The criticism most often levelled at John Moriarty is that his writing is inaccessible for the ordinary reader. As a speaker, he was most definitely impressive and inspiring; having listened to him, one was left hungry for more, and so one purchased one of his books. And that, for many people, was where the problem arose. Tommy Tiernan, the well-known Irish comedian and broadcaster, in an interview with Moriarty, had this to say: “I bought one of your books…. I found it impenetrable,”[1] and that has been a common experience. In fairness, and with great humour, he was more than ready to acknowledge this. During a talk,[2] giving the background to the writing of his book Nostos, he spoke about his concerns in relation to accessibility. His friend, the writer and cartographer Tim Robinson, persuaded him to write an autobiography, recommending that he ‘put the ideas in the context in which they emerged in your life and people will be getting the ideas one by one and then they’ll have some chance of understanding them’. For some reason, hearing it put like that, he didn’t feel the same resistance, and ‘the next morning, it was the longest day of the year, I came down, made the sign of the cross on myself and I started writing….and this is what emerged….seven hundred pages, and as I was writing it I was saying, no-one, no-one, no-one is ever going to stay with this….they’ll get so sick of me after a hundred pages that they’ll pitch it at the wall, they won’t even want it in the house…’, and he often told the story of the friend of his who admitted to him that she was using the book as a door-stop.[3]

     Undoubtedly, there is truth in all of this. His books are difficult, the book mentioned above that was intended to make him more accessible to the general reader ran, as he said, to almost seven hundred pages, and is certainly not an easy read, yet his work is still in print, his audience is growing and those who make the effort find ample reward. It needs to be acknowledged that he was capable of writing passages of great beauty in lucid accessible prose:

      More often than not now, I’d go off through the fields on my own. There were fields that I loved. Fields with a sward of natural, wild herbs. In the Hill Meadow I saw hints of Paradise. It was the only name I had for the flowers that grew there, primroses and cowslips in the dry parts of it and in the more marshy parts, buttercups and orchids.

And I wondered.

How could something so yellow as a buttercup come up out of brown soil? How could something so purple as an orchid come up out of it? How could something so perfect as a cowslip come up out of it?

Where did the colour and the perfection come from?

And what else was down there?

What else was I walking on?

To me to inhale the fragrance of a primrose was a Eucharist.

A Eucharist without suggestion of bloodshed or blood.

Sometimes I’d inhale the fragrance down to the very soles of my feet. Then I could walk the earth without hurting it. Then I could walk in Paradise. Right here, in our Hill Meadow, I could walk in Paradise. (Moriarty 2001, 13-14)

This, however, was not the norm; he persisted with another, far more prevalent style, heavy with mythological references and with esoteric images, accessible, perhaps, to scholars in a particular discipline or to those readers willing to research the various references, but very often inaccessible to the general reader:


As is the case with all other rivers, our river has its source in Nectan’s Well.[5] And that is why we learn to speak. To learn to speak is to learn to say: we say about the hills and anything we say about the stars is a way of saying,

A hazel grows over the Otherworld well our river has its source in.

Our time being so other than Otherworld time, it isn’t often, in our time, that a hazel nut falls into Nectan’s Well, but when it does it is carried downstream and if, passing from current to current, it is brought to your feet and you eat it, then though in no way altered, sight in you will be pure wonder. Then seeing ordinary things in the ordinary way you had always seen them, sight in you will be more visionary than vision. To know, and to continue to know, that any well we dip our buckets into is Nectan’s Well is why we are a people.

We are a river people

Exile for us is to live in a house that isn’t river-mirrored.

Our river isn’t only a river. It is also the moon-white cow who will sometimes walk toward us, on one or another of its banks.

           The river and the cow we call by the same name. We call them Boann.

           Boann, the moon-white cow.

           Boann, the gleaming river.

           In dreams I know it as cow.

