We spoke to Joanna van der Hoeven (pictured) and Robin Herne of Druid College UK to find out how they brought an American institution to British shores…
The Druid College UK is an offshoot of the Druid College in the US, which offers courses in NYC and Maine. When did they decide to set up in the UK and why?
Jo: Last Samhain, Kevin Emmons from Druid College in Maine contacted me about setting up Druid College in the UK. We had been communicating for some time, having many things in common and sharing the same ideals. Druid College provides teaching and support for those who wish to travel further down the path of the Druid priest, to have guidance in that role. It’s a “hands on” approach rather than distance learning, more of an apprenticeship rather than just study. We felt that it would be something worthwhile we could offer here in the UK, and possibly see it spread even further.
You and Robin are already vastly busy – what was special about getting involved in this college?
Jo: I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it all myself, what with my writing, workshops, etc, so I contacted Robin, one of the most dedicated Druids and Pagans that I know. He does so much for the community, and is very knowledgeable as well as being a genuinely lovely. He has so many skills that are ideal for what we wanted to achieve.
Offering guidance and training in the role of the priest was something unique, something that could really help others develop their own skills and reflecting their love of the land, the gods and the ancestors.
Can you tell us about your own Druidic paths?
Jo: I came to Druidry having studied Wicca in the early 90s. I had read a lot of books by Emma Restall Orr and took her residential course, Living Druidry, in 2007. It changed me and my path forever, opening up deeper levels on which to work in my Druid path. I’ve also completed the OBOD Bard and Ovate course. I’ve always leaned towards the practical and experiential, and my path is heavily influenced by love of the land and a deep respect for the ancestors. I also studied Buddhism and Zen for many years, and that taught me not only to go with the flow, but to be the flow itself.
Robin: I follow a polytheist form of Druidry, forming relationships primarily with the deities of Iron Age Britain and Ireland. As a polytheist, I’m open to the existence of many other deities from around the world. Whilst I don’t regularly interact with many, I have experience of entities from other cultures. Part of the philosophy of Druidry as I practice it, is to link with the spirits of place – regardless of where I am in the world. Storytelling is a major part of my spiritual discipline, and also a way of forming relationships. I also love creating poetry.
The focus of your course is on preparing priests to serve as Druids, not just study. What are the differences between study and apprenticeship?
Jo: A course of study can provide you with information, but perhaps not the experience or development of skills in a real, practical sense. I feel strongly about service to the land, the gods and the ancestors. My Druidry can be summed up in three words: truth, honour and service. Truth is the acceptance, working with our soul song in harmony with the world, honour is the courage to live it, and service is the natural result of living your truth with honour.
Robin: Study can, for some people, be a fairly passive experience or something engaged in on an abstract level. One could study Renaissance art without painting a picture or curating a gallery. An apprenticeship is explicitly pragmatic focusing on using skills and knowledge to make the world better. The late Virtue Ethicist Philippa Foot argued that virtue that failed to move beyond the mind was not genuine – the real thing translates itself into action and the desire to transform the world for the better. To change the world one must first, of course, change oneself.
What lessons can our broken earth learn from Druidry?
Robin: The motto of the Fianna, the ancient Irish warrior band led by Fionn Mac Cumhail, was “Truth in our hearts, strength in our hands, and fulfilment on our lips”. Fulfilment on our lips can be understood as the bardic exhortation always to speak out, as a moral imperative. Part of the duty of the fili or bard, was to praise the worthy and lambast the dishonourable. By praising the good, decency is encouraged in those who hear the praise – and vice versa. Society sneers at goodness, whilst lauding the crass, corrupt and cruel.
A case could be made that some druids would benefit from engaging more with the material world. It can be too easy for Paganism to be treated as a sanctuary from the 21st century. It’s not the earth that’s broken so much as humanity itself. Humanity struggles to accept itself, let alone embrace other species.
