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.”
Fr Fingers helped hundreds of children to hate school. He had a nickname for the bishop: Fr Eyebrows he called him. When he said it, we were all supposed to laugh. He licked his lips before slapping people and he relished his power over us.
I farted once too loudly, and he came down to me and said, “And who have we here?” Because he prided himself on not knowing the pupils in his class.
I spoke my name.
“And are you an ass?”
“I don’t know, father.”
“Speak up,” he roared.
“I don’t know, father.”
“I told you yesterday,” he continued, “when you forgot to do your homework, to go home and ask your mother were you an ass. Did you ask her?”
“Or maybe your mother thinks your teacher is an ass. And now you’re farting like the ass that ate the turnips, so I’m asking you again: are – you – an – ass? Or am I an ass? And you still tell me you don’t know.” He was roaring.
“I don’t know,” I said again, stubbornly, because he wanted to shame me into saying, Yes, father, I must be an ass, because of the way I smell or because of my stupidity or because of my intellectual limitations. Father, I must be the biggest jackass in the room.
“One of us must be an ass,” he declared. “And it’s certainly not me.”
The class laughed, and it was over. He had delivered a punchline to his own satisfaction.
Not much help
Mammy wasn’t much help either. She was always threatening to leave, and so I felt I was constantly letting her down. I remember her in the hallway at home in Cavan, putting on her red coat one afternoon.
“I’m going to throw myself in the river,” she said. This was a common enough threat. “I’d be better off at the bottom of a lake.”
It’s not that she was suicidal or anything. It was just a tactical threat, a dramatic way of letting off steam and getting me into line. I realised this later. But I didn’t know it when I was four. I became hysterical and screamed and begged her not to go. So she relented.
“If you’re good, I’ll stay,” she said, and I promised with all my heart to be good, and she put her keys back on the hall table and her red coat back under the stairs.
One day in Clerys, in Dublin, she actually did vanish. She went missing. She was heading for the lingerie department in the basement, and she forbade me to come with her. I was left standing at the door, staring at a woman with a pram on the street who was selling newspapers. After what seemed like a week, I turned around and went into the shop to find Mammy. But she was gone. Vanished. She wasn’t anywhere in the lingerie section. I could see knickers and bras and corsets but no Mammy. I started crying, and a staff person in a suit came over and said, “What’s the matter?”
“I am looking for Mammy,” I said. “But Mammy’s gone.”
Even then it was clear to me that love was the most important thing in the world and that eventually I must fall in love with someone who would never disappear.
Depression usually got in the way, even in the dance halls where I jived and the carnival tents where I spent summer nights sweating and drinking lemonade with plump girls from remote country areas I had never heard of. I suppose I was always depressed. There was always something inside me that drew me away from the outside world and left me restless and uneasy. In the past year I’ve discussed the subject with therapists, but they say I must find peace within myself. Over the years, I’ve tried two religions and no religion, and nothing seems to bring lasting peace. Although until last year, the restlessness or unease in my heart didn’t worry me. I thought it was normal. In fact, I didn’t even know I was depressed. I thought I was just sad. A melancholic creature with too many secrets.
Love of my life
When I met the love of my life, my sadness dissolved. She had black hair and dark eyebrows. Her mouth was firm and strong. Her eyes explored me in detail, physically, and though she wasn’t smiling, she wasn’t judging me either. It was a gaze of intensity and curiosity. She was very curious, and something in me attracted her attention. That, I told myself, is a plus. I liked her shoulders a lot. They had a firmness where her back curved into her neck. A stockiness in her genes that was reinforced by long days in stone yards and in her studio, chipping dust off limestone with a chisel. She wore goggles and white overalls, like an industrial cleaner handling chemicals or a State pathologist. There was nothing girlie about her. She watched me warily, as if I were a hunter. Her posture was defiant, and her eyes said I’m a hunter too.
It was a long time ago that I first gazed at her. She was on the grass outside the main door of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. I could have avoided the moment. Shied away from the encounter. Kept my head down like I did when Fr Fingers hovered, but a voice inside me, akin to a wise man at the back of a cave, whispered, “If you miss this moment, you will miss your life.” I would hardly call it love at first sight. Far from it. But I was staring at her. And she gazed back. It was August 1984.
“What are you looking at?” she asked. I couldn’t formulate an answer immediately. I was poleaxed. In such trepidation that I couldn’t speak. Held catatonic by the interior weather; my life flashing before me, or at least certain moments of it.
When I was 23, I went to an island to visit a wise man who was a writer. As we walked on the heather by the ocean he said, “Every man must walk over a cliff.” I presumed he meant it in the sense of taking risks.
“Oh you’re right there,” says I.
“Blindfolded,” he added. “A man must walk over the cliff blindfolded!” He was animated. The wind around his head. “And regularly,” he roared.
To walk over a cliff blindfolded didn’t seem to me such a wonderful idea. To fall into the abyss and accept it willingly sounded daft. To drive oneself to the edge like a mad cow, to seek the cliff, to jump off with blinded eyes! Jesus, I thought, some of these writers are not right in the head.
Staring at Lakes: A Memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking is published by Hachette Books Ireland, €15.99
A writer's life
* Michael Harding was born in Cavan in 1953 and became a teacher and social worker after college. In 1976 he returned to Maynooth to study theology and was ordained a priest in 1981.
* By then he had won a Hennessy award for fiction. He soon found it impossible to remain a cleric, and, after a traumatic period as a curate in Fermanagh just after the hunger strikes, he resigned from ministry in 1984.
* Since then he has written three novels and numerous plays, including six works for the Abbey Theatre’s Peacock stage.
* In 1993 he married the sculptor Cathy Carman, with whom he has a daughter. In 2006 he moved to Mullingar and began a chronicle of small-town life in the Irish midlands, which began to appear as his Irish Times column.
* In 2011, during a production of a one-man show, he was hospitalised with colitis, prostate dysfunction and severe depression. Doctors told him he was burned out and exhausted. Harding has also written about these subjects in his column. In 2011 he returned to Leitrim to rest and recover, and to put together this memoir.
Extract from Staring at Lakes: A Memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking