John O’Donohue published his book on Celtic spirituality, Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, in 1997. It became a bestseller initially just by word-of-mouth, and is best known for popularising Celtic spirituality.
He was born and grew up in Caherbeanna, near Blackhead, County Clare, in the Connemara area, in the remote west of Ireland, which allowed him the time for meditation and solitude. He was a native Irish speaker.
He studied English, Philosophy, and Theology, and was ordained as Catholic priest on 6 June 1979. Continuing his studies in 1986 in Germany, he completed his PhD in philosophical theology with a thesis on the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
He studied Meister Eckhart (13th century mystic) who believed that “nothing resembles God like silence”. A quote from O’Donolue says;
“When you acknowledge the integrity of your solitude, and settle into its mystery, your relationships with others take on a new warmth, adventure and wonder.”
In 1990, he returned to Ireland to become a parish priest, but also lectured in philosophy. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church were suspicious of his personal charisma and belief in the ‘mystical flame of faith’. O’Donohue disagreed with the Church’s “manufactured coherence” of faith.
After the success of Anam Cara, he became a much sought-after speaker around the world, especially in America. He spoke at universities, various meetings and rock festivals. He was feted by presidents, pop-stars and Hollywood superstars.
O’Donohue left the priesthood in 2000, and continued teaching his spiritual philosophy at lectures and in his writings and poetry.
He became increasingly involved in environmental activism and supported the Burren Action Group, which successfully worked to preserve the landscape of The Burren (a karst landscape) and the area of Mullaghmore in Co Clare. The group opposed government plans to develop the area.
John O’Donohue died in his sleep on 4 January 2008 while on holiday near Avignon, France. Many of his poems are used for funeral readings, which offer a way for people to express their feelings, whatever their faith.