How the Hare Krishna Island on Lough Erne is experiencing a ‘wellness’ boom
The Sunday World took the canary yellow ferry to the 22-acre island to see how it is being transformed into a resort
Unfamiliar noises are competing with the usual hypnotic soundtrack of chanting, drumming and tinkling bells on Hare Krishna Island.
Drilling and hammering now also fill the crystal clean air of what has been hailed one of the “rarest jewels” in Northern Ireland’s landscape.
Tree-shrouded island of Inis Rath on Lough Erne is on its way to becoming a world-famous ‘wellness’ paradise for armies of global visitors desperate to escape a world they feel is going to pieces.
The Sunday World took the canary yellow ferry to the 22-acre island to see how it is being transformed into a resort oasis for people from across the world suffering from what therapists have been calling “headline stress disorder”.
After departing the boat – carrying the message HARE KRISHNA on its side – we’re greeted by gently-spoken monk Manu.
The youthful 64-year-old Dubliner, and chair of Rath’s temple council, is lean from his 37 years on a ‘Krishnatarian’ diet of fresh vegetables and milk products.
He calmly intones: “There’s just an inner need in people to have peacefulness in their lives.
“Nature is the greatest exponent of that, because people love to come to the countryside and go on walks, and go on a lakeside – so this is very, very popular.
“It is surrounded by water, which has a great calming effect, and on top of that there’s an incredible canopy of trees that were put down.
“There is natural forest, which has oak that is over 500 years old, but you also have lots more exotic trees put down by people from the turn of the 20th century, and they’re in full bloom now 100 years later.
“It’s a rare jewel.”
Manu – whose non-Krishna name is Martin Davies – went from teaching to opening an art gallery in Dublin, which he still manages with his son while running the Inis Rath Krishna temple and fundraising efforts for the island.
Since the site was bought for £125,000 by the Krishna community in 1985, it has struggled to stay afloat.
It was an isolated labour of love hugely costly to maintain, with the fact it freezes over in winter sparking yet more maintenance bills.
Despite its founder being friends with the world’s most famous Krisha devotee – ex-Beatle George Harrison – its Krishna caretakers left over the years to take jobs and start families. By 2002, the dream of preserving the retreat was apparently dead.
The registered charity owner, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), put the island on the market for £950,000.
But after fighting back with recent fundraising gigs – including one put on in London by Boy George – it is now working on becoming a global centre for international visitors and as a kind of wellness centre for people seeking peace in their lives.
Another of its famous supporters is self-styled lifestyle guru Jay Sheety, known as the ‘mogul monk’, who last week officiated at Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s second wedding.
But Manu puts the island’s rebirth down to more than famous supporters.
He says the state of a world battered by everything from Brexit and Covid to ‘Mad Vlad’ Putin’s bombardment of Ukraine and the spiralling cost-of-living crisis is driving more and more people to seek solace and peace.
“In Covid, people just weren’t able to come and it became difficult on several fronts,” he says.
“But after Covid we found a lot more people actually just wanted to come and explore, to just walk around the island and see the peacefulness basically.
“You find this feeling coming out in the classes and the talks we have – people feel the world has gone crazy, it’s kind of out ofcontrol.
“People don’t know what will happen next, they don’t think they can do anything about it.
“People express a real feeling of uncertainty, and just not being comfortable in themselves, or about the future.
“So they come to places like this to exercise that need, and they see nature as fulfilling a lot of that need to connect.
“In nature you’re able to, in my understanding, get closer to God, by seeing it in that full splendour.
“But you’re also able to get closer to yourself – self-realisation. And that’s so different from being in the hustle and bustle.
“Time on the island gives people that inner repose and they become happier.”
Inis Rath’s founder, Srila Prabhupada, was hailed as a “perfect” mentor by the late Beatle George Harrison – perhaps the world’s most famous celebrity Krishna.
Harrison died from lung cancer in 2001 at the age of 58, two years after surviving a knife attack by an intruder at his Friar Park home.
His remains were cremated, and the ashes were scattered according to Hindu tradition in a private ceremony in the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India Manu said: “Srila met Harrison a lot. And we have celebrity interest, as well as funding from patrons and from regular visitors.
“We will have a lot more international visitors once or guest facilities are finished. We are really well-known in western Europe and especially in American and by the Indian community in Northern Ireland.
“We raised £150,000 last year to put in a whole new infrastructure with water and electric, but we need more.
“We’re upgrading the buildings as much as possible, because the main building is from the 1850s – it takes a lot of upkeep.
“We’ve got planning permission for two more cottages and we have also put in a new storage area.
“I used to get asked things like, ‘Is Hare Krishna a Protestant or Catholic religion?’ and, ‘Are you a Protestant or Catholic Hare Krishna?’ – but not so much anymore.”
Inis Rath is 20 miles from Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, and 20 miles from Cavan town.
Formerly part of the Earl of Erne’s Crom Estate, it is 300 yards from the mainland and is accessible by boat and landing craft from its own pier and a new floating landing stage on the island.
The house, once used as the Earl of Erne’s shooting lodge, has 12 residents now.
Nanda Grama Mahi Dhari (58), originally from Latvia, weeds the gardens and tends to the estate, which she calls an “amazing place” that “helps you find yourself”.
There is electricity, running water and WiFi.
Madan Mohan Das (38), who has lived on the island for 10 years, will admit conditions are not always easy, but insists he would not live anywhere else as the finds it so “spiritual”.
Manhanra Simpra (38), a Londoner, says: “Coming from a city to here is like coming to heaven.”
He added he recently went back to visit friends and couldn’t get his “head around” the bustle and smog of big city life.
The Krishnas’ minds are now focussed on getting the island ready for the influx of visitors due when their facilities are complete.
This month, it held celebrations for Hindu god Balarama, with ‘deity readings’ and classes.
The Krishna’s traditional khol drums have sounded at festivals on the island for years which have seen visitors from every corner of the planet and orange-robed devotees putting on displays.
When we visit, incense is burning at the temple and wafting around the island.
The vegetarian garden is blooming and the island’s cows – sacred to Krishnas – grow fatter.
Krishna Island’s revered peacocks strut around and its deer are thriving.
A ‘big shop’ is done weekly to top up supplies and there are sandpits and swings for children.
Phones are allowed but there are plans to ban them on day and overnight retreats.
Manu who has been married to his Newry-born wife Ishani for 35 years, goes back and forth from the island on the ferry up to six times a day to welcome visitors.
“What’re we’re offering is a whole understanding of the world’s spiritual source. That understanding is what will help people and the world the most,” he says.
“It really can help anyone.”
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