Moriarty, John Stephen (1938–2007), philosopher and shaman, was born 2 February 1938 at Moyvane, near Listowel, Co. Kerry, fourth of six children (two sons and four daughters) of James Moriarty, smallholder and native speaker of Irish (with eleven cows and 'thirty-two acres of bad, rushy land'), and his wife Mary (née O'Brien). In his autobiography Nostos (2001), Moriarty recalls a society dominated by stories and hardships, faith and malign piseogs, commenting that while they had metal implements (including his Raleigh bicycle) they were really 'neolithic' in mentality. His parents had a stormy relationship, leading to occasional separations; his father spent much of the second world war working in England.
Moriarty was educated locally and at St Michael's College, Listowel. At first he was a weak student and looked forward eagerly to leaving at the minimum age of 14, but shortly before that age he suddenly developed the knack of accurately constructing Greek and Latin sentences, and decided 'now that I've got the hang of it I'd like to carry on with it'. His later writings show the lasting influence of catholic litanies, and of the prayers and ceremonies associated with the rite of the Latin Tridentine mass.
The young Moriarty assumed that the traditional classical and Christian curriculum of St Michael's (which he later regarded as an 'imperial imposition') was compatible with and underpinned the small-farm way of life into which he expected to spend his own life. At the age of seventeen, however, he experienced a devastating crisis of faith after reading Charles Darwin's Origin of species, which brought home to him that the earth was vastly older than the Biblical chronology indicated, and that the hand with which he turned the page was akin to the fin of a whale. This personal crisis was reinforced by adolescent sexual guilt, fear of mortality (related to increasing unease over the intimate small-farm experience of killing animals for food), and revulsion at the thought that any being, however malignant, would be eternally damned.
For the next three years Moriarty experienced cosmic despair, which he sought to appease through incessant reading and pursuit of ideas. His first glimpse of relief came through reading Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick in which he recognised Captain Ahab's obsessive pursuit of the white whale as humanity's pursuit of an inhuman, unknowable God and the isolated survival of Ishmael as an image of metaphysical alienation. The novel remained his lifelong favourite; he later remarked that in comparison to Melville and to Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary were merely enjoyable gossip.
After unhappily training at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra (1956–8), and spending some time as a teacher, Moriarty persuaded his father to pay his fees for a three-year BA in logic and philosophy at UCD (1960–63). He was generally regarded as one of the 'stars' of the college, and was easily distinguishable by his habit of wearing his hair long (maintained for the rest of his life). The poet Paul Durcan, a university contemporary, recalled Moriarty as 'our unique conjunction in the one personality of Wallace Stevens, Heraclitus and Isaiah Berlin' (Ir. Times, 1 April 2006). UCD was less tightly supervised than St Patrick's College; here Moriarty began his lifelong quest to explore and express the intuitions that lay at the heart of his worldview. At the core of this was a passionate rejection of scientific rationalism and humanism (in the sense of the belief that man is separate from and superior to animate and inanimate nature).
Moriarty read widely in literature and comparative religion in the NLI (D. H. Lawrence and William Blake were early favourites) and began to compose short poems and adaptations of classical myths to express his unease and his struggle 'not to be a Christian'. (Much of this material was incorporated into books published in the last two decades of his life.) He also had his first sexual relationship (with a woman student); although he saw this and subsequent relationships as part of his quest, he had already decided that the answer to his questions could not be found in simple human intimacy and was terrified that his sexual impulses would develop into murderousness (either through awakening his own latent violence or passing it on to a child). Moriarty supported himself by working in factories in London during the holidays. In Soho he engaged in grubby sexual explorations, and with the assistance of a sister who was an air stewardess he made the first of several visits to Greece.
After graduating with a double first in logic and philosophy, Moriarty resisted the prospect of being 'conscripted' into the workplace with a period of living rough on the streets of London, then (in November 1963) secured admission to the University of Leeds as a postgraduate tutor in philosophy on the strength of references from his Dublin supervisors. After a period of about eighteen months (in which he had an affair with a Welsh student who introduced him to the mythical narratives known as the Mabinogion) he was recruited to teach English in the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg (again on the strength of his Dublin testimonials). The next six years combined teaching and academic duties with relationships with female students, contemplating the inhuman beauty of the Canadian north country, and wandering the western United States and Mexico (during breaks in the academic year) trying to come to terms with Native American spirituality. Deciding that he did not want to become a deracinated intellectual, he resigned from the university in holy week of 1971 (noting that he was the same age as Jesus at the time of the crucifixion) and returned to Ireland, having decided that his spiritual quest required him to come to terms with his background. At the same time, he wept over this farewell to his youth.
