We’re in Arigna in Co Roscommon but “everything you can see”, Michael Harding tells me, is Co Leitrim. We’re in Harding’s garden looking down from a height onto Lough Allen and across to the mountain on the other side. He explains how the sun moves from one edge of the mountain to the other as the seasons change and how that alters the quality of the light. “You never get bored of that view,” he says.
They originally bought the property 25 years ago when there was just a tiny house on the site and they could afford little else. “The whole thing came about bit by bit,” says Harding. “We bought a tiny little house because nobody would give us a mortgage. Every five years we built a little bit, higgledy-piggledy.”
“I think we bought the view,” says Harding’s wife Cathy Carman when he brings me down to her workshop at the end of the garden. She’s a sculptor and is working on a piece. “It’s like walking through the forest until you find the path.”
Do they ever discuss their artistic practices together? “I don’t think we ever talk much kind of on the surface, about stuff like,” says Harding. “Cathy wouldn’t even have read the book.”
She laughs. “I will eventually,” she says.
“I’ll give her a copy,” says Harding.
The couple met at the artists’ retreat in Annaghmakkerig, Co Monaghan, in 1984. “People in those days didn’t drink at the table,” says Harding. “Isn’t that amazing? In 1984 in the most sophisticated place in Ireland, where the artists were coming, it still hadn’t dawned on people to have a glass of wine with their evening meal.”
Harding’s own workspace is connected to the house and was built by a kind builder friend while Harding was in a slough of depression in 2011. Sitting there now, we talk about his upbringing.
He was born in Cavan town. His father was a county accountant and his mother was formerly a manager at the Metropole and kept lodgers. He’s written a book about his mother, Hanging with the Elephant, and one around his father, Talking to Strangers, “because he was like a stranger”.
His newest book, What’s Beautiful in the Sky: A Memoir of Endings, originally set out to discuss the death of his mentor and friend the poet and playwright Tom MacIntyre but ended up being a thoughtful reflection on Covid-19 and lockdown and the nature of ritual.
What was his relationship with MacIntyre like? He laughs. “He would tolerate me,” he says, “like an abbot might tolerate a junior monk . . . He was terrifying. I would say ‘I’m writing a memoir about flowers’. He would say, ‘Well, you sound very unconvinced about it.’ He would say about writers in his latter years ‘They’re not writing what they should be writing.’ And he’d be right . . . Maybe somebody was totally deeply entangled in a relationship and it’s 90 per cent of their whole life but they have a book coming out and it’s a novel about two fishermen in Russia. He’d say, ‘He’s not writing what he’s living’.”
From a very young age Harding wanted two things, “some kind of mystical, private solitary life and to be a poet . . . I published my first poems in the Junior Digest aged 11. And I published with David Marcus’s New Irish Writing in the Irish Press, from the time I was 15 . . .
“Then with a strange perversion, I decided that I wanted to go to Maynooth and study for the priesthood. It was a perversion. Like I had a girlfriend and I was living a very sociable life as a teenager . . . [But] I would have been on stage as a teenager. I was gregarious. And the whole idea of the clerical word, incense, candles, vestments, theatrical performance. How could I resist it?”
His father was what he called an “intellectual Catholic” with books by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Merton on his shelves but he was not “enthused” by priests. “Within a couple of weeks of going to Maynooth, he was sending me letters with job opportunities in the Civil Service.”
To his father’s presumable relief the priesthood didn’t stick initially. Any notion of that disappeared “when the women came into it” and Michael just did his BA and went teaching in west Cavan before doing social work in Sligo. “But the whole thrust of social care . . . wasn’t washing for me. And the religion then was manifesting very strong liberation theology ideas that were much more radical than the Labour Party. So I went back [to the seminary] in 1976.”
At that time, left-wing radicals such as Dan Berrigan and Leonardo Boff were on the bookshelves in Maynooth. By the time he was leaving, “the Polish man had become pope and the church had done a complete U-turn and [those writers] were expelled . . . I would have said publicly that it was an act of intellectual fascism . . . The authorities were hedging the bet that ‘He’s young now and he’s shouting, but he’ll settle once he gets a Volkswagen and a house’.” In reality, he says, “the day I was ordained, I left. I said, ‘I’ll do four years, because I just got four years education.’”
