Celtic Junction Arts Review
The Silver Branch Perception of John Moriarty
Réamonn Ó Ciaráin
He eases his head facedown into the warm hare’s form on the heathery Ballyconneely bog in Connemara. It is a perfect fit. He breathes in the hare’s ancient and native musk. He makes two requests; firstly that the hare’s form be a poultice sucking out all that is damaging and limiting from his expensive European education and, secondly, the hare’s form to be a cocoon, bringing a new and blessed mind, a mind of nature, to life in him. The man is John Moriarty, an erstwhile literature/philosophy lecturer. It is the early 1970s in Ireland and Moriarty is emerging from a womb of unmaking. His world now will be that of the doe hare, the world of nature and mythology, what he called his ‘Principia Mythica’, and no longer a world of hard facts with ever-decreasing circles of closure; ‘closure of our account with reality’. A carrion crow observes from above.
John Moriarty is a North Kerry born thinker and writer. His logic defies critical dissection though it is Kantian in its purity.
For the young Moriarty national school was ‘a punitive experience’. Later, he cycled the twelve-mile roundtrip each day from Moyvane to Listowel to attend St. Michael’s College from 1951 to 1956. There he excelled in his studies, particularly in the classics. After teacher-training college in St. Patrick’s Drumcondra, Dublin, between 1956 – 1958, he studied philosophy and logic at University College Dublin from where he graduated in 1962 with first-class honours. While in London in the early 1960s he spent some time living rough in parks at night, such as St. James’s, and seeking refuge in libraries during the day.
Moriarty had a big bush of hair. A mane, poet and friend, Paul Durcan called it. A smile was never far away. You could hear the smile in his voice. His slightly removed warmth concealed hidden depths; his esoteric and complex inner workings. Despite recurrent bouts of darkness he seems to have had an engaging sense of humour. He possessed a probing mind. His erudition was immense. He carried it lightly. Moriarty was a repository of stories from ancients and aboriginals. Joseph Campbell’s writings impressed on him greatly.
His contemplation of religion and belief systems was deep including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sufism, Buddhism, Taoism, the Upanishads, Celtic Nature and Otherworld beliefs, Native American beliefs, Inuit and Aztec Cultures, Minoan civilisation among others. In his writing and speaking he was consistent in nailing a fundamental thesis of genuine evolutionary and phylogenetic ecumenism to every possible door he encountered. Moriarty gave particular attention to the ideas of the mystics such as John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Lao Tzu and the Psalmists. He was on first name terms, in his inner discourse at any rate, with other influential thinkers and writers such as; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Johannes Kepler, Herman Melville, Frederick Nietzsche, Blaise Pascal, Sylvia Plath and William Butler Yeats.
He was very fond of his rented cottage accommodation at Toombeola in Connemara which was owned by Lynn Hill, landlady and then friend. These were wild and idyllic surroundings similar to his own internal weather with its periodic inner turmoil. On and off his time here stretched from 1971 to 1983. He then built a house nearby where he lived until 1995 at which time noise of a public house and disturbance from a local mine forced him to reassess his place of residence. What initially attracted him here was the Owenmore River and the way it forms a pool before being released into the Atlantic Ocean nearby. He wrote of this the way the many Hindus think of the Ganges cohering into the Indian Ocean. Moriarty drew on this image, a river joining the ocean, to describe how, upon death, the soul becomes part of eternity. This alluvial and maritime setting in Connemara provided shelter for John, a base from which to write, walk, and observe. The full sensuousness of nature was on his doorstep here. After digging graves with the locals he became one of them; a part of but also apart from. He was to them a curiosity with both a scholarly and a farming background.
John got to know Toombeola intimately and many friends, neighbours and former students from the University of Manitoba, came to visit him here not least his regular visitor, confidante, and neighbour Martin Halloran. Eileen, his mainstay companion and partner was a welcome visitor too. He had other visitors though; ghosts, spirits, mythological characters, tormentors, torturers, slain pigs and hens, philosophers, and writers. Some of these were disturbing visions such as a flayed genuflecting leg of lamb, a starved goat’s skeleton strung on a holly bush, eels being dissected, and Christ looking down on his own empty skull on the Hill of Calvary. Moriarty’s visionary world was reminiscent of that of William Blake, poet, artist, philosopher and someone often quoted by Moriarty. Moriarty needed myths and stories in which to shelter. The foremost of these stories for him was the Triduum Sacrum, the last three days of Holy Week; Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the Garden of the Sepulchre.
