Obituary: Olivia Robertson
A daughter of the Ascendancy who ran an order devoted to the Divine Feminine
Olivia Robertson, who has died aged 96, was the co-founder, archpriestess and hierophant of the Fellowship of Isis, an order devoted to the worship of the "Divine Feminine", which she ran from her haunted ancestral pile, Huntington Castle (also known as Clonegal Castle), in Co Carlow.
A member of an old Irish Ascendancy family, Olivia had immersed herself in psychic and spiritualist studies from an early age, and had become convinced that God was a "She" after a series of visions.
About the first of these – at the age of 29 – she was evasive, explaining that describing the experience to a non-mystic was like "trying to explain colour to someone born blind or a symphony to someone who's deaf".
Whatever the details, the experience convinced her that she was "clairaudient, clairvoyant and telepathic" and set her on a religious quest.
She continued to believe in a male God – until the Egyptian fertility goddess Isis paid her a visit. "She seemed to be made of crystallised white light," she recalled. "Her black hair was parted in the middle and she wore a violet and pale green dress, very modern, I thought. She seemed a cross between a queen, a ballet dancer and a gym mistress . . . We had a long conversation, but afterwards I couldn't remember any of it."
Later she was visited by an Irish goddess called Dana and felt an intense happiness: "Those visions made me realise that patriarchy had taken over religion, once the domain of matriarchs . . . and patriarchy had led to wars, greed and exploitation of the Earth."
By coincidence, around the same time that Olivia had her realisation, her brother, Lawrence 'Derry' Durdin-Robertson, '21st baron of Strathloch', an ordained clergyman in the Church of Ireland, had also become convinced that God was a woman. An honourable man, he at once proffered his resignation to his bishop, who assured him that "there was no need".
In 1976, Olivia, Lawrence and Lawrence's wife, Pamela, set up the Fellowship as a movement to worship "Isis of the 10,000 Names".
"At the end of an aeon and the beginning of the space age, the goddess Isis is manifesting as the feminine expression of divinity," Olivia declared.
Huntington Castle was the ideal headquarters. Built as a garrison in 1625 on the site of a 14th-Century abbey, Huntington became the seat of the Esmonde family, ancestors of the Robertsons. A rambling, castellated pile, complete with suits of armour and the heads of an array of wild beasts (including a crocodile shot by Olivia's mother), it soon attracted a following of what Olivia called "ordinary Irish psychics". Running out of room upstairs, she and Lawrence created an underground temple in the castle dungeons, with 12 shrines (one for each sign of the zodiac) and five chapels (each consecrated to a different goddess).
There Olivia and her brother would perform elaborate rituals (with an extempore liturgy described by one witness as "the kind of thing you sit through at weddings when couples insist on writing their own vows"), he in blue robes, crook and tall blue hat, she in fetching pink, glittering golden or multi-coloured gowns, her wild mane of dyed black hair topped with a brass coronet; she also brandished a sacred "sistrum" – a rattle made of small cymbals set in a wooden frame.
At first locals in the tiny village of Clonegal were horrified. "They thought we were all witches. It absolutely freaked them," Olivia recalled. "But we left the outside door of the castle open at every ceremony so they could come round and participate. We never had any secrets."
It no doubt helped that the strange happenings at the castle began to attract curious tourists to the village, as well as bands of New Age spiritualists who, several times a year, converged to pray, meditate and perform in pagan dramas and tableaux. Visitors included Van Morrison, Hugh Grant and Mick Jagger, while Brigitte Bardot's sister made two stuffed canvas dragons for the temple.
The movement did not ask too much of its followers. "Some religions preach poverty, obedience and chastity," Olivia explained. "We believe in love and beauty and have no truck whatsoever with asceticism." By last year the group was said to have between 20,000 and 30,000 members in 90 countries, including (surprisingly) 46 Muslim nations. "The point about the Fellowship of Isis is that we don't interfere with anybody's religion, they have all got something to offer," she explained. "The only thing we don't like is people being boiled alive or burned or having their heads chopped off, that type of thing."
One of four children, Olivia Melian Robertson was born in London on Friday, April 13, 1917. Her father, Manning Durdin-Robertson, was an architect and a member of a distinguished Anglo-Irish family with estates in Ireland; her mother, Nora, was the daughter of Lt-Gen Sir Lawrence Parsons, a cadet of the family of the Earls of Rosse who, disappointed that she was not a son, brought her up as a boy; she shot big game, invented a fishing fly known as the Black Maria, and wrote a book of memoirs, Crowned Harp.
Family ancestors were said to include Scota, legendary queen of the Scots, and Cesara (also known as "Mrs Benson"), a niece of Noah who, watching the ark sail past from the top of Mount Leinster, called to Noah: "It's a soft day." Other notables to whom the Robertsons claimed to be related included Grace O'Malley, known in Irish folklore as Grainne Mhaoil, hereditary queen of Connaught; and the 'Wicked' Lord Rosse, founder of the infamous Hell-Fire Club outside Dublin, where he and his fellow clubpersons were said to have roasted his butler.
Despite these connections, for the first eight years of her life Olivia led a somewhat humdrum existence in suburban Reigate. This all changed in 1925 when her paternal grandmother died and left Huntington Castle to her father. It was not long after the Civil War – a risky time for an Anglo-Irish family to return to Ireland. "The IRA had occupied the castle, and treated it very well," she recalled, "although they locked the cook in the dungeon, and court-martialled the butler."
It was a confusing time for Olivia and her three siblings: "Suddenly you didn't wear a red poppy and you didn't do Guy Fawkes. Everything was painted green. But we children didn't mind a bit. We decided to be Irish!"
Surrounded by literature and paintings, antique-filled interiors, and plenty of parlour spirituality, the children were able to give full vent to their imaginations. Visitors included Robert Graves, WB Yeats and the nationalist mystic George Russell (or, as he liked to be known, "Æ"). Olivia remembered Maud Gonne striding around the castle like "a statue of the goddess Demeter", but was less impressed by Æ who "just sat there and spoke about skyscrapers".
Olivia was educated at Heathfield School, Ascot, and the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, she served briefly as a VAD nurse in Bedfordshire before returning to Ireland, where she enrolled at University College Dublin to study art history.
After the war she did social work with families in Dublin tenements, work which inspired her to write her first book, St Malachy's Court. She went on to write five more books, one of which – a novel, Field of the Stranger – won the London Book Society Choice award. She also had some success as a painter: she had her first exhibition in 1938, aged 21, and would later adorn the Temple of Isis with her own visionary work.
As an archpriestess of the Fellowship of Isis, Olivia Robertson travelled to distant temples around the world. In 1993, when the Parliament of World Religions met in Chicago, she was chosen as the representative of "neopagans" and walked in procession at the opening ceremony alongside Chicago's Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
Olivia Robertson, who died on November 14, never married. Her brother Lawrence made his "transition to spirit" in 1994. Announcing her death, the Fellowship of Isis website enjoined the Goddess Isis of 10,000 Names to "bless and keep her as she makes her journey into the next spiral of the cosmic web".