“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

“I was lucky. Not just because I live in Europe and can afford health insurance. But because the paramedics, were so superb at their job”

As I walked out of hospital I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I wanted to hug the entire hospital and everyone in it

“Dr Google assembled for me an array of reassuring possibilities.” Photograph: Getty

I stood pot-bellied in my pyjamas and began leaping through half remembered tai chi movements like a duck trying to dance the lead(...)

I came in contact with many great writers by journeying to various islands and remote corners of west Cavan.

Michael Harding: ‘If I ever saw that poet again,’ the ferryman said, ‘I would gladly take him on board, but he would never reach t(...)

The woman’s kindness did remind him of his own grandmother, and he was laughing and joking with her in creative sign language by the time her grandchild arrived on a moped, and took him to the nearest English-speaking hotel.

It bothers me what will happen when the entire county has been planted

I apologised for not recognising him and explained that I wasn’t wearing my glasses. ‘Why not?’ he wondered. ‘They’re broken,’ I said

Michael Harding: even as a teenager, the sorrow of things was forcing me to speak, and the best grammar available was the exquisit(...)

Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Harding: My friend in Warsaw left me in a restaurant with a frail little woman I couldn’t talk to

June Caldwell: her stories move from heart to heart with playful ease, fun and surprise. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Book Club: ‘Stories spin with such control and elegance you must read them. Feel the sweat of it. The passionate hotness of it. Th(...)

‘I don’t know why I chose cups and saucers. Maybe because he was driving a Mercedes. But it was a mistake.’

Michael Harding: In the old days everyone got a mug – apart from priests and high-ranking nuns

Minus 14 degrees waiting on a tram in Warsaw.

A flight from Warsaw to Liverpool, another to Cork diverted to Shannon and then a bus to Galway and another to Athlone . . .

When I go to Enniskillen I can’t resist picking up loads of rashers and sausages in O’Doherty’s of Belmore Street

Even though I walked a lot, it was doing me no good. Because every time I went out I ate more

All quiet on the western front

Michael Harding: ‘I ate the head off Cyril and threw him out at the gate. I could have killed him’

Warsaw is a modern city but there are churches and monastic choirs hidden everywhere. Photograph: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Harding Valentine: Being alone without the Beloved can be sweet because I long to be with her

‘In my lifetime,’ he confided, ‘a lot of men who were confined to prams for long periods never got over it’

Michael Harding: I presumed he didn’t have running water in whatever galvanised cottage he sheltered in on the side of some Leitri(...)

'Marty is no exorcist. He’s more like everybodys’ best friend.'

Michael Harding: The first time I ever made love, a radio was playing Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’

I stared at the General with the anxiety of a technician watching the valve on a nuclear power reactor

Michael Harding: ‘Are you retired?’ the man asked, which caused the General’s face to turn beetroot red

‘Father Tynan was a bit of a warrior himself as he battled with the darkness of midwinter, and the snows in Arigna’

Michael Harding: The cool rains of Roscommon, and the soft sleet showers over Kilronan mountain were a gentle embrace, compared to(...)

“The following morning the flu had arrived in full force.” Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Harding: When I got home, my nostrils felt like they were in the microwave

Whether the singer was British or Irish, Muslim or Christian mattered little in the session. He was one of us because he sang

Michael Harding: ‘I was in Raqqa,’ he whispered, 'when it was beautiful. And I was in Bagdad when it was beautiful. And I was in B(...)

In hot water with the raging Brexiteer

Michael Harding: I knew that if I opened my mouth I could never unwind my rage. My anger would be incarnate in the air

'Forestry is a bitter sight in rural Ireland. It teaches a salutary lesson: That everything passes, and nothing remains the same.'

Michael Harding: Christmas brought emigrants home, and they triggered a rash of house parties and Hughie’s special song

Michael Harding has been trying to instruct his cat in the complexities with Buddhist philosophy. It’s not easy.

Michael Harding: I saw my cat bang his paws on the floor and tears came out of his eyes

Michael Harding went out with two women for dinner in Warsaw and stopped taking himself so seriously.

Michael Harding: The gales of laughter softened me too, dissolving the solemnity of all that a man tries to pretend

Michael Harding: My body had become familiar with the kind of dull grey mornings that transform the woodland into such a wet swamp that I’d expect to meet frogs the size of myself among the trees

A slanting sun two weeks after All Souls’ Day, in the month of the dead, is one of winter’s most remarkable miracles

Arnotts at Christmas. Photograph: David Sleator

The annual winter trip to Dublin was my only chance to get a word in Santa’s ear

‘Later I sat on a bench near the bridge, exhausted by mental instability; I had just spent 20 minutes working through my neurosis with a phantom.’

Michael Harding: ‘Are you with me?’ I inquired. ‘I am,’ he whispered

'There is no end to the mystery of Facebook.'

Michael Harding: For days I tried to remember his face

‘Love in old age is a koan; like a journey in the dark, or snow that has not yet fallen.’

Michael Harding: On the plane I wonder how many below are crossing the sea in dinghies, no one certain of finding love in old age

It struck me that his Jesus and my Jesus could never in a million years find the harmony that a few tunes on the flute had achieved between the pair of us

Michael Harding: Go you therefore to Ulster and tell them the Good News is for everyone

‘The further I read Sally Rooney’s book, the more real the characters became and the sentences grew plump with calm invisible things that lay softly within and needed no saying.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

If only I were at ease inside the narratives I weave around my sense of self – but I’m not

Michael Harding: ‘Parity of esteem for Hiberno-Cavan-Elizabethan-English,’ the plumber cried, as he gripped his spanner. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Michael Harding: It’s a pity the ancient tongue of South Ulster is not given more formal recognition by governments

There is something graceful about leaving the future in the hands of the young

My cat is a sorry sight whenever some neighbouring queen comes around the yard

Michael Harding: I hope you’re not going to be like the buck eejit that worked here last summer. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Michael Harding: It was a time of innocence, before the Troubles, before war on the Border

Michael Harding: During the Troubles I worked as a Roman Catholic priest in Fermanagh. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Michael Harding: Whether Orange or Green, the tunes stayed the same

Michael Harding. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

I was hoping to make an impression in the world of polished grandeur

Michael Harding: In parts of the garden where even the beloved does not venture, I find a presence. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Michael Harding: In relationships I find out who I am, not who the other person is

Downton Abbey: it’s my collusion with the posh hierarchy of hotel life that worries me. Photograph: ITV

Michael Harding: I love privacy but hate ‘Downton Abbey’ obsequiousness

She tugged my arm and said - You are like Mister Bean!

Michael Harding: I had a go at speaking Mandarin but I managed to mangle the words

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