Olivia Durdin-Robertson interview copyright Victoria Mary Clarke 2012
Unaccustomed to the protocol on such occasions, I asked if I should bring a cake.
‘Oh, no,’ my hostess informed me. ‘I’ve got us a rather nice sponge.’
Lady Olivia Durdin Robertson, my hostess, is the co-founder of the Fellowship of Isis, a world-wide organisation dedicated to the promotion of union with God in her feminine form, the Goddess. But Olivia does not claim to be a domestic goddess. As part of my research, I have been watching film footage of her in her kitchen, burning various foods, including hot cross buns and sausage rolls.
‘Would you say you are a good cook, Olivia?’ the interviewer asks her.
‘Good God no! I am a ghastly cook,’ she says.
‘The sausage rolls are burning,’ he points out, helpfully.
‘Oh Jesus!’ she says. ‘I mean Oh Isis!”
It seems that what she lacks in culinary skills she makes up for with a sturdy sense of humour.
The location for our meeting is Huntington Castle, also known as Clonegal Castle in Co Carlow. A real life Hogwarts, complete with battlements and medieval suits of armour, and the heads of an astonishing array of wild beasts, including a crocodile.
‘My mother shot that croc when she was just seventeen,’ Olivia informs me. ‘Her father was a general in India and she was brought up like a boy, quite ferocious, and shot anything that moved. Not at all like me. Maybe that is why I am so feminine!’
I did not say it, but I had been more than a little nervous upon first meeting Olivia, even if I did not expect her to shoot me. I was first introduced to her last April, on the day of her 94th birthday by my friend Marina Guinness who has known her for forty years.
Upon our arrival at the castle, we had been told that Olivia was resting, and we were loitering in her garden when she suddenly popped up, like a witch in a children’s fairy tale, complete with a wild mane of long, black hair and one eye that looks inwards. She was dressed in a multi-coloured sweat shirt, in a new-age style, and seemed quite delighted to see us.
We had brought with us a film camera, and she was entirely unruffled, even quite excited when we asked her if she would mind being filmed telling us about her temple of Isis, which occupies the dungeons of the castle.
‘Of course!’ she had said, as though it were quite a normal occurrence. And she proceeded to give us a detailed and passionate tour of the labyrinthian temple and to explain in great detail about the many goddesses who are represented there. She also showed us the holy well, dedictated to Brigid, and told us that she had fallen into the well, when she was ninety. She had to haul herself out, because there was nobody within earshot.
Today, she remembers me quite clearly. She is glad that I have some understanding of her spiritual experiences, because I communicate with angels and guides myself.
‘ It is so lovely to be able to talk to you without this artificial pretense!’ she says. ‘Some people are intimidating, because they don’t experience what you are talking about. So they are very polite and very nice, but they don’t know what you mean! You will make me seem less peculiar!’
Having been watching Olivia delivering oracles and performing ceremonies while dressed in ever more theatrical goddess robes and head-dresses, I am surprised that she might be self conscious, and touched by her very human desire to have the readers relate to her. But I notice that on several occasions she mentions being embarrassed at the thought of being percieved as weird. In her autobiography ‘The Call Of Isis’, she describes feeling embarrassed about having seen a UFO.
‘I thought I was eccentric enough already!’ she writes.
We settle down to talk in front of the gas fire in her drawing room, a beautiful, light-filled room with an ornately plastered ceiling. We are looking out at the gardens of the castle, and the famous Yew walk which is six hundred years old. This room is where she has done all her writing. There is always a lot of writing to do, and she is kept busy, as the Fellowship of Isis continues to grow. It has over 21,000 members, in 72 countries.
Olivia does not see herself as the head of the society, she insists that every member is equal. Since founding it with her brother Laurence and his wife Pamela in 1976, Olivia has written over a hundred and forty newsletters for the organisation as well as books and oracles, on spiritual matters. But before she had her spiritual awakening, at the age of twenty nine, she had already had a highly successful career as a novelist and author. Having initially studied art at the Grosvenor School in London, and then Art History at UCD, she went on to write six novels. Her publishers included Random House and Jonathan Cape, and her books received good reviews in the London Times Literary Supplement and the Chicago National Herald. One of them, “Field of the Stranger” won the London Book Society Choice award in 1948. Her last novel, “The Dublin Phoenix” sold out its first print run on the day it was published, in 1956.
As well as her writing career, Olivia has been a painter all her life. She had her first exhibition in 1938, when she was 21, and she illustrates her own books. The temple is adorned with her paintings, which are inspired by visions of the gods and goddesses.
‘I always wait until I am inspired, before I paint,’ she says.
In spite of the gothic glamour and romance of her current lifestyle as a High Priestess, in an Irish castle, Olivia describes her childhood as very ordinary, at least the early part. She was born in London, on Friday 13 of April 1917 and brought up in Reigate, in Surrey.