Return to Ireland
Moriarty settled in Connemara, near Clifden, living in a rented cottage, roaming the hills, and meditating; confronting the apparent inscrutability of nature, he underwent a profound personal crisis which he later equated with the shamanic quest (made more perilous because undertaken alone, whereas an apprentice shaman would have tribal elders to guide him), the 'dark night of the soul' described by the Spanish Carmelite mystic St John of the Cross (1542–91), the agony of Jesus at Gethsemane and Calvary, and the healing of the wounded Fisher King of Arthurian legend (he spoke of this healing as the symbolic removal of a sword from the phallus, representing the purging of murderousness from sexuality).
Moriarty then took a summer job at Ballynahinch House Hotel in 1973 (partly for financial reasons), and later began working as a professional gardener, using traditional tools such as scythe and sickle with which he was familiar from childhood. For the next twenty years this would be his principal livelihood, and physical and spiritual discipline. In 1975 he published a 10,000-word text, 'Imago' in Structure, a small-circulation magazine. He also consulted the psychologist Feighin O'Doherty (qv), who reassured him that he was not going mad, and spent some periods of retreat at the Carmelite friary in Boars Hill, Oxfordshire, where he was attracted by the monastic liturgical cycle. Having already developed a new identification with the figure of Jesus and a sense that he needed to reconnect with his native traditions, he began to take communion (in both catholic and anglican churches) and to describe himself as a Christian, though in a highly idiosyncratic sense. He became active in locally based conservation movements (such as opposition to a proposed airport at Clifden), and mixed both with resident intellectuals such as the geographer Tim Robinson and with local people who came to accept him as a neighbour. One of his friends provided a plot of land at Toombeola, near Roundstone, on which Moriarty built himself a small house.
While working at Ballynahinch House Hotel in 1973, Moriarty met Eileen Moore, a nineteen-year-old art student working there for the summer. For the rest of his life he regarded her as Beatrice to his Dante. Friendship developed into an intermittent love affair; it was broken off, but they remained in contact, and Moriarty continued to hope for a closer relationship. At least once he asked her to marry him, but in hindsight he thought her refusal understandable, since his quest left him needing too much personal space to function effectively as husband and father.
Moriarty first attracted nationwide attention on 31 January 1985 when the broadcaster Andy O'Mahony (who had met Moriarty on a visit to Connemara) introduced him to listeners to his RTÉ Radio One programme Dialogue as 'one of the most extraordinary people I've met in my life'. The philosopher, writer and catholic priest John O'Donohue (1956–2008) encouraged Moriarty to give talks to lay groups and church-related discussion groups (the latter including many members of religious orders that had experienced spiritual unsettlement after reassessing traditional discipline following Vatican II). He became a regular participant in Clifden Arts Week and in the annual Bard Summer School established on Clare Island by Ellen O'Malley-Dunlop in the mid 1990s to discuss the significance of Irish mythology. He appeared regularly on Irish radio and television, frequently phoning the Liveline radio programme presented by Joe Duffy to engage in on-air discussions. In 1997 he presented a six-part television series, The blackbird and the bell, leading discussions of science and spirituality (interspersed with Irish and other folk music) around a fire at Drimnagh Castle, Dublin. Responses to Moriarty's broadcasts varied greatly; one critic thought him 'a one-man book of Revelation', while others were bemused by his oft-repeated view that Neil Armstrong's moon landing was insignificant, even contemptible, in comparison to that of 'Eskimo shamans' who travelled to the moon by spiritual means. However, he attained widespread respect as a man who lived out his own philosophy with utter integrity, like a Christian hermit, Eastern guru or late-classical philosopher.
Some of Moriarty's talks to groups around the country were recorded and circulated privately, while a friend transcribed and typed manuscripts. Moriarty incorporated much of his existing mass of notes and reflections into a three-volume work, eventually published as Turtle was gone a long time. Anthony Farrell of Lilliput Press, to whom this was offered, suggested that Moriarty should first produce a more accessible text. The result was Dreamtime (1994; revised ed., 2000), influenced by Australian aboriginal spirituality. The book offers a symbolic journey through the four provinces of Ireland (embodied in Irish and other myths) and presents the accession to power of the legendary High King Conaire Mor (walking naked to Tara to be acclaimed as king) as the culmination of a shamanic regeneration which will fulfil the messianic hopes of Irish history. Like several other Moriarty works, it is prefaced with a question-and-answer in which the writer tries to elucidate his purposes for an alter ego, and is provided with a glossary in which various Buddhist, Amerindian, Hindu, Welsh and other terms and belief systems casually referenced in the text are explained for the bewildered.
