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A Hut at the Edge of the Village: never preachy, deeply moral

Book review: John Moriarty’s musings on life real and imagined skilfully edited by Martin Shaw

A Hut at the Edge of the Village
A Hut at the Edge of the Village
Author: John Moriarty, edited by Martin Shaw
ISBN-13: 9781843518006
Publisher: The Lilliput Press
Guideline Price: €15

Everyone says learning history is important, but is mythology more vital still? While historical knowledge is used today to rekindle old grievances and inflame new generations with past anger, myth is more generous and fluid with the facts. There are no pure winners in mythology. All the heroes are flawed, and all human plans must surrender to a higher power – be it god, or nature or the spirit world.

John Moriarty dealt in mythology. By Zeus, he even looked the part! Sporting a wild mop of hair and never stating the obvious when the esoteric would do, he was every inch the travelling bard. Admittedly, he rarely strayed far from his native Kerry in his later years except to visit Dublin for chemotherapy to treat the cancer that would claim his life on June 1st, 2007. He was 69.

Coinciding with the 14th anniversary of his death, Lilliput Press is seeking to bring Moriarty’s work to a new audience with A Hut at the Edge of the Village, a collection of the Irish philosopher’s writings with commentary from storyteller Martin Shaw. A loving foreword is provided by Tommy Tiernan, who met Moriarty while walking around Ireland in the summer of 2002, and proclaimed him “a constant companion ever since”.

The book is not an easy read. As much as half of it went over my head

Don’t mistake the book for a tribute act, however. It’s a work that cries out for attention. Moriarty’s plea for an urgent stillness – a fracturing of spacetime to allow nature to breathe and give us a chance of emotional rebirth – is just what a pollutant species of unhappy mammals needs to hear.

The book is not an easy read. As much as half of it went over my head as Moriarty’s mental gymnastics tumbles from Norse folklore to Hindu mysticism, vaulting over obscure biblical references and Nietzschean insights, to draw out some uncertain point. But when his words land, they do so with force.

His memory of lapwings on the family farm and his first loss of religious faith transports you to another Ireland;  a place where adults measured out speech to children in meaningful parcels and where a boy could enjoy the simple thrill of giving the neighbour’s daughter a crossbar home from town.

His description of a lobster pot being unloaded from a friend’s currach, and the casual dismembering of animals by man, has the potential to spoil your enjoyment of crab claws for life. In these and other passages, he uses local detail to express the global: “For me, that day, that first lobster pot was the dot at the bottom of a question mark set up alongside the universe we live in. Is ours an utterly deviant planet?”

The writing is never preachy but it is deeply moral. “After centuries of ecological havoc we need a restoration of Ind Énflaith”, or bird-reign, he declares. Another concept he works up into a prayer is that of Earthrise – the image of our planet rising on the moon’s horizon that he reimagines as an ecological philosophy. For the individual, he proposes that one “not make too much noise in the world” (members of the twitterati note).

Moriarty never imagined leading a political revolution... running a hedge school on the edge of the Atlantic was the height of his hopes

There are no resolutions and no arguments per se. Students of formal logic will be deeply disappointed. Instead of giving answers, Moriarty leads us to a “fóidín mearaí” – a sod of confusion. In folklore, this was a bend, gully or some other piece of land that, once stepped upon, could cause a traveller to become disorientated or lost.

In Moriarty’s mind, the universe is a fóidín mearaí and, in a characteristic flip from prophecy to humour, he imagines saying as much to cosmologist Carl Sagan in a dream: “Are you there, Carl? Oh! Sure I know well where we’re now, Carl. I know well where we are now, but, knowing where we are in terms of our whereabouts, what kind of knowing is that?”

At times Moriarty seems deliberately unintelligible and showy; the most accessible pieces by far are his mini-parables and stories. To those who reckon it’s all nonsense, Shaw has a generous reply: “When you go to John’s hut you will be presented with more than you can handle. That’s the point. And in that very disorientation, some soul may enter.”

Moriarty never imagined leading a political revolution. His ambitions were modest; running a hedge school on the edge of the Atlantic was the height of his hopes. But a wider utility to his work is implied.

At a time of fraught commemorations and disputed concepts of Irishness, Moriarty reminds us that we’re part of a longer lineage that flits across borders and beyond the physical world to the land of the Fianna – to a world of sea-striding giants and an interconnected global folklore. Shaw puts it more bluntly than Moriarty would: “Abandon myth and you receive its often troubled brother, nationalism.”

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column

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