Inside John Lennon’s bizarre hippie island

Yet, while buying an island might sound like the ultimate rock-star indulgence, Lennon didn’t intend to let Dorinish simply languish and accrue value, nor did he harbour any entrepreneurial ambitious to turn it into a nightmarish celebrity resort.  Lennon was willing to share his island – to a degree. The initial idea was for Dorinish to be a retreat for The Beatles and their entourage, albeit it wasn’t until 1970 before anything really started to happen, when a post-Beatles Lennon offered the island to Sid Rawle, a 26-year-old social activist whom the British press called the “King of the Hippies”. Rawle had just been involved in the “Hippiedilly” episode of 1969, when a hundred of London’s bikers, drop-outs and radicals briefly occupied 144 Piccadilly, an opulent mansion a stone’s throw from Hyde Park’s manicured gardens. 

Impressed by Rawle’s street-label politics and utopian intentions, Lennon donated the use of Dorinish to Rawle for “the common good”. And thus, in the late summer of 1970, Rawle and his friends, a loose group of 25 or so he called The Tribe of the Sun, landed on Beatle Island. They intended to make camp, work the land and raise crops. They hoped to become a shining example of how to live well, as a peaceful community, far away from the stress of the modern world. 

They lasted barely a year. The soil was tough, the weather was atrocious, tensions arose between the group and the Westport mainland until, finally, a mysterious fire raged through the camp. Once the tents and the crops had gone up in smoke, there was little point in carrying on. For the novelist Kevin Barry, author of Beatlebone (2015), a fictional take on John Lennon’s encounter with Dorinish, the group had come up against the malign forces of the island itself. At one point in the book, an exhausted Rawle is eventually rescued by a couple of fishermen who find him wandering through the ruined camp, babbling about Heaven and Hell. It was as if his mind had been warped and his body repelled by the very extremity of the place. As Barry puts it, Dorinish was “the perfect place for midnight screaming” because “when you live far out there’s no place left to go but deep inside”.

Hostile conditions and occult forces aside, the group’s dynamics were more likely the cause of the project’s decline. The obvious physical challenges of island life weren’t the only problem. The issue also lay with the psychic baggage that Rawle, and his would-be communards had, knowingly or not, brought to the island. When they weren’t clinging on onto their tents as storms screamed overhead, they were screaming at each other. 

They should have taken a leaf from Lennon’s book, and screamed it all out before they got there. Between the end of The Beatles and him offering Dorinish to Rawle, Lennon and Yoko Ono worked with the psychotherapist Dr Arthur Janov, author of The Primal Scream (1970). Janov’s practice of primal-scream therapy encouraged patients to unload their trapped “pain”, be that buried trauma, long-repressed anger or knotted neurosis. These cathartic outpourings would often spill out as long, relief-bringing screams. As Janov put it, once the tank was empty, the patient would be “well”. And so Lennon shouted out his childhood grievances, while Ono used Janov’s psychodramatic arena to work through her seemingly conflicted roles as wife, mother and artist. 

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