Celts to the Creche: John O’Donohue of Ireland

John O'Donohue

John O’Donohue

Celts to the Creche: Day 16

John O’Donohue of Ireland

January 1, 1956-January 4, 2008

On this 16th day of journeying with the Celts to the Creche, we join up with a modern day  Celt, John O’Donohue of Ireland. John was a renowned former priest, poet, philosopher, mystic, author, scholar, and a lover of his home territory of the Burren on the western coast of Ireland.

John  had a beautiful, Celtic wild soul with a mesmerizing Irish lilt to his voice.  He was known for being a gregarious, fun-loving companion, with an earthy sense of humor and joie de vivre, and was a mesmerising storyteller who also loved solitude. John, who was known to enjoy a good single malt or Jameson whiskey was able  to connect the worldly with the sacred — and see it all as holy.

Born in a limestone valley, Caherbeanna, near Blackhead, County Clare, he was the son of a stonemason who, John used to say, “was in that realm of the mystically sacred.” His father must have passed the mystical staff onto his son.

On Leaving the Priesthood: John, with doubts whether to stay in the priesthood was called upon to choose by his bishop,  “The best decision I ever made was to become a priest, and I think the second best decision was to resign from public priestly ministry.”

John O' Donohue

John O’ Donohue

The way this earthy Celt introduced himself to the crowd that flocked to hear him at the Greenbelt Festival not long before he died was memorable. “I was a Catholic priest for . . ohh . . Jesus . . . 19 years!” His bedrocks were his faith and “the Celtic imagination,” which, he said, “represents a vision of the divine where no one or nothing is excluded.”

Discovering this Celtic Author: In the Fall of 2008, I was on a retreat at the incredibly beautiful St. John’s Abbey Guesthouse in Collegeville, Minnesota. Squeezed into a tight little corner of my mini carry-on suitcase was a new black and gold paperback  by an author I had never heard of,  to read in the solitude of my peaceful, zen-like room overlooking the serene view of swaying trees and glassy pond. As I had recently discovered Celtic Christian spirituality, the title had intrigued me, so  Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue was my companion on this retreat. This book spoke to my soul profoundly.

Anam Cara by John O'Donohue

Anam Cara by John O’Donohue

To hear the news that John O’Donohue had just passed away within the year was very sad. Since that retreat, I have re-read Anam Cara numerous times and have devoured all his other books, listened to podcasts, and watched youtube videos of this most unusual Celt who now resides on the other side of the veil. To read his books or to hear his engaging voice intonate one of his poems is to savor the gift of blessing that transforms into a deep knowing that the Presence of God is with us, within us, and surrounding our very being. His friends speak of his amazing huge deep joyous laugh and the twinkle in his eyes.

Following is information about John directly from his website, www. johnodonohue.com: 

“John O’Donohue vanished from among us on January 4, 2008 as physical presence, but it is impossible to write about John as someone who “was”; he so thoroughly “is”. In the context of the immense presence of his absence, the following biographical facts and dates can serve only as time-bound points of orientation for those who wish to try and locate history.

John was born in January 1956, the first of four children to Patrick and Josie O’Donohue. At the age of 18, John entered the novitiate at Maynooth where he completed his BA in English and Philosophy in 1977 and his degree in Theology, in 1980. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1982, received his MA in 1982 and, in 1986 began work on a doctorate at the University of Tubingen in Germany. John was awarded his Ph.D in Philosophical Theology in 1990. In his dissertation, Person als Vermittlung, (published in Germany in 1993), John developed a new concept of Person through a re-interpretation of the philosophy of Hegel. The prestigious Review of Metaphysics commended him for “breaking new ground in our thinking about consciousness . . . [with] a richer and deeper notion of Personhood.” In John’s words: “Hegel struck me 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.”

By 1990, John had returned to Ireland where he continued his priestly duties, as well as, beginning post-doctoral work on the 13th century philosopher and mystic, Meister Eckhart. In 1997, John’s book Anam Cara was published and became an international best-seller. Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger to Belong, followed in 1998; and in 2000, John’s collection of poetry, Conamara Blues, was published. At the end of 2000, John retired from public priestly ministry and devoted himself full-time to his writing and to a more public life of integrity in action – speaking, advocating against social injustice, and inspiring the wealthy and powerful in society to engage their own integrity in service of meaningful, positive change. His oft quoted admonition that “the duty of privilege is absolute integrity” offers continuing inspiration for those working to open new possibilities of wholeness and grace in our visible world and beyond.

John’s book, Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace was published in 2003, followed by, Benedictus: A Book of Blessings, late in 2007 – just two months before his sudden and unexpected death. This last book was released in the United States under the title, To Bless The Space Between Us, in the spring of 2008.

John is buried in Creggagh Cemetary in his beloved west of Ireland. The well-spring of his creativity was lively and strong to the very last day and his legacy of as yet unpublished works is being carefully minded and nurtured towards emergence by his beloved family.”