In 1976, Moriarty found it necessary to seek a week’s refuge in the Carmelite priory on Boar’s Hill in Oxford and returned for the following year, living with and gardening for the monks until again falling ill with what he described as ‘rich inner ravaging’. He wrote of this suffering as flourishing in the same way a jungle flourishes in greenery. The laying low of Moriarty was not unlike the wasting sickness or seirlige of Cú Chulainn where in that case two otherworldly women took turns in whipping the hero mercilessly. Thankfully Moriarty had Eileen, his this-worldly partner, and other friends and neighbours to support him back to wellness at Toombeola, as Eimhear and the men and women of Ulster patiently looked after Cú Chulainn in the imagination of our nation. Moriarty’s suffering and pain were exquisite and similar to that of the biblical Job. John’s comforters however, arrived with soup, loaves of homemade bread, logs for his fire and holy water from Lourdes. Moriarty pleaded with the very bible lying open by his bedside to pray for him and ease his ‘boiling and butchering’. He sought succour also from a cruciform sycamore root he himself had saved from burning and brought home with him from his gardening work and nailed it to a partition wall above his bedstead.
Eventually recovering, Moriarty drew on these lows. It might be thought of as creative illness. It led him to probe his inner world and the depth psychology of Ireland. He laid bare Ireland’s origins. He ventured back to its pre-organic origins and did so in the way a Jungian psychiatrist might bring a patient on the couch back to his or her inner child. No other Irish thinker or writer has attempted this task with the same rigour as Moriarty save arguably James Joyce. The revelations of his personal life in his work are like the bareness of the Sacred Heart in an Irish country kitchen, intriguing yet terrifying. He bares his inner world and in doing so attempts to access the Precambrian bedrock of our nation contemplating the very savannah which once flourished under our feet. He goes 2,600 million years back in time and at least 13 ¾ British miles deep into our collective consciousness.
Moriarty’s analysis is multi-disciplinarian and multi-pronged. He draws on phylogenetics, geology, biology, astronomy, stories, poems, myths, prayers, toponymy, religion, ritual, etymology, and memoire. His scope is broad yet focussed when focus is necessary, homing in on the essential truth. And what is this truth? It is a simple truth, a frightening truth to some and a blindingly obvious truth. We are not separate from the elements or the biosphere around us. We are one with our fellow creatures and with our habitats too. The world does not only ‘environ’ us, we are it, it is in us and we in it. We are the ‘transparence of the place’ in which we find ourselves, or ought to be, according to Wallace Stevens of whom Moriarty thought highly and quoted frequently. No longer can we assert dominion over animals. Were we to damage say a river or a forest we would only afterall be damaging ourselves.
Moriarty would claim, as did his iconic hero William Blake before him, that we took a wrong turn in the 17th and 18th Century with Newton and Descartes and later according to Moriarty in the 19th Century with Darwin. Not that these eminent thinkers were wrong with their theories but that we abandoned too much in our adoption of rationalism, materialism, and modern reductivism. We made a god of science. There is much more to it all than ‘cogito ergo sum’. Moriarty describes cogito as a cataract. Our beast-slaying myths are part of our evolution and served us well but if the earth is to survive slamming into an iceberg of an exponentially growing human race; a human race with its, on the whole, increasingly destructive behaviour, we need a new story, a new consciousness, Moriarty believed. If understood properly, Triduum Sacrum; agony in the garden, the passion and resurrection of Christ; Gethsemane, Golgotha and the Garden of the Sepulchre can help with our new understanding, our new perception according to Moriarty. A 9th Century text, Moriarty mentioned, contains In Tenga Bithnua or in English, The Evernew Tongue, and in this we are told that Jesus’ resurrection brought redemption to the whole of creation, not just mankind. It follows that we have a responsibility for all life on the planet with which we are interrelated and interdependent. Moriarty’s message is in harmony with that of medieval Gaelic Christian scribal monks who retained their native Celtic worship of nature alongside the new religion of St. Patrick.
