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Dream of a Ridiculous Man

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Patrick Lydon is Irish, not by birth, but by adoption — his of the country, the country's of him. He grew up in Boston. We knew him first in 1966, when he was a new student living in the dormitory at Exeter, a private prep school in New Hampshire where we helped provide faculty supervision. Now we've followed him to Ireland to explore the path that had led him to the rural Camphill Community at Ballytobin, which he and his wife Gladys helped found in 1979 and where they raised their four children.

We wait for him on a chilly December afternoon in the dark comfort of a pub in Callan, a small town in Kilkenny.

The Camphill movement is a worldwide group of communities following the philosophies of Rudolph Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and educator. The first community was established in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1940; in the years since, about 70 similar communities have sprung up in Europe, the United States, South Africa. There are presently nine in Ireland, four of these offshoots of Ballytobin.

Camphill Ballytobin, in the words of the brochure of the Camphill Communities in Ireland, “was established as a therapeutic farm for children with multiple disabilities and disturbances. Many of the children are autistic or psychotic and most have been deprived of a healthy family life. In the wholesome setting of a small farm, the children live in large, family-centered houses and are taught with a mixture of classroom work, art, individual therapies, and craft.”

Soon a minivan well splashed with mud pulls up, and Patrick climbs down, smiling, already talking. A smallish man who seems always to be leaning a little bit forward, as if on his way somewhere, he's dressed in a ragged brown sweater with reinforced elbows and an old pair of pants; strands of baling twine loop from his rear pocket. In the next week, he'll rarely change this uniform — even the baling twine is a fixture — unless some more or less formal meeting with the outside world demands it. In that case, he'll also bring some order to his hair.

A half-hour later we find ourselves sitting at a kitchen table with Gladys, Patrick's wife, and Eileen and Jamie. Eileen peels apples. Jamie, a boy of about 12 wearing an immense pair of glasses, gobbles the peeled skins one after another. In wool sweater and long gray skirt, Gladys gives an immediate impression of warmth and stability. She is tolerant of the fidgety Jamie but firm in demanding that he stay seated and that he ask for what he wants and not grab. She describes the layout of the community, then sends us off to explore for ourselves.

The house we will live in for the next several days brackets a grass courtyard and gravel driveway. Inside, the rooms and hallways are simple but handsome: whitewashed walls with wood paneling and well-polished floors of wood or slate. This house, known as Gabriel, is one of three on the grounds where children live. A short walk away are two more houses for young adults, established because the community feels a continuing responsibility to those who have been under its care. In its 19 years, Ballytobin has grown to a community of about 90 individuals: four families, including two with infant children; 34 children or others with disabilities; and the rest volunteer co-workers.

Our exploration takes us past a jumble of farm buildings — a dozen cows, half milkers and half for meat; a horse for the children to ride; several pigs. We pass the other two residential houses, then gardens — rows of greens and cabbage, leeks and brussels sprouts, weed-choked strawberries. Beyond fields, some plowed, some green with young wheat, we reach the road and follow it back to our starting point. Although the area is only about 14 acres in all, we find it surprisingly hard to map in the mind.

Mapping a life of service

The path that brought Patrick Lydon to Ballytobin is also hard to map. His father contracted Parkinson's disease before Patrick was born, so was disabled throughout Patrick's youth; his mother, who died in 1997 at 92, having spent her last eight years at Ballytobin, was determined that all her children would be well educated, if they had nothing else. That determination brought Patrick to Exeter as an 11th grader, though he says now, “I learned more from an old farmer in Carlow than I ever did at Exeter — and that's not meant as a criticism of Exeter.”

The summer following his first year in Exeter, he had the opportunity to work in Paris, so he went by the cheapest route: through Ireland. As his plane descended towards Shannon, Patrick looked down and was surprised to feel a strange sense of recognition. The cleared fields surrounded by hedges and woods, the greenness, spotted with sheep — it all seemed to match some archetypal landscape in his head, some interior picture of where he wanted to be.

