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An interview with the late John O'Donohue

In 1999, when this was first published, one book, entitled Anam Cara, sat at the top of the Irish Times Bestseller List for 20 months. L.A. Livingston spoke to the late author, John O'Donohue, about it and his most recent book at the time, Eternal Echoes

John O'Donohue utters three words when we talk about how popular his book Anam Cara is with President Mary McAleese: "surprising" and "very nice." He doesn't stop there - he can't; Anam Cara has been published in over 15 countries, translated into 10 languages, and has commanded Number 1 position at the top of the bestseller lists in Ireland since it was published in September 1997. McAleese has given away nearly a dozen copies of the book.

"I have great respect for her. I think she's a very great woman. I think she's anchored in the tradition, and she has a great intellect which allows her to bring the tradition into conversation," he says. "I wouldn't have thought of it as influence. I think there are many books that we like, that touch somewhere inside you, but I wouldn't call it influence. I don't think of it in political terms. I suppose I've been totally overwhelmed and surprised at how well the book has done in Ireland."

Anam Cara is a philosophical book firmly rooted in the ancient tradition of Celtic spirituality. O'Donohue says in writing the book - or any book, for that matter - that predicting its path is impossible.

"When you write a book like this, you conceive it in solitude, and you work away at it. A book is a very solitary creation; writing is one of the loneliest professions that you'll ever get at. You do that then in your room, or by the fire, trying to trim it in, and to distill it so that the form is as lucid and essential as it can be, and then you let it off. It's launched and then you let it off. You never can predict where that book will go. I always say when I'm launching a book for people, 'May this book find its way to the people who need it,'" the Connemara writer says. "The thing that I find touching is the range of people who have read the book."

His latest book, Eternal Echoes, is subtitled Exploring Our Hunger to Belong, and applies Celtic thought and spirituality to life in the post-modern world. O'Donohue talks like he writes - in vague terms of landscapes and living things, of descriptions and stories, of blessings and tradition - but he has an irrepressible sense of humour, a hearty laugh and a sparkle in his eye. He talks about the post-modern world.

"I think the post-modern world has a huge crisis of belonging. There's massive disorientation and dislocation, and that then has fuelled a huge a spiritual hunger. Spiritual hunger isn't a nostalgia for things of the past that will never come again; it's not fundamentalist in that sense. It is, I believe, a new form of consciousness, a new way of thinking and perceiving. It's trying in some way - it's the old classical quest, really - to find the traces of transcendence or the divine in the very desolate flatlands of post-modern culture," he says. "There seems to be a great sense of dislocation from tradition. Politics is becoming synonymous with the most crass forms of economics, with no vision or form for the spirit or the imagination. A lot of the custodianship of the great religious traditions seems to have fallen into the hands of functionaries who are great custodians of the gateway, but know very little of the landscape or the mountains or the wells that lie further in."

He says consumerism is one response to the needs of the post-modern hunger. Fundamentalism, which he calls a "caricature of tradition," is another, he says.

"Fundamentalism invents a false nostalgia for an ideal that never existed," he says. "Equality is the equality of harmonious difference."

Although he talks in terms of 'consciousness' and 'rhythms of belonging,' O'Donohue wouldn't call his philosophy New Age, however; it is Christianity paired with Celtic mysticism.

"There is a huge rise of new consciousness here. New Age people see a new consciousness coming up every half hour; I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the almost Hegelian sense of history," he says. "An awful lot of people who never thought outside the categories of what they were raised with are now really inhabiting these categories, not just thinking outside them."

He pauses from our conversation to cross himself as he looks out the window at a funeral procession passing 15 floors below us. There are four sombre black cars in the procession.

"That is so different from Ireland. There are four cars in that line; in Ireland, you would have 40 to 100. Death is so reverenced in Ireland," he says.

Our conversation turns to the millennium. He has words for this, too. He says concrete things like cancelling Third World debt, statements of integrity issued by multinational corporations, a refusal to exploit resources of Third World countries and a world declaration of religious freedom would be the ideal way to move into the next millennium.

"The atmosphere is one of feeling we are on a huge threshold moment, a huge crisis. There is huge fear in relation to that because, when we move in time, we are usually not conscious of its significance at all, but then when time is signified by the threshold kind of thing that after this time, something new has begun and something is over, that creates a massive, ritualistic sense of threshold," he says. "We should try and cross it with our hands joined with those who have no voice, who are neglected, marginalised. That would be the most glorious way of all to cross it, to say we crossed it with our most damaged and wounded and neglected unknown brothers and sisters."

"Equality is the equality of harmonious difference." - John O'Donohue, writer, poet and philosopher

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