Patrick Lydon obituary: Driving force of Camphill Community in Ireland

Final years marked by courage and bravery, illness confining him to bed for a day – his last

Born: July 12, 1950
Died: January 18th, 2022

“Broaden the space in your soul, seek your higher self, and do your deeds in earnest!”

So ended Patrick Lydon’s address to the students of his alma mater, Philips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, in October 2001, on receiving, at 51, an award for his lifetime’s work in the service of others. By then, with his wife Gladys and others, he’d overseen the establishment in 1979 of the Camphill Community in Ballytobin, Co Kilkenny, a farm-based school for children with exceptional support needs, which had since prospered to sprout sixteen further communities in Ireland.

Their work at Ballytobin had also spawned the biogas energy plant and Castalia Concert Hall on site, the Watergarden Cafe in Thomastown, and KCAT, the radically inclusive arts centre in Callan which grew from the recognition of the quiet artistic genius of the Lydons’ dear friend and house-mate Georgie McCutcheon. In 2001 the Lydons were about to establish Camphill Callan, putting community-building skills to work with local people, developing projects of town planning, social housing, renewable energy, a nature and heritage trail and a drama and events company.

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Born in Duxbury, Massachusetts, in 1950, Lydon was the last of six in a family of entirely Irish ancestry. His eponymous father, a telephone switchboard operator, had already retired with Parkinson’s Disease. His mother Alice Joyce’s interests in alternative socio-economic models, combined with her husband’s illness, had steered the family to a small farming homestead where Lydon spent his first three years, an experience beyond his recall that teed up two of the great themes of his life: farming and gardening in a context of social inclusion and therapy, and the integration of work with home life.

Under that Lydon roof the life of the mind ranked far above worldly prosperity. Alice industriously ensured her children got into “good” schools. At 16, Patrick was accepted, on full scholarship, at Exeter. That the school motto was Non Sibi (Not for the Self) mattered little to him then, but its message was later at the heart of all his projects. There he was profoundly affected by the idealism of Dostoevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov, just as his disenchantment with America – its systemic racism, notions of personal success, military-industrial complex and war in Vietnam – all weighed heavily upon him. Entering Yale he was drafted for that war, to be called up once his studies ended, so two years in he took a year at Trinity College Dublin and remained thereafter in Ireland, foregoing a promising career in rock journalism, having already reported for the New York Times on Woodstock, the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park and other illustrious engagements.

In 1972 Lydon discovered the nascent Camphill Community in Duffcarrig, Co Wexford, the first such in the Republic, opened 50 years ago this week. There, “a door opened, and I went through it” Here he found his life’s mission. This community was part of a worldwide movement founded in Scotland in 1940 by Viennese Jews who’d fled the Nazis. It proposed a radical new way of community living, guided by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, with particular emphasis on the potential, education, integration and spiritual integrity of all, regardless of physical or intellectual ability. Camphill’s communities encompassed life sharing, based in largely self-sustaining, organic farms and gardens. Nobody was paid. People coming to live there found their lives enriched. “Cared for”, “carers” and “service provision” were alien concepts. All were equal citizens, each contributing according to ability.

At Duffcarrig Lydon developed a lifelong love of gardening. In 1976, after an apprenticeship in farming, he went to Camphill Newton Dee, Aberdeen, to apply his skills in a social farming context. There he revelled in larger community life, editing the community newsletter, organising social events. At one such he met Gladys Kinghorn. When a call went out in 1978 from parents requesting a new community for autistic children in Ireland, Patrick and Gladys answered, thus beginning a love story in which life and vocation were forever intertwined.

Abiding influence

In the decades since he joined Camphill, Lydon had an enormously positive and abiding influence on hundreds of lives, through countless social and environmental projects, in many walks of life. His great gift was for seeing the potential in people, situations and offbeat ideas. His wide enthusiasm for life found him equally at home milking cows as he was in accompanying artists with support needs on inclusive art missions abroad, or presenting funding requests to government officials or gracious donors.

Diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in March 2021, Lydon brought much of his expansiveness to his final journey – reflecting, reading, writing, dreaming and planning. Testament to his tireless warrior spirit, his progressively restrictive illness confined him to bed for just one day – his last.

He leaves behind a wealth of completed and “green-shoot” projects, an extraordinarily inclusive community in Callan and beyond, imbued with the original Camphill impulse, but working on new ways of living non sibi towards a better future for all.

Patrick Lydon is survived by his wife Gladys, sons Dominic and Colum, daughters Sarah and Ruth, his eight grandchildren and three surviving brothers.