-in-three attendees who are Buddhists, the festival is a very Western expression of the Dharma. For more secular festival-goers, it’s five days of abundant aesthetic and artistic beauty.
There are four venues featuring acoustic and amplified music – everything from folk to Indian, classical, jazz, swing bands, psychedelic, Afro-Latin percussion, drum and bass, house and gypsy rock. There’s a big dance tent, drumming circles and singing workshops (all told, there are 40 workshops a day), plus a Dharma area, a healing garden, a land and social change area, and two saunas.
“It has a flavour of genuine openness and family-friendliness,” Ratnadeva says of the festival’s down-to-earth, community feel. “People really buy into being intoxicant-free. You have a sense of how your actions affect others. It’s remarkable how little litter there is. That comes out of mindfulness. A lot of people go on their own and end up really connecting.”
For Mullingar man Sean Macken, getting involved with Buddhafield was a second chance.
“I’m a recovering alcoholic and addict,” he says. “I grew up in a respected family, a respectable home. I was sexually abused by Catholic priests. I felt damaged. I fought against the Christian Brothers, the priests, the police – anyone who got in my way.”
After arriving in London in 1979, he went from working in a pub to “sitting on the street, with a matted head of hair and a dog on a string – spare-some-change-please merchant. There was no foot off the pedal. I was a very angry individual. I was looking for peace. I ended up going from Europe to the desert in Sinai [in Egypt], riding around on camels and smoking grass.”
Twenty years ago, after hearing word of an alcohol-free festival, he wandered into a field in Devon during the team’s pre-setup retreat. “Someone came over to the gate and said, ‘I don’t think you can come in here, there’s a retreat on.’ But they looked after me. I loved the place straight off.”
He became part of the work crew, digging and taking care of the compost toilets. “That’s what grounded me. I regained my self-respect digging shit pits.”
Loyal to the outdoor, transient nature of the earliest Buddhist monks, Buddhafielders camp out from March to September. Danaraja and others spend the winter in live-in vans. Newer Irish recruits such as Gary Bedford, a volunteer, often avail of the Buddhafield bungalow, in the nearby village of Down St Mary.
Given the charity’s obvious popularity as a working environment for the Irish (men in particular, although overall it’s 50-50 in terms of gender split), would the festival work in Ireland?
“The obvious reaction is, it wouldn’t work,” says Bedford. “Because we’re all pissheads, that’s our culture. But that really annoys me. What, being drunks – that’s Irish culture? Of course you could do it in Ireland. All we’d need to do is give it a chance.”
Sean Macken remembers going two successful Buddhafield events, in Wicklow and Carrick-On-Shannon, in the early 2000s. “There should be a Buddhafield in every country,” he says. “It’s a community, a break from constant craving, from chasing the dollar.”
Despite eschewing funding from alcohol sales or corporate sponsorship, Buddhafield supports festivals and donation-only retreats from March to September, plus urban winter events.
“There are two other conscious festivals doing something similar to us here now in England, ” Danaraja says. “We’re trying, in a small way, to live positively against the overriding global tide of greed, hatred and delusion. You can live happily – and I am living happily – opposed to those values. And there’s an invitation for everyone to join. Ehipassiko – come and see.”
Buddhafield takes place from July 18th to 22nd. buddhafield.com