Prophet of the mystic path


MICHAEL HARDINGknew that his play on the life of John Moriarty had to be both simple and mythic, in tribute to a man who approached the big questions and mysteries of life like an ancient sage

I ONLY MET John Moriarty once, in the foyer of a hotel in Clifden; a big bush of a man, with soft eyes. We shook hands, expressed a wish to meet again, but never did. Over the years his books and his voice on radio gradually became a haunting presence in my life. His project was monumental. He wanted to “re-invoke Ireland; to re-awaken a conscience and a consciousness that might really be the ancient soul of Ireland, and that we would do well to recover”.

He didn’t live to see the collapse of the global financial system, but he might have said, “I told you so.” He knew that allowing ourselves to be mugged by financial gurus and mortgage dealers would lead us all to a sorry end. To him a mortgage was simply daylight robbery.

Moriarty was a philosopher who approached big questions not from an academic position, and not through the lens of European Enlightenment, but more like an ancient sage who lives the question, and then presents the answers through imaginative storytelling.

He longed for a return to a spiritual path wherein we might allow the cosmos to mould us as the ocean moulds the dolphin; he argued for fundamental change in the way we inhabit the earth.

His books are dense meditations on those possibilities. And his entire life was a bold attempt not just to talk the talk, but to walk the walk, gracefully. He abandoned the city, the corridors of human knowledge, and went to live in the wilderness, on the side of a mountain, in deep solitude.

Before he died he had discovered a taste for the mystic path; he had embraced the cloud of unknowing in his own heart, and his simple rituals of blessing himself or touching a rock at the end of the garden, or offering a crust of bread to a bird, had all entwined into a single expression of acceptance; like ancient monks on Skellig Rock, and High Lamas in the snowy paradise of Tibet, Moriarty said “Yes” to the invitation to live now, and walk beautifully on the earth.

Moriarty couldn’t be contained. He couldn’t be described as just a philosopher, or just a storyteller. He was human beyond the parameters that normally fence us into that condition; beyond the schooling of civilised society he found his true nature. He was a big, entertaining man who loved without limits, and became the incarnation of his own philosophy; he was a play in himself, a theatrical event without a context.

PERHAPS IT’S NO wonder that this wild man influenced me as a playwright much more than many theatre people who write about theatre. The very existence of such people like Moriarty encourages us lesser mortals to tear up the script, the rules, and the fences that limit our minds.

And there’s a lot of scripts and rules and fences in theatre; dramaturges constantly try to knit the wild imaginings of writers into neat arcs and stories, with appropriate climaxes and reversals, that suit the agenda of the theatre company, or the fashion of the day.

The result is sometimes deeply secular and politically correct work, which can pack audiences in, on the pleasant assumption that they will see, reflected on stage, the exact same ordinary life that they are living in real time. But it’s always tempting to seek for a grammar of theatre that opposes this current, constructs myth rather than realism, and makes the invisible visible.

Clearly I never recovered from my religious devotion as a child when I played Mass at a makeshift altar in my mother’s room, with bits of her lace, and the ornaments on her dressing table, because I’m always trying to find that wonderful moment again, every time I walk into a theatre.

That’s why I like working with Siamsa Tíre – the National Folk Theatre; there is something shamanistic about them. I first knocked on their door, looking for work, in 1989, after I had written a play called Strawboys, based on mummers, for the Abbey Theatre.

Almost 20 years later I got the gig. In 2005 we made our first collaborative work, called Tearmann. By that time, Moriarty had become a great admirer of their efforts to preserve traditional storytelling and song in theatrical form. When he died I felt as if someone whispered in my ear, that I should begin writing about Moriarty.

The idea received immediate enthusiasm from the company and since then we have worked together, listening to recordings of Moriarty’s voice, reading his books, and sharing anecdotes about him. It was a strange and risky adventure, and only made possible by getting the Kerry Group on side, as patrons, to effectively float the Moriarty boat.

The process involved me putting together a script and turning that script inside out through various explorations with the cast in the rehearsal room. The play was not written, but wrought out of performance, my own and that of the company members, and the force of music, percussion and visual stimulation, with lots of experimentation. Experimentation is vital in theatre; it keeps everyone on their toes.

For many decades, all over the world theatre practitioners have been searching for new languages; new ways to make a fresh telling of the human story; because in the light of where we are historically, we need to say something beyond what can be said logically or psychologically.

I believe that the traditional arts of song and dance, which the National Folk Theatre has faithfully preserved, can be remade and reworked, as part of that new grammar. We can re-invent the jig! We can make works which are simple and mythic, and even unsophisticated, but which can also deliver poetic thought and feeling, and tell affecting stories, beyond the parameters of psychological insight.

Moriarty is just one modest step forward in that process. Moriarty is a meditation, a simple ritual; a fusion of movement, music, song and spoken words. While staying within the discipline of folk theatre, the play presents a simple Zen-like narrative of John Moriarty’s life.

RTÉ MADE A fine documentary on Moriarty, some years ago, which can still be seen on the John Moriarty website ( In it, Moriarty is seen sitting down in a field of grass among a few old stones. He is sitting at the hearthstone of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin’s fireside, one of the greatest minds in 18th century Ireland.

Ó Súilleabháin was a master of the aisling poem; a tradition in which the poet is devastated by the vision of a beautiful woman. The aisling has metaphysical roots, and the condition of unbearable openness induced in the poet can be read as the essence of human tragedy; the ultimate unease of love.

I look at Moriarty in that film, sitting uneasy in the grass as he meditates on Ó Súilleabháin, and I see in Moriarty the same uneasy love, at full tilt, opening to the unspeakable darkness of death, with great acceptance. And in that single image of a man sitting alone at the fireside, there seemed to me to be enough to make a play.

And maybe that’s where all theatre starts and ends: with a human being who lives, and knows he lives, and in his living knows he dies.

Moriarty is at Siamsa Tíre, Tralee, Co Kerry, from Apr 1-5 at 8pm (preview March 31, matinee Apr 4 at 3pm). Tel: 066-7123055,