Islands of Ireland: Mayo, John Lennon, and Sid's commune

Dan MacCarthy waxes lyrical about Dorinish, Clew Bay, bought by musician and loaned to the King of the Hippies 
Islands of Ireland: Mayo, John Lennon, and Sid's commune

Dorinish, Clew Bay, Co Mayo. Once owned by the Beatles singer John Lennon. King of the Hippies Sid Rawle ran a commune there from 1970 to 1972.Picture: Dan MacCarthy; Inset: Sid Rawle

With a “carrot-red beard” and a “red pigtail dangling from his cropped head” the press description of painter and decorator Sid Rawle when he arrived in Ireland in 1970 made him sound like a representative of an exotic species.

Rawle arrived in Co Mayo to take possession of the 93-acre Dorinish island in Clew Bay which had been purchased by The Beatles singer John Lennon. Prior to the Famine the island had a population of 13 people but they had gradually dwindled away.

In his role as ‘King of the Hippies’ Rawle had been contacted by Lennon after Rawle’s attempt at setting up a commune in St Patrick’s Island, Co Dublin, had failed. “Take it and do your thing,” Lennon told Rawle. Lennon had bought Dorinish for £1,550 bought from Westport Harbour Commissioners apparently after an LSD binge.

‘Rawle means business in Mayo’ declared the Irish Independent’ as the Englishman arrived like a vampire “wrapped mummy-like in a sombre black cloak”.

Why a group of people living in harmony with nature and not interfering with anybody’s life should become a target of vitriol shouldn’t be surprising, but a target they did become. “Foreigners with free love, drugs and pot parties aren’t for us even at 30 minutes’ hard-rowing distance,” a local was reported as saying. An ICA official said, “they would oppose these characters by any means they could”.

                        Sid Rawle.
Sid Rawle.

Rawle was well capable of deflecting such criticism. “Mothers will lock up their daughters but many people have told us a breath of fresh air will be welcome,” he said.

He stated that the hippies had planted crops and intend to hang on to the island in spite of any obstacles. They also hoped to establish a lobster fishing enterprise. As for money, they had become experts in handicraft he said. And the cost of sustaining one person on the island for one week was only £1.50.

The group did not have their own boat when they arrived but Rawle reported that local boatmen were friendly to them and would help them get food. However, this avenue of access was compromised when boat services were suddenly withdrawn. The boatman’s family had been threatened by a pressure group, said Rawle.

There were continuous charges from the locals that the hippies were taking marijuana. The matter even reached the Dáil. “We are not foolish enough to grown marijuana on an island through which we have worked so hard last year to make it into a home for ourselves,” came Rawle’s rebuttal to Fine Gael TD Hugh Byrne.

However, that situation became resolved and after a year of living there, the 12 or so individuals were on the best of terms, reported a newspaper. The commune was settling in well. They had built wells for water and cold- storage holes to keep milk and butter. All 12 were living under canvas pods. They even had a baby called Benedictine among their number as one of the two women members had given birth.

They grew cabbages, potatoes, and onions, and had around a dozen hens which ran free on the island. In the event of an accident, they were to raise a white flag and a neighbour on a nearby island would call for help. However, the experiment was doomed to failure and eventually the commune dissolved in 1972.

God knows what people were supposed to do on the island, it wasn’t much more than a large rock in the Atlantic

Years later one member looked back with less than nostalgia: “We shared a primitive kind of ruin which was not much more than scant protection from the weather. God knows what people were supposed to do on the island, it wasn’t much more than a large rock in the Atlantic.” Lennon visited once only and when he was shot dead, his wife Yoko Ono sold the island and donated the money to an orphanage.

In 2020 the only sign of previous inhabitants were the ruins of a few old houses and a pattern of lazy beds which pre-dated the Hippies. A lively hare scampered across the hillside and looked like it had the whole place to itself. On one lazy bed, a colony of mushrooms had established itself (no comment).

How to get there: Ask at Westport Pier.

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