The human race is currently in denial and has been for over a century and a half with regard to its longterm survival. This denial we can no longer afford. We have, according to Moriarty, become AIDS virus to the earth, breaking down its immune system with our greed. The world is therefore HSS positive; Homo Sapiens Sapiens positive. The basic problem here is that we are incessantly trying to slay the Minotaur when what we really need is to lead it back into our hearts. And this very idea, Picasso depicted in his painting of the young girl in summer dress leading the beast out of the labyrinth, Minotaure aveugle conduit par une petite fille (1934) rather than, what we have for centuries considered preferable; Theseus descending to stab it in the throat. We require more sophisticated answers than Hercules’ club, Theses’ sword, Cú Chulainn’s Gae bolga, Saint George’s spear, and St. Patrick’s snake-eradicating crozier. We need an imaginative, creative, Tuatha Dé Dannan approach rather than a brutal Balor of the Evil Eye, Famorian approach. We need a Silver Branch Perception Moriarty believed.
Silver Branch perception emanates from the imagination of our antecedents. Imram Bhrain is found in the 12th century Lebor na hUidre and details the voyage of Bran mac Feabhail; Bran, meaning raven. He hears a silver branch playing enchanting otherworldly music. The Silver Branch, An Chraobh Airgid, represents entry to the Otherworld without dying. In another tale detailing Cormac mac Airt’s adventure into the otherworld, the Silver Branch is depicted as bearing three golden apples. The music the Silver Branch plays is described in Moriarty’s work as ‘raiding him (Bran) with its unearthly sweetness’. This Silver Branch is of an apple tree from the realm of Eamhain, which is a far away eastern Island. In the Voyage of Bran the Silver Branch music is a precursor to a visit from an otherworldly enchantress who in turn invites Bran and his followers, a crew 27 men, on a sea voyage. Then she disappears. After two days on their imram, rowing, they meet Manannán mac Lir (son of the sea) who sings his truth to them over the manes of his four chariot horses as he drives across the waves. This truth is that the otherworld is another way of seeing the ordinary world – a Silver Branch Perception. What we might think of as a wide, fathomless and dangerous body of water, the sea, Manannán mac Lir sees as Mag Meall, a plain of delights over which he rides his magic chariot. On one of these eastern islands of plenitude with beautiful siren-like women, the voyagers remained for a year which turns out to be many years if not centuries in ordinary world time. One crew member, Neachtan, grew lonely for home. Despite the caution not to leave and whatever happens not to set foot on land back home, Neachtan sets off with Bran accompanying him. They come ashore at Sruibh Bhrain, which is Stroove, in North Donegal. There they address people from the safety of their boat. The people had heard old lore of Bran’s rowing voyage. Neachtan could resist no more and jumped from the boat and made for shore. As soon as his feet touched the land, however, he withered away as though he had been dead for centuries. Once Bran had told the people of his voyage he left, never to be heard of again. This motif of a man aging after returning from a seemingly timeless otherworld is international and Bran’s story, much of which is written in verse, dates from the 8th Century. It contains pre-Christian ideas. Moriarty often mixes the prehistoric, the Celtic, and the Christian world views in his works.
So what does it all mean? We might understand from Bran’s story that we should open our mind, our eyes, and our ears if we are to appreciate a Silver Branch Perception. Newtonian logic, Cartesian rationalism or the materialism from the 17th Century on will no longer suffice. Our logical or empirical mind, according to Moriarty, is a blind and not a window. Being homo sapiens sapiens has become an addiction, a habit we will need to break if we are to survive our catastrophic impact on the planet. We can perceive instead with Silver Branch Perception rather than with materialistic, economic or commercial eyes. Manannán mac Lir directs Bran homewards with his newfound perception. For each of us it will be our most difficult of all voyages or journeys to return home to where we are, to where we have always been, where our feet are, and to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, beauty in the commonplace, where trees, bushes and branches talk and where every bush is a burning bush. Seeking only what has economic or utilitarian value in our world is no longer sustainable.
