Michael Harding is one of our best-known writers; author of 15 plays, three novels, and a regular column for The Irish Times. He has won a number of awards for his work, both as a writer and as an actor. His most recent book is Staring at Lakes, an unflinchingly candid account of a prolonged period of debilitating physical illness and depression which afflicted him in the winter of 2010 and well into the following year. But the book is not just a memoir of this illness; Harding writes with humour and honesty of his entire life’s path; his time as a priest, his marriage to sculptor Cathy Carman, remarkable encounters with Buddhist monks and ordinary Irish country-people, his inner restlessness, and his eventual finding of peace through acceptance of love and the importance of now.
“I’ve been great,” he tells me, when I ask him how he’s been feeling over the past year (the final entry in the book is dated August 2012 ). “The whole experience was a great shock to the system physically and emotionally. I’d never been sick and then suddenly I was seriously ill. For that whole winter I describe in the book I was in a very black space. It’s just been a gradual coming out of that. Writing the book was therapy.
“Going around the country doing readings has also been very therapeutic. As well as reading from the book I end up talking about life in general and it’s been a great boost to have so many people come up afterwards and say that the book reflects their experiences as well –I have got that from men my age but also from younger men and from women.”
In the book Harding describes being consumed by feelings of failure. “I was a failed husband, a failed priest, and a failed writer,” he declares. I mention my surprise that he should think himself a failed writer. “No matter what you achieve you are never satisfied,” he replies. “I once thought if I ever got a play in the Abbey I’d never want anything else. But then you get a play in the Abbey but it’s in the Peacock and you start thinking ‘Oh it’s only the Peacock not the main stage’. Or you get a play on the main stage and it doesn’t get great reviews. We’re always dissatisfied with our lives. But what I discovered, over many years, is that you can actually achieve more through failure than through success. You become more human through failure. To say ‘I am a failure’ is to acknowledge that one is human and fragile and nothing is perfect.”
Staring at Lakes eloquently charts Harding’s struggles with religion and belief, including his four years as a priest in Fermanagh. I ask did he grow up with a strong sense of faith. “I grew up with a kind of private interior faith but I didn’t express it openly,” he states. “I was 24 when I started studying theology so it was not something I was always thinking about. As I say in the book, religion can be a glove that can cover your depression. We try and look for God, or salvation, or heaven because it’s a way of deflecting from the fact that we are feeling very down. The religious hymn is often a song of weeping, it prays that we will be delivered into happiness at some future time because we are now living in the time of tears.”
Was there anything about his time as a priest that he enjoyed or that benefited his subsequent life?
“I met a huge amount of people who to this day I still cherish even though they are long dead,” he notes. “The world of old people opened up to you when you were going around doing First Fridays and so on. You’d listen to them and they had great stories and that helped me as a storyteller. I still tell strange stories that I heard from old people when I was in the ministry. I found it a privilege to have the life I had in the ministry but I wasn’t suited to it and I was lucky I got out.”
Several of those stories find their way into the book, such as the one about two inseparable brothers who lived together on a lake island in Fermanagh. One freezing winter night, one brother got stuck in the ice as he tried to row home. Hearing the calls for help, his sibling went to his rescue but the following morning both brothers were found frozen to death on the lake, the prows of their rowboats touching.
In the years after he left the priesthood, Harding discovered Buddhism which became an important part of his life –there is a wonderful account in the book of a trip to Mongolia in the company of an eminent lama. “I found I couldn’t live without prayer,” he explains. “When I gave up the Christian thing I went to Dublin and was drinking and carousing but I felt deeply empty and unhappy. I knew I needed some sort of therapy but I couldn’t afford it so the cheapest option was to go and see this Tibetan Buddhist lama who was in Cavan. Buddhism is not just a religion it’s a psychotherapy, it trains the mind to be detached and not to get too involved in negative emotions or to get over-attached and excited about positive things. I thought that’s what I needed because I’d been too involved in the world at times. So I went for cheap psychotherapy but I learned so much from the lama, and I still go and see him now. I found it a huge enrichment to help me meditate and still I use it. I also found meditation is a powerful influence on depression. Meditation can help you through dark times so I have to say Buddhism has been an enormous help in my life.”
After all his emotional and spiritual turmoil Harding now seems to have reached a point of equanimity. “There is a cycle in our moods,” he observes. “Some days you wake up and realise there is no God and that we are alone in the universe, that there is no sacred anything and it is important to go with that, to live in that space and be OK about it and not be punishing yourself about it. Then maybe a week or so later you feel a sudden rush that the sacred is everywhere; it is in the trees and the leaves and the landscape and you want to go into a church and light a candle, to make an act of devotion and you have to go with that as well. We think that the world is divided into those who believe and those who don’t, but in actual fact everybody goes round in cycles of belief and non-belief. I’d say to people you must give yourself permission to be who you are on each day no matter what it is. Sometimes depression comes from negative voices in your head that beat you up all the time and keep telling you that you’re doing the wrong thing, all those negative voices can build up. I find that to meditate and be in the present moment and give yourself permission to be who you are, that to me is a great liberation.”
Michael Harding reads at the Town Hall next Friday, September 6, at 8pm. Staring at Lakes is published by Hachette Books.