Life Story

The Philosophers Peat

Cutting turf (peat) every year in the bog, we worked our way down into a world no human being had ever set foot on. By midday every day for five days we would be uncovering the floor of an ancient pine forest. The preserved tree stumps and trunks we’d uncover we called bogdeal. Sometimes the bark of a trunk we’d uncover would be as distinct as it was on the day it fell, frightening birds or deer into flight. Of one thing we could be sure, and that was that it fell long before even the most mythic of our ancestors walked here. And since Ireland is a country, and since, like every other country, it came into existence with the peoples who came here and settled here, then it followed that the tree stumps we uncovered were older than it.

John Moriarty

I am not a philosopher nor the son of a philosopher – but since philosophy and philosophers, men such as Aristotle, Marks and Nietzsche to name only three, have such a disproportionate impact for good or ill in our world, I occasionally dip my toes in to their stream, usually only to draw them out quickly again and run away as the gentle flow of their logic turns into an unintelligible torrent.

Hearing mention of an Irish philosopher who spent the summers of his youth in the peat bogs of County Kerry, I felt a certain cultural affinity and surmised that a fellow turf/peat cutter (I still cut peat here on Skye) might have something worthwhile and down to earth to share. Had I known then what I know now, having ploughed my way through his autobiography Nostos, I would, I suspect, have changed my mind. That is not to say he has nothing important to share – far from it – but given the tortured journey that was his life and experience, his river was indeed, for the most part, a raging, dark torrent and his writing and thinking far from easy to follow.

I first heard mention of Moriarty from the lips of another philosopher – the writer, poet and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth. Kingsnorth’s life was turned around, partly by something Moriarty had written later in life. He records:

‘“The story of Christianity,” wrote Moriarty, “is the story of humanity’s rebellion against God.” I had never thought of that ancient, tired religion in this way before, never had reason to, but as I did now I could feel something happening – some inner shift, some coming together of previously scattered parts designed to fit, though I had never known it, into a quiet, unbreakable whole.’

Moriarty’s own journey to this point in his life, as we have indicated, was a tortured one. Brought up as a Catholic in most Catholic rural Ireland he said of his parents – ‘Eighteen years inside of a marriage, inside of a bad marriage, that was enough. My father was a good man, my mother was a good woman – marriage was the culprit.’ He later persuaded his father to pay his fees for a three-year BA course in logic and philosophy at University College Dublin (1960–63). After graduating with a double first in logic and philosophy, he was later recruited to teach English in the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg. However, in 1971 he returned to Ireland, having decided that his spiritual quest required him to come to terms with the background he had so utterly rejected.

He settled in Connemara. Initially the local people viewed him with some suspicion – but when it came time to cut the peat/turf his skill won them over – ‘I was able to cut it as efficiently and as fast as Sheanie Feste, the local great turf-cutter. With that I was in.’ Living in a rented cottage, John roamed the countryside and hills meditating, praying and seeking release from the darkness which seemed to envelope him. One day he walked in to a remote mountainous area  near Loch Inagh. Something he never would have imagined happened:

‘Always when I came here I would sit in a little gorge that had in it a six-inch fall of water, a thing that would bring a lost humanity back to its paradisal senses. Today, however, I didn’t linger here. Rough though the going was, I kept climbing, climbing, until something I saw stopped me short. Washed down I surmised by a flood and deposited on bare bedrock was the skinned, pink-fleshed foreleg of a lamb. What gave it its terrible, lurid pathos was the fact that it was left there in the shape of a Christian genuflection. Looking at it, I thought of something Paddy Joyce from Glenchoaghan on the other side of the mountains told me. Up here one day seeking to track down some sheep of his that had strayed, he came upon a berried holly bush and hung up right in the middle of it was the whitened skeleton of a goat. Clearly, seeking the rich pasturage of its leaves, the goat had climbed up into the bush, had hooked his horns on its boughs, and couldn’t come back down. The lamb and the goat. The genuflection and the hanging. The genuflection on a Gethsemane rock, the hanging from a Calvary tree. It was like some awful re-telling of the Christian story. And so, far from Christianity being foreign to nature or, as Nietzsche might say, a poison and a pestilence to nature, it is, on the contrary, a living if still gruesome outgrowth of nature.