Moriarty believes that Bran’s news, his Silver Branch epiphany, should make his story part of the great world belief systems, advancing our apprehension of a shared world in a similar way as to when humans learned to use tools, or as great as the domestication of fire. The Irish language, in which Bran’s story was first told, would naturally take its place as one of the great international sacred languages of the world. But Silver Branch Perception imposed an unbearable morality, a seemingly impossible responsibility of care i.e. that we are the universe and, as Moriarty wrote, ‘matter is mind in hibernation’ and therefore damage to creatures or the natural world is damage to ourselves. This is why Bran’s news was not readily accepted and adopted. If all this is true we can no longer use our eyes to see only economically or rationally, to commodify all about us, to look at the world with súil mildagach, a destructive eye, the eye of Balor. It was that very perception, the evil commodifying eye, that has brought us to our current point of impending ecological doom. If we truly possess a Silver Branch mentality we could never again exploit the earth’s resources the way we have been doing since the beginning of the industrial revolution from the mid 18th Century. We have raced this planet to exhaustion the way the earth Goddess Macha was raced to collapse against the horses of King Conchúr Mac Neasa at Eamhain Mhacha. She laid a curse on the men of Ulster. That curse may be on us yet.
In Silver Branch Perception our national psyche dreamed up John Moriarty to the role of modern Ollamh Fodhla, to remind us about our good news. We are, the ‘music of what is happening’, that music favoured by Finn McCool, what Moriarty called ‘the endless instant’. We are Yeats’ falconer but also the falcon. What we now need is a centre that will hold. St. Patrick was shrewd enough to know, according to Moriarty, that Silver Branch Perception, good though it was, would not catch on but that another story, the story of the young semi-divine man dying slowly at our hands in the Near East would. Moriarty holds, however, that the old pagan window can still illuminate our lives with sacred, pre-Christian, sea-light and land-light; offering transcendental breathing holes like those essential to the survival of Arctic seals under the frozen ocean. The unseen realm from which Silver Branch Perception emanates offers imbas, the ancient Irish idea of wisdom. Finn McCool for example, received imbas from tasting the Bradán Feasa which had eaten a hazelnut that had fallen into the magic well, the Well of Neachtan. Imbas and Silver Branch Perception are analogous.
We are in this world and it is in us. We are like drops of water making up the ocean. Like above below, as without within. We are being called on by Moriarty to rely more on ‘dreamtime’ such as that described in the Bran voyage. Silver Branch Perception is restrained today by a bondage of reason. Our empirical and rationalising mind is a blind, not a window. We should not rely on it, or even on one hemisphere of it, at the expense of our imaginative faculties, out of habit; the habit of being homo sapiens sapiens. We should approach the world the way a river relaxes into the ocean almost like entering a trance of benign acceptance of the ‘way of the soul’. Moriarty calls to mind the metaphor of a drop of water falling into wine and taking on all the properties of wine; oneness beyond a dualizing consciousness. This perception is represented by the Silver Branch and it would, were Moriarty to have his way, be on the national banner above us.
The essence of all this is that we will, in possession of Silver Branch Perception, have ‘a glow of fellow feeling’ with the other creatures of the world and with the plants, flowers, trees, and all habitats on land or in the seas. The ecological havoc outside is inside us also. We need what American poet Wallace Steven’s called for, according to Moriarty, a new intelligence; an intelligence that would lead us away from cruelly emptying the seas and burning the forests and poisoning the lakes and the rivers, an intelligence that would protect languages and traditional cultural heritage also.
By nature, Moriarty seems to have been an introvert with an intriguing personality and a huge presence when speaking in public and thus in demand as a speaker. John O’Donohue who is also very much associated with Connemara invited him to give a talk after making his acquaintance. Moriarty seems to have thumbed a lift to his speaking engagements. He was a contemplative uninterested in prestige or wealth. He was more fascinated by the caterpillar metamorphisising from leaf-eater to butterfly feeding on nectar, than in academic prestige. For almost threescore and ten years John Moriarty emitted gentle waves of challenge almost like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon, he was so fond of and waiting for the echoes to borrow an idea from Don Marquis. In Moriarty’s own lifetime he heard some echoes; from his publisher, Lilliput, from RTÉ, from the Irish Times and from people like Tommy Tiernan and poet Paul Durcan. But his echoes will be heard. Like William Blake and like Herman Melville, who Moriarty often quoted, and for whom full recognition only came long after their passing, Moriarty’s echoes will eventually be heard. Now, more than ever, his ecological message about human activity being a devastating virus to the planet needs to be heeded.
