By John Bowker
John Bowker is Ireland’s leading drum circle facilitator. In recent years, he has helped create Earthsong, Ireland’s first major alternative camp. Here he explains some of the story behind this unusual event.
During the late sixties and early seventies, many alternative festivals began to emerge in Europe and America, bringing new life to ancient traditional fairs and gathering times. In the U.K. the most famous of these were the Midsummer festivals at Glastonbury and Stonehenge. The flagship event for Ireland was the Lisdoonvarna festival.
Inspiration was to be found in these places; the counter culture, alive and flourishing, brought together alternative energy ideas, Yoga, Wholefoods, Organics, Green Anarchism, Vegetarianism, CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), new school initiatives, eco housing, workers co-ops, Tai Chi and World Music. It was inspiring and hopeful, suggesting the future could be good if we learnt a few things and gave up our destructive habits. There was meditation and talk of ley lines, mysticism and sacred sites. To be in the heart of the country for a few days, overlooked by the famous Glastonbury Tor or the standing stones on Salisbury plain, could have a profound effect; an enchantment. Spending time living on the land brought changes; many began to care for the earth a little more.
But there were problems: dodgy types in balaclavas – selling drugs, poor sanitation, Hells Angels – drunk and abusive, crowds were enormous and an incredible amount of litter kept an army of litter pickers busy after the events.
As the recession of the seventies led into the poverty of the eighties, many found an alternative life living in buses and trucks, making crafts and selling them at the festivals. In the heights of the cold war, nuclear missiles were stationed throughout the U.K. and festival organizers and activists created peace camps at several nuclear bases as peaceful protests against the war machine. Glastonbury festival became the biggest CND fundraiser in Europe.
The authorities came down hard on these new gatherings, and in 1985, Stonehenge Festival was stopped in the unlawful police action that became known as The Battle of the Bean Field. The media branded alternative travellers and festival goers as brigands and thieves, dismissing the counter culture as naive hippy nonsense. The alternative festival scene began to collapse, many of its leaders and organizers seeking shelter in France or Portugal, Spain or Ireland.
In 1985, a visionary named Palden Jenkins (he would later become well known as a new age author), along with other like-minded festival stalwarts, came up with new models, bringing the best of the festival scene into the future and leaving the rest behind.
The Camp Scene was born with Palden’s first camp project: the Glastonbury camps. I met Palden at one of Ireland’s first camps, the Earth Wisdom camp, Roscommon, 1993. There he explained how a group of people can come together for a while, living on the land, sharing responsibilities and skills, indigenous wisdom and teachings, building an environment for exploration of what it could mean to be modern, healthy humans, a social experiment in consciousness raising and freedom.
The Camp Scene has blossomed since the eighties, evolving a safe and magical, human-friendly environment.
For four years now, I have been the main co-coordinator for Earthsong, Ireland’s pioneer camp event. Based on wisdom inherited directly from the Glastonbury camps and its off-shoots such as the Oak Dragon camps and the Unicorn camps in Dorset, Earthsong has clear policies that help create a very unusual and magical oasis.
No drugs or alcohol are allowed on site. This is the most important ground rule, ensuring our sensitivity and access to intelligence can be increased rather than diminished. The lack of intoxicants also seems to deter any troublemakers from coming.
The camp lasts for nine days and access is by advance ticket only. Earthsong is kept deliberately small and intimate; only 185 adult tickets are sold. Adults can bring teenagers and children with them. 175 working tickets are for teachers, facilitators, café workers, etc.
Electric Music is not allowed on site, there are no rock groups or rave tents. This encourages the camp participants to make music. Gospel songs, World Music, camp fire guitars and tribal drum sessions fill the Earthsong with sound. A noise curfew at 11pm helps families with children to get enough sleep. No day tickets or visitors are allowed, which helps the community to become quickly established and a feeling of safety to arrive. A deep sense of playfulness and healing can ensue. Workshops cover all sorts of music and dance, crafts, personal growth and healing arts. A daily program of crafts and games are provided for children. At Earthsong the camping is in small circles of around 12 tents, each circle sharing a central cooking fire. All firewood is provided. The camping circle becomes the extended family for the week and strong friendships are made.
Teenagers have their own camp space, venue and workshops, and are also encouraged to join in with the adult events. Earthsong’s teenagers are the strongest supporters of the event and each year provide the camp with a wonderful night of African style dance drumming.
Every morning, the camp comes together in a meeting, sharing information and program details and also exploring creative ways to deal with any issue that may arise.
Earthsong has no hired venues and no professional crew. All of Earthsong is put together by a team of fifty or so volunteers. In return for a free ticket, they carefully create the infrastructure for the camp. Compost loos, hand wash stations and water points are built and put in place. Earthsong has invested all its takings from the first few years into a collection of excellent covered spaces which the site crew also put together; big tops, yurts, marquees, a café, a wholefood shop and a wood stove heated hot shower tent. All give good shelter from the weather and create a magical and inspiring atmosphere. The site crew team have found over the years that setting up camp can be as much fun as the main camp. Many appreciating the satisfaction of creatively working as a team to make something beautiful and inspiring
I teach drumming and voice at the camp, and lead some of the evening events. I have never before seen such wonderful sessions. Sometimes a hundred and fifty drummers are joined by a hundred dancers and singers in enormously powerful celebrations of life and community.
I have sat on a hill overlooking Earthsong and seen an ancient Celtic village, a gathering of the tribes. In the wood smoke and the banners, the laughter and the songs I can get a sense of the voices of the future sending back their blessings as we humbly reclaim our heritage, our birthright, bringing our young folk and elders into enchanted moments in the green fields of Ireland for the precious summer days.
This year, Earthsong is holding two camps in Co. Tipperary; Earthsong Healing Drum Camp, Sat 10th July to Sat 17th July and Earthsong Harvest moon Camp, Sat 24th July to Sun 1st Aug.
For more info, visit earthsong.ie or call 091590785 or 0863541328 or email firstname.lastname@example.org