Jo: The dualism that pervades society allows us to think we are distanced from the rest of existence. This is devastating our planet, turning it into a resource instead of a living organism to be respected and worked with. Once we see the sacredness of all things, we will treat each other differently. It’s about changing your perspective from self-centred to an all-encompassing one.
How can we mesh the lessons of Druidry into modern society?
Jo: I sometimes despair at the lack of consciousness in humanity, but working to rebuild and to reweave that connection helps ease the grief. Everything on this earth is energy and matter, in constant flux. By living with respect for the land, sea and sky we can do the work without worrying about the importance of the person doing it. The perception shifts.
Robin: The challenge is in finding nature in an urban landscape. It’s easy to run off to the woods in order to be spiritual, forgetting that the wondrous is there just as much in a shopping centre as in a beautiful green space. A bloody sight harder to spot, granted, but there to be found and engaged with nonetheless.
We also need to think about what Druidry can offer to people and social structures. What could our spirituality tell us about addressing poverty, gender roles, disabilities, sexuality, etc?
How do you foresee your Druid priests ‘giving back’ to society?
Jo: It is not for me to say how they should give back, but only that they should, as best they can. Some might work as a celebrants: others might be mid-wives, or run groves and holding interfaith days: the possibilities are endless.
Robin: Mostly that is down to them and will be directed by their life experience. Some may take on a priestly role, others promote culture, or become activists.
Tell us about your venues in Suffolk and Essex.
Jo: Essex is where the main teaching takes place, over four weekends a year. It’s a holistic retreat centre, so the atmosphere is one of nourishment and healing. It offers camping in the the summer and is accessible by train on the London/Norwich line as well. The final gathering we are looking to hold in a beautiful nature reserve in Suffolk, with its own labyrinth and tree henge.
Can students follow your course if they have mental or physical health issues?
Robin: I don’t see any reason why a person with a diagnosed mental illness should find the course harder than those without. Some spiritual exercises can be harder to engage in whilst on certain forms of medication ~ but that applies as much to treatments for bodily issues as psychiatric ones. Most of those issues can be worked round with planning.
Jo: The venue in Essex is equipped for people with physical disabilities, though the nature reserve in Suffolk might prove more difficult. However, I’m sure we can accommodate people: the staff are brilliant.
The basic requirement is commitment and dedication. Any other issue we can work with to help people achieve their potential and their desire to live as a priest of nature.
What do you get back from your work with the students?
Robin: I enjoy teaching eager minds. Conversing with a diverse group always throws up fascinating ideas.
Jo: When you teach, you learn. It’s an opportunity to rethink your beliefs, your conduct, and really makes you walk your talk. It also puts you in touch with others and provides deep inspiration through relationship. Inspiring others and being inspired by them: it’s the Druidic cycle of awen.
What plans do you have for the future?
Jo: I’m sure we will work with other organisations, and hopefully expand Druid College to other venues in the UK and Ireland, as well as the rest of the world. As Druid College expands, interfaith work will be essential in establishing good communication and respectful relationship.
For more information on Druid College UK, please visit the website at www.uk.druidcollege.org.
Robin Herne is a storyteller, poet, artist, dog-owner, lupophile, Dr Who fan, and Druid. He has appeared on TV and radio, speaks at Interfaith seminars, Pagan conventions, and other events as a lecturer and a storyteller. He lives in Suffolk and is a founder member of both the Druid group Clan Ogma and the Ipswich Pagan Council, as well as being Chief Bard of the Fens. Having written his first crime anthology, he is now working on a series of crime novels. His website is at roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk.
Joanna van der Hoeven was born in Quebec, and lives with her husband in Suffolk. She is a former Trustee of The Druid Network, having studied with Emma Restall Orr and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Currently the Media Co-Ordinator for The Druid Network, she has written and contributed to several books on Paganism and Druidry. She is regularly involved with charities and community work, combining Druidry with Zen teachings to create a practice filled with awareness and devotion to nature. www.joannavanderhoeven.com.