Turtle was gone a long time appeared in three volumes: Crossing the Kedron (1996), Horsehead Nebula neighing (1997), and Anaconda canoe (1998). Robinson and other friends then persuaded Moriarty to undertake an autobiographical work relating his thought to his life; the result, Nostos (2001) (Greek for 'homecoming'), consists of seven hundred pages written in his usual style, taking his life up to the early 1980s; unlike his previous works it has no chapter divisions and contains very few dates. It is perhaps Moriarty's most accessible book. It was followed by Invoking Ireland (2005), an attempt to 'take up where Yeats and Lady Gregory left off' in recovering a Celtic spirituality through retelling a series of ancient Irish myths with Moriarty's glosses.
Night journey to Buddh Gaia (2006) advocates at considerable length the recognition of the earth as a timeless divine entity in its own right. Moriarty's books bear many signs of their origins as oral compositions, with their frequent repetitions, litanies, and straining language. He was the only contributor to the Lyric FM programme of reflections, The quiet quarter, who chose to extemporise on air rather than use a script. Moriarty maintained that his writings resisted abstract understanding, and that he sought an effect of 'fertile chaos'.
Admirers included the poet Paul Durcan (who declared 'Nostos is to Irish literature what Thus spoke Zarathustra is to German philosophy' (Ir. Times, 1 April 2006)) and the writers Aidan Carl Matthews (who called Nostos 'the greatest Irish book since Ulysses' (Ir. Independent, 5 January 2008) and Michael Harding. A more sceptical critic, Brian Lynch, still judged of Moriarty: 'the oddest Irish writer of the twentieth century, he may be the most important Irish philosopher since Bishop Berkeley' (Ir. Independent, 5 January 2008).
Moriarty's fundamental philosophy is a form of monist idealism (i.e., mind is the only reality, matter and selfhood are illusions, there is no distinction between the knower and the known, self and God), heavily influenced by Hindu thought, by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and by the psychology of Carl Gustaf Jung, with its insistence on the need to accept and reintegrate the shadow side of the self, and its belief in a collective unconscious shared by the human race as a whole.
He argued that the deracinating scientific impulse, from Thales of Miletus to Einstein, represents a succession of dragon-slayers who are really denying and dividing themselves. This dragon-slaying, Moriarty answers, represents a denial by 'Hebrew prophecy, Greek philosophy, Roman law' and repression of murderous impulses, which reassert themselves in violence, from the Biblical Israelites' slaughter of the indigenes of the Promised Land all the way to European colonial conquests and Auschwitz. Moriarty is particularly scornful of Genesis 1:26, 28 (in which mankind is given domination over animals), Psalm 8 (declaring man 'little lower than the angels'), the messianic prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah (because a lion which lay down peacefully with the lamb would no longer be a lion), and the first stasimon (choral ode) of Sophocles's Antigone (which proclaims the greatness of mankind). He admired the book of Job because of its utterly unknowable God, whom Moriarty suggested was not the God of the Old Testament.
Moriarty presents Jesus's acceptance of death and entry into the deepest pit of unalienated vision as a redemptive renunciation of dragon-slaying, leading to recognition of the essential goodness of even the worst monsters, even the Devil. This version of Christianity involves the rejection of the concept of a transcendent supernatural realm (Moriarty describes the Second Coming to judge living and dead as the last temptation rejected by his Jesus) and theology (including the doctrinal definitions of the councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon and Trent) as an arid intellectual attempt to grasp the ungraspable. Moriarty's Jesus is not a sacrificial victim but the perfect embodiment of humanity.
The concept of history as enjoying sacred providential direction is rejected in favour of a timeless mystical experience; Moriarty declares that the writings of the medieval Rhineland mystics such as Eckhart, Tauler and Suso should be regarded as 'Evangelanta' (new revelations of equal stature with the Gospel, cognate with the later Hindu scriptures known as the Vedanta which comment on the earlier Vedic texts). Moriarty declared: 'I understand Jesus fully working backward through the mystics … rather than forward through the testaments … the Rhine of the 1400s is my Ganges' (Sunday Tribune, 6 April 2006). As one of these mystics, Moriarty implies that through his own experience he is a messianic figure inaugurating a second Christian dispensation in which 'it is necessary to follow Jesus out of the Church'.
