Hiraeth – making peace with longing


“The human heart is a theater of longing” -John O’Donohue (Eternal Echoes)

The Celts have a concept, Hiraeth (here-eyeth). It is a Welsh word, about as difficult to define as it is to pronounce.

Let’s try.

It might be defined as a longing, a homesickness for a home to which one can never return. It is the unrequited hope that produces ever more unanswered longing. It is a grieving for the lost places and moments of one’s past – a sense of loss for loving moments and places, fondly remembered. It sits in the dream world where longing, belonging, home, and wanderlust meet.

I’ve lived my entire life in this terrible, wonderful, aching place, rarely able to make sense of it but never able to escape it. I like to think I’m a complex mystic. Others I’m sure simply dismiss it as the cross-eyed musings of a artsy moron. But, I digress…

In a 2003 interview with Val Bethell we get a particularly poignant description of this elusive idea.

“Hiraeth is in the mountains where the wind speaks in many tongues and the buzzards fly on silent wings. It’s the call of my spiritual home, it’s where ancient peoples made their home…high on a hill, where saints bathed sore feet in a healing spring and had a cure….Hiraeth – the link with the long-forgotten past, the language of the soul, the call from the inner self. Half forgotten – fraction remembered. It speaks from the rocks, from the earth, from the trees and in the waves. It’s always there.

Yes, I hear it.

Yes, I understand what hiraeth means.”

As do I.

So, here’s my strategy. While you sit, happily dunking something forbidden and delicious in your coffee, I’m going to prattle on a bit about this concept in a new series of blog posts designed to help get us, okay me, to the pleasantries of shared experience. And, although I’ve written about this thing before, I need to keep doing so. I hope this exercise is more like Michelangelo’s hammer and chisel finding David in the stone than the endless pounding of the chain gang pick on the rubble pile.

Join me?

Photograph by Laura Aldridge

28 thoughts on “Hiraeth – making peace with longing

  1. Wondering Celt

    Looking forward to hearing more…I too live in that state and just thought I was ‘complicated’! Begin to explore living at peace with it, so it’ll good to hear what you have to say. Shalom

    Liked by 1 person

    1. krazykiwi

      Hey Michael & Rob — may I please chime in here? I can really relate to your yearnings Michael! I’ve always wanted to travel to bonnie Scotland my entire life! No explanation – not really logical — just a deep, deep sense of needing to connect with the land and the people.
      I guess I can try to make sense of this through my experiences with the local indigenous Maori peoples. They hold a concept called “turangawaewae” which sounds strangely like what you’ve expressed, Michael.

      “It is the place from which my canoe was launched on life’s rocky road; it is the stump to which I will tie that canoe at journey’s end. In life, it is the ground on which I stand, in death it becomes te ukaipo, the breast that nurtures me at night.” Rangatira Kingi, Tuhoe Iwi

      Traditionally, a Māori person had turangawaewae because of the cutting of the umbilical cord and the burying of the placenta in a certain place. Added to that was the concept of ahi ka, the need to keep one’s fires burning. This meant that to have rights to a certain territory one had to be in residence – that is, have one’s fires constantly lit – for at least three generations. If one were absent from that area for at least three generations then one’s fires were said to be extinguished, and all one’s rights to that land were forfeit. The Māori term for this was ahi matao, literally, extinguished fire.
      Tuurangawaewae is your main personally identifiable base from which you are able to acknowledge and maintain your identity in terms of who you are and where you’ve come from. Today’s world, having a sense of turangawaewae is as important as it ever has been, because as you travel all over the world seeking out new ideas and set out to do new and different things, it is always still important to define who you are and what makes you unique and different from others, no matter whether you’re Māori, Pakeha, or any other race or creed.

      Your Turangawaewae is:
      • A place of personal significance.
      • A place of wider, almost political, significance. It should stand for something that you stand for. You borrow definition from it.
      • A place you have access to. Regular access. Other locations may be important for you but your footstool needs to be in easy reach.
      • A place you have a relationship with.
      • In the majority of cases, it ties with your whakapapa.

