'You can never love another person unless you are equally involved in the beautiful but difficult spiritual work of learning to love yourself. There is within each of us, at the soul level, an enriching fountain of love. In other words, you do not have to go outside yourself to know what love is.’
John O’Donohue's official Website and his videos
Vanished Days: A Musical Memorial Tribute to John O'Donohue
Imagination as the Path of the Spirit
Podcast : John O'Donohue's interview with Krista Tippett on The Inner Landscape of Beauty
Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (1997)
John O’Donohue
In Summary

An inspired exploration of Celtic mythology through the lyrical musings of one of Ireland’s premier poets of the soul.


‘The Celtic mind never liked the line but always loved the shape of the circle.’ A line is linear, and leads away from itself, while a circle loops back, binding all things together and making sisters of beginning and end. Irish overworld and underworld, visible and invisible, whirl into one another with no sense of where one ends and the other begins – nature is full of supernatural spirits, fairies, and secrets. Celtic wells and caves are sacred sites, for they make explicit this connection between underworld and overworld that is implicit in every holy grain of island grass. Even death is not linear here, with the departed continuing to haunt the land, potentially bringing a whole new insight as to why the Celtic cross – a symbol of death – is mounted on a circle.

Likewise, though Irish priest and poet John O’Donohue may have passed too soon, his spirit circles back to life through the ink of his pen and the readers of his every page. Born and bred on the Irish isle, O’Donohue was steeped in an ‘ancient conversation [that has] continued between the chorus of the ocean and the silence of the stone’, instilling in him an early love for the unending cycles of life and the land. Raised by a stonemason and housewife, this contemplative child would join the priesthood. He then went on to complete a doctorate on Hegel and a post-doctorate on Eckhart. Bringing together this unique blend of philosophical acumen, mystical insight, and local folklore, O’Donohue quickly became one of the foremost popularisers of Celtic spirituality, beginning with the publication of his bestselling Anam Ċara in 1997 and ending with his death a half-dozen books and a decade later in 2008.


Anam ċara is a Celtic term that means ‘soul friend’ or ‘soul love’. It is an attempt to put into words a host of relationships that are ultimately beyond words, having to do with the deep and inexpressible bond between souls. Just as the Irish circle has no beginning nor end, so too does one forget where you end and the other person begins: ‘When two people come together, an ancient circle closes between them.’ An anam ċara might be your friend or mentor, in whom you pour out all your secrets, shame, and longings late into the night, or simply journey alongside through the duties and difficulties of the day. Through your anam ċara, you come to know yourself: ‘As there is a blind spot in the retina of the human eye, there is also in the soul a blind side where you are not able to see. Therefore, you must depend on the one you love to see for you what you cannot see for yourself.’ Such a love transcends boundaries of time and space, culture and religion, us and them, Capulets and Montagues. As the Greek playwright Euripides said, ‘Two friends, one soul.’

Having explained anam ċara, O’Donohue then expands its purview beyond human friendship, showing how this relational intimacy can be had with the entire universe. For example, we can have an anam ċara friendship with our physical bodies. Our body is our home in this universe, and we can come to know, love, and care for it like a friend. The invisible and visible are bound up in a great circle, so our bodily senses of taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell can bring us closer to the holy. We can also become friends with our inner, authentic self. This can be cultivated through solitude (‘silence is the sister of the divine’) or exploring our subconscious, which is not only home to dark repression but also the deeper truths of life. Referencing Yeats, O’Donohue writes, ‘Man needs reckless courage to descend into the abyss of himself.’

O’Donohue goes on to reflect on how our inner journey manifests externally in movement, work, and creativity. We must ‘befriend the outer world of word’. We should bless each day, seeking to make full use of our work hours without allowing it to smother our identity (for example, the man whose tombstone read ‘Born a man, died a grocer’). Work is valuable, but along with everything else, it must be seen in light of the clarity brought by our inevitable ageing and death.

O’Donohue tells story after story of Irish ghosts and voices from the beyond – the dead are our nearest neighbours, and their presence in the land and in our hearts reminds us that time and eternity mingle and loop like a great circle. Human memory also gives us glimpses of timeless eternity, for in recollection we step outside of the present and access the past once again: ‘Memory [is] the place where our vanished days secretly gather and acknowledge that the passionate heart never ages.’ Aging, along with the increase of memories it brings, should not cause us to anxiously fear death but to sense all the more the eternity that awaits us. Death and senility are not our enemies but our oldest anam ċara companions, present with and teaching us from the very beginning, for we start to age as soon as we spill from the womb.


O’Donohue has sought to show how everything – self, other, body, aging, and even death – is bound together in a great circle, relating and interweaving as cosmic friends. Anam ċara is not just something that happens between two humans – it is a profound connection which can prosper between us and everything in our midst. While such a theology may have arisen inextricably from the haunts and rolling hills of the Emerald Isle, it spirals outward from there to dignify the spiritual weight of all peoples and places, providing the reader with an enchanted cosmos to inhabit, should they choose.

Furthermore, as one of the leading popularisers of Celtic spirituality, O’Donohue gives readers a glimpse of a lesser-known countryside. While a priest himself, O’Donohue’s appreciation of Ireland’s pre-Christian mythos provides a balanced and integrated portrait of the nation’s spirituality before and after conversion. Intermixing pagan stories, Christian scriptures, German Mysticism, modern philosophy, and poetic language, Anam Ċara makes for an intriguing and beguiling read.

Further Reading By This Author

O’Donohue followed up his bestselling Anam Ċara with the publication of such works as Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on our Yearning to Belong, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, and Conamara Blues: Poems. Multiple works by him – or in conversation with him – were published posthumously, including Walking in Wonder, Echoes of Memory, and To Bless the Space Between Us (which came out mere weeks after his untimely demise).

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