Book Review | Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, by John O’Donohue

Picture of the book Anam Cara
Book Review | Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, by John O’Donohue

Who doesn’t love having (and being) a good friend?  Someone with whom you can be yourself.  And be appreciated for just being you.  Laughing and raging and dreaming together.  Even daring to venture into political conversations.  Listening and being listened to.  Deeply.  While pandemic has offered us many new ways to befriend one another—Zoom, FaceTime, outside visits in countless parks and garden walks throughout the globe—still the fine art of friendship remains a practice that looks much the same no matter the location.

Friendship’s respectful practice is the core of this book by Irish author John O’Donohue.  Raised in the remote and windswept Burren area of western Ireland, O’Donohue writes with passion about the ancient Irish practice of “anam cara” (Gaelic for “soul friend”)—a friendship of mutuality in knowing and being known by another freely and fully.  O’Dohonue was a poet, author, philosopher and scholar who earned a PhD in Philosophical Theology from the University of Tübingen, yet Anam Cara is written for anyone who wants to deepen their own experience of friendship.  No advanced degrees required!

What does this Irish teacher offer to our practice of friendship that hasn’t already been said by other poets and authors?  A lilting gentleness that portrays a soul-to-soul friendship as:

…With the anam cara you share your innermost self, our mind and your heart.  This friendship [is] an act of recognition and belonging.  When you [have] an anam cara, your friendship cuts across all convention, morality, and category.  You [are] joined in an ancient and eternal way with the ‘friend of your soul.’ (pp. 13-14)

While speaking primarily of human friendships, O’Donohue steps out of that mold by encouraging the reader to develop soul friendships with creation, and with one’s own body (including one’s senses of touch, taste, hearing, seeing, smelling, and intuition), and with other non-human sentient beings.  Remember that O’Donohue originally wrote this text in the late 1990s, some 25 years before the climate crisis language that has become familiar to us now.

The spirituality that undergirds this book is an ecological one, in which human sensory experience is one of the necessary precursors of living in harmony with our Earth home.  O’Donohue writes,

The animals are more ancient than us. They were here for millennia before humans surfaced on the earth. Animals are our ancient brothers and sisters. They enjoy a seamless presence—a lyrical unity with the earth…Animals know nothing of Freud, Jesus, Buddha, Wall Street, the Pentagon, or the Vatican. They live outside the politics of human intention. Somehow they already inhabit the eternal. The Celtic mind recognized the ancient belonging and knowing of the animal world. (p. 53)

For O’Donohue, as for the Celtic imagination, this sensory relationship—this anam cara perspective toward animals—extends to the elements of creation as well.  Here is a passage about the sun as warmth and wildness:

Light is the mother of life.  The sun brings light or color.  It causes grasses, crops, leaves, and flowers to grow.  The sun brings forth the erotic charge of the curved earth; it awakened her wild sensuousness.  In Gaelic [poetry], the sun is worshiped as the eye and face of God. (p. 56)

Throughout the book, O’Donohue weaves the historical and the spiritual, with playful and generous doses of Irish folktales, legends, blessings, and poetry.  And he regularly returns from these literary adventures to the touchstone of human sensory experience of anam cara friendship: knowing the other and being known by the other.  I think of the first time ever I was able to spend time with the giant redwoods of the Muir Woods in northern California.  Taking an afternoon break from doctoral studies, but virtuously grabbing an assigned text to read in their cool shadows, I was astonished by the cooperative grandeur of these gentle giants.  Interconnected yet shallow root systems create stability for the whole community, while also serving up nourishment and protection from invasive diseases.  And there’s the silence that permeates and surrounds like an aura.  Though I was a foreigner among them, I was enveloped in their silence.  I returned many times over that summer of study, always with a book in hand, never reading a single page!  Are the redwoods anam caras?  Yes, sentient beings with whom the open-souled person can be completely themselves.

A word of warning, however.  Reading this book in earnest may change you.  You may, for example, begin to see four-leggeds and winged ones as your friends.  Leashing, riding, or otherwise lording over them may become uncomfortable; eating them impossible.  O’Donohue doesn’t go far into exploring the implications of an anam cara practice for the political or personal spheres, yet the astute reader has only a short leap to arrive there.  Be forewarned!

As a final testament to the importance of John O’Donohue’s work for the 21st century, and though he died suddenly and unexpectedly in early 2008 at the relatively young age of 52, his vast written work continues to be published, and his famous walks throughout his Irish homeland are now led by his family and friends who follow in his footsteps.  For more exploration of O’Donohue’s body of influence, please check out

(New York: HarperCollins, 1997)