“Where are all the other little people that were in the crib?” I asked. “They went off on the bus,” Melody said cheerfully.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne

A child rearranged my crib, leaving only the donkey, ‘because it’s a stable and he’s a donkey’

No escape from Trump: Cecily Strong as Melania during the “Melania Moments” sketch on  Saturday Night Live. Photograph: Ralph Bavaro/NBC

‘When I lie in bed, unwired from internet or iPhone, I worry about nothing’

“You’re the bull,” the Cavan woman said. Above, Michael Harding in The Field. Photograph: Patrick Redmond

There was no point explaining that we tell lies all the time. It’s called codding. 

Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh. Photograph: The Wiltshire Collection/National Library of Ireland

I wanted to go to the poet and tell him how beautiful Monaghan can still be

“The first longing I ever had was for a bee. I was 9 years old and I had a jamjar and thought that if I could get the bee inside, then my life would be perfect.”

Our columnist revisits his childhood and muses about being as secular as Beckett

Michael Harding as Bull McCabe in John B Keane’s ‘The Field’

Wearing an ‘Irish’ cap, Michael Harding was sneered at on the Dart. He should have had a copy of Waiting for Godot under his arm (...)

Sole searching. Photograph: Nina Hilitukha/Getty Images

Here we are, holding the song and the pain together with the sly beat of a foot on the floor

My friend had travelled the world; I had remained in Ireland, clinging to the rivers, lakes and hills of my childhood, writing sad memoirs and never wandering very far from home. Photograph: Brian Farrell.

Meeting years later, we were older and in less danger of setting each other on fire

Rain always inclines me to imagine the great Mother of God as she was on that great night of drizzle long ago when she surprised the people of Mayo. Photograph: Jack McManus

The nuns from Minsk never appeared, but a man came like an angel from heaven and built a shed for my logs

Photograph: iStock

It’s difficult to speculate on the meaning of life as people come and go with little bags on wheels

Photograph: iStock

How to be a Man: Sometimes masculinity can feel mechanical

An image came to my mind of the phone lying in a ditch where it would never be found again until the damp had eaten into the screen and destroyed it forever.

We’re using Google maps to find Auntie Mary’s lost phone in a ditch in Westmeath

Clowns! That’s what we need. More clowns

Clowns were seen as the laughing stocks who would never make anything of themselves

Twin beliefs. Photographs: iStock, Alan Betson

I know the universe is empty but I still slide back into a devotional life if I’m given half a chance

Photograph: Getty Images

All the orthodoxies of Christianity were to my mother as naught compared with her conviction in this single truth about banshees (...)

Michelangelo’s David. Photograph: Roberto Munoz/iStock

Imagining young men without clothes is no problem, but the older men are, the harder it gets to fantasise them out of their suits (...)

Photograph: iStock

There is always a hint of something invisible in a room where human remains lie in repose

Photograph: iStock

I got out of bed and checked the laundry basket, pressing my nose into each sock and assuring myself that the smell was definitely(...)

Farnham Estate in Cavan

I began to feel not so much like a lord of the manor as a monkey in heaven

Leland Bardwell. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Michael Harding: Bardwell’s life was a poem and her poetry was simply the truth spoken with passion

Michael Gove. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Michael Gove sounded like a cross between a schoolmaster in a Harry Potter story and a ferocious Christian Brother recently escape(...)

Photograph: iStock

In a few moments the fish had been filleted into two halves of white flesh, from which a pastel of pale-pink blood seeped out on t(...)

The sheep stayed overnight at the door of my studio, and in the morning their droppings were everywhere. Photograph: iStock

It was a single-syllable knife that often sliced the air in front of my face to shame and silence me

Michael Harding is glad he lives in the present because, unlike the General, he's too squeamish to be a hunter

As I grow old there is something in the gods I collect around me I am loath to renounce

Photograph: iStock

I wasn’t certain what she meant, but my brain was in overdrive with the possibilities

Photograph: iStock

It was the only release we had from anxiety

Photograph: iStock

‘You’ll kill yourself with that junk,’ the woman said as she saw me ordering breakfast. The situation escalated from there

Photograph: iStock

Years ago, when the General played the piano, I would frequently find him entirely nude in the drawing room

Photograph: Thinkstock

I use Facebook to look in at all that intimacy without undermining my own solitude

Photograph: Thinkstock

I could have gone in and shared my flask of whiskey with him at the fire, but I didn’t

Photograph: Thinkstock

The trouble with Homo sapiens seems to have started when we began eating wheat and became farmers

Photograph: Thinkstock

That’s one of the lovely things about rural Ireland: people know each other like old trees

Photograph: Thinkstock

One night in Warsaw I was lying in bed when an old man knocked on the door. He looked distraught

“We were eating at a round table on which an image of the Polish pope was propped against a television set.” Photograph: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

I am writing about the absence of God but I didn’t want to be too grim in the face of Mrs Squirrel’s renowned religiosity

Photograph: Thinkstock

FRIENDSHIP WEEK: I am what my friends have made of me and I exist only in relation to them

Photograph: Thinkstock

While waiting it occurred to me that everyone must eventually arrive at the last orgasm

Photograph: Thinkstock

Whatever about vegetables, I’m certain that exercise is an enormous help to people who suffer from melancholy, so I bought a tread(...)

