Newfoundland, Canada. “I listened to stories about gannets and polar bears and moose that got run down by cars at roundabouts. It was an unexpected released from the mundane life I was caught up in at home.” Photograph:  DeAgostini/Getty Images

The wild edge of Canada was covered in snow and sunlight bounced off the white land

Photograph: iStock

I’m not sentimental about nature. In fact I’ve always been fearful of it

I tried writing letters, but during lockdown they became too intense and sincere

The tie, I explained, was a gift for Christmas. It’s 100 per cent silk and when I put it on I feel like I’m on stage in a play

Like any good actor, I understand the importance of costumes and props

‘The only ash on my face nowadays comes from the stove in my studio shed, where I have lingered all through the lockdowns, daydreaming about the lovely world that once existed before Covid-19. File photograph:  David McNew/Getty Images

My only refuge is my father’s bookcase, decked with icons gathered over many years

Photograph: Franklin McMahon/Getty Images

My late neighbour, Johnny, treated his livestock like pets

‘And what do you do for a living?’ I wondered, trying to reclaim the upper hand. ‘I’m a psychotherapist,’ she announced with a grin. Photograph: Getty Images

She was in an embarrassing fix: listening to nonsense from a stranger on the internet

 I accept that the birds don’t read my existence as significant. Photograph: Ashley Ezrachie/EyeEm

I imagined myself like Saint Francis, a halo of little birds around me in a cloud of love

Warsaw: I loved being there, on the streets in freezing fog. Photograph: Getty

I ate my soup slowly, to prolong the conversation with the waitress

‘Stretching the belly, knees, and nose to the floorboards in an act of obeisance to any god is like high-wire gymnastics for someone burdened with as much pride as me.’ Photograph: Getty Images

She was curious why I was doing yoga in bed at that hour. I had no plausible answer

The bee on the floor evoked in me a strange sorrow as I sat at the computer, although I couldn’t focus on work. Photograph: iStock

January is a dangerous month for people inclined towards melancholy

The cyclical nature of Christmas is reassuring – to know that life is a wheel of beginnings and endings. Photograph: iStock

I often wonder not just where Christmas has gone but where my entire life went

Beaumont Hospital,  Dublin.  “As he was thus gaining access to the object of his curiosity the drilling was getting louder, and I feared that at any moment a Kango hammer would burst through, and I’d see a builder on the other side of the wall eyeballing me.”  Photograph:  Dara Mac Dónaill.

‘We live together. We’re going to see her doctor. We can’t talk to each other if we’re apart’

Covid is a darkness in which Christmas light is desperately needed.

A red rope of light here, a cluster of dots there. It is garish and I love it like a child

Cutting hair is the only masculine thing I do, although the beloved dreads the sight of me when the operation is done. Photograph: iStock/Getty

The rush-long tufts behind my ears drive many women insane – but not in a good way

‘I remember one afternoon when my daughter was young and the snow  was dotted with little paw prints and we searched together for any sight of a furry snout.’ Photograph: iStock

I still stand at the window waiting for snow and hoping to catch a glimpse of him

Michael Harding: “I was gripped with excitement, although it was more contempt for Trump rather than any love for Biden.” Photograph: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg

Like him, I was terrified of vulnerability, terrified of ageing, terrified of being seen as weak

“Their collective chatter shielded me from self-pity and reminded me that being human is the accomplishment of a group rather than an individual.” Photograph: Getty Images

They told me to put on a gown as short as a miniskirt. Would I get high heels as well?

Because I’m a complete idiot, I had come home without the remote control. And thus an old and familiar tormenting voice inside my head began.  “What kind of a gobshite are you?” the voice inquired.

An old and familiar tormenting voice inside my head began. ‘What kind of a gobshite are you?’ it inquired

Despite Charlie’s  long claws, huge fangs and the gape of his mouth when he yawns, he’s a great companion during lockdowns. File photograph: iStock

Driving around Donegal for weeks I didn’t see a cat anywhere. Then one day a man in Crolly told me why

No matter what else happens in the world, or in my life or in the tragedy of the pandemic I believe my magnolia tree will grow new shoots again in spring time. Photograph: iStock

I’m over 65, I stay at home and I watch the magnolia that represents my own ruination

Michael Harding at Lough Allen. Photograph: Brian Farrell

I fear a day strangers wander into the hills above Lough Allen and nobody is left

‘It was morning when the bird surprised me and drew me away from the mundane world of doctors and medical anxieties.’ Photograph: iStock

I was astonished that one solitary bird in the garden could lure me away from all my worries

Michael Harding: ‘I never touch the dishwasher.’ Photograph Nick Bradshaw

I confessed that for a few days I had felt like a washing machine with a blocked hosepipe

Michael Harding: 'I mourn all the dead, but nowadays I mourn the bees as well.' Photograph: iStock

The bee lurched between the pebbles, like a drunk in a yard of beer kegs, then died

It took 9 years to wash the melancholy out of my system. Now I’m a happy boy again

Even though podcasting is not as intrusive as a Zoom conference, it can be pleasantly intimate. Photograph: iStock

The biggest thing I learned during the lockdown was how to use digital media

Pizzeria: I stood at the door and chose a Vesuvian pizza because the menu described it as hot like a volcano with lashings of chilli flakes. Photograph:  Stefano Guidi/Getty

It’s like being on a leash. Surgical gloves, queuing rules and social distancing all restrict you

The tension mounted as my friend flung vegetables and steaks onto the grill.

