Trips Down Memory Lane – An Irishman’s Diary about Timothy Leary, John Lennon and LSD
John Lennon. Photograph: Getty Images
Cruising what used to be called the Information Superhighway recently, I took a wrong turn somewhere and found myself briefly lost on a weird section of Route 66. Or more precisely, it was the year 1966, in which I landed via an archived interview from Playboy magazine with the psychologist Timothy Leary: then notorious for his advocacy of mind-expanding drugs.
Among other things, the piece revealed Leary to be very interested in his ancestral origins (French and Irish, mostly). That of course is not an unusual interest for Americans, then or now.
The eccentric part is that he was researching his family history via LSD trips, which he was convinced could recover centuries of memory encoded in his DNA. If the interview can be believed, the results were more dramatic than anything you'd find in the National Library.
The Gallic section of his ancestral recall was dominated by one particular figure, from about 300 years before: a "French-appearing man with a black moustache, a rather dangerous-looking guy." But the Irish side, interestingly, was where most of the sexual memories seemed to be stored.
Leary told Playboy of "several highly eccentric recurrent sequences in an Anglo-Saxon country that have notably embarrassed me when I relived then in LSD sessions". Pressed for details, he added: "Moments of propagation, scenes of rough ancestral sexuality in Irish barrooms, in haystacks, in canopied beds, in covered wagons, on beaches, on the moist jungle floor."
But the highlights reel wasn't all about sex. There were also "moments of crisis in which my forebears escape from fang, from spear, from conspiracy, from tidal wave and avalanche."
And his conclusion from these inner visions was that "the imprints most deeply engraved in the neurological memory bank have to do with those moments of life-affirming exultation and exhilaration in the perpetuation of the species".
In fairness to Leary, he didn't vouch for any of this being what his French relatives might call cinema verité. "They may all be nothing more than luridly melodramatic Saturday serials conjured up by my forebrain," he admitted. "But [whether] they are memory or imagination it's the most exciting adventure I've ever been involved in."
Leary was then soon to become a friend and occasional conspirator of another son of the Irish diaspora, John Lennon, who shared several of his interests. The former would be a guest at one of the famous "bed-in's". And Lennon later name-checked him as "Timmy Leary" on Give Peace a Chance.
Lennon was known to experiment with LSD too. And he in turn went through a phase of researching ancestry, albeit using more conventional mind-expanding materials, including Edward MacLysaght's Irish Families.
That, according to author Kevin Barry, was where the former Beatle learned "that the O'Lennons were most typically from the counties Down, Sligo, or Galway, and were not known to have distinguished themselves in military affairs".
Mind you, as Barry suggests in his recent novel Beatlebone, Lennon may also have studied the subject on a more mystical level, or tried to, during his brief time on Dorinish, the Mayo island he bought on a whim in 1967.
His reportedly drug-fuelled visit there that summer caused a sensation in a country where most people's experience of LSD was still confined to the currency in which Lennon had paid £1,700 for the site.
It's not clear how successfully the great songwriter communed with his ancestors. But in imaginatively recreating a return visit in 1978, Barry went to heroic lengths to put himself in his subject's mind.
The research included an attempt to spend three days and nights alone on Dorinish. In the event, Barry managed a day and a half before having to call his emergency rescue service. "I was removed from Dorinish Island in a state of distress," is alla he would say in the book.
I don't know if Timothy Leary ever visited Ireland, physically, although he must have been here many times while on LSD. He has certainly travelled widely since death. In 1997, part of his ashes were blasted into space, where they orbited for several years.
Back in 1967, by contrast, he was still on the way to becoming what Richard Nixon called "the most dangerous man in America". And it was exactly 50 years ago this week that, at a hippy gathering in San Francisco, Leary advised his audience to "turn on, tune in, drop out". The event, and the catchphrase, combined to launch what would soon be known as the Summer of Love