‘In Reigate I lived a mundane and orderly life, along with my sister and two brothers,’ she says. Her father, Manning Durdin-Robertson was an architect and town planner. He was a very good friend of the poet WB Yeats and also of AE Russell, both of whom were frequent visitors to the castle, in Olivia’s youth. Olivia is refreshingly irreverant about the famous poet.
‘Of course, everyone wants to know about Yeats,’ Olivia says. ‘And I do remember having chocolate cake with him, but really I don’t remember anything more deep than that! My father designed his grave stone for him, and inscribed the words ‘Cast a cold eye on life and on death, horseman pass by.’ And Daddy had to sit there while Yeats read ‘Oedipus Rex’, every single word of it. I think he fell asleep a few times and rather wished he was out in the garden with Mrs Yeats and my mother!’
She speaks adoringly of her father, and it clear that she has been heavily influenced by him.
‘My father started teaching me, when I was between five and eight. Daddy used to tell me about time and space. He taught me as if I was a grown up and I understood, as children will if you let them. He introduced me to Wagner and the importance of Shakespeare’s Tempest.’
Something of a child prodigy by today’s standards, Olivia was reading Homer’s Illiad by the age of eight.
‘I used to quote this marvellous person called Goethe,’ she giggles. ‘But I called him Gerty. Daddy was rather annoyed that I spelt it wrong!’
She points out in her book that because of her father, she began her life with a very scientific mind.
‘I was receiving an intellectual education, and had faith in commonsense. Naturally, I did not believe in fairies.’
Childhood interest in spiritual matters was first sparked by her older sister Barbara.
‘My sister had a wild imagination,’ she says. ‘And she tried to enrich her imagination starved world with dreams. I am ever grateful to her for making my first doorway into the psychic sphere.’
Both Olivia and her brother Laurence found that the move to Ireland also opened doors to the realms of the magical. Olivia’s grandmother died, and left the castle to her father in 1925, at the height of the Civil War. It was a dramatic time for an Anglo-Irish family to choose to move to Ireland.
‘When we moved to the castle, the IRA had just left, having occupied it for a time. First, they had locked the cook in the cellar, and she screamed and screamed, then they court marshalled the butler. But they were pushed out by the Free State who liberated us. Commandant Barry. They were very nice to us.’
Ireland was a confusing place, for the children.
‘Our world was turned completely upside down, suddenly you didn’t wear a red poppy and you didn’t do Guy Fawkes! Everything was painted green. We had a footman who used to yell ‘Up with the green white and yella and to Hell with the red white and blue!’ But we children didn’t mind a bit. We decided to be Irish!”
Did they encounter animosity?
‘Oh no, they were terribly nice to us! We had a wonderful time. They had won, and they didn’t have to shoot us!
Mummy and Daddy waited every evening in their evening clothes for people to come and shoot them. Daddy played Beethoven as they sat there. But nobody came, because we had a loyal and friendly lady in the gate house and she would shoo them away!’
When the second world war broke out, Olivia volunteered as a Red Cross nurse, in London.
‘I was a pacifist but I was there at England’s finest hour, waiting for the Germans to arrive,’ she says. ‘It was an extraordinary experience.’
‘No! Not in the least. I would be more nervous to be in a field with a bull. It is funny, I didn’t faint and I thought I was very sensitive. There was one woman there and every time she changed a bed pan, she was sick! I wasn’t that sensitive at all! But I remember one day I went to have lunch at the Lyons Corner House and I was told ‘You cant go there.’ I said ‘Why not?’ ‘They said because it’s not there. It’s gone. Been blown up.’ The Lyons Corner House was a huge place! That was shocking.’
One day in 1946, while she was sitting quietly by herself in the sitting room at Huntington, she had her first vision.
‘I suddenly saw a female figure,’ she says. She had things that looked like silver antlers on the sides of her head. For one moment, I got the word ‘Isis’. I didn’t know what that meant. A few years later, I got a glow in my heart and in my solar plexus and I thought ‘Good Lord, what is happening to me? I had better smoke a lot of cigarettes to make it stop!’
The sense that her body was ‘glowing’ continued, and got stronger. She felt it spread to her throat.
‘I felt a silver light in my throat. I knew nothing about chakras or Hinduism or anything like that. It went on for a few years and then I read an account by AE Russell of the awful effects of your third eye awakening. I thought Help! What is going to happen to me?
When it happened, I was sitting in a café, when wham! The power came right through the centre of my head and awakened my third eye. I had learned to be tactful and to not say anything so I just say there experiencing it. It wasn’t horrid at all.’
At this point, I describe a similar experience, when I learned to meditate . A feeling like a fountain coming out of my head.
‘I am so glad!’ Olivia says. ‘ Hooray! Could we have that in your interview? That you have experienced it? It makes me sound less peculiar!’
After her spiritual experiences, Olivia realised that she had a vocation.’
‘I realised that I had a vocation to emphasise the feminine aspect of God. Because the world is so threatened by destruction through pollution, through misuse of nature, through stupidity and greed. We are destroying the planet, and the Divine Plan appears to be to emphasise the feminine aspects, charity, kindness, care for nature, nurturing, motherhood, all that side.’
