One evening, while walking on Derada Hill, a hare sprung from under my feet. I found myself, all of a sudden, on the ground burying my head in the warm form left in the grass, and I asked that primordial form to act as a poultice, to draw out my expensive European education from my head, because in my western way of thinking I was damaging the earth. It had set me up in opposition to what is natural and native to us.
John Moriarty, Nostos, (Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1994).
I can’t say when I first played hurling. It was with me on all of the great moments of self-discovery I can think of. Once I had a decent footing in the world I became aware of a stick being close by.
It defined my youth; this game, this skill, this way of spending time. It was frustrating and it was ordinary and it was miserable at times, but a current ran through me, a note that intensified as I played. It got more serious as I grew up, the stakes got higher, my identity hardened, a community of people formed and goals were unconsciously set, if not assumed.
And when the final curtain fell, amid the chaos of going from the all-encompassing nature of modern sport to the great vacuum of retirement, I found myself in West Kerry, with the writings of John Moriarty, trying to read my way through a depression, in the hope that I would once again, make sense of me, to me.
I was wandering the countryside a lot during that period, learning to forage wild plants while growing comfortable in swathes of time dedicated to the question of how the outer world was interacting with my inner landscape.
I remember sitting at the foot of Ceann Sibéal on the evening of an honest storm, marveling at waves rolling in and crashing against the foot of the cliff. Inwardly, I thought of the net in Croke Park shaking. The waves of energy emanating from the player, the sliotar bypassing the goalkeeper and crashing into the net, creating a wave like that at the foot of the cliff in front of me.
I sat on Clogher Beach and marvelled at the ability of a player standing fully ninety yards apart from another, who hits a ball at over one hundred miles an hour, reaching a height of seventy yards at its apex, and within the first second or two of him striking it – in it’s very initial ascent – to move to the exact spot where the ball arrives so as only to have to extend an arm in order to catch it. What remarkable qualities of mind and body are at work there? What more are we capable of? And why doesn’t anyone refer to this? Shouldn’t it turn our spines in to question marks to interrogate the magnificent of it all?
Silver Branch Perception
What I found in West Kerry is that when the fences around me fell away, when I went out to the wild places, the boundaries in my mind disintegrated too, and these thoughts and feelings had their way with me. It brought me back to the soul of the game: to Silver Branch Perception.
Silver Branch Perception was bestowed on Bran Mac Feabhal by Mananánn Mac Lir in Irish mythology. It is a gift, a way of seeing the world for the paradise that it is; the awareness that when we separate ourselves from our social story, we can see the world paradisally.
The Tuath Dé would later defend this gift at the Second Battle of Maigh Tuiread against the Formorians.
Balor of the Evil Eye led the Formorians, who, according to Moriarty, looked on Ireland purely for its resources, the reducing eye – the Súil Mildeagach –seeing only uses and benefits. Thus a cow is looked on as pounds of beef, and a tree for the lengths of its timber.
The Tuath Dé, led by Lugh, held the Silver Branch and they fought to defend it. According to Moriarty, The Third Battle of Maigh Tuiread is being enacted within us today.
I recognise from my hurling experiences what he meant. We are disconnected from the parts of the game that are essential to the overall health of society. We have adopted a Formorian mindset, we have assumed Balor’s evil eye. It is disconnecting us from the essence of the game.
But Nature is lying us down on the psychiatrists couch and asking hard questions. The ash die-back disease is one of the symptoms diagnosed. This will decimate the most common Irish hedgerow tree over the next thirty to forty years. Its chances of survival are uncertain. Still 50,000 trees are cut down a year for 350,000 hurls to keep it business-as-usual.
But what of the ash tree? Could most GAA players identify what one even looks like? Do we care? Do we feel a responsibility for its survival beyond what is needed for our ‘use and benefit’? Is Nature reminding us of one of the fundamentals of the game?
