Rambler with a fixed abode
Lake poet of Leitrim: Michael Harding at Lough Allen. photograph: brian farrell
MEMOIRMichael Harding is a ‘philosophical spalpeen’, and his attractively light account of his life as a priest, playwright, actor, writer, husband, father and traveller is permeated with his search for meaning
Staring at Lakes: A Memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking, By Michael Harding, Hachette Ireland, 311pp, £13.99
Memoir has become one of the most popular literary genres of recent times, vying with the novel for readers. As the genre flourishes, its writers are challenged to find new techniques for presenting their biographical information. The traditional formula, which is to begin with childhood and move along chronologically, is replaced by more selective patterns. Memoir writers focus on a theme, or build the memories around selected places or objects.
Eibhear Walshe structured the story of his own childhood around images of his grandmother, Cissie, and her abattoir. The Hare With Amber Eyes uses objets d’art as the scaffolding on which to pin a family history. Michael Harding attaches his life story to lakes, for metaphorical and factual reasons.
He begins not at the beginning but close to the end, from which he hops to the middle: the moment in 1984 when he met his future wife, the sculptor Cathy Carman, in the artistic centre of Ireland, at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, in Co Monaghan. She was at a summer picnic on the lawn above Annaghmakerrig Lake.
From this romantic nucleus Harding brings us on his roundabout quest for meaning back to his childhood, alighting here and there on telling episodes in his life as a priest, playwright, actor, writer, husband, father and traveller. As I read the book, my mind was perseverated by lines from a song, “I’m a rambler, I’m a rover, I’m a long way from home,” and from an Irish song on the same theme, An Spailpín Fánach.
Harding is a sort of philosophical spalpeen, but he’s a rambler with a fixed abode: a house he loves, a marriage to someone he always refers to as “My Beloved” and a productive career as an actor and writer, about which latter he tells us surprisingly little. A blurb on the back of the volume declares, with fine blurbese disregard for what’s actually in the book: “This frank and unflinching memoir offers a fascinating insight into the mind of the author of two of the finest Irish novels of the eighties.”
Although Harding has written almost 20 plays and three novels, as well as innumerable newspaper columns, there’s hardly any exploration of his writing in this book. References to his reading are likewise scanty. It’s a curious omission.
After their marriage Harding and Cathy Carman moved to Co Leitrim. If you’ve ever wondered how the artists and writers of Co Leitrim live, you’ll find Harding’s descriptions interesting, though probably not surprising. He spends his time writing, going for walks, observing donkeys and lakes, going to the Buddhisitic centre of Jampa Ling (in Co Cavan), doing up sheds in which to write, and wishing he could be somewhere else. He loves Leitrim, and his wife, but when the couple’s only child, Sophia, a horse-crazy girl (who has since become a successful showjumper), reached the age for secondary school, she and her father decided in a split second that Loreto in Mullingar was the right place, as it was a school with a good stable and equestrian team. Carman agreed that Sophie and her father should make the move while she remained in Leitrim. “It was one of those moments in my life when I rejoiced in the fact that I had married an artist; a woman open to all kinds of crazy ideas and possibilities.”