Did he ever suspect the more horrific revelations that were to come out about institutional abuse in the church? He gives himself some credit for writing about sleazy patriarchal clerics in a trio of plays he wrote in the 1980s and 1990s, but he says that like everyone else he was too bound up in the repressed nature of Irish society to see it all clearly.
“I don’t think there was the sense that there was an issue about institutional sexual abuse that even could be kicked up against,” he says. “The template didn’t exist. You almost had to evolve the template of clericalism as a constricting power in society which was done probably over a decade by journalism. And once that was kind of established, you could see it. When it was endemic in the community nobody saw.”
Through his early decades writing, he wrote novels and plays but memoir was always at the root of it, he says. “At 16, I would have written poems like: ‘Some day, I will go to the city, and I’ll look at the filth and the dirt and I’ll roll around in it, for poets are a dirty lot. And my jeans will be faded, my hair a mess, I’ll write about death and decaying matter, and how I had an unhappy childhood. And all will say the boy has talent but he lives like a beggar and writes what he shouldn’t.’”
He laughs. “I was writing in that voice which is very personal . . . My writing has always started in poetry and in a sense of confessional. If you read Kavanagh, Behan, McGahern, they called them novels but everybody read them because they were memoir. They had the resonance of bearing witness to something.”
Over time he realised he wanted to find beauty and meaning in small stories of ordinary life. “There’s too much darkness,” he says. “The f**king world is polluted. It’s just gone toxic. You open the newspapers in the morning and this would be unbelievable a decade ago . . . Dictators in Europe. Europe breaking up . . . The British the way they are. Trump . . . Half of Australia and California on fire . . . I always feel the great prophecy was in Leonard Cohen in the line of his last album, ‘You want it darker? You’re going to get it darker.’”
He tells a story from Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man about a concentration camp inmate who insisted on washing himself thoroughly each morning despite the lack of clean water. “[Levi] asked ‘Why are you doing that?’ And the man says, ‘We have to remember we’re human, we have to find rituals to remember we’re human in the face of what’s around us.’”
How does he write? “I would work in a completely jumbled way,” he says. “I use this room like a computer. Everything in this room is a prop. Everything is there to provoke something.”
He points to a big plastic box filled with papers and photographs. “That’s not filed or anything, it’s just complete chaos. It’s a lucky bag: you could put your hand in there and find some girlfriend from 1974. Once you’ve got that then you’ve got a thread and you think ‘God I remember she used to have a flat.’”
On a shelf to one side of his desk sit Christian icons; on another there are Buddhist statuettes. He has sought out teachers in Buddhism and, more recently, Islam.
“Religion is human. Religion is an intrinsic part of being human. Even the neurologists and neuroscientists will attest to the fact that it is essential that we use the side of the brain that opens to the mystery of what is present rather than the side that just names things. The Japanese say, ‘You name the bird, you cease to experience the song’ . . .
“Mostly the voice in the column [he writes for The Irish Times] is saying, ‘I don’t know. I have no conclusion. There is no f**king wisdom in them. There’s an expression of existential confusion in it, which I think is the only way to declare the mystery of God in the present moment.”
In 2006, he began writing his column for The Irish Times in which he often roamed the nation’s coffee shops with “a variety of weapons” – pens, notepads, laptops – meeting strangers and recounting the interactions.
“My soul is on the road. It’s a meditative practice. Listening to other people is therapeutic. None of us want to be alone. The terror of being alone is a real terror . . . And maybe this is where religion comes in. Different religions are just different ways of saying, ‘Don’t be afraid. The otherness is okay. It’s natural. Your life is like a leaf falling. It’s nothing to be afraid of.’”
“So I love to engage with people,” he says. “It’s a bit of a theatre performance . . . ‘Are you Michael Harding’ someone says, and I say, ‘A guard wouldn’t ask me that!’ Then we’re into a bit of codology. I say, ‘What part of Portlaoise are you from?’ They say, ‘Stradbally.’ I say, ‘I met a girl from Stradbally once, an awful mistake.’ So what am I doing there? I’m probably therapeutically reassuring myself that there are other people in the world and that they’re good, that they’re nurturing. That we’re safe.”
So did he go stir crazy during the lockdown? “I actually had an amazingly beautiful prayerful time in this room and in the garden,” he says. “Cathy and I, we learned over 20 years of working here together, to have separate worlds. I passed the day as if I was living on my own and she was the same . . . And then in the evening we’d look forward to meeting . . . I didn’t go stir crazy but I’m worried I might now.”