After Exeter, Patrick enrolled at Yale. But there he faced a dilemma. It was 1969; he would surely be drafted immediately on graduation. He was totally opposed to the war in Vietnam but not necessarily to any war; he did not feel that he could justifiably claim to be a conscientious objector. What should he do?

Ireland proposed itself to Patrick as a place where he could “make a fresh beginning” without the inevitable compromises that living in the United States would involve. Although at odds with much in American society, Patrick did not want to define himself by what he was opposed to. So he enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, through the junior year abroad program, to test the waters in Ireland.

He had a clear sense of what he was leaving behind, but only a vague idea of where he was headed. He knew merely that he wanted to do something “pacific, positive, and family-oriented.”

By chance he learned of the formation of a new Camphill Community, Camphill Duffcarrig, and he joined, hoping to learn to farm. After two years there, he spent a year working with the farmer in Carlow and then joined a Camphill Community in Aberdeen, Scotland. There he met Gladys.

When, in 1977, it was announced that parents of autistic children in Ireland were looking for people to start a Camphill community, Gladys and Patrick quite independently became interested in the project, Gladys as a teacher, Patrick as a farmer. They fell in love and were married a few months later, in June 1978. By April 1979, they had secured funding, found a location for the community, and moved to Ballytobin with one other young couple. Dominic, their first child, was born a month later.

Ballytobin days

At Ballytobin, as at other Camphill communities, life is organized by rituals, daily and annual repetitions that establish a comforting rhythm. Before each meal the children and the co-workers caring for them gather in the sitting room. When the tables have been set and the food brought out, the group forms a circle. In the morning there is a brief song: “Morning has come, the night is away, rise with the sun and welcome the day;” before the other meals, a brief silence. Then all proceed to the dining room, sitting where their napkin rings have been placed at one of the two tables. Hands joined around each table — right above, to give, left below, to receive — are raised for a brief grace — “May the meal be blessed” — and the filling and passing of plates or bowls begins.

Breakfast is porridge, bread with jam or honey, coffee and tea. The midday meal is the most varied. What's served depends on what the co-worker assigned to do the cooking has been able to find in the farm shed, but potatoes and carrots are staples, particularly in December. The evening meal is bread again, with jam or cheese, sometimes pudding or applesauce. And of course more tea. The simplicity and regularity of the meals does not diminish the eagerness with which they are eaten.

The rhythm of the year is created by four festivals, highpoints that involve much preparation and anticipation, one at each astronomical corner of the year: Christmas, Easter, the feast of St. John (the summer solstice), Michaelmas (the autumn equinox). It is now early December, the Advent season, pointing towards Christmas. The residents of Gabriel gather in the sitting room after dinner to open the Advent calendar. A glass door, lit from behind, has been covered with dark green plywood into which have been cut openings of various shapes. Behind doors secured with wooden latches wait the 25 scenes, created by the co-workers from colored tissue paper glued to the glass — giving the effect, when all the doors have been removed, of a brilliant stained glass window.

Maeve, a solid-looking girl of about 13, sits always half turned away, half curled up, brown hair hanging over her eyes. She pulls at one hand with the other as if counting her fingers. “Come on, Maeve,” she says, “come on.” Never any other speech.

Gladys leads Maeve to the door. She turns away, head lowered, reluctant but evidently tremendously excited. Gladys takes her hand, helps her remove the covering panel. A horse, splendidly maned, eyes wide — it's difficult to believe that he has been created from scraps of tissue paper. There is a general gasp. Maeve quivers all over, dances in a half circle.

Each night, an Advent story is recounted again from the beginning to the point previously reached, and a new window is opened.

The next evening before the meal, Charlie is standing in front of the fire. Maeve approaches, fingers the reading glasses hung around his neck, and hooks her arm through his. He realizes that she wants to be taken to look again at the window she opened the night before.