We know now that the forest floor is alive with a web of mycelium that function along the lines of the Internet: a ‘tree wide web’. When a bush is sick it can tell a healthy tree, which may send the necessary nutrients to its ailing friend. Can we play the same role for the ash? Can we listen to what the tree needs, and come to its assistance?
If we don’t go back to listening, to being humbled by nature – if we ignore the possibilities of the Silver Branch – we will be paying lip service to bridging the great disconnect, choosing the dis-ease of the Formorian mindset so prevalent in modern Irish society.
Spiritually, there is a shift going on here from Rome to the Orient. Meditation, yoga, Tai Chi and mindfulness are rooted in Eastern ideas of existence. True to form, we look beyond our cultural inheritance to negotiate an internal crises in our perception of reality.
But answers are here, all around us. Let us plant ash trees in every GAA club in the country in the hope of identifying strains resistant to the disease, and ensure its survival. Let us reduce dependence on a food system in danger of implosion, by subsidising polytunnels for anyone willing to work one. Let us go out to the wild places and allow our own wildness to surface, and, in so doing, revive an awareness that what is primeval inside us is not to be feared, but valued.
I am aware of the intellectual ease with which many will digest this notion, but can we live it? Can we make the hard choices? Colonisation introduced many well-documented ills. Being the bastard child of Americana has brought even greater woes, though less appreciated, as we remain in a cultural, political and economical stranglehold. But as the neon lights of superficiality fade, what will anchor us?
I think about the role of hurling, the tree, and the way we play the game. I examine my own role. I wonder about my role as a father; I wonder how the win-at-all-costs mentality will affect my son. I wonder about what caused a woman to email me last week to say she was relieved a torn cruciate ligament would keep her away from the stresses of GAA.
I ask Moriarty what we need. He tells me about the Minotaur.
The great Greek legend of the Minotaur is King Minos’s tale of woe. His wife Pasiphae becomes transfixed with the Bull God that emerges from the sea.
The Bull won’t mate with any human, so she orders the carpenter Daedalus to construct a wooden cow. Once completed she enters the cow, assumes the position, and the Bull impregnates her.
Soon she gives birth to a half-man half-bull: a monstrous creation. Out of shame King Minos constructs a labyrinth beneath the city of Knossos and banishes the Minotaur beneath the royal carpet.
Once a month a virgin child is sent from the city of Athens and dispatched into the labyrinth as food for the insatiable beast. Theseus takes umbrage that the maidens of his city are being devoured, and travels to Crete vowing to slay the monster. There he meets Ariadne, stepdaughter of the king and half-sister of the Minotaur, at the gates of the labyrinth. She gives him a ball of wool to navigate his return.
Theseus fulfills his destiny as a warrior by killing the monster and emerges in triumph from the labyrinth. That, to Moriarty, is the mythical story, but he sees another dimension.
The Minotaur represents our animal nature, and it is the appeal of this that Pasiphae has succumbed to. Minos as King has dominion over the people, and regulates his society. Animal nature, primordial wildness, runs contrary to civic virtue. He drives his shame beneath that which he controls. He then must feed that shame with sacrifice.
Enter the Warrior Theseus. He has bloody murder on his mind and awaits a triumphant return. But according to Moriarty this win-at-all-costs mentality must change; this is where we cross over from the mythological into the real, to the battles at Croke Park.
We don’t need another Theseus, or another Cuchulainn. We need a medicine man, someone that can dive into the depths of the Irish psyche and take a comb of walrus ivory to Caitlin Ni hUllachain’s hair: to comb our Cartesianism, to comb out our sins against Nature, to comb out our theories and creeds that put us on a collision course with this gorgeous blue jewel hanging in space.
If Theseus or anyone else wants to be a real hero, he must join King Minos and return to the labyrinth, take the Minotaur by the hand and walk him into the cityscape, accepting his shame in order to transcend it. This is the great journey.
We have a great opportunity now within the GAA to create a healing space in which coaches can heal: where they can tune into the deeper messages of the game, of the hurl, of the tree. Where they hear the medicines of Nature, which heals them of their anger and shame. Where they reconnect to purpose and are reminded of agency. Where they rediscover their place in the world, and where outcome is secondary to the journey.