Moriarty’s capacity with words and ideas is astonishing. If he has a failing as a writer, it might be that he seems to have written for an audience of John Moriartys in a world that was and is becoming increasingly less interested in slow deep contemplation on aspects such as philosophical literature and mythology. On the sleeve notes of Invoking Ireland we read of a Chinese idea of the true sage being one found not walking ahead of humanity, finding a way for it, but walking behind it, picking up the inestimable treasures it leaves behind it in its flight into an ever-receding future. This is for sure where we find John Moriarty. With the benefit of his shamanic ideas we can face into the future enthralled by his insightful understanding and wisdom. His ideas on culture, mythology, and ecology run as strong counter currents to received scientific, commercial, and business wisdom. His counsel would be one of walking on the surface of the earth without hurting it.
Moriarty had an eventful life for a boy from Moyvane of the 1930s. He lived, worked, and travelled widely for someone of his generation; to Greece, Mexico, Canada, Shetlands, London, and across the USA (overnighting in St. Paul, Minnesota). In North Kerry, he remembered his father ritualistically walking behind his adoring cows and his mother making sure her hens were locked in every night. These incidents might mean little to others but take on epic significance for Moriarty. To the fore of such memories are the young Moriarty holding the pig as it was slaughtered in their farmyard and also holding a bowl, what he called the sangrail, to collect the blood after his mother yanked the head off one of her chickens. These common or garden occurrences were to haunt Moriarty later. Now we no longer have to hear the pig’s throttling gurgle or catch the precious blood of fowl in our kitchen. The killing is now carried out on an industrial scale. Moriarty ultimately decided to stop eating meat.
Moriarty was appalled with the way our eyes became tumours seeing only economical worth; cows as kilos of beef, gallons of milk, pigs as pork and trees as timber. Similarly, we now speak of human resources, mere units of labour or skill.
Many events on the other hand left an inner glow to which Moriarty returned again and again. Frequently he revisits witnessing the aurora borealis on the Trans-Canadian Highway, in Saskatchewan territory, and also his trek down Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Other formative realizations came from books. He ‘fell out of his story’ after reading Darwin’s Origin of the Species and was catapulted out of his narrative shelter when he read about the immense age of the earth, 2,600 million years. One night as a boy he found it difficult to form a synthesis between the nativity story on Christmas Eve being all-important around their kitchen fire; stockings hung, candles in the window and hymns a-singing but across the yard in the cowstall there was no hint of the great Christian tale whatsoever for their father’s beloved cattle. This was an inner landslide of understanding that many others would have just shrugged off. But not Moriarty.
Moriarty had important romantic relations; Lydia Carlyle in college, Marilyn Valalik in Leeds, Morri Mostow in Canada and his mainstay partner Eileen in Connemara and later in Kerry. Eileen and he were artistic soul mates. She gave up her job to move in and take care of him in his final year suffering with cancer, 2006. Other mythical women were often in his thoughts; Andromeda, Ariadne, Athena, Cassiopea, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Macha (Rhiannon in Wales & Epona in Ancient Rome), Queen Méabh, Medousa, Pasiphae, and Persephone.