      This last point is best understood through story. My former boss of Māori descent, Kevan McConnell, was touring on his hog around New Zealand (Aotearoa). His journey took him through a certain part of the Taranaki region of the North Island; and as it did, he felt this strong urge to stop his bike and take in the scenery and usurp the “feel” of the place, he told me. When he finally got back to Kawerau, he mentioned this strange ‘ urge’ he felt to his biomum. She told him of his whakapapa; his family’s history in that area of NZ. Kevan didn’t seem shocked – he knew instinctively it was a spiritual connection to the land that he felt there.


      Liked by 2 people

  2. Since moving to Lebanon in 2009 I’ve seen this play out in the lives of those around me – longing for a past and a peace that seems to be out of their reach. I’ve also been thinking much about where I’ve been and where I am heading…deep stuff and something that really stirs the soul.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Do we feel the loss of the garden of Eden? We can only be happy in heaven!
    Living in Scotland some of the Celtic comments seem overblown romanticism. But … there are things to explore …


    1. Your point is well taken here, David. I cannot speak for others, but in my own experience I’ve had to weigh carefully the difference between a more genuine Celtic understanding of hiraeth and the much lesser, saccarine Romanticism that is spongy by comparison. I perceive the longing of hiraeth to be the ache of “unreturning.” It’s the longing for an earlier perfection to which one may never return, not just a childish Christmastime “can’t wait for Santa”, which, although special, is a far cry from what I’m struggling to articulate here!

      Thanks for your thoughts…R


  4. Thanks for this, I’ll be reading along.
    Reminded of this: “What we learn [from longing] is that we are more: more than any moment in our lives, more than any humiliation, more than any achievement, more than the limits of our bodies, marriages, and jobs. Longing takes us beyond. It teaches us – better yet, it lets us touch through desire – God’s deep design for each of us. In the end, our longings are about consummation, completeness, harmony, and justice. In our longing, the mystics tell us, we intuit the Kingdom of God.” Ronald Rolheiser

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wondering Celt

    I live in Wales so I know the word and understand the concept well….but in my own spiritual context I have to say it is deeply perplexing!!! The romanticism I can see/hear from some of the posts is real but maybe not so misplaced……He is the great Lover of our souls.

    I think the sense of longing for place, for a physical place, may have something to do with real ties to land, but the deeper sense is that tie to Eden, to Heaven itself, which even the very land on which we dwell ‘groans’ with the struggle to see the Sons revealed.

    Does this resonate at all?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed! I love the idea. I cannot say with certainty if I’m even in the ballpark with any of my thoughts on this. But it’s been worth the effort in coming this close to a fascinating and elusive concept.


  6. Wondering Celt

    Reblogged this on Wondering Celt and commented:
    Summer is here and as my beautiful garden calls me away from writing I thought I’d occasionally reblog something which I wish I’d written!!!

    May you be blessed with the very best blessings of the very best Blesser in town, in this wonderful season (even if you live down under and summer is just a distant memory now!). Shalom


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  8. Pingback: Expand your Vocabulary and your Faith – Hiraeth | Healthy Spirituality

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  10. Reblogged this on innerwoven and commented:

    I figured St. David’s Day was a good reason to reblog part 1 of a 6-part series I wrote last year on the Welsh-Celtic idea of “hiraeth.” Come, join me for the journey!


    1. NikNaz K.

      Robert, thank you for this post and your series on Hiraeth. I found my way to your blog earlier this year through a search on John O’Donohue. I had never heard this word before, but it beautifully captures what I am trying to convey in my new painting series. If you haven’t read Rumi’s Song of the Reed, may I suggest that you take a moment to read it. It echoes the same longing and I suspect it will resonate: http://www.onbeing.org/program/ecstatic-faith-rumi/feature/song-reed/1853 – FYI – I have named my new painting series – Hiraeth. Thank you for the gift.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dear soul, I’d love to take credit for the word and the riches it evokes. But, alas, many have done so well before me. It has captured me of late and become a good resource in developing a descriptive and useful language for the movements of my soul. I adore all things Rumi by the way!


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