Philosopher and poet who delved deep into Celtic spirituality

John O'Donohue: John O'Donohue, who has died aged 52, was a poet, philosopher and best-selling author

John O'Donohue:John O'Donohue, who has died aged 52, was a poet, philosopher and best-selling author. Two books made him internationally famous, Anam Cara (1997) and Eternal Echoes (1998). He published two volumes of poetry, Echoes of Memory (1994) and Conamara Blues (2000). His most recent work, Benedictus: A Book of Blessings, was published last year.

Asked if he saw himself as a philosopher first and poet second or vice versa, he replied that he had always seen himself as a poet. He saw no tension between philosophy and poetry. "Literature and philosophy work together. Philosophy is about the articulation of knowledge."

While his work was favourably reviewed by highly successful self-help gurus such as Larry Dossey and Deepak Chopra, he acknowledged that philosophical thought was not a popular medium, least of all in Ireland. "It is not an intellectual society - we lump things together."

An ordained priest, he resigned from active public ministry in the late 1990s because of "a fundamental conflict with authority". A friend remembers that parting from the institutionalised church "cut him to the core". He then helped set up and teach a theology course at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.


Born in Fermoyle, Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, in 1956, he was the youngest of four children. His father Paddy, a farmer engaged in mixed farming, was also a gifted stonemason.

Stone was always special for him. In Anam Cara he wrote of growing up in a limestone valley: "Each stone has a different face. Often the angle of the light falls gently enough to bring out the shy presence of each stone. Here it feels as if a wild, surrealistic God laid down the whole landscape." Books were an early passion. He never forgot the thrill of reading Sartre and Camus as a schoolboy. He later came to regard Ovid's Metamorphoses as the "most beautiful of works", and found Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit "magical and difficult".

Educated locally and in Galway, he studied English and philosophy at NUI Maynooth. He was a member of the college debating team, and a colleague remembers him as "loud, unpredictable, funny and unmatchable". He took degrees in arts and theology, went on to study Hegel and followed his MA by going to Germany, where he stayed for four years.

A student at the University of Tübingen, he quickly mastered the German language and found intellectual life exhilarating. "The Germans dissect and analyse ideas. They are very thorough. I find that so exciting." His book on the philosophy of Hegel, Person als Vermittling (1993) was based on the dissertation he wrote for his PhD in philosophical theology. Hegel struck him as "someone who put his eye to the earth at a most unusual angle and managed to glimpse the circle toward which all things aspire." Other influences were Plato, Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart.

Birth, love, solitude, ageing and death were his themes. In his writing he endeavoured to "excavate the Celtic and the Judeo-Christian philosophical and literary traditions and bring them into conversation with our modern [ spiritual] hunger and questioning".

He was aware of the irony that as a contemplative writer who was frequently critical of consumerism, he made his living by catering to consumers exploring spirituality. And he would have been aware of sceptics who argue that Celtic spirituality had become part of the marketplace system of spirituality and culture. One critic of the "brand", Michael Newton, has written: "There's a lot of spirituality going on, but not much left that is sacred." This is not how Fr Kevin Hegarty sees John O'Donohue's work: "All his books are distinguished by their philosophical underlay, his acute perception of the light and darkness of human nature, his awesome awareness of the power of landscape, his poetic intensity and his profound integrity." John O'Donohue believed that while the Catholic Church was admirable in most respects, it had a "pathological fear" of the feminine. "It would sooner allow priests to marry than it would allow women to become priests. The awful mistrust of the feminine goes all the way back to Genesis where Eve is blamed for offering the apple to Adam." He thought this was a shame and that the Church was in danger of losing women, in which case it "wouldn't last three months".

The computerisation of knowledge disturbed him: "I don't like seeing knowledge treated as a product." He preferred to see people reading than surfing the internet.

He was critical also of the advertising industry and its efforts to "cultivate a cult of immortality".

He saw art not as a luxury but a necessity, especially for people experiencing serious illness. Launching a display of art works at the Inis Aoibhinn support centre for cancer patients in Galway recently, he said: "When you are ill, you need the most refined, dextrous presence." He held two annual spiritual retreats, one in Ireland and one in the United States. Within the corporate sector he was much in demand as a speaker on leadership and creativity.

He was a leading member of the Burren Action Group which spent over 10 years in a successful campaign against the Government's plans to build an interpretative centre at Mullaghmore. A native speaker, he lived at Gleann Trasna, in the heart of Conamara [ sic].

It was a place of sanctuary and a place of work. There he also enjoyed the company of family and close friends, listening to every variety of classical music, writing and walking the hills.

Satellite television kept him up to date with philosophical and cultural debates in Germany and elsewhere.

He is survived by his mother Josie, sister Mary, brothers PJ and Pat, and partner Christine Fleck.

John O'Donohue: born January 1st, 1956; died January 4th, 2008