The Irish language was of great importance to John. His father was a native speaker. John seemed to relish exploring Irish texts and made his own translations. Of special significance for him in this regard was witnessing Dara Ó Cinnéide, the Kerry Senior inter-county Gaelic football captain, raising the Sam Maguire cup in Croke Park in 2004 after winning the All-Ireland for the 33rd time defeating Mayo. Dara spoke in Irish only. Moriarty would have admired this non-conventionality. John played Gaelic games himself when young and keenly followed his native county in their matches on radio and television. He captained a victorious St. Michael’s College, Listowel team in 1955/56, playing centre back. His writing is replete with Irish placenames which were unconvincingly disguised by English colonisation (Arkeen Beg, Ben Gleniskey, Ben Lettery, Derradda, Derryclare, Coolany, Gayle, Glen Choaghan, Inis Fallen, Lisnabrucka, Lough Oorid, Owel, Maamturks, Poll, Tarbert, Tarmons). Place holds central significance for him and in that respect it is similar to Ireland’s national epic, An Táin Bó Cuailgne, in which places are some of the main characters. In his speaking he often recreates the Irish-English of Kerry and Connemara, the cadences, syntax, and phonology of which are borrowed from the underlying Irish language of the native people and that of their ancestors. One simple yet profound phrase which resonated with him was, Bíonn sceamh ar gach sceach siar, meaning every bush in the west has its lean i.e. it allows nature to sculpt it. Another phrase in Irish that impressed him was a local man in Daingeann Uí Chúis or Dingle describing a stream as, ‘ag glaoch orainn isteach sa tsíoraíocht as a bhfuil sé féin ag teacht’; the stream is calling us into the eternity from which itself flows. He referred frequently to his father sitting in his cowstall ‘ag smaoineamh agus ag machnamh dó féin’, thinking and contemplating to himself like Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker.
Moriarty held court with a host of literary and philosophical friends in his busy imagination. He seems to have felt their presence greatly. He felt; Johannes Kepler’s horror, Blaise Paschal’s terror, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s troubling deductions, Herman Melville’s shuddering glimpses, Mathew Arnold’s recoiling, Friedrich Nietzsche’s collapse, and Sylvia Plath’s dark waters, etc. One of Nietzsche’s ideas from The Gay Science (1882) affected Moriarty deeply and was one he returned to again and again.
‘I had discovered for myself that the old human and animal world, indeed the entire prehistory and past of all sentient being, lives on, works on, hates on, loves on, thinks on in me.’
He had an astonishing breadth of learning and wisdom, much of which was esoteric. His intellect was rigorous. He had a tremendous capacity with words and for narrative. His work flows in a stream of consciousness similar in many respects to Joyce’s Ulysses or Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. He is fearlessly open and honest. Such is the extent of his knowledge and insight that he swerves tangentially from story to theory, to fact, to biographical detail, to observation, to anecdote, to obscurantism, to the fascinating, to the local, to the universal, to the ancient and back to the current, to the humorous, to despair, to hope, to the bleak and the beautiful and all this often in a single page.
Deep and complex though his writing is, I think Moriarty’s message is very simple, clear, and pertinent today. We are neglecting a significant aspect of our humanity by relying only on our empirical and logical faculties only. The planet is suffering because of this. Because man gave himself dominion on the earth; for man’s use and benefit according to the catechism, he feels licensed to ravage and destroy in the interest of progress. Our truth should be more in keeping with the story of St. Ciarán of Saighir and his hermitage peopled with local creatures; bear, wolf, fox, badger, stag, etc. Moriarty gives account after account of how we need to let nature mould us to suit its needs rather than we moulding nature to suit our needs. For the pre-Christian people in Ireland God was Rí na nDúl, the king of the elements and these ideas seem to have comingled with the message of St. Patrick and his possible precursor Saint Ciarán of Saghair. He returns to the beauty of the dolphin leaving the alluvial terra firma 70 million years ago and becoming a sea-creature. How majestically its shape evolved because it allowed nature to sculpt it. In one story Moriarty tells how St. Colman grew breasts to nurse children who came into his care, one breast producing honey and the other lactating. He tells of how the Blackfoot Tribe of Native Americans learnt to live in harmony with the buffalo by adopting the buffalo dance. He tells of the vixen turned housewife being rejected by her human lover because of her fox-smell around the house. It is clear to Moriarty that we need a new intelligence and that intelligence he would call Silver Branch Perception and it should be, he claims, a symbol on the national banner above us as love was on the banner hoisted over the Shulamite girl from the bible.