Grouchiness, Covid-19 and the horror of America made me try to kill a bumble bee

I often wonder how much they knew about my mother, or about buns. File photograph: Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images

‘Sure God love them,’ my mother would say. ‘They don’t have an easy life’

‘I felt like an ejit standing there with the gorse hedge clippers in my hand.’

The amazing thing about hatred is that it has no foundation – it’s like a mirage

What I didn’t know back then was that images from Poe’s landscape were all functioning as metaphors for my own loneliness. Photograph: iStock

When my teacher told me Edgar Allan Poe’s people were from Cavan, I wasn’t surprised

In Mongolia I remember people using blue silk scarves to say farewell. People would produce a blue scarf at every goodbye moment, and place it around the other person’s neck and then bow

My daughter drove off smiling, the scarf around her shoulders enveloping her with my love

 ‘The birds insisted on aggravating me; because they never touched the seed unless I took my eye away from the lens.’ Photograph: iStock

‘Shite! shite! shite!,’ I roared, as I leaped up in rage, and ran towards the door

‘It made me long for the happy days of last summer, when . . . musicians washed their faces, opened flute cases, guitar cases and readied themselves for festivals.’ File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Michael Harding: She didn’t actually say ‘encounter’. The real word rhymes with ‘duck’

I thought her hens were very agitated, and more aggressive than the average hen in west Cavan, which I suspected was the result of too many burgers. Photograph:  Pascal Lachenaud/AFP

Many years ago I met a musician who played in a Dublin pub

No bad omens hanging over the trees. Just the rustle of leaves. Photograph:  Rebecca Conway/The New York Times

Michael Harding: I try to look on the bright side, to reassure myself all will be okay

“I feel I have to keep the house tidy,” the little jockey confessed. “Because she used to keep it so clean and neat.”   Fragmented sentences rose from silence and into the wind, and then fell back again into the silence.

I’m astonished by small things: budding trees, a goofy pheasant, two crows on a branch

At the beginning I limited myself to one shot per chapter. Photograph: Getty

I stretched on the bed for a moment and woke up hours later, still clothed

“When I light a candle . . . it is as if I am standing before a single flame with strangers at my side, sharing the same gentle light in the darkness.”

Will there be friends in the garden again when the fields are white with daisies?

The General reminded me that owls are messengers of death, and since it arrived on the very day that Covid-19 first cast it’s shadow across Ireland, my romance was swiftly shattered and I was overwhelmed with stress. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

I contemplated taking one. But if I took one today, I might want one every day

‘Personally I don’t go to the sauna any more. And not because of blood pressure.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Harding: ‘It’s the sight of my own body in the mirror that I find terrifying’

No one can hurt me, I think, as long as I keep my headphones plugged in and avoid other people’s lonely eyes. Photograph: iStock

I keep my headphones plugged in and avoid other people’s lonely eyes

‘I almost fell over the five cases on her trolley.’

‘I was so excited about her returning from Australia that I couldn’t see straight’

The GPO on O’Connell Street during the Easter Rising. File photograph: The Board of Trinity College Dublin

Michael Harding: Winners write the history but there are other stories worth remembering

These boots were made for crying... Photograph: iStock

Their leaky soles were no match for a Warsaw winter but in the end I couldn’t abandon them . . . even for swanky Italians

I love Warsaw in winter. I walk the city from one end to the other, dine in the shopping malls and write at my desk for long hours into the night, listening to Raidio na Gaeltachta. Photograph: Getty Images

I was proud when I realised I might have a tiny drop of Jewish blood in my veins

‘I imagined myself in a spy movie. But then it occurred to me that maybe she was a real spy. She might have been planning to meet someone she didn’t know. ’ Photograph: iStock

The way Trump and Putin toy with Europe, I wouldn’t be surprised who meets who in the shadows of a cafe

My new suit lay on the bed, but I was in my underpants, finishing off the pint. Photograph: iStock

Then I decided that another was required, so I popped in to a GAA dinner dance

Michael Harding: there are moments when the phrase operates like a prayer; a trip switch. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

I distracted myself with my mother’s old mantra: I don’t know where I am today

The only time I ventured out to that shed was when we couldn’t find the bottle opener and I knew there was another one out there. Photograph: iStock

