Feature

Time to reclaim the legacy of John Moriarty
The Kerryman’s sometimes disturbing spirituality is a summons to a greater appropriation of faith writes Prof. Michael W. Higgins

As we begin a new year with so many geopolitical challenges, ecclesial turbulences, and economic uncertainties on the horizon there are always grounds for hope, new discoveries, grace-filled epiphanies. The best of times and the worst of times, as one Victorian eminence once wrote.

One of the best things to unfold this year, and a compelling reason for celebration, is the 10th anniversary of the death of the Kerry savant and poet, John Moriarty. The anniversary provides us with an opportunity to discover, if not re-discover, the intellectual and spiritual legacy of this extraordinary man.

His contemporary, John O’Donohue, an icon of the Celtic Revival post-Yeats, often eclipsed Moriarty in the public imagination, in part because of his more popular and accessible persona. They died within a year of each other and neither voice has been really stilled, mercifully, but neither has been seriously replaced, unfortunately.

The recovery of Moriarty is an urgent matter. Although, thanks to his formidable RTÉ broadcasts, the splendid labours of scholar Brendan O’Donoghue resulting in the brilliantly edited A Moriarty Reader, and the imaginative and inexhaustible energy of an impressive cadre of writers, engineers, professors and government leaders pledged to preserve the Moriarty genius for the generations, the results have been almost exclusively national.

Debut

Time now for his debut on the international stage for he has been a neglected treasure for too long. We need his sage insights, abiding compassion, poetic sensitivity and intellectual temerity in a period of social unrest, crushing despair, and soulless utilitarianism.

Moriarty’s eco-spirituality and empathetic identity with nature anticipated Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment and creation, Laudato Si’, and his recovery of the antique voices of supressed if not extirpated peoples and their myths and his comprehensive grasp of diverse religious traditions and their commonalities speak to his expansive ecumenicity, a quality of mind and heart that scores of people now embrace as a way forward to universal harmony.

Moriarty was an epic visionary in the tradition of the Franco-American monk-poet Thomas Merton and the Welsh artist-poet David Jones. 

Like Merton and Jones, Moriarty mined his own history — personal, cultural, spiritual, and anthropological — in order to paint on the larger canvas, to move from the particular to the universal. And like Merton and Jones he sought the consolations of contemplation, the sanctuary of isolation, the wondrous admixture of the primitive with the sophisticated, the elemental with the embellished. 

Power

He understood the power of art, the power of story, the redemptive possibilities inherent in myth, the dangerous allure of nature, the devastating luminosity of the dark night of the soul.

Moriarty was part pioneer, part preserver and part renegade. He re-thought sacred truths, re-framed conventional beliefs, and re-imagined ancient rituals for a new and impoverished time.

His own narrative structured his philosophical ruminations; his theology was both orthodox and heterodox; he bled his psyche onto the pages he wrote not as therapy or authorial contrivance but as his way of discovering himself in his anguished and yet often joyous quest for unity.

Moriarty was quintessentially Hibernian. In spite of his six years in the Canadian prairie province of Manitoba, his mystical forays into the geological wonders of Colorado, and his apophatic struggles in a Carmelite priory in Oxford, Moriarty remained a denizen of the west coast of Ireland, gardener, storyteller, and thinker.

But in the end, as you read his work and listen to his voice, you realise that this Kerry visionary is really universal property, his sometimes disturbing spirituality a summons to a greater appropriation of faith, his intellectual extraterritoriality a call to shatter the narrow boundaries of parochial thinking, his largeness of heart an invitation to love creation more deeply.

Time for Ireland to reclaim his legacy; and for the rest of us, time for an introduction.