Michael Harding searches for the pulse of Ireland
Harding’s latest attempt to find meaning in life is searingly honest, funny and self-deprecating
Michael Harding. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
On Tuesdays I am a Buddhist
In his days as a priest, Harding never saw the consecration as a literal truth, “This was wine. Was always wine. But it was metaphor too.” Harding, a supreme storyteller, knows that words don’t mean “something. They mean various things according to the context.” But “therapy demanded clarity. Exactitude. Name the feeling. Name the bird. Metaphor lay on the floor like the bird shot down.”
After the priesthood, Harding studied Buddhism and became a highly successful playwright. He also benefited from many years of therapy. Yet success, hard work or self-analysis couldn’t stop the “elephant”’– an Asian metaphor for the unruly mind – or the melancholy. When Harding’s wife brought back an icon of the Virgin Mary from Warsaw, he found himself afraid to tell his therapist that he was being pulled away from therapy back to the religious images, the old metaphors. This is a many-layered account of that journey of separation.
When Harding originally came to therapy, he found satisfaction in the “confessional narrative” of his “own personal life” as, “wallet in hand”, he arrived at an elegant Georgian house on the southside of Dublin. “I was excited … I had a new belonging. I had stepped over the threshold and had, at last, arrived in the Land of Therapy.”
Searingly honest, funny, self-deprecating, Harding’s narrative seems to rest on the pulse of Ireland. Could Ireland itself be the Land of Therapy? The wallet and need for belonging are apt metaphors for this newly liberated, affluent country. A country desperately in need of healing after its spiritual moorings were so savagely cut by the scandals of the church just beginning to emerge as Harding left the priesthood in 1985.
One could be excused for thinking that a book about one depressed man’s search for meaning might make for dull reading. Not so. Harding makes the desire concrete in a dozen shining ways, and it is that burning stunningly visualised desire that drives the story. The stakes are high for Harding and for us, the readers – the success of his two previous memoirs proof that the whole of Ireland wants to know “what’s it all about”, that question my mother used to ask so plaintively.
On Harding’s journeys to his therapist he would “occasionally compare the cushioned civility that surrounded my therapist’s life to the raw and unfiltered emotions that were the common currency of life on a halting site. I knew the difference, because I had worked on and off with travellers as a playwright.” He talks of falling in love with Maggie, a 70-year-old traveller who was “possessed by stories. She couldn’t lift a kettle without telling a story.”
This slim volume is packed with meaningful metaphors, humour, parables and lessons
Maggie could be Harding’s alter ego. When he tells Maggie’s story about another woman to his therapist, the second “woman’s story drove itself through the room. Had come up through the floorboards to have her spake!” Much like the icon of the Virgin that had driven itself into Harding’s story. The woman’s advice to a grieving daughter was, “ ‘Get out of the house … Get out of the house if it’s only to pull up grass with your bare hands, just do it.’ ”
Harding gets out of the house, too, travelling in his Yeti up and down the country, telling his stories and finding more, his keen observations reaching an epiphany at Knock airport as he watches the other travellers separate. Finally, a writers’ residence in Kerry finds him on Skellig, his old chalice in his rucksack, taking wine and bread from a drunken Russian in a funny, unexpected moment of grace that brings him full circle.
Harding has an engaging intimacy that needs nothing extra, so I was disappointed by his publisher’s decision to use quotes from the text as headlines within each chapter. For me they were spoilers. I found myself arguing with decisions to raise a sentence like, “Maybe I had poured my heart out to him because he was wearing white shoes” to 10 times its size. It suffered out of context and anyway I wanted to choose my own nuggets.
This slim volume is packed with meaningful metaphors, humour, parables and lessons, reminding us that words were once predominantly the preserve of the poet, the priest and the storyteller. But it’s a tough vocation wrestling with oneself. And having served us a hefty slice of wisdom, we’re struck by the paradox in Harding’s conclusion that “when all is said and done, I must confess I found neither wisdom nor truth in this life. Only stories.”
Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her books include Petrol and The Windows of Graceland: New and Selected Poems