I get so obsessed that I don’t even like going out to my studio for half an hour without her

The General  has an arse as big as a small moon, and hoisting him up into the cabin of a Renault Master van was tricky. It’s not something a man with an artery stent ought to be doing. Photo: iStock

Taking the General for a spin in the campervan has downsides but there’s an upside too

‘When I had vested and came out on to the sanctuary to begin the liturgy I noticed a young man as slim as a reed in the back pew. He remained there beyond the reach of the lights, standing in a long dark coat throughout the service.’ Photograph: Frank Miller

I notice again what is beautiful in the Christian tradition, rather than being defeated by it

Mountainous sheep and lambs in a field in Co Leitrim, Ireland. Photograph: Getty Images

I meet a man from Allepo and we chat about his country, Islamic poetry and Leitrim weather

The Islamic call to prayer goes out six times a day, and it’s part of an app I downloaded on to my phone. Photograph: iStock

Michael Harding: After a Niall Breslin podcast recording, call to prayer made sense

The blight of emigration on small towns in Ireland is still a curious cancer that eats at those who are left behind. Photograph: iStock

Michael Harding: When I walk down empty streets, I see young people with no dreams

There are no passports required in a coffin. Ethnicity, nationhood or gender don’t count then. Photograph: istock

Michael Harding: A mother in Shenyang is mourning the loss of her son in Drogheda

I’ve always been open to the possibility of a ghostly realm beyond my fingertips, especially in November

Michael Harding: I imagine them falling out of the air, like messages from the invisible world

We sit side by side in a crowded waiting room, and hope for nothing more than good health and happiness in this new Leitrim.

Michael Harding: The county has been rejuvenated by people from other societies coming here

Cattle know their friends, and they love those that feed them

Michael Harding: They sit in their own solitude, knowing that never again will they hear a cow or calf calling out to them

“I got irritated with the figures, and I couldn’t manage to add anything up”

Michael Harding: I felt as incompetent as the child I once was, and still am, inside

What’s the point of having a camper van if you end up inside it on your own?

Michael Harding: Songs and music in a west of Ireland pub provide nourishment for the soul

At the wooden table in the kitchen the next morning they sat like a king and queen who had found paradise. Illustration: Getty

Michael Harding: It was only when the couple spoke about Russia that I saw behind their masks

I told him I thought Mayo was flat, apart from the Reek. Photograph: Eric Luke

MIchael Harding: I didn’t think anyone would take offence in a filling station in Castlebar

West Kerry: I had to be careful in a cottage on the west coast of Kerry with a beautiful Russian artist

Michael Harding: Such moments of openness are dangerous because they form the threshold of love; when a stranger becomes a beloved

‘By the end of the week the daughter had begun her new life in Australia. I went out one morning, sat on the swing and rocked gently in the still air.’

Michael Harding: I didn’t show emotion. I sorted all that out in the garden on Sunday

Where are all the flowers gone, long time passing: ‘he was only days away from his 21st birthday when he went out alone on a wet Thursday night intending never to come home.’

Michael Harding: Yet another fine young man falls victim to the scourge of suicide

I was invited to a fancy dress party one night and had a great time with Mary Poppins, and a big red Pepper, and a bearded Cleopatra, and two Audrey Hepburns who threatened to fight each other for the title of Best Audrey of the Evening. Photograph: Hulton|Archive

But leaving Donegal and driving through Leitrim, I felt sad again and lonely . . . until I saw her at the door and realised that t(...)

“He woke up half way to Riga and took off his shoes, sniffed his socks, then bared his feet; it was like being in a movie with Charlie Chaplin”

Michael Harding: I kept telling myself it was funny, although I had sporadic urges to open the emergency door and shove him and hi(...)

All Saints Russian Orthodox church in Minsk. Photograph: iStock

Michael Harding: Booking flights on a whim is dangerous. I’m off to Minsk for a week of monastic living

‘My friend tried to get the fire going by placing a sheet of newspaper against the mouth of the chimney, to create a draught.’

'Don’t look so scared,' my friend said, as I stepped across the threshold

When you put a couple of uileann pipers together, ‘they sound like a swarm of bees’.

Michael Harding: If he had flung the thing out the window, we would have applauded

The meditative repetition of Irish music is almost monkish. Photograph: iStock

Michael Harding: You can’t get angry at a music festival. It’s poison to the singing heart

Jim Wells, left, leaving the Assembly Rooms at Parliament Buildings, Stormont: ‘A man of strong convictions, and an evangelical Christian, so we got on fierce well.’ File photograph: Jonathan Porter/Press Eye

Michael Harding: A more charming man than Jim Wells you could not meet in a day’s marching

The woman in the picture often comforted me, even when the real-life mother was too busy. Photograph: iStock

Michael Harding: Even now I am regularly overwhelmed by my own sense of stupidity

'In my mind now, my mother is still a teenager, wearing a frock, hugging her sister Nancy.' Photograph: iStock

Michael Harding: How did I get from my mother to Nigel Farage turning his arse to Beethoven?

