The inspiration of The Rainbow Gathering

The Last Beekeeper
The Last Beekeeper

There I am holding hands. Holding hands with strangers. Strangers on the edge of a forest in a valley in Slovenia. It’s summer 1994. I’m happy out. I’ve fallen in love. In love with the Rainbow People.

It all started the previous year in a similar setting, on the edge of a forest, in a valley, in the Slieve Bloom Mountains. But it was different then in Ballyhuppahaun near Rosenallis.

Yes, I had held hands. But it felt slightly weird. I was afraid. Not of holding hands but of who might see me. This was down the road from where I lived. If anyone saw me, they’d say I was nuts, lost the plot. At least that’s what I thought but maybe people were kinder, more open minded than I gave them credit.

Afterall, hadn’t local forestry worker Mick Clear given permission to the Rainbow People to use his land at Ballyhuppahaun for their gathering; hadn’t the Sergeant in Mountmellick Joe Marshall given it his stamp of approval; even the parish priest, the council officials and health board staff all gave it their blessing too after visiting with a curious and dubious eye. Like me, their cynicism melting away in the warmth of the welcome and the ingenuous and inventive resourcefulness on the side of a mountain in the midlands of Ireland.

Still, I had a reputation to protect. The Leinster Express’ top man. A hard-nosed journalist used to grilling politicians and here I was holding hands with hippies. I had to be careful. What would people say?

Without any fuss or fanfare that summer they had started to arrive, this colourful caravan of Rainbow Travellers. At first the advance party to find and establish a base, then a trickle in their beads, bobbles, and braids, until eventually thousands of them from thirty-six nationalities had found and wound their way by word of mouth for the European Rainbow Gathering in Ballyhuppahaun.

Weeks later when they departed, they had left their mark and yet left no trace in Ballyhuppahaun. For the Rainbow Travellers were way before their time and drifted away, just as they had arrived, leaving only friendships, fond memories, and wonderment. What had all that been about?

Weary and wary of a belligerent media and countless columns of bad press I had struck a deal with the Rainbow People on my arrival to suss them out in the Slieve Blooms. If I was genuine and wanted to report what they were up to and accurately tell their story, then I should stay with them was the proposition. Not unreasonable.

The Last Beekeeper
The Last Beekeeper

All this is teased out in the Talking Circle, one of the key structures at a Rainbow Gathering, where there may be a hierarchy of experience and leaders but no one formally in charge. The Talking Circle is ground-up democracy, and you have the floor once you have the talking stick. The one from the Slieve Bloom Rainbow Gathering still in the prized and cherished possession of Aila and Martin Conroy in Rosenallis.

So, I moved into a tepee for the weekend. The following summer, still intrigued, I followed them to Slovenia. There I was holding hands again. This time, happy out, at home, chanting an om, and singing – earth my body, water my soul, air my breath and fire my spirit – a sort of hippy grace before meals.

To some extent I never really left that tepee.

The Rainbow People left a lasting impression. Living in harmony with each other, nature, the landscape, and Mother Earth they were ahead of the mainstream as they sought to protect the trees, the waterways, the birds, the butterflies and bees, before Greta Thunberg was born or I had ever heard of biodiversity. This wasn’t Woodstock but real flower power.

The Rainbow People did not see themselves back then as the chosen few, but rather the few who had chosen. When they went on their merry way from the Slieve Blooms and Slovenia they left no trace, only a lingering message of a love of nature and the landscape and the precious fragility of Mother Earth.

The Last Beekeeper
The Last Beekeeper

I promised myself to write a book about it. To try and capture the essence of the Rainbow People in a time before the internet and mobile phones would probably make such a gathering, with its innocence and integrity impossible, and yet its message rings through more than ever to this day.

Time and life slipped by, and I never got around to writing that book for my children as I had hoped. But I’m glad to say, many moons later, I have finally done so, for my grandchildren, Kayla, Art, Essie and Charlie.

The Last Beekeeper

Leave no trace, respect the landscape, reduce your carbon footprint, conservation, less waste, sharing resources and protecting nature and biodiversity were all cornerstones of the European Rainbow Gatherings almost 30 years ago… as reported here in the Hot Press Magazine in 1994.

Read the full article here

Inspired by the spirit of The Rainbow People, ‘The Last Beekeeper’ is now available at selected bookshops and outlets nationwide.

‘This story is about how climate change is knocking on our front door and features corncrakes and hares rather than koala and polar bears’

It is written under my pseudonym,

Johnny Renko and costs €15.