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22 June 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 3:27pm

“All the people they despise, we welcome joyfully”: the Chief Druid on overcoming extremism

Eimear Burke on the newfound popularity of Druidry’s diverse, nature-based spirituality. 

By India Bourke

“Sense yourself in a great clearing in the forest,” an unseen voice instructs. “From east and west, north and south, members of the order, both seen and unseen, in this world and in the other world, are gathering in this circle together.”

These words are designed to evoke the timelessness of ancient, nature-based ritual. Yet, when spoken in June 2020 as part of the installation of a new head of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), they also signalled a number of important firsts.

Eimear Burke is both the first woman and Irish person to fill the role of OBOD’s Chosen Chief – as well as the first to be inaugurated online. The performance was streamed outwards to the world on Youtube, not from among Glastonbury’s hallowed stones, as is custom, but from Burke’s locked-down living room. Or rather, as she put it to me recently, it was streamed “inwards”.

A year on, sitting at home in Kilkenny, Ireland, her silvery-blonde hair cascading down her shoulders, harp poised in the background, Burke connects with me via the modern magic of Zoom. Her voice appears warmed by years of experience serving others, first as a nurse, then as a psychologist. She’s the kind of person you want to tell your secrets to, with the kind of voice that makes you feel it intends to listen, rather than to preach, to its audience.

“There are some people who need an authoritarian religion,” Burke says, “but there are also a cohort of people who are very disillusioned with that and don’t want it.” That’s where Druidry comes in, she suggests, offering a spiritual home to people of all religions and none.

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Instead of setting down rules, Burke explains, Druidry simply encourages people to ask: “Have you thought about this? Reflected on that? Made a ‘mind map’ of what you associate with this? How does that resonate? What does the song of the Earth say to you?”

This soft, inward-facing side to Druidry is not about breaking coronavirus restrictions to celebrate the summer solstice at Stonehenge, as around 200 people did this week on 21 June. And it is certainly not about the kind of cultish, white-supremacist culture evoked by those who stormed the US Capitol this January adorned with pagan and Norse symbols.

In fact, Burke stresses, it is the exact opposite. “Any symbol is open to abuse, but we tend to be so inclusive that it’s almost like white supremacists are not going to join us because we’re too wishy-washy,” she explains. “All the people that they despise, we welcome in joyfully.”

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Openness and inclusivity is, for Burke, key to why modern Druidry, and other nature-based spiritualities, have grown in popularity in recent years. OBOD alone has 25,000 members in 50 countries, having been founded in Britain in the 1960s by the historian and poet Ross Nichols. More than 80,000 people follow the order on Facebook, where open-access talks known as “Tea with a Druid” and “Fireside Chats with Eimear” are regularly posted.

Burke never imagined when she joined the Order in 2003 that she’d one day take up the mantle of Chosen Chief. Initially preferring solitary reflection, she worked her way through OBOD’s remote-learning courses, or “gwersi”, the Welsh word for “lessons”. The Bardic grade, which focuses on cultivating creativity, led her to take up the harp; in the Ovate strand, she learned about herbs and healing; and then, at the Druid level, the emphasis was on teaching and philosophy. Yet the grades are not hierarchical, she stresses. You can either study just one or all three, and then decide to identify with whichever you prefer. All grades stress the importance of service to others and the value of nature.

These studies and resources have helped many to cope with the challenges of the pandemic, Burke believes. “When you actually connect with nature, and you find nature speaking to you, that gives you a sense of mastery over yourself… It’s been really important during the pandemic, because we do a lot of inner work, so we have an inner growth.”

In its focus on nature, the movement may arguably also address the even larger crisis of environmental decline. Eco-anxiety and climate grief are growing concerns, especially among the young, and Druidry is helping to reassert the importance of belonging to an ecosystem and landscape, be that the Irish coast or the Australian savanna. The Druids Against Fracking group has even organised worldwide rituals against fracking to visualise clean water, heal the land and publicly affirm how much we need nature in our daily lives.

On a personal level, Burke finds great solace in the woods around her home, often going alone at night and finding comfort in the sense of connection it offers. “When I’m very distressed, I will go to the woods and call on the trees, and say, ‘Look, I’m really frustrated, I’m really fuming, can you just help me here?’” she says. The trees then speak back to her in different ways. “That sounds a bit wacky, but that’s my experience of it. So I know if I’m upset I can go there, and I will receive what I need.”

Burke believes Druidry’s power today lies in its openness, which she says can be summed up by the Irish expression “aontacht in éagsúlacht”, meaning “unity in diversity”.

“Nature only survives through diversity,” she explains, so if you cultivate a monoculture, planetary health declines. Likewise, she suggests, if you end up advocating something exclusionary, such as white supremacy, nothing good will follow. “It’s not nature-based,” she says, “it’s anathema.”

At a time when symbols of all kinds are becoming contentious, and the pressure to define oneself in terms of “or” and not “and” is growing more intense, Druidy’s focus on diversity is compelling. And, for Burke herself, it has helped her win acceptance from a particularly important person: her Irish Roman Catholic mother, who, after painful misgivings, has come to terms with her daughter’s spirituality and even listened to her installation ceremony. “We don’t proselytise, if you want to join us, you can,” Burke says. “That’s it. So there’s nothing to fight against.”

[See also: Naomi Klien on overcoming doomism with climate action]