Every youth culture has sparked something of a moral panic in the press, and if it hasn’t, then it wasn’t much of a culture to begin with.
In the late 1960s, the Irish media struggled to get their heads around the hippy movement. When a visiting philosophy lecturer warned of “an outcrop of bearded, long-haired, unwashed, strangely clad, guitar-playing, drug-taking, promiscuous young people”, more than one Irish newspaper reported on his warnings. According to Cyril Barrett:
These young people, a small but conspicuous minority, were not simply rebelling against the older generation as they predecessors did. They regarded themselves almost as a race apart and would have nothing to do with what they called ‘The Other Generation.’
By 1969, the fear that English hippies were going to establish a commune on Saint Patrick’s Island was preoccupying locals and journalists. The island, described as “the most distant of three low-lying uninhabited islets off the headland of Skerries”, caught the eye of London hippies who required a new home following the high-profile eviction of their Picadilly squat. It was, according to the Irish Press, “suggested that if 1,000 hippies raised £20,000 they could buy the island.” Sid Rawle, described in the Irish media as “the leader of the London commune”, was said to be considering moving to the desolate island, and taking his friends with him.
According to the hippies, the island could be home to a “new a society aimed at love, trust and respect”, where “violent people would not be allowed on the island. Drugs of some types would be permitted if they did not cause friction with the Irish Government or people.”
The London-based hippies enjoyed the support of a number of prominent figures, including the iconic Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg and Swami Vishnudevananda, an internationally known peace activist and yoga instructor. Despite their impressive international supporters, the hippies faced competition; it was reported that Butty Sugrue, a man who adored a good gimmick, intended to buy the island and place “a 150-foot statue of Saint Patrick” upon it. Butty Sugrue, a “circus strongman, entrepreneur and boxing promoter” among other things, spent most of the 1960s in the newspapers. Instrumental in bringing Muhammed Ali to Dublin, he had also attempted to purchase the head of the Admiral Nelson monument that stood on O’Connell Street for his Kilburn pub.
When Sid Rawle and other hippies arrived in Dublin late in September 1969, the reception was frosty. The weather wasn’t great either. A local boat owner reportedly “did not want to take the hippies to the island. ‘I am not too keen on them at all’ he said, before being persuaded to take them on the hour-long trip.”
Some locals saw the funny side of it all; one Skerries man joked that “a friend of mine brought sheep out there some time ago and they all swam back to the mainland…they’re welcome to the island, sure you couldn’t even get a rat to stay on it.” Not to be outdone, Butty arrived on the island shortly afterwards, claiming he had out-maneuvered the hippies and the island was his.
To make matters even more bizarre, by December rumours abounded that Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger was going to buy the island. Jagger shot the claims down, insisting “I am not in the island-buying business.”
The hippies may have failed to get their hands on Saint Patrick’s Island, but it wasn’t the end of the story. On the invitation of Beatle John Lennon, they were encouraged to take up residence on the Mayo Island of Dornish in Clew Bay, which he had purchased two years before the controversy erupted. Some locals there were more welcoming; one raised the point that:
I cannot remember any cries around Clew Bay in the past twenty years as island after island became depopulated and as the villages on its shores died or dwindled. The only cries I can remember were the partings of families broke up on the platform at Westport railway station.
Reflecting on the visitors, a Westport local told The Guardian in 2014 that:
You never saw them in town. Only Rawle himself came in for anything they needed – the welfare cheques, of course. He didn’t even have a boat: he’d hoist a white bedsheet up when he wanted Tommy, one of the local guys with a boat, to come and get him…We’re maybe a bit more bohemian than most parts of Ireland, but we had pirates living here long before the hippies. Sid Rawle was more a dreamer than a drug crazy.
After two years, the dream was over. When a fire destroyed some of the key infrastructure of the camp, Rawle departed the west of Ireland. He was later central to the establishment of the Tipi Valley tent commune in Wales, where he remained until 1982.Rawle spent much of his life on the road, refusing to live by the rules of mainstream society. In a personal manifesto of sorts, he outlined his vision:
There’s talk of community in war time. We can be ordered to go and fight and die for Queen and country. In peace time is it too much to ask for just a few square yards of our green and pleasant land to rear our children on? That’s all we want, myself and the squatters and travellers and other people in the many projects I’ve been involved with. Just a few square yards of this land that we can in wartime be asked to go out and die for. And if we ever achieve that, what else?
For a few weeks in 1969 at least, it seemed he might achieve his vision on an island near Skerries.