I cried for a year
Lake view: Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. photograph: brian farrell
In this extract from his new memoir, 'Staring at Lakes', the 'Irish Times' columnist reflects on the light and dark in his life
I always hoped I’d fall in love. And if I grew up and fell in love, life would be easy. That’s what I thought. But I grew up in Ireland, and it sometimes seems that Irish people have no hope. We live in despair. For women, the great disappointment is men; for men, it’s practically everything. Everybody lives in despair. Which is odd for a nation so devoted to religion down the centuries. Or perhaps it’s not.
Perhaps it’s because of the weather or the Great Famine or because of the awful things that happen in Ireland over and over again. People grew too cynical to hope in anything. And without hope, I suppose, it’s difficult to find love. Or maybe it’s because the religion we cling to doesn’t work any more, and we are too afraid to say so. We are not a lazy people, but we are notorious for taking things easy.
That is until the days of the Celtic Tiger. We got our courage then. The nation couldn’t be kept silent at dinner parties and gala nights, baring its collective soul about the need to push. Push the life. Push the job. Push the relationship. Push every button. Push the ATM. Push for promotion. Push yourself. Everybody. All together. Push. And I pushed.
For years in Mullingar, I pushed.
Until I exploded. Blew up, like an overheated, underoiled engine. “Stormy weather” is another way of saying it.
“I hear you ran into a bit of stormy weather,” someone said to me, after I had fallen apart. When I ended up in hospital and subsequently at home in bed, depressed for months. Stormy weather. I suppose that’s it all right. Turbulence in the interior. Rain storms in the organics. And mental darkness. The consequences of pushing too much and ending up ill.
Afterwards I cried for a year. It was a good cry. It was a cry that allowed me to remember who I was. “I am a bit like Sancho Panza,” I concluded. “I cry a lot and I like donkeys.”
I loved riding the big-eared, furry beasts when I was a child, on the beach at Bundoran, with a gypsy boy holding the reins and my father holding my hand. And the cross on the donkey’s back amazed me. I thought it was really put there by God’s finger one morning when no one was looking to mark the donkey as a hero.
To me the donkey was something especially loved by God, and so it never bothered me when someone said, “You made a bit of an ass of yourself last night.” I did. Last night. And last year. And the year before that. Year after year, I ruined my life. I made the wrong decisions. I took the wrong road.
When my health broke down in 2011, people said, “You’re the right ass. What happened to you?” Just the same as they had said it when I was a child. I’d fall into the ditch and someone would say, “Well, you’re an awful ass.”
I believe my breakdown had been threatening for a long time. There was a flaw inside me from the beginning. In school Fr Fingers called me an ass. He was a teacher. He’d say, “You can run but you can’t hide, ye jackass.” I wasn’t hiding. I had my head down. But he said that was hiding.
“Where’s your homework?”
It wasn’t done. I couldn’t understand it. But I didn’t say that.
I said, “Please, father, I forgot to do my homework.”
That’s what we all said. No point in saying, Please, father, you’re such a lousy teacher that no one in the class knows how to do the homework.
And then he’d shove the glasses up his nose and say, “Now, tell me this and tell me no more: are you an ass or am I an ass?”
And I’d say, “I don’t know, father.”