           Awake I know it as river. (Moriarty 1999, 18)

          In spite of the difficulty of this Ollamh Fódhla passage, when read poetically it has a quality to it that transcends literal interpretation. One does not have to grasp every nuance of meaning to recognise the depth that is here. One does not need to know who Ollamh Fódhla was, or the Celtic myth to which he belongs, but one can respond to particular lines, ‘Our river has its source in an Otherworld well’; this resonates. The passage appeals to the imagination, to those who might feel themselves ‘in exile’ from the spirit source. It facilitates a creative response, it yields up at least part of its meaning without recourse to intellectual analysis, it yields even more if spoken aloud, it appears to sing its sense to us and details are of lesser importance.                                                                  

And this is the whole point. Moriarty once described himself as ‘an intellectual outlaw’ (Moriarty 2001, 479). Early in a successful career lecturing in the University of Manitoba, he turned his back on academic life, he became disillusioned with the entire apparatus of what he called our modern ‘sensory intellectual tool-kit’ (Moriarty, 2007, Vol.1): the modern belief that reason, logic, argument and experiment will enable human beings to penetrate the great mystery of being and so unlock the secrets of the universe. He became convinced that what he calls ‘our QED mentality’ (Moriarty, 2007, Vol.1), our assumption that only that which can be empirically proven is of any value, is fundamentally flawed. He insisted on what he calls a ‘night-knowing’ (Moriarty 2001, 39) knowing that comes from the deep recesses of the inner self and from the ancient past, that comes through instinct, intuition, inspiration, imagination, that comes when the rational mind is either asleep or willing to step aside and let deeper forces have their say.

To illustrate he would tell a story, a Sufi parable which recurs regularly in his writing. It concerns a man who, on arriving home late at night, discovers that he has lost the key to his house. He begins to search for it, and a neighbour comes by and offers to help. He asks the homeowner where he might have lost the key and the answer baffles him, ‘I lost it over there in that dark corner’. Then the neighbour asks, ‘Well, why aren’t you searching there?’ and the answer he receives is, ‘Because over there, there is no light’. Moriarty goes on to say,

‘There is a great mystery and we spend our whole lives searching for the key to the mystery and we think we are going to find it…the answer to the mystery, in the very narrow circle of sensory intellectual light. If we walk round that and examine it minutely enough then we’re going to find the key to the great mystery and the answer to all of life’s riddles. But there’s a whole mystical tradition in almost every tradition that says No, you will not find the Key to the great mystery, you will not find the key to your house, to your eternal house, you will not find that in the narrow circle of sensory intellectual light.  You must voyage out beyond the narrow circle of sensory intellectual light and go into the dark, and it is in the dark that you are going to find it.’ (Moriarty 2007, Vol. 1)

Over and over again he tells us that it is not with our rational, thinking heads that we achieve wisdom, it is in fact our rational thinking heads that are a large part of the problem. ‘Psyche’, he says, ‘is the blind and not the window’; we go around and around looking for truth ‘in the narrow circle of sensory intellectual light’, while truth is hiding somewhere over there in a dark corner.

The modern, Enlightenment approach to the world is to analyse everything, to dissect everything, to prove everything, to clarify everything, and in Moriarty’s view this has led us into a post-modern world of emptiness, nihilism, and ecological catastrophe from which, for the most part, we protect ourselves by immersion in an orgy of consumption. This he would contrast with the world of his childhood. The small farm on which he grew up in 1940’s Ireland was still part of a pre-modern world; it was a world as yet without electricity, motor-cars or telephones and its culture was, on one level, dominated by the Roman Catholic church, and on another by an older more pagan world which still existed in its stories and superstitions. It was an ancient world, abandoned as backward and regressive in the dash towards modernity, a world already extinguished in most of Europe and America, and on the brink of extinction even here, on the periphery of Europe. However, within both the religious and pagan tradition, in spite of their many confinements, one encountered a world of spirit, wonder, mystery and miracle where the individual might be housed, sheltered and given a sense of meaning beyond the temporal day-to-day concerns of the physical world. It was far from idyllic and much was lost in dogma, doctrine, hierarchy and repression, but within the rituals, the imagery and the superstitions a sense of soul and spirit was preserved. The individual belonged to a far greater and more mysterious world than that to which he physically belonged. Within that world,

‘as Emerson would remind us, we aren’t only what we sociologically are:

‘It is the largest part of man that is not inventoried. He has many enumerable parts: he is social, professional, political, sectarian, literary, and in this or that sect and corporation. But after the most exhausting census has been made, there remains as much more which no tongue can tell. And this remainder is what interests.’ (Moriarty 1999, 234)

And it is ‘this remainder’ which so fascinated and obsessed Moriarty; what have we abandoned? what are we, beyond our sociological selves? and what language do we have to explore ‘what no tongue can tell’?

