Donegal's 'screamers': The story of 1970's Atlantis Commune

By Nuala McCann

Image caption,
The house in Burtonport which was home to the Atlantis commune in the 1970s

In Donegal, the locals called them the "screamers".

Parents drove their children past to stare at the big Georgian house painted in rainbow colours, daubed with zodiac symbols in the quiet village of Burtonport.

Donegal was not prepared for the radical free-thinking commune, The Atlantis Foundation, which set up home there in the 1970s.

When they arrived, they were the talk of the county.

Image source, Google
Image caption,
Garrett Carr found a story that was altogether darker than he had imagined

They came in 1974 and they stayed for 15 years.

The group, led by charismatic Englishwoman Jenny James, believed in "primal scream therapy" - yelling, shouting and shrieking to release deep-rooted fears buried from childhood.

James wanted to establish a new family of people who were not related - her own tribe - and to live off the land.

At any time, 30 people were living in the Burtonport House.

In old cassette tapes, you can hear James chatting about the "stud theory" of men - only good for sex and cutting wood.

She wrote many books about her beliefs and theories.

In a new documentary, The Silence and the Scream, to be broadcast on Radio 4 later, you can hear old footage of guttural screaming - primal therapy in action.

Image caption,
Old tape recordings feature Jenny James talking about her beliefs

Some of this was so disturbing that Irish television did not screen a programme featuring those sessions for a number of years, say the documentary makers.

Writer and documentary presenter Garrett Carr from Donegal, remembers how his family lowered their voices to talk about the "screamers".

"The name was unnerving, there was a certain mystery about them and I remember the house with the murals and slogans painted on," he said.

"Donegal is a very reserved place and, in making the documentary, we were interested in the contrast between the screamers and the people of Donegal and how they handled them.

"There was a good deal of politeness and tolerance."

Image caption,
Garrett Carr in front of the modern 'Screamers' house which is now painted blue

When he and producer Conor Garrett went to find stories about the "screamers", it was not so easy.

"You got the feeling that people knew stories but they weren't sharing them... certainly not with a man holding a microphone. There was a real sense of discretion."

Carr thought this was going to be a lighter story, but he said that it ended up as something much darker.

The details on some of the tapes and documentary footage proved disturbing.

"I went in thinking that this was something curious and quirky, but I felt it was nasty. I'm glad I was not there," he said.

'Free love'

Producer Conor Garrett has his own childhood memories of the house.

"My mum took me past it as a kid. It was folklore and it scared us."

In the course of the programme, he and Carr visit the island of Inisfree where the screamers moved to live in cottages that are now derelict.

"That was dropping out," he said, "They lived right out on the edge of the Atlantic in a self sufficient way."

It was, he said, about free love too. It was about a new way of living. For some, that turned sour.

Aoife Valley's parents lived in the commune for a short time.

"It was August 1976 and I was two months old. They both told me, separately, that it was very damaging to them," she said.

"They were there months, rather than years. They understood it was not a good place to be.

"My mother got very upset. She ran away and left me, even though she was breast feeding. She felt so frightened, the environment was so hostile."

For Aoife, the result has been a turning away from noise to the healing power of silence.

Image caption,
Aoife Valley's parents lived in the commune for a short while

"I have learnt from my parents' experience about the damaging effects of too much noise," she said.

She lives in a remote glen in Donegal and organises silent retreats, teaching the power of meditation.

"My purpose is to help the noise be turned down so that we can hear the beauty all around us," she said.

It is a world away from the screamers.

The Silence and The Scream is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 23 July, at 20:00 BST