Moriarty called repeatedly for genuine ecumenism with all beliefs and religions. He sought a new Christianity which draws from native wisdom such as that of the Aztec people, the first Native American tribes, and indeed the ancient native mythology of Ireland; the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe. At a very deep level in Ireland our stories formed our nascent psyche and inform our world view to this day. Stories such as the Wooing of Etáin which describe reincarnation from insect to animal to human carry a powerful message. Stories like this and stories from other branches of Celtic literature such as the Arthurian legends and the Mabinogion provided psychic shelter for Moriarty and can do for us too. In these stories, birth and death are part of a continuum and not alpha and omega events. To fully appreciate the ancient understanding and worldview encapsulated in these imperishable tales is to embrace Silver Branch Perception.
Early in Moriarty’s childhood, Charles Darwin shook him out of his fundamental story. Moriarty quotes an incident where the huge intellect that is Darwin rejoices in telling how he crept up on a rare fox on San Pedro Island off the Coast of Chile and managed to kill it with a deft blow to its cranium with his geological hammer. It, being by Darwin’s account, ‘more curious or more scientific but less wise than the generality of his brethren’, was subsequently stuffed and mounted in the Museum of the Zoological Society in London upon the return of the Beagle. Moriarty would say that Darwin need not have wielded his Herculean club to kill that fox but should instead, have followed it and learned from it in the same way a dog led us to the pit in Lascaux and similarly by following a dog chasing a rabbit we were led to Ailwee Cave in County Clare. Our fellow creatures are trying to help us and it is with the help of a Silver Branch Perception we might avail of their assistance. Let us lay down the Herculean club, Agamemnon’s daughter-killing dagger, Theseus’s spear, Cú Chulainn’s hound-slaying sliotar (hurling ball) and instead listen to the music of the Silver Branch sent ashore by Manannán mac Lir of the ageless and deathless islands of wonder and plenty to the East.
Despite doing all he could to remain under-recognised and underappreciated in his own lifetime, Moriarty did come to the attention of RTÉ where he contributed occasionally and where he hosted a TV literary and philosophical discussion programme called The Blackbird and the Bell. Of particular note in this regard is the contribution he made on the Joe Duffy show shortly after getting his cancer diagnosis. He spoke lucidly and self-effacingly about his approaching death. He spoke engagingly and with characteristic humility. In 2003 he delivered an unscripted hour-long presentation called Prometheus and the Dolphin for Media Lab Europe. His talk was wide-ranging and delivered to a large audience. He displayed mental agility and precision, with depth and humour and all the time holding his lightning-vein hand and sometimes two hands to his temples for some ethereal reception. His message was ahead of its time and was an attempt to bounce society out of its denial, out of its trance, about our ecological peril. Society will, in time, return to the genius ideas of Moriarty and one hopes that it will not be too little too late.
Moriarty’s powers of description are potent. He writes movingly about his parents, Jimmy and Mary. Having journeyed from them physically and somewhat emotionally, he, like the mythic heroes he writes of, ultimately returns to close the circle in his own Nostos. He spends important curative and mutually replenishing time with them both in their respective latter months. When he last spent time with his mother he describes that final encounter with a delicate but powerful freight of meaning in Nostos.
‘As I watched her move about the floor I wondered if she had ever been hugged, hugged and sheltered in the deep places of her life.
Having said goodbye to my father in their bedroom, I came back down to the kitchen and I drew her to me, this once mighty woman, and I held her for a long, long time.’
Shortly after this she would die of a massive thrombosis at her kitchen table while reading aloud of a murder to her husband who was peeling potatoes for her.
And again, in Nostos, he writes meaningfully and tenderly of his father,
‘What I learned from him is that you don’t need to be an intellectual to be a philosopher. More often than not, it isn’t through intellect at all that deepest life in us mediates its deepest wisdom. Deepest wisdom comes to us sitting behind cows in a cowstall, sitting there quietly, listening to them chewing the cud.’
