This is an interview I carried out with John Moriarty in 2001. It was originally written for the killareny.ie website, which I ran at the time and which is now defunct. I met John in Killarney and later drove him to his home on the side of Mangerton Mountain. He wrote nine books, most of them huge ponderous things but which carry you along. John died in 2007 from cancer.
With a shock of white hair, ancient lived in eyes and a mildly eccentric dress sense, John Moriarty is someone who causes people to do a double take as he passes by. He exudes an easy going and unselfconscious charm which enthrals the waitresses in the restaurant where we sit down to eat and they seem to squabble over who is going to serve him.
Our conversation is an almost hypnotic experience as Moriarty intones his sentences in a rich north Kerry accent, repeating key phrases two or three times to milk the full impact of the point he wants to make, almost as if he is mimicking the chanting shamans who dominate so much of his writing.
He has published five books drawing liberally upon the legends of Ireland, classical Greece, American Indians, Australian Aborigines, Ancient Egypt, Islam, Asia and the Christian Gospels to try and articulate the inner most mysteries of human consciousness.
His most recent book Nostos, published in March 2001, is a huge sprawling volume of autobiography containing nearly 700 pages of tightly crammed text, with no chapter breaks, setting out many of the ideas that he had already articulated in his previous books, but in a ``biographical context.’’
He was born close to Listowel in Moyvane in 1938, educated at University College Dublin, lectured English Literature in Canada for six years before dropping out of academia to live in Connemara where he worked as a gardener.
``I baptised myself out of culture in Connemara and started to remake my mind again with new sensations, sensations the colour of red stragnum and the sound of the stream, the colour of sunset, the calling of a fox, the smell of heather,’’ he says
``I went through libraries, I had been to the galleries and been to the concert halls and I was literally glutted with culture, I had to come out and put my head in a stream in a bog in Connemara and let it all wash out and start again and remake my mind.’’
He moved to Kerry six years ago and currently lives in a small book filled house on the slopes of Mangerton Mountain about five miles outside of Killarney. He says he feels like an exile in modern Ireland and only comes down from his retreat to give an occasional lecture or to shop for groceries.
He continues: ``An old name for Ireland is Fódhla and I live in a dimension of the land of Ireland called Fódhla and when I am coming down to Killarney I feel like showing a passport sometimes at Muckross because I’m crossing into Ireland.’’
Moriarty’s first book was called Dreamtime after the Australian Aboriginal myth that their ancestors literally dreamed the earth, as we know it, into existence. He says that his writing is an attempt to bring this concept into an Irish and European context.
``I wanted to drop out of official Europe and find out is there an Irish Dreamtime in the way that Australian Aborigines walk their songlines. I feel that is where I live. I live in Ireland’s Dreamtime, I live in Europe’s Dreamtime. It is a dropping out of history and your responsibility to history, returning to the Dreamtime that was before history and so it was an attempt to go back and walkabout in Ireland’s Dreamtime,’’ he says.
For Moriarty myths are a means of articulating the inner most concerns of the human psyche and their retelling is a path to self-knowledge.
``The Minotaur myth to me is an enlightenment about the beast within me, it pictures the beast in me, it pictures who I phylogenetically am rather as opposed to who acidicly I am. They let me see myself in my deepest impulses, my darkest impulses,’’ he says.
``I open my door to the wisdom of humanity with no customs and excise stuff. If I can touch the pulse of a myth or an Upanishad or of a Sutra from the Buddhist thing, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead then that speaks a truth to me, the truth isn’t tribal, there are tribal truths, but my door is open and I listen extra-territorially, I listen outside of my own territory.
``We have not taken what the myths have said to us seriously, now some of them are stupid and silly, but there are quite a few which to me are places of great revelation and enlightenment and they enable me to know me and to inherit me.
``I am taking responsibility for the darkest impulses within me and saying `John ask this much of yourself but don’t ask that much of yourself, don’t stir up the beast within yourself.' You’re not going to like what you find, you can be terrified by what you find.’’
Moriarty had to spend many years battling the ``beasts’’ within himself, an experience he says which could have ``blown me away.’’
He continues: ``In the way that there is a physical appendix and that siphons off the poisons which if they burst would flood the body and poison the body, I think there is a karmic appendix and the karma of lifetimes is stored in it and a time comes in one incarnation or another that karmic appendix bursts and your mind is flooded with bad karma and there were nights when I felt that the windows of my bedroom were fogged up with the stuff that was coming out of me, it was a real witches cauldron.
``There was a time when I saw three doors before me, a door into a monastery, a door into a high security prison, because it was within me to commit the ultimate crime, the big crime, the kind of impulses that would enable one to commit the ultimate crime were at large in me, and I saw a door into a mental home.’
Moriarty took refuge in an Oxfordshire monastery living there for 18 months as layman, participating fully in the monastic routine and returning to the Catholicism of his youth.
He says: ``I needed divine assistance, I needed to invoke grace, I mean I can’t heal me, I need healing from outside the system that I am and that normally is called grace…. I found when I needed help I found myself falling back into mother tongue and mother tongue wasn’t Hinduism, wasn’t Buddhism, wasn’t Taoism wasn’t Australian Aboriginalism or Native Americanism.
``The Gospels really are a wonderful tall tale about Jesus and its as a tall tale in the best sense of the world that I see them, and I’ve gone so far as to say that even if the tale was ten times taller it would still only be capturing glimpses of the reality… it’s the poetry of Christianity, not the dogmas, the Jesus that I hear instead of the lawyers, the people that would turn it into dogma.
``Christianity enables me to be much more radical than most of the secular radicals. Christianity is so radical that we have to water it down. I don’t think it can be socially realised at all, which is usually the old problem with mysticism. How do you socially institute mystical insights? You could do a lot of damage while trying to do it.’’
Moriarty says he felt as if he went through ``fire and purification’’ and that in a way the books he writes are part of the healing process.
``It was very important to speak it and to name it… I had to learn the language and the vocabulary and a lot of the vocabulary was the old myths and then the mystics the Upanishads and the Sutras of Hinduism and Buddhism and the Christian mystics and the Muslim mystics,’’ he says.
As well as working on another book Moriarty has plans to open what he calls ``a hedge school,’’ based on a monastic discipline. He wants it to become a place of learning where people can come to study mythical and mystical texts, particularly the Hindu Upanishads which reflect on the nature of man and the universe.
The Upanishad may not fall within the canon of texts studied in most traditional western monasteries, but as Moriarty says he wants to ``listen to the wisdom of the world.’’
He continues: ``I don’t think within the tribe, I haven’t walled myself in to the tribal thinking. I listen to the wisdom of humanity.’’