Patrick Pearse

Would romance have turned to melancholy if he had lived long enough?

Photograph: Thinkstock

When I called to the General last week, he saw me as a turncoat. Such are the lines that get drawn when a husband and wife go to w(...)

Photograph: Thinkstock

I was perfectly happy in that moment in the airport in Warsaw, until I realised that my hat was missing

Photograph: Thinkstock

The American woman I met in Warsaw was frail but ferocious, and I was getting alarmed at the directness of her questions

Photograph: Thinkstock

Beyond the loneliness of grief after death, there is nothing more cutting than the blade of awakening that opens the heart when th(...)

Photograph: Thinkstock

There was a young couple sheltering beside me in Warsaw, watching the snow. I wanted to say, ‘You are really a lovely couple.’ But(...)

Michael Harding. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

When I bumped into the nun for a second time, I began to worry that she might think I was stalking her, or that I had a fetish abo(...)

Photograph: Thinkstock

‘Depression arrives like a flock of crows. But you must never let them sit,’ the poet warned me

Photograph: Thinkstock

The Londoner looked like a crow and the woman at the fire reminded me of a wren

The ash was a portal, a door into the other world. And now dieback is shutting that door.

“I could have listened to Jeanette Winterson all day, but it was a very brief interview. So I got up and brushed my teeth.” Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

One morning I had a visitor. It was a neighbour. It was as if a savage God had arrived into my little solitude and smashed it to p(...)

I have an app on my phone that can identify planes in the air and I have become familiar with various international flight paths that cross Leitrim

‘There I was, paying €60 an hour to lie naked on an ironing board with my face in a hole’

Michael Harding at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

An empiricism muffles the western world, and instead of wonder and awe we are offered the surreal and fake intelligence of streetw(...)

Photograph: Thinkstock

Old men, in particular, used to be afflicted with low verbal ability

Michael Harding at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

At the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, an artists’ retreat, we make a faint attempt at social discourse over dinner. But it’s all a surface(...)

Photograph: Thinkstock

‘I went to Amsterdam with the wife,’ said one of the men at the next table. ‘I thought we might do some drugs’

Michael Harding. Photograph: Brian Farrell

I was at a garden party in Kent, where people could hide away at garden tables and chew burgers, drink wine and talk about David C(...)

‘I slept well at the Eccles Hotel, and dreamed of Mr Yeats and his big libido pacing the floor as he tried to compose lines of poetry’

And so I ended up in the Yeats Suite of the Eccles Hotel, a room bigger than a small house

“I have great sympathy for W B Yeats, who went to such trouble to achieve sexual arousal, late in life, submitting himself to an exotic vasectomy in order to raise his libido”

‘Maybe Yeats never heard of chillies,’ the General said. ‘That’s the stuff that can awaken the libido into pulsating flesh’

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

I met two friends in Mullingar recently. We have become wounded creatures whose attention has turned to cholesterol, back pain and(...)

Photograph: Thinkstock

All the Lonely People: It was one of those years that was going so well I thought I’d live forever. But then one day I got out of (...)

Photograph: Thinkstock

I suppose that’s also what Irish people like about going abroad: they begin noticing each other

Michael Harding at St John’s Point, Dunkineely, Co Donegal. Photograph: Declan Doherty

A series in which Irish Times writers go off the beaten track: ‘Southwest Donegal is my favourite refuge, to rest, or be alone, or(...)

‘One weekend I got so uneasy that I fled to the hills above Lough Allen on a Saturday afternoon. But when I got there I didn’t feel happy at all.’ Above, Michael Harding at Lough Allen. Photograph: Brian Farrell

I suppose it’s not a good sign. Solitude gets no brownie points in the secular world of compulsive collectivity

‘The poor creatures haven’t evoved far enough to conclude anything ontological about the nature of the universe’

I know the savagery of the crow is buried in my psyche, and it manifests as rage when I meet an obstacle in life or don’t get my o(...)

Though the trees are still bare they move differently. They are supple in the wind as the sap rises. Photograph: Getty

Spring wakens me early in the morning, as the dawn drags songs from the throats of little birds

Turlough O’Carolan on the old £50 note

I suppose it’s because he too was a wandering poet, drifting through the country to perform for crowds

A yellow bittern. Photograph: Thinkstock

When Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna saw the bittern in the early 18th century, the bird was dead and stretched on ice. But I suppose(...)

Photograph: Siri Stafford/Getty Images

The last time I was in a JB Keane play, I was a teacher looking for love and the local drama society was my only option

Photograph: Thinkstock

I’m getting addicted to the remote control again, which is a bad sign. It’s as if I can’t live without some sense of control, some(...)