Dispirited, I turned to come back down, and then it happened. In an instant I was ruined. Ruined beyond remedy and repair, I felt. The universe had vanished from round about me. I saw a last, fading flicker of it and then I was in an infinite void. And the terrible anguish was, not only was the world I had hitherto relied on for my sense of myself an illusion, it was a deception. In terms of the Hindu parable, the snake had vanished but I could not sense the rope. And I felt very badly done by. The way I had lived for the past three years, curling up in the swan’s nest, healing my head in the hare’s form, baptising myself out of culture, practising being a standing stone, seeking to walk the earth with a barefoot heart and a barefoot brain – I felt that all of this was a genuine search for the truth, not a merely speakable truth, but a truth I would surrender to, a truth I would live, that would live me, not just for myself, but for others as well. And now, in an instant, it had all ended in ruination. The world in and through which I had been a self, that was an illusion, it had vanished, leaving that infinitely isolated self in peril of Trembling and bewildered.

Coming back through the garden in the small hours I thought it would be a good sign if my little clock had stopped at one thirty-one. Again, against all the odds, it had stopped, dead on one thirty-one. This was an old superstition of mine. Being the opposite or reverse of thirteen, thirty one was a lucky number, and there it was now, comforting me, giving me hope that I would come through. For now, though, there was no relief. Over the years, deliberately and of seeking set-purpose, I used to recite a Buddhist mantra. Buddhism is pleasant to look at, whereas, in its final redemptive moment, Christianity is horrible to look at. And yet, now that I needed help in a way that I never before did, I fell instantly and instinctively back into Christianity. Whatever else, Christianity was mother tongue. It was to Christ and it was to the God that Christ called out to in dereliction – it was to both of them that I now called.

Christianity was true, is true, not because Jesus is God – he might well be the one true God incarnate – but it isn’t because of that that Christianity is true, Christianity is true because in Gethsemane and on Golgotha Jesus lived a truth about us and our world, he lived it into shocking visibility, he lived it and it lived him. He walked into the olive press, the mind press, that brings everything out into the open. It brings all that we phylogenetically are out into the open. It brings everything that Nietzsche discovered in himself out into the open. I had learned a lot in a few hours. Only this wasn’t learning. This was simple seeing. In the mountain to day I had been shattered into seeing. And it wasn’t with my eyes that I saw it. It was with whatever was left of me that I saw it. Surprised, almost managing a smile of embarrassment, I was a Christian. Not a Christian again. I was a Christian for the first time. How strange! Christianity making sense to me! Making naked, metamythic sense to me! And Christ a companion. Christ the only thing in sight – Christ in Gethsemane and on Golgotha, the Christ whose Passion carried him that far, that Christ the only thing in sight that could speak hope to me.’

‘It was in the evening after work. I was holding my not so important head in my etymologically self-remembering hands, and, quietly overcome into a state of silent surprise, I saw that I would spend the rest of my life attempting to tell the Christian story. Even if Christianity ceased from the earth and no Christian was left, I must still attempt to tell it.’

John Moriarty being John Moriarty his Christian pilgrimage from this point on was neither easy, nor, to most people (at least in my culture), normal. He continued to struggle and on more than one occasion spent time at the Carmelite friary in Boars Hill, Oxfordshire, where he was attracted by the peace of his surroundings and the monastic liturgical cycle. One biographer states – ‘He also began to take communion (in both catholic and anglican churches) and to describe himself as a Christian, though in a highly idiosyncratic sense.’ 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 broadcaster Andy O’Mahony once introduced Moriarty to listeners to his RTÉ Radio One programme Dialogue as ‘one of the most extraordinary people I’ve met in my life’.

Would Moriarty be regarded as a ‘Christian’ in my own tradition. I somehow doubt it. His background, journey and ongoing conflicts and affiliations would, I suspect, be far too ‘New Age’ and/or ‘Catholic’ for most – and his refusal to be tied down to an ‘evangelical’ theology – or indeed any restrictive theology at all, would be a step too far for many to consider him as such.

John Moriarty died on 1 June 2007 at his home on Mangerton, County Kerry. And yet John still speaks. He speaks through his writings and life story to other, sometimes tortured, souls, philosophers and those in the New Age community stumbling honestly towards truth. Paul Kingsnorth, already mentioned, is one – and there are others. Kingsnorth, a one time Zen Buddhist and Wiccan Priest has today fully embraced Christ and Christianity – due in no small measure to the  reading of Moriarty’s life changing experiences as recounted in his autobiography. (I will leave a link to his story below.)

As I said at the beginning – I am neither a philosopher nor a philosophers son – but I too take some comfort from the words of John Moriarty:

What I learned from him (his father) 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 cow stall, sitting there quietly, listening to them chewing the cud.

John Stephen Moriarty  – 1938-2007


The Paul Kingsnorth story –


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