The Anam Cara - Sarah Woodbury

The Anam Cara

The role of the anam cara or ‘soul friend’ in Celtic pre-Christian religion appears to have been that of a spiritual advisor.  I say ‘appears’ because I’m not sure that the position isn’t the product of a neo-pagan/new age spiritual tradition.

This post is a product of a long discussion with a hospital chaplain (waiting for my husband’s colonoscopy–all is well).  We shared an interest in history and Celtic people, and he brought up the existence of the ‘anam cara’.  He stated that within the pre-Christian tradition among the Celts, the ‘anam cara’ was a spirituall leader or ‘soul friend’ who saw a person through birth (even perhaps, as a midwife), maturity, and death.  ‘Anam cara’ were true spiritual advisors.

With the coming of Christianity, the Catholic church encountered significant resistance against conformity to Rome and one way to co-opt the Celtic church was through priests taking on the role of the ‘anam cara’ in their parishes.  This kind of syncretism was standard for the Catholic Church (and still is to a certain degree) at that time, and was one way that they brought the Celtic Church back into the fold.  It’s perfectly believable.  In addition, women could hold the role of ‘aman cara’, and frequently did, and the narrative is part and parcel of the way that Christianity suppressed and lowered the status and role of women.

The problem is that I can trace the identification of the ‘anam cara’ as a Celtic ‘soul friend’ to only one source:  a 1998 book by John O’Donnell called “Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom“.  Otherwise, every link on the internet is to a relatively ‘new age’ or spiritualist site and/or a World of Warcraft guild (seriously).  

Another spelling is ‘Anamchairde’ or ‘Anamchara’ in the singular.  This leads to more pages, more heavily Catholic, lending credence to the notion that whatever the historical truth of the Celtic ‘anamchara’, the use of the word has been adopted by the modern Catholic Church.  One page states:  “I believe it has its origin in medieval times when (younger) monks sought advice from older more spiritually mature monks.”  Another says:  “The anamchairde (plural of anamchara) were guardian angels of the ancient Celts. They have a special interest in people who are developing spiritually but are willing to help anyone when necessary.”


I’d love a scholarly or academic reference, or even an ‘official’ Catholic church resource.

10 Replies to “The Anam Cara”

  1. John Donohue popularized the term in the 20th century, but it was around long before that. For example, “The Celtic Review,” published in the early 1900s, uses the term quite often in its articles, and it occurs in “Christian Inscriptions in the Irish Language,” published in 1872, where the author refers to an anamchara from the 11th century. The word is defined in O’Reilly’s 1864 Irish-English dictionary as “bosom friend,” and it’s also included in another 1959 Irish-English dictionary I have (where it’s defined as “confidant,” “kindred spirit,” and “soulmate”). The first use of the word that I’ve found is in the ninth-century “The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee,” where Brigid of Kildare says that it would be better to lose your head than to lose your anamchara (which was translated as “soulfriend” in the 1905 English edition).

    1. THANK YOU for the references in your reply. It is a great help–particularly O’Reilly’s 1864 Irish-English dictionary’s definition and the 1959 Irish-English dictionary! It challenges the claims of those who want to sell their mentoring relationship today in books or “ministry” by saying only trained “professional spiritual directors” are anamchairde.

  2. I was in the process of scouring Google for an academic reference to “anam cara” when I found your blog. I’ve check the ATLA religion database, Amazon, Google Scholar, and related sites. But nothing except a website called the “Anam Cara Project,” which says the following about “History of the Anamcara”:

    “Ancient Lineage – Anamcara (pronounced ahn-im-KAHR-uh) is an old Gaelic word meaning “soul friend.” In ancient times the Celts created the role of Anamcara as a life counselor and spiritual guide. By the 6th century AD, after the arrival of mainland European missionaries, women and men continued to develop the anamcara tradition inherited from their Druid ancestors. For centuries these anamcara became mentors and companions to persons from all walks of life who yearned for a deeper relationship with the Divine. As the legendary Brigit of Ireland wrote, ‘Anyone without an anamcara is like a body without a head.'”

    But no citation to back-up these claims. If you find anything, please let me know by e-mail.

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