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Michael Harding: The ram stared at me wondering ‘What the f**k is that gobdaw doing?’

I began my tai chi in front of a flock of curly horned sheep, udders swinging between their hind legs

I don’t like doing tai chi in front of an audience. So I was glad to have a house to myself in Glencolmcille, Co Donegal, when I arrived there for an Irish language course in July.

It was a bright self-catering cottage, with plenty of floor space in the dining area and I could swing my arms and legs in gangling gestures that replicated the movements of a tai chi master, without anyone seeing me.

It’s 30 years since I first had the urge to take up this ancient Chinese discipline of meditative movement. I found an instructor who didn’t charge much. She lived in Sligo and imprinted on my brain a “form” to follow, and showed me videos of elegantly underfed males with white beards jumping about on the top of various mountains in Asia. She was trying to encourage me I suppose.

It’s lucky for them that it wasn’t karate I was practising

If I saw enough old men, slim as pelicans gliding through the air and shooting their arms up and down gracefully like swallows I might be encouraged to stick with the classes. Or so she thought.


But I didn’t stick. I abandoned the lessons when our child stopped teething. The only reason I was there in the first place was to get out of the house once a week when money was scarce.

So the years passed and I continued tai chi in the privacy of my studio, wobbling about to meditational soundtracks on Spotify. I suppose it helped me avoid back problems over the years. But my tai chi dance is not something you’d want women or children to behold at close quarters.

That’s why I was delighted with the house in Glencolmcille. Sitting in class for hours is stressful and I needed to stretch my body at either end of the day.

But here’s the problem; just three metres beyond the glass of the patio sliding door there was a flock of curly horned sheep with udders of milk swinging between their hind legs, and a black-faced ram with testicles swinging like a pendulum. The females mooched about, eyeing the patio door between mouthfuls of grass, while the old boy sat under a hawthorn bush and surveyed everything with an air of sagacity.

When I commenced my routine in the house he stared at me, making furious baa-ing sounds which I think translated as – “What the f**k is that gobdaw doing?”

This agitated the lady sheep who commenced a chorus of bleating, like nervous tourists who think the tour bus has pulled off without them. Their agitation irritated me to the threshold of violence. It’s lucky for them that it wasn’t karate I was practising.

So I stopped in my tracks and decided to abandoned tai chi in favour of climbing the beautiful slopes around me to view the ocean.

On the top of Malin Beg I remembered Colmcille had once wrestled with demons in the glen, and though there’s no details recorded, I imagine it was not unlike the mental struggles of Tibetan monks in the mountains and glens of their homeland.

Once upon a time there was a monk whose cave was infested by demons; like rats in the dark they tormented him day and night.

“I’m going for a walk,” he said one morning in despair, and he beseeched them to be gone when he returned.

But when he returned they had not moved. Their eyes were as big as saucers, staring from the darkness.

“Okay,” he declared, committed to a new tactic, “would you boys like a sup of tae”.

And the demons replied; “Yeah, we’d love a sup of tae, your holiness.”

So he brewed a pot of tea, and offered it to them on condition that they stay quiet and let him meditate.

The demons agreed. And from that day onwards he meditated to his hearts content while the demons remained subdued in the corner. Acceptance was the key, and if great monks could accept their own demons, who was I to take issue with a few sheep.

The following morning the sheep taunted me once again with hysterical bleating and baa-ing and the ram’s eyes fixed on me behind the glass. I considered the possibility of offering them tea, but instead I just opened the sliding door and went outside to commence the ritual. I turned up the volume on Spotify and flung myself into the dance with the commitment of a swimmer in icy water, and after a while, believe it or not, the sheep just got fed up and moved on.