His back to the wind, Michael Harding is standing on the cliff above Tullan Strand. The sun is going down in Donegal Bay behind him. He first came to this beach when he was a child on family holidays.
We were 70 miles from Bundoran, via Enniskillen,” says the author, who was born in Cavan town in 1953. “We did day trips. Wicker baskets of sandwiches, flasks of tea, donkey rides. Walking along the beach, the amusement park, slot machines. A child’s heaven.”
When he became ill two years ago with an arteriovenous fistula (an irregular connection between an artery and a vein that saw him have several operations on his spine in Beaumont Hospital in Dublin), he returned to Tullan Strand. He couldn’t go far at first but forced himself to spend the mornings going further each time along the shoreline for solitary walks.
“When you get ill and then recover, a sense of elation overwhelms the body,” he writes in his new book All Things Left Unsaid: Confessions of Love and Regret.
“That’s why I went to the coast. Gratitude can be so intense that you need to be alone with it. You need to nurture it. Bring it to the surface and offer it to the gods, to Jesus or Mary maybe. Or Buddha or whomsoever is your mentor daily.”
Or as he puts it more prosaically as we chat looking out at the sea: “I’d be f**king praying to all of them and dialling into all of them.”
Harding was ordained as a priest in 1980 but left the priesthood five years later. He wrote his first novel Priest in 1986. Do you believe the Catholic Church in Ireland will exist in 20 years, I ask him?
“I think the exclusively male patriarchal structure of the church has been crumbling before our eyes, but when that’s consigned to history, I think a radically different, more inclusive model of church will emerge,” he says.
“Why do I believe this? Because it’s anticipated in the Vatican Documents of the 1960s. And because the encounter with the divine is an ongoing story and because the church has been regularly reinventing itself in this manner.”
He adds that Tom Holland’s 2019 book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World showed how “the reformation, liberal democracy, feminism and many other aspects of modernity are in themselves the evolution of Christian Europe. Secular democracies are the only game in town, and they put a necessary leash on religious institutions.
“It’s a disaster if it is allowed to become the governing power even behind the throne, as Catholicism was in Ireland in the days of McQuaid. So, I’m optimistic about modernity and about faith experience finding new models of social organisation that will fit within the secular world.”
It’s a fool’s errand to impose descriptions on a religious faith, and a mind, as big and kaleidoscopic as Harding’s. It is even more of a fool’s errand because he is nothing if not unpredictable.
Gazing at the Sligo-Leitrim mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, he says he can see Richard Dawkins’ point of view. It seems odd that a man who believes in the power of God would have any truck with one who sees God as a delusion.
“I like Dawkins because he’s critical of institutional religions and he’s eloquent on the absurdity of reifying God as an object. I’m in agreement with that. But he affirms the primacy of scientific knowledge with a kind of unhinged rationalism, and I think that leads him down all sorts of unpleasant wormholes.”
Ten minutes later, there is what you might call an unhinged rationalism to his driving. He is halfway up the main street in Bundoran in his blue Ford Galaxy when he sees someone he knows going into an antique shop. He does a U-turn and barrels back down the road before driving up on the path opposite the shop.
This is parking, Michael Harding style.
Once inside the shop, he and Vincent McGowan – the proprietor, who is mentioned in the book in reference to a table bought to do his writing on in Donegal – are quite the pair. A two-man comedy team, in fact, when they get going.
Among their asides is an observation that the enormous pointy silver candle sticks from the altar of the church in Monaghan are rocket-launchers bound for Ukraine. The drawers of the antique desk bring back unpleasant memories for Harding of being from Cavan and suffering racist remarks inspired by Niall Tóibín’s jokes about Cavan men (putting their dinner in a desk and closing the drawer if anyone called to the house at tea-time).
Still, Harding is considering buying a new writing desk from McGowan as he leaves the shop with a spring in his step.
It gets more difficult once outside the antique shop. He must reverse halfway down the road on the path until he finds a gap in the Saturday evening traffic in Bundoran. He jokes that he is driving me back to Dublin in reverse. At least I think he’s joking.
When he does finally merge on to the main street there is a republican march winding down, with much banging of drums from fellas in Celtic jerseys, outside a pub on the road at 6pm.
He drops me to my car and guides me to the turn-off for Enniskillen before pointing and honks the horn to indicate that is the way home to Dublin. He is driving an hour-and-a-half “up the road, a f**king hoor of a drive on bog roads” to where he works in a house in the wilds of north Donegal.
Earlier that day Harding walked into Buoys & Gulls, the coffee shop in the town, at 2pm. I am already having some carrot cake. He sits down and admires it. He looks up to see that there is one piece of the cake left on display. On a busy Saturday afternoon there is a queue of people at the counter.
“I’ll see if anyone takes it,” he says. “Let’s wait and see.”
Five minutes later, his patience rewarded, he is eating the prized cake in a slow, meditative way.
He talks like this too, on a bench at the window with a view of the ocean, for the next two hours, until the staff say it is time to go because they are closing for the day. His twentysomething daughter Sophia recommended here as a place to come and talk.
“She lives in Donegal and works with horses,” he says. “She is the light of my life. She’s an able surfer and hugely skilled with horses. Great businesswoman.”