Fulfilling a Heroic Destiny
Spiritually, we are at sea. That’s why we don’t feel the plight of the ailing ash. The Catholic Church took on the role of guardian of the great message of the Christ story. The message that we can be at one with the unfolding moment, that we can transcend our suffering and open ourselves to a greater potential.
The Church became moral arbiters of that message and pursued power and control, which divorced them from the source. They were not equipped for the gravity of the message that we are, in fact, already in Paradise. But independently we can create a space to engage with it, with humble invitation, we can heal ourselves and return to abundance.
Nature is abundant. The law of the universe is balance. When we are in balance we are in abundance. When we chose with agency to be in imbalance, we no longer live in abundance; instead we become locked in a mentality of scarcity, which furthers the imbalance.
Those that benefit most from these conditions are those that are most fearful of the scarcity complex within themselves. Those that are in imbalance have lost the ability to trust in the unfolding moment. They replace that trust with sufficient control of the moment to ensure they don’t slip into a reality that their minds are incapable of digesting.
We must deal with our fear in order to be whelmed and overwhelmed by the majesty of the natural world. In crossing that threshold we slip into a paradisal view of the Earth, and no longer want to damage it. This is free energy. We allow ourselves to re-integrate, we play our Orphic note that resonates with the universe.
This is where we identify our purpose, from this place. As though in sitting with Nature, in being psycho-analysed by Nature, where our preconceived stories about ourselves fall silent; the messages that we need to hear can be heard above the din: from the universe demanding we fulfill our heroic destiny; where we recall our gravity and our greatness, and make the contribution the universe requires of us.
Then we can identify the most pressing needs in the world, and apply our tremendous talents and resources to meet those needs, therein lies our purpose.
I spoke about some of these things in Croke Park recently, ideas that have been forming around me and inside of me, inspired by John Moriarty and my experience of hurling. He gave me leave to understand the world for myself, deferring to no one.
I don’t need experts to tell me about Climate Change, or the effect of EMF’s on bee populations, or young men’s suicide rate, to know the disconnect is for real. It’s everywhere. It’s screaming at us to stop, to look around, to renegotiate our most sacred and primal contracts with Nature, and hurling has a role to play.
Moriarty is guide. He is a guide because he went to these places. He let go of his conditioning and walked the earth with a barefoot mind and a barefoot heart. The last pages of Nostos, his autobiography, are written from the paradise he so often refers to. This is not a philosophical concept, it is the reality of the universe, which will lead us away from calamity. I know it is real because I have experienced it.
Its appreciation brings great possibilities for our young people, who are less hampered by the toxic legacy of shame lying on us as a people, on our language and on our landscape. With minds blown open by the Internet, they have the energy of youth to take great strides, but require mentors more than ever. Can the GAA offer a space where coaches harrow their own great depths to become the mentors we need?
Can we encourage balance in our young people so they can make their great contribution? Where they play sport to experience the union that is central to all creative pursuit, the feeling that comes when time and effort cease and a blissful harmony prevails. Can we value those moments once again, and in valuing them permit our young people to experience the world in a different way, beyond the limitations of outcome?
This is a journey Moriarty opened up for me, on which I constantly take wrong turns, but one worthy of continuing. If you are still with me, I encourage you to stand on the edge of a lake, or in front of a tree and just breathe. Breathe and resist the temptation to label and to understand and to intellectualise, and see what fills the gaps. It may be a fleeting experience, it may be difficult to hold on to, but it will heal.
And if you happen to see the wild form of the hare, bury your head in that wild form, and ask it with humility and reverence to guide you on this heroic journey out of the Formorian labyrinth, and back to the great and sacred Earth.
Diarmuid Lyng facilitates group exploration of spirituality in nature, masculinity, meditation, resilience, yoga to a wide range of audiences including schools, university, GAA clubs.