They went for coffee in Carrick-On-Shannon a few days ago, he says, and he was overwhelmed by the emptiness of everything. “I thought, Jesus this could be rough going forward.”
He has to be careful of his mood, he says. He fell into a very bad depression in 2011. “I was always melancholy. But that was fine. I feel everything comes in sorrow. There’s a beautiful line from Wilde in De Profundis, ‘Behind every emotion there’s another emotion. Only behind sorrow there’s nothing but pure sorrow.”
The depression was something else entirely, he says. “I got burned out physically doing one-man shows and an infection I couldn’t get rid of ended up leading to colitis . . . I was brought home in the back of the car and didn’t come out of the bed for about a year.” This is a slight exaggeration, he says. “But it was agony, utter agony. It was unbearable. I would say to Cathy ‘Will I ever get out of this?’ It was unbelievable. The birds were sad. The sky was grey. The grass was growing so much it was depressing me. Everything was choking me.”
But he could hear his mentor, MacIntyre, in his head saying: “You’re a writer, you need to tell them where you are.” So he wrote about it in his column and it got a huge response and that led to the memoirs he writes to this day.
I got a huge amount from Buddhism, a sense that there is no metaphysics ... Your body is your emotion, your emotion is your body
He laughs. “And then I had a heart attack. I wouldn’t be surprised if the depression also had to do with the heart not pumping well . . . We’re trapped linguistically in this dualism between this world and the other world . . . Between the mind and the body.
“I got a huge amount from Buddhism, a sense that there is no metaphysics . . . Your body is your emotion, your emotion is your body. It was a big help to me . . . Just the idea, that we are now in heaven. This is as good as it gets. This is beautiful . . . We’re just vaguely there. But we’re in something and it is f**king amazing.”
How did the heart attack affect him? “I got a lift from it,” he says, “because it didn’t do lasting damage.”
He was sitting in a hotel room in Blanchardstown when it happened and the paramedics were there, he says, in eight minutes. “They put in a stent the following day, and I was home two days later feeling better than I’d felt in years. I didn’t know what was coming on me for years.”
“After the heart attack I had far more energy. I was able to do 3½ hours in the garden strimming as opposed to 60 minutes . . . It gave me this sense of serenity, but I also got more explicit about the value of religion. I believe that all religion is a poetry. It’s not some sort of rational explanation of how the universe works. It is a portrait to allow you be compassionate and be okay.”
It’s certainty that leads to divisive moralising, he says. “It’s no surprise that social media is full of anger. Social media is more rife with moralism than religions ever were. They just think this is a cool moralism. If you don’t agree with us you should f**k off, because we’re right.
“[But] to be a human being, is to be able to say, genuinely, I’ve learned very f**king little. I’m sitting here a ball of confusion, anxiety, loneliness, all that stuff. Do I know anything? Very little. Do I know anything about whether there’s a God? I haven’t a clue.”
Social media is more rife with moralism than religions ever were. They just think this is a cool moralism. If you don’t agree with us you should f**k off, because we’re right
He tries to lean into the doubt, he says. “But I have such a propensity to do what I’m doing now . . . teaching, being didactic . . . I’m being interviewed so I’m falling to it like a cat to milk . . . Give me a class of students and I’ll talk till five o’clock this evening about the meaning of life.” He laughs. “But I do have to say that I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Meaning is often, he says, found not in that certainty but in voice and language and a sense of place. He talks a little about how the vernacular storytelling of ordinary people in south Ulster, was revived in the work of Patrick Kavanagh and Dermot Healy and Eugene McCabe and how MacIntyre is still whispering in his ear: “Tell them the way you are”.
But the biggest storytelling influence on him, he says, was his mother. “She might have someone in the house who was pregnant, and she’d be worried about the pregnancy because she’s not married, and her own mother doesn’t know about it, and she would start talking about the weather and then about someone she knew when she was young, and you’d realise this story she’s telling is hitting your woman straight here.” He hits his chest.
“I think that’s what the old seanchaí were doing . . . She was so deep inside my psyche. I knew that I needed every minute I could to listen to her. She was one of the key voices in my ear for storytelling.” He smiles. “Though she didn’t call it storytelling. She called it gossip.”
What Is Beautiful in the Sky: A Book about Endings and Beginnings is published by Hachette