Work that's needed

The farm is largely Patrick's responsibility, as the organization and peace of the house is Gladys's. The farm is both the primary source of food for the community and a useful and therapeutic occupation for the residents who have left school — Darren, for instance, a husky and handsome young man of about 18, without speech, who appears in the kitchen each evening around suppertime, ready to go out to milk with Patrick. Darren is a boy from Dublin who had been absolutely unmanageable in the busyness and distraction of his home environment but who loves animals and is wonderful with them. “An extraordinary boy,” Patrick says, but one who needs a calm and secure routine; just the other night something disturbed him, something was not as usual, and he knocked a girl down.

Gladys keeps a schedule of who's caring for each disabled person at each hour, who is sweeping, polishing floors, cleaning bathrooms, doing laundry. The volunteer co-workers, young men and women in their early 20s, come most often from Europe, especially Germany. The community receives many inquiries, and the choice is usually made without an interview, on the basis of correspondence. Each volunteer is asked to commit to at least one year, but many stay longer, some more or less permanently. They are guided by Gladys if they have problems, but in general they get their training from living experience. What the children most need, Patrick believes, “is to meet genuine people.”

No one is paid at Ballytobin, though a few local workers, who live on their own, receive some money by arrangement with the government. Co-workers can withdraw from petty cash to pay for what they consider necessary, so long as they provide a receipt; larger expenditures are agreed on by the community. The philosophy of the Camphill movement is to separate work from money, to consider them unrelated matters.

Work at Ballytobin offers other rewards. “We depend, consciously or unconsciously, on the fact that there is something about the attitudes of the place — the impact of meeting and working with people who are caring for others with much greater needs, without compensation — that changes you.”

Joanie, one of the co-workers, suggests that you do the work you love, because you love the work. Patrick corrects her: “The work that is needed, because it is needed.”

Ballytobin artist Georgie McCutcheon

Horizon, a program initiated by Ballytobin and partly funded by the European Union, places “people with a demonstrated ability and motivation who have been prevented from developing their talent by some physical, mental, or other special need” in contact with professional artists, who serve as mentors or models. Six artists facing differing impediments were chosen for the program — one of them, Georgie McCutcheon, from Ballytobin.

Georgie, a short, squarish, sandy-haired man with glasses, has Down's syndrome, and a speech impediment makes him difficult to understand. He has lived at Ballytobin since 1982, but Patrick first met him in the early 1970s, when Georgie was a teenager and both were living in Duffcarrig. Georgie is eager to give us a tour of his personal studio, on the ground floor of a farm shed, directly below his own private living space.

If physically he appears stolid, Georgie's imagination is anything but. The walls of the studio are covered floor to ceiling with brightly colored paintings on paper or cardboard. Recognizable but not lifelike images, human and animal, set among trees, stars, moons, and abstract shapes. Reds, yellows, oranges, deep blues, and greens. Sculptures of chiseled stone or of cardboard held together with scotch tape and glue. We feel as if we have stepped inside Georgie's head. “Beautiful, Georgie,” is all we find to say. Georgie puts his hand on his heart. “I know it here,” he tells us, “but I can't say it.” He leans closer, as if to whisper, and confides, “I want to teach children — to teach children art.”

Georgie McCutcheon has recently changed his name: it is now Georgie McCutcheon Lydon.

One of Patrick's favorite stories is “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” by Dostoevsky. “It's about one of the classic Dostoevsky dreamers,” writes Patrick's brother Christopher, “who decides to shoot himself in despair of life's meaning, but prompted by his feeling for a helpless child, he hesitates and falls into a dream of another Earth where people actually love each other as they love themselves — and with that simple adjustment, it is a happy place! It is to me the story of Ballytobin, plain and direct. And it's the story of Patrick's kids and his family life, and of the many villagers and co-workers on the place. I think of Patrick as a real revolutionary, a Significant Sixties Kid, a dreamer who made the dream come true.”


Charles and Joan Pratt, both former teachers, now grow apples in Brentwood, New Hampshire. Adapted by permission from the Exeter Bulletin, Winter 1998.

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