Grave of John O'Donohue, Creggagh Cemetery

Grave of John O’Donohue, Creggagh Cemetery

Place of Resurrection: John left behind his beloved partner and soulmate, Kristine Fleck. He died in his sleep at Avignon, France on January 4, 2008. He left planet earth too soon. His mother died almost exactly four years after John.

The church where John’s funeral took place is in Fanore, about 12 miles from Ballyvaughan on the coast road south.

John is buried in Creggagh graveyard, about two miles further south along the coast road, just beyond O’Donoghue’s pub on the left hand side of the road. Following is a poem that John wrote that was published in his book To Bless the Space Within (Benedictus in Europe and UK) two months after he died.

‘May there be some beautiful surprise
Waiting for you inside death
Something you never knew or felt,
Which with one simple touch
Absolves you of all loneliness and loss,
As you quicken within the embrace
For which your soul was eternally made.

‘May your heart be speechless
At the sight of the truth
Of all your belief had hoped,
Your heart breathless
In the light and lightness
Where each and every thing
Is at last its true self
Within that serene belonging
That dwells beside us
On the other side
Of what we see.’


As a pastor, I have  read John O’ Donohue’s poignant poem, Beannacht (Blessing) at numerous graveside services. He wrote this blessing for his mother Josie years before either of them passed away:

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.


Some Resources:

John O’Donohue website. Information about John, a listing of all his books, videos, recordings, memorial, etc.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18050293NPR. NPR. Obituary of John O’ Donohue.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/apr/15/religion. The Guardian. Obituary of John O’Donohue.

http://www.miriamswell.org/JohnODonohue/service.cfmMiriam’s Well. Thoughts from one who attended John O’Donohue’s memorial service.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/john-odonohue-poet-priest-and-religious-writer-787837.html. John Skinner’s thoughts on John O’Donohue.

http://www.personaltransformation.com/john_odonohue.html. A written interview with John O’Donohue by Mary NurriStearns.

http://www.onbeing.org/program/inner-landscape-beauty/203. An oral interview with John O’Donohue.Tippett, Krista. On Being radio show.

http://www.onbeing.org/program/inner-landscape-beauty/feature/john-odonohues-poems-recited-poet-himself/1127. Tippett, Krista. Poems being read by John on radio show, On Being that were not included in the final broadcast between Krista Tippett and John O’Donohue.

Sawyers, June Skinner. “John O’Donohue” in Praying with Celtic Saints, Prophets, Martyrs, and Poets. Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2001.

About pastorpilgrim

Pastor Pilgrim is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) clergy. I am married with two grown sons, a Hurricane Rita gift cat, and two Maine Coons. My interests include illuminated manuscripts, pilgrimage, Franciscan and Celtic spirituality, Shakers, Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian abbesses and their double monasteries, comfy cute shoes, Native American spirituality, and genealogy. I am a "Dancing Monk" with the online Abbey of the Arts (known as the Disorder of Dancing Monks!). Join me as we travel with the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon saints in an Advent devotional entitled, "Celts to the Creche" at www.saintsbridge.org. I also write of some of my pilgrimages, musings, and another Advent devotional, "Pilgrimage to Bethlehem" at www.pastorpilgrim.wordpress.com
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7 Responses to Celts to the Creche: John O’Donohue of Ireland

  1. Evelyn says:

    I first heard of John O’Donohue on Krista Tippett’s NPR radio program and was immediately enthralled with the man. I have this poem read by him downloaded on my computer. I guess you could say he was my introduction to the Celtic saints. Thank you for including him here. Your post brought back the joy of his presence again.

    • How blessed you are to have met John O’Donohue through Krista Tippet’s NPR program. His voice is enthralling! I too have heard him on Krista Tippett’s program and love to his voice rolling out those poetic words. Thank you for reading my blog.

  2. Julie Orrok Slack says:

    Anam Cara is the most beautiful book I own…and I, too, read it over and over. It lives in my heart and soul not. It was originally a gift from my aunt and it was on cassette; I had John O’Donohue reading it to me…what a gift! Since then I’ve read it numerous times and have bought it for others! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Alexander John Lambrou says:

    About the year 2000 I visited the annual New College, Edinburgh alumni gathering. I had read Anam Cara and was blown away by it. So I said to a an attendee there I had read an amazing book by John O’Donohue. He replied, “He’s just over there”. There he was, chatting and smiling away and I, of course, was astounded. He seemed so natural and with a rare, carefree quality, filled with humour.

  4. anne sunde says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and information about this wonderful man. I first started reading “Anam Cara” in 2008 and then found out John had passed away. Since reading the book my life has been progressing quite steadily into a much more spiritual and Christian context, and i know John O’Donohue is leading me.
    Blessings, Anne

    • Thank you Anne for reading this blog and sharing your encounter with “Anam Cara” and with John O’Donohue. He seems to somehow reach beyond the veil to guide us in our soul journey.

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