We drive through the thickening snow in the streets of Belturbet, following the signs for the ferry as best we can, though they are often partially obscured by overgrown branches, and in some cases facing away from the road. Finally, at the end of a long, dark path we find a gravelly area on the banks of Lough Erne that we take to be the car park and call our friends who are already on the island to let them know that we have arrived. The wait is long (apparently the man who drives the ferry is trying to settle his baby daughter) and we watch our breath steaming, and the glitter of unfeasibly thick clusters of stars, thinking of dinner.
Finally Tim arrives in the ferry and we half-climb, half-wade aboard (the levels of the lake are especially high due to the extreme weather conditions). Tim is a Hare Krishna devotee. He worships and works on Inisrath with his Panaman wife Champa and their daughter Janaki. In fact Tim lived and studied on the island for eight years as a brahmacari (student monk) before he married Champa. Tim turns the light off as we drift across the black water so that we can look for shooting stars, switching it back on in time for our approach to the improvised back-up jetty. Disembarking involves a similar squelchy-hop manoeuvre but soon we are stomping up the steep drive to a large, brightly-lit Victorian house.
The house on Inisrath was built in the nineteenth century by Sir Henry Cavendish Butler, who owned the island then, and it served in those days as a summer pleasure retreat. In 1984, the island was bought by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the house was turned into an ashram with a temple downstairs. It is now the centre of a thriving Hare Krishna community with arati ceremonies (rituals in which light from wicks soaked in ghee or camphor is offered to one or more deities) being performed seven times a day, and many other community events hosted.
Inside it is lovely and warm (despite our apprehensions) and they have saved us some of the dinner cooked by Champa – dahl, spiced vegetable subji, samosas, freshly-made chapattis and rice. During the autumn months, the vegetables used in the cooking are those grown on the island. After we have eaten we join the rest of our group upstairs, where they are discussing our timetable for the weekend. We have come with our own yoga teacher and have planned our schedule ourselves, but the island also caters to people wishing to experience a retreat, to come and study yoga independently, or even those wanting to take a vegetarian cookery course.
The next morning, we start our day with an early yoga session in the temple room downstairs, straight after the first arati. The room is large, and cold sunshine filters through big windows. The shrine to Krishna and Radha at one end of the room is concealed behind its curtains where it will remain until the next arati. As we open our eyes after the final relaxation, we see that it is snowing again and a couple of the peacocks that are the island’s other permanent residents are huddled against the glass for warmth.
After we have cleared away our mats, we all stream into the kitchen and pile our plates with delicious food. Tim carries Janaki smilingly among our tables – it is hard to tell if he is more proud of his beautiful daughter or of our evident appreciation of his wife’s cooking.
Later in our ‘meditative walk’ I manage to completely circumnavigate the island in an hour. Along the main path
are little scenes from the Krishna Book which summarises the aspects of the Srimad Bhagavatam (one of the major texts of Hindu literature) that deal with the life of Krishna. I get a fright when I happen upon the numerous cardboard monkeys representing one scene. I follow all the wooden signs to the jetties – some are actual concrete slopes, most are swampy banks – somewhat defeating the purpose of my walk as I force a path through brambles and sprawling roots. Reputedly there are also deer on the island, but I can’t imagine where they are.
Back at the house, we thaw out and dry off in time for our next yoga class. After this is dinner, then we make a group mandala illustrating the different chakras, and have a rousing kirtan (chanting and singing) session upstairs.
A few of us get up early the next morning for the 7 o’ clock arati. When we arrive, the monks are already pacing about the room, chanting quietly. At seven the curtains spring open and George Harrison’s ‘Govindam Prayers’ blares out, instantly rousing us from our drowsy state. The monks sing and play their instruments energetically and afterwards the head monk gives a sermon, which he adapts especially for us visitors.
Immediately after arati we have our last yoga class, as through the window the grey clouds gather. At breakfast Tim announces that Champa has made us all some biscuits to take with us, and that the head monk wants us each to help ourselves to a book. We are all reluctant to leave, but for some of us there is a flight to catch back in Dublin and a long drive ahead. We pile onto the ferry and sing all the way to the far shore. Here a group of devotees is gathered, waiting to take the ferry back to the island, and they help us back onto semi-dry land. The ‘real world’ beckons, but not before a last song to send us on our way.