by Pat Booker
On the 3rd of June this year, Philip Carr-Gomm announced his intention to appoint a successor as Chosen Chief of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. He will serve until June 2020, and then pass the role to Eimear Burke. Eimear is well known to members of the FOI, being an Arch-druidess in the Druid Clan of Dana and serving on the Circle of Brigid. However, she is not the first Chosen Chief of OBOD to have a connection with the Fellowship. She will, in fact, be the third to have known Olivia Robertson and to have spent time at Clonegal.
Olivia had an early interest in Druidry. When she was a young girl, she and her brother would visit an old Druid hermit called Daniel Fox who lived on the banks of the Slaney. He had total clairvoyance and could see people from ages past. He spoke to Olivia and Derry of the old ways and initiated Olivia as a Druid by asking her to drink from an ancient well of which he was the guardian.
In the 1960’s, Olivia’s interest in Druidry led to a friendship with Ross Nichols, the first Chosen Chief of OBOD, who often gave lectures and seminars at Clonegal. Remembering the Druids of the day, Olivia stated:
"They were more like well-educated archaeologists. Scholars and gentlemen. I remember it used to irritate me frightfully; Ross was the only one who was decent enough to give women a role. The other Druids hadn’t any Goddess at all."
It was in Ross Nichols’ house on the Gledstanes Road in West London that Olivia first met Caitlin Matthews and then a young Philip Carr-Gomm. Though he would later become Ross Nichols’ successor as Chosen Chief of OBOD, his role as a 16-year-old was somewhat more humble – he got to wear a blue tabard and pass around the peanuts. Nevertheless, he obviously made an impression as Olivia invited him to come to Clonegal for a visit. Philip remembers his arrival in Ireland as follows:
“I first went over to Ireland when I was 17 or 18, then – at late 18 or 19 - I went over to live at Huntington Castle where Olivia was. I remember as the boat came to Ireland there was this huge rainbow and it was just wonderful. I felt I was going to live there forever.”
Had he decided to stay forever, the option was there. Olivia, along with her brother Derry and sister-in-law Poppy, welcomed Philip without reservation. He recalls the time on his third visit when he announced he had to leave the following day:
“Poppy looked at me with her large eyes and simply said “Why must you go?” And I told her I had to return for my second term at university. “Where would you be happier?” she asked, continuing to look directly at me. “Why, here of course!” I said, as I started to sense my world turning upside down. “Then stay,” was all she said. “But I can’t! I can’t stay here forever,” I replied, and she just said, “Yes you can, you can stay here for the rest of your life if you like.” And in that moment I took the decision to stay, and in doing that my life changed utterly.”
Philip remembers the extraordinary generosity of this offer, made with no strings attached, to a young man who contributed nothing practical to the household:
“That conversation epitomises the character and soul of Poppy, Derry and Olivia. It was a statement, in the final analysis, of unconditional love, of complete acceptance.”
During his time there, Olivia taught Philip her special method of guided meditation, which opened to him “worlds I had never until then been really sure existed”. She also helped him to develop his imagination through the Reverse Occam’s Razor principle which he recalls with particular fondness:
“In this house of dreams, Olivia insisted we defy the principle of ‘Occam’s razor’, which tells us to favour the simplest and most logical explanation for any phenomenon. Olivia felt this was a very dull approach: ‘Always choose the most esoteric, the most fanciful and exotic explanation,’ she declared. If the door suddenly swings open of its own volition, a sudden breeze is the least likely cause, a ghost eager to join our company is the far more likely explanation according to this wonderful rule for life.”
When the time came to leave Clonegal and be reborn into the everyday world, Philip found the process difficult. He speaks of two further important visits – one, twenty years later, with his wife Stephanie for their handfasting, and another to say goodbye at Olivia’s funeral.
With Olivia having been such a friend and influence, it is no wonder that Philip chose to honour her when he appointed an FoI member as his successor. In a video announcing his decision to pass on the role, Philip concludes a list of Eimear’s qualifications to be Chosen Chief by saying:
“And as well we have a shared history in our connection with Ireland and with Olivia Robertson….. We’ve both been influenced by her teachings, her perspective, her philosophy, so that feels really good, I think.”
As an OBOD member, I do not recognise the Druids whom Olivia remembered from the early 1960’s, those who “had no Goddess at all”. Nowadays, the Goddess is abundantly and joyfully present in our training and our celebrations. The dedicated scholars of her recollection still exist, but these days the scholarship is mixed with exuberance and delight. Modern OBOD Druidry, though it may be serious, is never stuffy or sombre. Of course, many factors contributed to this transformation, but it seems certain that the inspiration of Olivia Robertson played a major part. Long may her influence continue!
Full text of Philip Carr-Gomm’s article in memory of Olivia Robertson: https://www.philipcarr-gomm.com/essay/memories-olivia-robertson-memorial/
Link to the Druidcast podcast in which Philip celebrates the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Fellowship of Isis: https://www.paganmusic.co.uk/druidcast-a-druid-podcast-episode-109/
Link to the video interview between Philip and Eimear Burke, announcing the succession: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YDIXhSET8A
Olivia Robertson quotation drawn from the interview with her published in A Legacy of Druids : Conversations With Druid Leaders Of Britain, The USA And Canada, Past And Present by Ellen Evert Hopman
To Philip Carr-Gomm for kind permission to quote him and also for fact-checking this article