These were the questions that drove a relentless, lifelong quest for insight into the great mystery. In his search for answers, he went on what he called a ‘panethnic walkabout’. (Moriarty 1998, xxx) He explored all the great religious traditions, Judeo-Christian, Islam, Hindu, as well as the spiritual traditions of those he called the First Peoples of the world, the native American, the Inuit, the Aborigine, the Celt; he studied ancient civilizations, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, Greek and Roman; he ‘ravened his way through libraries’[6], he read the great philosophers, the novelists, poets and dramatists both ancient and modern; he absorbed, he synthesised, he wrote. And along the way he developed a style of writing that ‘relies so much more on myth, metaphor and parable than it does on logic, dialectics or discursive reason’. (Moriarty 1998, x) He developed what he calls ‘a mother tongue of recurring images’[7] drawn from all the sources just mentioned, and therein lies the problem for the reader who approaches the work without the benefit of his vast erudition. In his Overture to Turtle Was Gone A Long Time, Vol 1, he makes the following defence of the ‘oddity’ (Moriarty 1998, xxxi) of his style:

The book makes no claims to aesthetic dignity. Its urgencies and anxieties are to say something, not to say it beautifully. In that sense it isn’t so much a book as an invitation to co-creation. It’s readers, should there be any, will need to co-create it. And that perhaps is a kind of reading that has its own particular excitements. But whether that be so or not, a book so classically perfect in construction and content that it resists co-creation isn’t something I have in me to write. A chaos of themes that is beginning to cohere into a common direction is all I have to offer. The hope is that such nearness to chaos will have its blessings, blessings not always at the disposal of something more ordered. There is a Sufi story in which, at the very beginning of his instructions, a master says to a pupil, ‘Give me your certainties, and in return for them I will give you confusion’. (Moriarty 1997, xxiv)

So, here we have it. The reader is challenged to co-creation; it is an imaginative, creative process which is not passive and that will require research and patience. It promises intellectual excitement, it promises blessings, and it promotes confusion rather than certainty in an attempt to understand who we ‘phylogenetically are’.[8] Having baptised himself out of the Cartesian way of thinking Moriarty became, neither deliberately nor consciously, an image thinker, and therein lies the difficulty. If it does appear at first like a ‘a chaos of themes’, the vision it ultimately expounds is utterly coherent, and every remote strange image, every ancient myth, every literary reference and quotation, every personal story told, has relevance and purpose within that vision. It would be a danger and a disservice to attempt to bring his writing down to our size, to language that we might immediately understand. Seen from different perspectives and put in different contexts Moriarty breathes new life into old stories, and challenges us, firstly to learn his language, and then to re-awaken to a sense of the wonder, mystery and divinity of the world, an awakening of what he calls ‘silver branch perception’ (Moriarty 2001, 415), a new way of seeing, and hence being, on the Earth.  Eventually we recognise that image-thinking is the language that best expresses the soul. Therein lies the enormous depth, richness and challenge of his legacy.

Moriarty, John. 1999. Dreamtime (Dublin: The Lilliput Press)

….. 2001. Nostos, An Autobiography (Dublin: The Lilliput Press)

….. 1997. Turtle Was Gone a Long Time, Vol 1, Crossing the Kedron (Dublin: The Lilliput Press)

….. 1998. Turtle Was Gone a Long Time, Vol 3, Anaconda Canoe (Dublin: The Lilliput Press)

….. 2007. One Evening in Eden (Audio CD Set of Six Stories, Lilliput Press).


[1] John Moriarty and Tommy Tiernan, YouTube:

[2] In an, as yet, unpublished talk.

[3] Ibid. for all quotations in this paragraph.

[4] Ollamh Fodhla (scholar of Fódla) was a high king of Ireland (c.953-923 B.C.E.) According to Irish legend he instituted the Assembly of Tara (Feis Temrach) where scholars, nobles, and commanders met during Samhain once every three years to renew and pass laws.

[5] In Irish mythology, Nechtan was the husband of the goddess Boann, who created the sacred River Boyne. Nechtan’s Well (also called Well of Wisdom) was the source of the River Boyne.

[6] From RTE radio programme Dialogue with Andy O’ Mahony, first broadcast in 1998.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Phylogeny is the evolutionary history of an organism. Moriarty uses the phrase to describe all the ancient powerful energies that are latent in man as a result of his evolution from the animal kingdom and that, when erupted, cause terrifying and terrible havoc.