As the Clifden area experienced increasing development (including the opening up of a late-night music pub and a quarry in disturbingly close proximity to his haunts), Moriarty decided to leave the area. (He was dismayed at the general urbanisation and technological development of Ireland in the 1990s and 2000s; he complained that Dublin had become like Tokyo and was suspicious of children whose primary object of attention was the PlayStation, though he thought the Care Bears had totemic potential.) In 1995 he moved to Co. Kerry, where he built a house at Coolies, Muckross (in the Horse's Glen in close proximity to Mangerton mountain, near Killarney). Here he contemplated the mountains ('God doesn't need to come down upon a mountain for the mountain itself is the revelation' (Nostos, 373)), received admirers and enquirers, and wrote daily in longhand, going to an internet café in Killarney to have his manuscripts transcribed. In 2002–3 he acquired twenty-three acres of land at Cumeen Upper near Kilgarvan in east Kerry, where he announced that he intended to found a retreat centre or 'monastic hedge school … at a distance from church and state' to teach 'the two revelations of nature and of the mystics' (the Bible is thus implicitly dismissed as a source of revelation). The new community would be not 'just a human community but one of plants, animals, lichens, human beings and insects' (Ir. Times, 31 January 2003). His proposed community, Slí na Fírinne (Way of Truth), described in Moriarty's book Serious sounds (2007), was modelled on a type of Greek monastery whose inhabitants live in individual hermitages but gather at set times in communal buildings; it also owed something to W. B. Yeats's (qv) abandoned proposal (c.1900) to establish a 'castle of the mysteries' in the west of Ireland. Despite financial and moral support from several catholic religious orders (including the Benedictine community of Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick) and sympathetic individuals, Moriarty failed to realise this project in his lifetime, but established the Slí na Fírinne Foundation with the aim of its eventual accomplishment.
Around the time he moved from Connemara to Kerry, Moriarty began to suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. At the time this was attributed to burn-out, but it may have been an early sign of the terminal triple cancer (bowel, liver, prostate) which was diagnosed in December 2005, necessitating an immediate bowel operation to secure his short-term survival. On hearing the news, Eileen Moore gave up her job and moved into his house, where she cared for Moriarty as he grew increasingly unable to care for himself. In 2006 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from UCG. Moriarty continued to speak regularly on the radio programme Liveline, talking fluently and serenely about the imminence of death and his belief that it was not the end, and to work on a continuation of Nostos – originally suggested by Tim Robinson as an account of Moriarty's relationship with Connemara, completed weeks before his death and published as What the curlew said (2007). John Moriarty died on 1 June 2007 at his home on Mangerton. His funeral mass at St Mary's cathedral, Killarney, was concelebrated by fourteen priests (including the catholic bishop of Kerry), and he was buried in Aghadoe.
Moriarty's friends and admirers continued to promote his writings and message. In July 2007 an RTÉ Radio One series on spirituality, Would you believe, devoted its first programme to a Moriarty tribute. In December 2007, a thirteen-CD collection of Moriarty recordings, One evening in Eden, was released by the Slí na Fírinne Foundation and launched by the Green party politician Eamon Ryan. In 2008 a John Moriarty memorial lecture was inaugurated at Clifden Arts Week. In 2009 Michael Harding wrote and performed an expressionist one-man show, 'Moriarty', based on Moriarty's life and writings, with the Kerry folk-theatre group Siamsa Tíre. A 2012 documentary on Moriarty (Dreamtime revisited, dir. Dónal O Céilleachair and Julius Ziz) combines interviews with Moriarty and his associates with landscape filmed in the style of Terrence Mallick and found footage in a non-linear style reminiscent of Moriarty's prose. The Heideggerian philosopher Brendan O'Donoghue produced a selection from Moriarty's writings (A Moriarty reader: preparing for early spring (2013)).
Moriarty lived through the unprecedented social and cultural changes Ireland experienced in the second half of the twentieth century (conventionally described as modernisation) and his career can be seen both as a product of these changes and a rejection of them. His writings represent a distinctively Irish expression of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century international intellectual movements known as New Age spirituality and deep ecology; his attraction for his Irish followers represented a sense both that something important had been lost in the post-Lemassian decades and a belief that the previously dominant forms of Irish Christian (particularly catholic) spirituality had involved excessive and repressive self-idealisation and lacked a certain vital earthiness. Even if he never achieves the recognition predicted by his admirers, Moriarty will still be of interest as a witness to Ireland's ambivalences at the end of the twentieth century.