Tommy Tiernan is on a mission to revive ‘radical’ Christian Irish philosopher

Unthinkable: Kerry writer John Moriarty, who died in 2007, called for ‘the abandonment of the western way of life’

Tommy Tiernan and the late John Moriarty: '[Moriarty's] main thing was he was a Christian – but he is a Christian from the mystics back as opposed to the gospels forward. He used phrases like: "Do we have courage to follow Christ out of Christianity?”' says Tiernan. Photographs: Brenda Fitzsimons/Don MacMonagle

The priesthood in Ireland is dwindling fast but Tommy Tiernan believes there’s still a market for monks. “It should be an option for young fellas and young women leaving school,” the comedian says, without a hint of irony.

He has in mind a particular type of monk – a devotee of the Irish philosopher Kerryman John Moriarty. The author of several books exploring Christianity, myth and ecology, Moriarty had a spell in academia before going off-grid for the best part of a decade – some of it spent at a Carmelite monastery in England – only to resurface in the mid-1980s with a wild head of hair and a mind fizzing with revolutionary thoughts.

Before his death aged 69 in 2007, he gave talks, wrote poems, fronted The Blackbird and The Bell – an RTÉ series that bridged intellectual and spiritual themes, and made plans for establishing a Christian hedge school in a remote valley in his native county between Kilgarvan and Glengarriff.

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Cancer robbed him of the chance of fulfilling that goal but friends and followers are not allowing Moriarty’s dream to die. This weekend sees the inaugural John Moriarty Festival in Moyvane, Co Kerry, featuring a host of thinkers and artists, led by Tiernan – a long-time champion of the Kerryman.

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The actor and entertainer, who was one of three Irish comics invited to an audience with Pope Francis last Friday, puts Moriarty in the same league as the 13th-century Japanese Buddhist philosopher Dogen Zenji, the German theologian Meister Eckhart and St Patrick. Speaking by Zoom from his home in Co Galway, Tiernan explains further:

Moriarty writes about spirituality in a way that can be difficult to process. What is it that resonates for you?

“I don’t think his voice – from a physical view – is difficult to hear. It’s such a soothing, agricultural, poetic, kind of trance-inducing way of talking. His voice is sweet in that sense… It’s what it does to you when it goes inside your body that is radical and difficult.

“Some people might be familiar with [the writer on Celtic spirituality] John O’Donohue… John O’Donohue – God be good to him – is like seasoning. He is a flavour you can put on things to make life more digestible. Whereas John Moriarty is meat; he is a different diet altogether.

“John Moriarty was calling for the abandonment of the western way of life and the abandonment of the western way of thinking, and to start again, to refound our minds and our hearts. And he does it while at the same time delighting in the ordinary.

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“He is radical. It’s not a wellness manifesto. It’s not a way of coping. It’s as dramatic as what St Patrick must have called for when he came back to Ireland. So I would see John as… as important as St Patrick. His main thing was he was a Christian – but he is a Christian from the mystics back as opposed to the gospels forward. He used phrases like: ‘Do we have courage to follow Christ out of Christianity?’”

What’s your own relationship now with Christianity?

“The great thing about being Catholic is no one expects you to be like Jesus,” Tiernan replies, with a laugh.

“I have a sense that Catholicism isn’t a bad idea as a social manifesto – to prioritise the weak, and to insist on love. I mean, when was the last time you heard love mentioned in a speech by a politician? … [but] what’s absent from a lot of manifestations of Christianity seems to be love.”

The tattoos on your hands – the blackbird and the bell – hark back to Moriarty. You spoke about them on your TV show recently. Can you elaborate on their meaning?

“They were done in the past two years… One represents instinct, natural law, impulse, beautiful fluent nature. The other represents order, discipline and the meaning-seeking mind.”

Tommy Tiernan's hand tattoos, inspired by Irish philosopher John Moriarty's The Blackbird and The Bell. Image: The Tommy Tiernan Show/RTÉ

Moriarty was suspicious of scientific thinking and was more comfortable speaking in parables. Is there room in Irish society for his type of storytelling theology?

“There’s obviously an appetite for it. But you’re talking about blowing up the hospital. We’re not talking about coping,” Tiernan replies, his eyes crinkling in a smile.

“You know, modern culture is an idiocy; it worships trinkets and it’s all taking place within the confines of a large psychiatric hospital where the doctors and patients change roles every 20 minutes. And John calls us to be ghosts, and to find that part of ourselves that is able to walk through walls and to leave the psychiatric hospital and to take up residence on Skellig Michael and to meditate… That’s the kind of thing John was calling for.

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“It’s anti-cultural but it’s nothing less than that. It’s not about 10 minutes of mindfulness every day, or hillwalking or yoga retreats – even though those things are fine; they’re great – but [to achieve what he was looking for] you need monastics… So calling all the holy people! Calling all the holy people who are free of mortgages and secular ambitions.”

The John Moriarty Festival Weekend will be held June 21st-23rd, in Moyvane, Co Kerry, Ireland. johnmoriarty.ie It coincides with the publication of an illustrated book, John Moriarty: Grounded in Story (Lilliput Press) aimed at introducing the thinker to a new audience