‘I could only hope that something would inspire me when I got to the city, to the hotel and closer to RTÉ.’ Above, Brendan O’Connor on The Saturday Night Show

I heard Brendan O’Connor telling jokes to the audience as I waited to go on to The Saturday Night Show. ‘What are you going to tal(...)

Spin the bottle. Photograph: Thinkstock

I’ve read erotic scenes in books over the years, but I never found anything in life as wonderful as the random promiscuity that co(...)

‘The Brigid’s cross is my talisman for spring, just as the icon of the Madonna carried me through the winter.’ Photograph: Declan Doherty

I am not Catholic any more, nor Jew, nor Muslim. But then neither is God

‘There is something about Romania that feels like the beginning of the road to the east, or the end of Europe.’ Above, a street scene in Bucharest. Photograph: Thinkstock

I felt unsafe in Bucharest, and the woman who showed me to my apartment was inscrutable

Positively pornographic? Photograph: Thinkstock

So the General asked me recently, changing the subject from his prostate exam

Love all. Photograph: Thinkstock

What makes it work is spontaneity and the unimportance of the subject

‘I was so moved by the simple acknowledgement of my humanity that when I saw a woman begging, I gave her three pound coins instantly.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

The ultimate reality is that we are all connected. This is a very wise idea

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

There was no stress. Gradually my cat Roxie’s head drooped and I placed her sideways and watched her inhale each final breath, lik(...)

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

There was no stress. Gradually my cat Roxie’s head drooped and I placed her sideways and watched her inhale each final breath, lik(...)

‘The Black Madonna of Czestochowa is not a woman who does small wonders: her concerns are on a grander scale.’  Photograph: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

I don’t care when my friends try to uncouple me from the delusion that some great mother in the sky is holding us. I know as well (...)

The suitcase. Full of college note books, a camera and some letters.  Photograph: Getty

It was 1973. My American girlfriend was great at kissing. I was terrible. And in the middle of it she would ask questions that mad(...)

Anti-water charge protesters outside the Irish Water head office on Talbot Street at the end of November. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

It’s not just that our masters want money to service the reservoir system or upgrade the pipes. That would be fine. But they want (...)

‘There was no sound as delicious as my neighbour’s tractor in a field of grass as he sat steering and twisting his head to watch the rake toss the mown grass into perfect lines behind him.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

When a farmer dies in the countryside, there is a strange emptiness in the fields

A lesson in empathy on the train to Sligo

The master of the accordion, Tony McMahon (above) often repeated a single tune over and over again at concerts, using it like a chant, drawing people in. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Listening to the accordion music of Tony McMahon could allow a man to live with his own loneliness

‘It was humbling to be among so many women.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

Women are open because that’s the nature of connecting with other humans, whereas what makes me depressed is my inability to conne(...)

Sloe and steady: a blackthorn bush

The old man pointed to a bush at the gable of his house with yellowing leaves and purple berries. ‘Oh, look,’ he said. ‘A blacktho(...)

‘I have a friend with long, black hair and a precious fiddle. He pulls the bow across the low strings, bleeding a deep sound out of them, like a shaman opening a door to the other world.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

Music induces in me a clarity of thought far beyond the fog of religion or philosophy

‘On the bus to Cavan, the woman who looked like Joan Baez crossed the aisle and sat beside me.’ Above: the actual Joan Baez. Photograph: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Michael Harding: It was her skin that interested me. I refused to accept she was 65

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

I usually try to avoid politics, but I had been asked to collect Rafeef Ziadah

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Horses were no more than objects until finally I sat up on one and was forced to trust her. That was intimate

‘I’m very sorry about that, Mr Frog,’ I said. ‘I didn’t see you in the grass.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

I’m melancholic, so I’m constantly afflicted by depressive emotions. Frogs, on the other hand, are more committed to the present m(...)

Sheep in the Mourne mountains

It had never occurred to me that someone in rural Ireland might have been passing the winter with books on Zen back then

A light film of libidinous sweat shimmering just below his nostrils

Because my conversation with a fellow student of Irish in Donegal was so limited, we were forced to live in the present

‘It wasn’t Garth Brooks that they were afraid of.’ Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Files/Reuters

They can’t abide happy culchies coming up and screaming their heads off in Croke Park and dancing around O’Connell Street, the dri(...)

‘My favourite film of the week was Voice of the Voiceless, a black-and-white masterpiece about a deaf girl dancing on the New York subway as she looked for money from commuters’

I was in Galway. No matter what I did, I couldn’t avoid inhabiting one story or another

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

At a hotel in Clonmel, a middle-aged couple made a dramatic entrance, like a pair welded together in the hell of matrimony

Body and Soul at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath. Photograph: Allen Kiely

I used to think young people went to festivals just to get drunk or do drugs. At Body and Soul I realised I was wrong

Dermot Healy: love was the root of his books

In his most famous work, A Goat’s Song, he excelled himself in revealing the Irish male as the dreamer, the broken thing that a ma(...)

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

A picnic is just a matter of getting to some place where you can relax, and for me there is nowhere better than the cliffs of Done(...)

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