Moriarty’s first published book is entitled Dreamtime and he himself likened it to the ancient tradition of the Aisling, vision-poetry; a poem retrieved from a dream. The physical world and the world of dreaming sleep and dreamless sleep are often a single continuum for Moriarty and for all of us if only we knew it. If we could heighten our Silver Branch Perception we would realise this more. Moriarty inhabited the ethereal world as much as the physical one and maybe at times the former more so. In fact, he was as content to be away from the transactional world and to be ensconced in the meditative crotch of a tree, letting the tree do his thinking or curled up on a swan’s nest or head down in a hare’s form or even in self-imposed seclusion with the Carmelites at Boars’s Hill, London.
Some might say that Silver Branch Perception is fine if you want to live the life of a medieval Christian mystic. And yes Moriarty’s way of thinking is not for those who live out of the left hemisphere of their brains only; those who prefer the numerical, the economic, the formulaic, right-wrong view of the world. Moriarty wondered where all this logic, all this rationalism had got us. While there certainly have been advances in many areas much of this progress has come at a cost to the world’s ecology and the spiritual aspect of humanity. There has been too much war and greed and too little care for that which supports us all, the natural world.
From his life story, we can see clearly that his love of nature and concern for ecology would have come from his upbringing on the family farm in North Kerry. His intellectual capacity for the classics and language was nurtured at St. Michael’s College, Listowel and then at University College Dublin where he read philosophy and logic. His Catholic upbringing and education gave him a grounding in catechism in 1950s Ireland albeit at a higher than average level of understanding and questioning. He seems to have drifted from this Catholicism but eventually returned to what he described as ‘his native language’, Christianity. In 1995 he returned to his native Kerry taking up residence in Coolies on Mangarton Mountain near Killarney. He was in his late 50s by then.
His legacy is one of a serious contribution to ecological, spiritual, and cultural thought. His contemplation of our early Irish mythological tradition is a vital contribution to this area of study and deserves detailed and scholarly analysis which it undoubtedly will eventually receive. Moriarty recognised the great contribution Ireland’s ancient vernacular literature has made and has yet to make. Under the correct circumstances Ireland could be the epicentre for a Western Wisdom Tradition like the centres of Eastern wisdom such as India and Tibet. Moriarty highlights how the wisdom of ancient Gaelic literature can help inform how we moderns should approach our responsibilities to the ecological and spiritual wellbeing of our planet and race and also embrace our duty of care for, and not dominion over, all the other creatures and biospheric life with which we share our world and on which we depend. This wisdom can be called Silver Branch Perception and it should be as recognisable to us and others as is the harp on Irish insignia. Silver Branch Perception can enrich our modern worldview and lead us to greater ecological and ecumenical understanding; lead us back to Fodhla, to Inis Ealga, to Fiodh-Inis, to Éiriú’s Éire. The Silver Branch should be on our national banner and maybe it will one day and on that day, we will become one with our planet and our inner animal. No more will we be called on to slay the dragon, the Minotaur, the hound, or the great white whale. The heel can be raised off the snake, and at last, our ancient imram myths can be elevated to their rightful place in world wisdom and the language in which they were composed, an Ghaeilge, will be recognised as one of the great sacred languages of our race.
John Moriarty died on 1st June 2007 in his beloved Kerry. His rescued sycamore root cross shivered as his soul left his body to join the great eternity as a river enters the fathomless ocean.
John Moriarty, Dreamtime (Dublin: Lilliput, 1994,1999)
John Moriarty, Invoking Ireland (Dublin: Lilliput, 2005)
John Moriarty, Night Journey to Budd Gaia (Dublin: Lilliput, 2006)
John Moriarty, Nostos, An Autobiography (Dublin: Lilliput, 2001)
John Moriarty, One Evening in Eden (Dublin: Lilliput, 2007) (boxed CD collection of talks, stories and poetry)
John Moriarty, Serious Sounds (Kerry: Slí na Fírinne, 2006)
John Moriarty, What the Curlew Said, Nostos Continued (Dublin: Lilliput, 2007)
Mary McGillicuddy, John Moriarty: Not the Whole Story (Dublin: Lilliput, 2018)
Michael W. Higgins & Seán Aherne, Introducing John Moriarty In His Own Words (Dublin: Lilliput, 2019)
Prometheus and the Dolphin for Media Lab Europe (video can be seen here: https://youtu.be/hcyoEV0OVRY )