“I took the camper van to Body&Soul recently, dreaming of being young again.” Photograph: iStock

Michael Harding: I had visions of hot tubs in the woods, shamanic rituals and Asian massage therapies, and chilling out with beaut(...)

“Lovely men and women that are long dead and gone, though I still remember the simplicity with which they could sum up their entire life in a few sentences” Photograph: iStock

Michael Harding: In the old days country people were slow to talk about personal or emotional matters

How do you get rid of ticks? Photograph: iStock/Getty

Michael Harding: ... or hold the flame of a cigarette lighter close to the tick's backside

I told the man about my stent. “Sure that’s not news,” he said. Photograph: iStock

Michael Harding: He had five stents to my one but you wouldn’t catch him making a gobshite of himself by talking about it on the r(...)

Thankfully Claire Danes always survives

Carrie Mathison is not just a mythic figure on the screen. She also survives inside me

US president Donald Trump. ‘I wept when I heard he was coming.’ File photograph: Tom Brenner/The New York Times

I called the General about a misplaced mackerel but he had other things on his mind

Recently, I see my mother everywhere, writes Michael Harding, not just in the bathroom mirror. Photograph: iStock

Now that I have begun to slow down myself, I find her everywhere

“In the old days people found the hawthorn forbidding. Some folks wouldn’t tolerate its white flowers in the house during May” Photograph: istock

But there is something terribly tender in the white bush that lifts my heart every year

Panti Bliss and friends in RIOT. Photograph: Ian Douglas

Watching Panti on stage in full flight, it struck me that show business is also a fight against the dark

Michael Harding acquired  a camper van and found a spot for shelter amid the sand dunes. “I squinted out through the slit in the blinds and saw blue lights flashing on the roof of a squad car.” Photo: istock

I woke at dawn and walked the beach reflecting on how splendid it was to be alone

I know it is the same moon everywhere and always; shining now through the broken windows of Notre Dame. Photograph: iStock

That cathedral felt like it belonged not to Paris but Europe, and the fire seemed to awaken something across the continent

My mind flooded with images of old people all trying to bend over their knees with little scissors to clip their nails. Photograph: iStock

A retired nurse who performs that charitable act for old men saved me from melancholy

‘But where did the oats go?’ Michael Harding wondered. She wouldn’t tell him. Photograph: iStock

‘You look very poorly, sir,’ she told me. ‘You look as sick as a small hospital’

‘In rural Ireland a car is a symbol that represents the owner’s personality. I can instantly tell the solicitor from the hippy, or the young teacher from the surfer’

Michael Harding: I find meaning driving around with white leather under my arse

‘It’s not just that I don’t know when it’s going to rain. But in Leitrim, sometimes I don’t even know if it is raining, or if I’m just living in a cloud.’ Photograph: istock

Michael Harding: The two of us stand at the end of the garden. The lake below, the moon above

“The wedding brought the two families together in one hotel and transformed everybody into a single tribe, for the course of a day.” Photograph: istock

Michael Harding: The blood shed during the Troubles only nourished separate identities

‘A queen bee has hundreds of males to mind her. So she’s fine.’ Photograph: iStock

Michael Harding: My mother once gazed at me and, with one question, opened up an appalling possibility

“I lay wide-eyed in the darkness, contemplating the grim possibility of meeting her at breakfast, in her pyjamas.” File photograph: Getty Images

There’s a Dublin wedding at the hotel, and a nocturnal party animal I want to avoid at breakfast

“I relish the ambiguity of quiet churches, the candlelight and shadow” Photograph: istock

I find it consoling to contemplate death, not as an ending, but a transformation

A man told me his nephew had just been buried. I listened. I didn’t say anything, because there is a grief that words cannot soften, and a pain that no story can cure.

Young people in Dublin are just as distressed as they are in Leitrim

Bernard Loughlin  taught me to write at the cutting edge of terror.

Michael Harding: ‘Thank you, Bernard Loughlin, my mentor, elder and guide’

The tiny plastic statue of Padre Pio I received was a small cream and brown figure, probably made in a factory beyond in Asia. It certainly wasn’t a work of art. Photograph: AP Photo

The last nun in town, switching off church lights and the plastic statue I came to own

‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘how could you be so stupid? Did you not get a pain in your chest as a warning?’ Photograph: istock

Michael Harding: ‘Indigestion,’ she scoffed, ‘between your shoulder blades!’

Supermarket workout: ‘The only problem was that a woman rummaging in a basket of sports bras noticed me’

Self-pity afflicts me, I spent most of Christmas brooding about my illness

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