Around the same time that Olivia had her realisation, her brother Laurence who was an Anglican clergyman had independently arrived at the conclusion that God was feminine in nature, and he resigned from the Church.
In 1976, Olivia, Laurence and Laurence’s wife Pamela set up the Fellowship.
‘It began as my brother, his wife and myself, and the aim was to draw together people who sought communion with the Goddess and the spread of knowledge of her. We thought we’d have about 12 people – we got one lady who wrote asking to be ordained as a Priestess, so we thought we’d have one Priestess! We went to our little town of Bunclody and had our manifesto printed very badly! To our amazement people like Geoffrey Ash and Maxine Sanders joined, and people have gone on joining.’
The arts are a very important part of the activities of the Fellowship of Isis, she explains.
‘We love music and painting. People don’t murder each other over art, do they? I mean I don’t think Thackeray and Dickens would have killed each other, and I can’t imagine Jane Austin poising anybody.’
From the very start, they intended the Fellowship to be based on inclusion, rather than exclusion, and it is multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-racial.
‘Did you know that we are in forty six Muslim countries now?’ she asks. ‘We are even in China!
The point about the fellowship of Isis is that we don’t interfere with anybody’s religion, they have all got something to offer. The only thing we don’t like is people being boiled alive or burned or having their heads chopped off, that type of thing.’
Did she ever want to get married and have children? I ask.
‘No. I am totally against enforced celibacy, I think it is wicked and it makes people do bad things. But I seem to be an example of somebody who is naturally celibate.’
She admits that strange as it might seem, she has never had sex, nor even had a desire to.
‘In Ireland, women say to me ‘I wouldn’t mind not being married, but for the disgrace of it!’” she laughs.
‘I think I am an actress of sorts, and actresses don’t marry. They just take lovers, rather than husbands. But I never had any, I don’t know why.’
Did she really never?
‘No. Not at all. It is a great comfort to me. I must tell you a story. I had a lady come to me and she had had her heart centre awakened, but unfortunately the sex centre had also awakened in the most extreme manner. The trouble is, if you arent naturally celibate, you might become a sort of sex maniac!’
Didn’t she want children?
‘No. I love children, but I wouldn’t want all that work!’
Olivia has never been sick, apart from having her appendix out, as a child. I ask her what she feels is the secret to staying healthy.
‘I think health is very much connected to the relationship that you have with your soul. People don’t seem to have a conection with their souls these days, if something is wrong they just trot along to the doctor and hand over the problem. It does help, of course to see a doctor but it isnt a long term solution. I think that cancer is due to emotional disturbance and I have known cancer to disappear when people get to the cause of it.’
How do people get to the cause? I ask.
‘Well, I do it through meditation. And when I used to give healings to people, I was always given the reason. But this is the funny thing. The reason would upset them more than having the illness! You see, when you hate yourself your immune system can actually turn on you and attack you. Prayer really helps. I think that if you ask for your own guides to help you, you can find out what is wrong and why.
I do believe that there is always a cause at the soul level. But people do sometimes wish to die, you know. And they are being kept alive by machines. But of course you want to die having done what you came here to do.’
Does she know when she will die?
‘No, I thought I would die at twenty nine, after having had various mystical experiences. But then I thought I had to write a book before I could die, telling people about my experiences. And I am still here! I seem to be going on and on!’
She does not appear to follow a particularly healthy diet, I point out. She agrees.
‘I am ashamed to say that I gave up being a vegetarian after forty years, because I was starving!’
Before we finish the interview, I have one more question.
‘Do you find it helps to attract people to the organisation, you being posh, and living in a castle?’ I ask
‘Not arf!’ Olivia laughs. ‘They love a bit of class!”
After I leave Olivia, I spend more time watching film footage of rituals in the temple. A bunch of colourfully dressed people hold hands and dance around the place singing ‘We all come from the goddess, and to the goddess we shall return’ To be perfectly honest, I have always found this kind of thing rather embarrassing. A bit of a new age cliché. And as I watch the priests and priestesses saluting Isis and asking her to bless us all, I do not feel particularly moved or inspired. I cannot relate to Isis. But yet, I feel more enthusiastic about life, more light-hearted than I did before I encountered her. I can only conclude that what has moved and inspired me is Olivia herself. We live in a world in which women are taught that in order to feel good about ourselves, we need to concentrate our attention on looking as young and sexually attractive as we possibly can. A world in which older people, particlarly older women are ignored or patronised. And in which a woman who does not have a partner or children is seen as having somehow failed to make the grade. Olivia proves that a woman can be single, childless, and over ninety and she does not have to be frail or lonely or invisible. Quite the opposite. She can be vibrant and passionate and charismatic and be respected and admired by the rest of the world. And not only that, she can wear whatever the hell she likes, including purple velvet robes and fancy head-dresses. Perhaps that is the true message of the Goddesses.