“A writer talks about the world in edited versions, redacted for public consumption. And yet there are little moments of shame and anxiety that never get spoken. They remain unsaid for all our lives.”
Michael Harding has written regularly about his own life, but – surprisingly – regrets a tendency to be excessively reserved with friends. This book is an attempt to redress that, in a series of letters. “But not every one [letter] gets posted.” Publication, though, is the equivalent of posting, so now the letters can be read by all of us who are still alive.
Harding has recently been seriously ill. Recuperating, he spent a year alone in a cottage by the sea in Machaire Rabhartaigh in Donegal. “It was the most wonderful retreat I ever embarked on... the longest spiritual journey a human being can ever make, the journey from the head to the heart.”
During this retreat, from August 2021 to August 2022, he writes to an old school friend, to a priest, to a lover, to a singer and others – some named, some not, some dead, some not. The letters recall significant events and conversations, and apologise for phone calls and visits not made, for important things not said. The sea – its comforting rhythms, its beauty and awe-inspiring greatness – unifies the varied communications, and the ocean becomes a metaphor for mystery, joy and profundity. A persistent thread too is the author’s own spiritual journey.
As well as chatting to old pals, he delves into the big questions. Once a priest, Harding remains impressively philosophical. Death being a predominant concern – his own, everyone’s – the question of afterlife recurs and his ponderings on that are refreshingly honest and intelligent – he says, for instance, that traditional Irish Catholics, sometimes disdained as brainwashed peasants who’d believe anything, didn’t seem particularly naive to him.
Rambling along the northern shoreline, through the seasons, and around his rich storehouse of memories, Harding balances his familiar delightful whimsical pondering with much serious thinking. This is a book to read and reread. And it is comforting, like the sound of the sea.
Eilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest book is Look! It’s a Woman Writer! (Arlen House, 2021)