Michael Harding: ‘There’s nothing as funny as unhappiness’

The Irish Times columnist’s books, weekly articles and live shows have the makings of a new literary genre: interactive tragi-comedy

Author Michael Harding  at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Author Michael Harding at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


It doesn’t fall to many writers to create a new genre – but Michael Harding is well on his way to be doing just that. His third instalment of memoir, Talking to Strangers, is published this weekend.

But this is not a memoir in the same way that the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgard’s mammoth six-book series, My Struggle, is a memoir. Harding’s books amplify and expand his weekly Irish Times column.

As each volume appears, he takes the book “live” on stage around the country. At those shows people tell him stories – some of which may eventually their way into an Irish Times column. And so it goes. A 3-D interaction between newspaper journalism, stand-up comedy and, well, life.

Was that always the plan? “There was no plan,” Harding says, his lugubrious face crumpling into a smile. “Everything I’ve written, whether it was for stage or for novels, was always very close to memoir. Then I had this idea to do a chronicle of midland life. I approached The Irish Times and pitched it as a column which might run for a couple of weeks. That’s where the column came from.

“Then, when something important happened in my life – like, I got sick about five years ago – I thought, ‘Well, I can’t really avoid putting it in the column’.”

Harding wrote about his struggle with depression in the first volume of memoir, Staring at Lakes, a bestseller which went on to win three BGE Irish book awards. The second volume, Hanging with the Elephant, recorded his experience of grieving after his mother died.

The new book, Talking to Strangers, tracks the 12-month period from January 2015 to 2016 in Harding’s inimitable style: light-hearted and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

He touches on some very serious topics, though. In this case a couple of early references to marriage breakdowns among his friends, added to the protracted absence of his sculptor wife, who is in Poland for much of the book working on an icon project, makes the reader increasingly uneasy.

As the pages turn and Harding’s life begins to unravel from loneliness and his attempts to compensate by burying himself in work, you find yourself wondering if the unthinkable might happen.

Harding’s skill in structuring his narrative guarantees that the pages do keep turning. It also ensures that his books are not simply a collection of newspaper columns; they have a rhythm and momentum which is quite different to the weekly slice of life in his Irish Times slot.

“I did a lot of plays, which is real practice in the craft of writing,” is how he accounts for this. “I tell my own story – which to some extent, hopefully, is other people’s. It’s about fragility, mortality, an internal journey rather than an external adventure.”

Given the way he exposes his own vulnerabilities, do people expect him to dispense advice – to be a kind of therapist?

“I don’t think so. I think that people find it funny. If somebody recognises me in a hotel, or on the street, they’ll laugh and they’ll say; ‘Are you the fella that . . . ?’ And we’re already in the zone of comedy. I go round the country and I talk to audiences and it’s pure comedy.

“And the more miserable I tell people I am, the funnier it is. There’s nothing as funny as unhappiness – there really isn’t. What makes it different, I suppose, is that somewhere in the comedy there are reflections of a more philosophical nature.”

Central to Harding’s philosophy is a strong sense of place. For most of his 63 years he has lived in the Shannon-Erne region where, he says, he is not seen as a writer but is simply accepted as part of the local scene.

“I’ve lived around Fermanagh, Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim and Cavan, and I have been always caught in the small story of the small people,” he says. “Samuel Pepys’s diary was a great influence on me. Sometimes he was witness to big events – but he was always coming at it from the dog that was sick, and what he had for his dinner, and how he felt in the afternoon if he got a little bit of stomach trouble.

“So of all the ways you could write about the period you’re living in, I felt that I would love to write, not an epic, not some big drama, but actually just the minuscule.”

This perspective is something of a south Ulster literary speciality. Harding’s neighbour and predecessor Patrick Kavanagh saw “the God of imagination waking in a Mucker fog”. John McGahern and Tom MacIntyre also made literary gold out of clay fields.

Above all, Harding credits Dermot Healy as a major influence. “He would have been the first one I approached when I said I wanted to be a writer, and all through my life he was important. I think his books are pure genius.”

Does Harding have any theories about why this part of Ireland has produced so many literati? “South Ulster is an interesting place because the bardic tradition lasted there down as far as the 17th century – maybe later. And I think that strain trickles down for another few centuries. I see it in Cavan, which is very bardic. The abrasive bard.

“That’s one thing. The second is that because of the Ulster Plantation, south Ulster was enriched by a west midlands English. Everybody points to the influence of Scots Presbyterians. That was in the northeast, but the language was peppered with really beautiful words and phrases.

In Monaghan you’d often hear them say: ‘Would you like to go to Cavan?’ ‘Well, I’d as lee go to Cavan as I’d cut my throat’. Now, that ‘as lee’ is ‘as lief’. Pure Shakespeare, and it’s used in ordinary language. I find that amazing.”

In a spring 2015 production of John B Keane’s classic play The Field, Harding took on the role of The Bull McCabe.

“I loved it,” he says. “I think the audiences loved it. I know they did. But it was hard physical going. You do three nights. How’s your voice today? It’s okay. It’s a little bit tired. Now, this is Wednesday. I wonder what it’ll be like on Saturday?

“The last scene, where the character reveals his broken-ness, is huge. The scene of killing the guy is huge. And he’s such an icon. People would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I love the Bull’. Or, ‘You’re a great Bull’.”

Harding hopes to do more theatre but, as with St Augustine and chastity, “not for the minute”.

Will he write another memoir? “I don’t know,” he says, with another of those forlorn smiles. “It could just be a nice little trilogy and move on to a different kind of book. But it’s very likely this is all I can do.”

Michael Harding will read from Talking to Strangers at An Grianan, Letterkenny, tomorrow night. An Evening with Michael Harding then tours to Portlaoise, Athlone, Tallaght, Limerick, Blanchardstown, Ennis, Roscommon, Longford, Carrick-on-Shannon, Castlebar, Sligo, Kilkenny, Waterford, Galway and Dún Laoghaire

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