Simon, his stepson, who is in his forties, “is one of the most exciting sculptors working in stone at the moment”. He lives on the shores of Lough Erne with his wife, Helen Sharp, the artist and journalist with The Irish Field.
Despite all this talk of God in its many forms, Harding is not even a remotely heavy-going or pious man. Rather he leans more to the droll side of life and is often mordantly funny. He laughs, he says, at “everything”.
“The cosmos teaches us that God’s sense of humour is boundless. I remember when I was younger used to get carnal urges just mowing the lawn,” he says.
How is he with mowing the lawn now?
“I’ve recently had a trauma in the garden. I was using a strimmer and I cut the head off a frog. It’s led me to a new way of life, using only implements with no petrol motors. I don’t think it will last.”
He is still working on the carrot cake when he recalls how wearing a catheter in hospital after his surgery became the symbol of his complete brokenness as a man.
“It’s your c**k,” he says. “And you like your c**k to be your c**k. You don’t like it to be like everybody else’s c**k – with a big yellow thing coming out of it, and a bag of yellow stuff by the side of your bed and a kind of hazard beside it so that people won’t slip on the f**king thing.
“Then, when they want you to go for a walk: ‘take your bag with you.’ And there you are walking up and down the corridor with your urine in your hand.
“The feeling is nothing compared to what people suffer in real terms with broken limbs and other things. For me, it had an absolute, beautiful centrality to the collapse of masculinity. I crossed the Rubicon to be an old man – when you’re walking around with a catheter for a week…”
Harding is funny, too, on all he has been through and where he is now – and why.
“Well, after a decade that began with colitis, followed by a prostate operation, a heart attack, a detached retina, and two procedures on an artery in the spine, I’d say yes, this is definitely the hand of God. But the question is do I blame him for all that shit, or do I thank him for carrying me through it.”
He hopes he’s capable of the latter.
I chose them because they were people who mattered to me, who had given me something
On Good Friday last year, he left Beaumont Hospital in Dublin after the last of his two spine operations. By mid April, he had moved for five days a week to a cottage on the Atlantic Coast in Donegal. He is still on two painkillers a day for the nerves in his leg, plus five other pills to help him. he had moved for five days a week to a cottage on the Atlantic Coast in Donegal.
“I wanted to have somewhere to go on my own to watch the sun dance on the waves – and weep and mourn for my youth and my middle age – and me c**k!” he laughs.
It was while he was in recovery from the illness that he started to think about people who had meant something to him in his life. He wrote letters to deceased friends, which became the centrepiece of his new book.
“I chose them because they were people who mattered to me, who had given me something,” he says.
“Like Tom Hickey was a mentor in theatre. Bernard Loughlin opened the door of possibility to me when I got a residency in Annaghmakerrig. Mary McPartlan was like a sister, an encourager, a believer in the arts. So, they were all people who gave me something.
“And I had a sense of how much we miss when someone is dead, and how there are so many things that we would love to say to them, but we can’t because they’re gone.”
Harding’s mental health took a tumble in 2011 when depression “got the better of me” for about a year.
“Looking back now, I suspect it was caused by an underlying condition. My health broke down at that time. So even though it’s most common that physical illness has an underlying psychological root, I’m of the opinion that my depression had a physical or medical source. I was burned out and heading for colitis. That began to blacken my mood.”
And how did you get the better of depression?
“I had a good therapist. I went to her on an organised basis for months. And then repeated that three times over the following five years. And when we felt we had covered all angles I moved on.”
The last time I interviewed him in 2019, for breakfast in a petrol station café near his permanent home in Leitrim, he said he found depression was “a big door-opener”.
He isn’t confident that the door on depression is shut for him.
“Who knows when and how another bout of darkness might return. And I wouldn’t be too cocky about my health either.
“Who knows what is ahead for any of us? All the more reason to use now what works now. For many people it’s therapy and for others it’s medication, and for me at the moment it’s to say my prayers. As the politicians say in their wonderfully dry, mechanical clichés, I wouldn’t rule anything in or out, going forward.”
I ask for him to tell me some jokes. He tells one in his deep Cavan accent. “Two ducks were crossing the street in Letterkenny. One said, ‘quack quack’. The other one said, ‘I can’t go any quacker’.”
I ask for another.
“Two jokes? Surely a man is not expected to have two jokes,” he says, sounding like Jackie Mason in his heyday. “That would be like having two religions…”
He tells another one, his Cavan accent appears even more unplumbed this time.
“An old man hears his son say, ‘there is no God’. The old man says, ‘you’re right’. Then his other son comes to him and says, ‘God is very real, I’m going to join a monastery’. The old man says, ‘you’re right’. Then when the old man is alone, God says to him, ‘they can’t both be right’. And the old man says to God, ‘you’re also right’. Then he goes to his wife and says, ‘do you know what I was thinking?’ She says, ‘what?’ He looks at her and smiles and says: ‘I’ve forgotten.’
“It’s Jewish,” Harding says.
In his 2016 memoir Hanging with the Elephant: A Story of Love, Loss and Meditation, he wrote about telling his psychotherapist: “I’ve tried Christianity and I’ve tried Buddhism. Neither of them seems to work for me.”
So why is faith working now for him?
“Illness led me to fragility,” he says. “And fragility led me to prayer. And prayer led me to the realisation that this faith practise, praying to a mentor deity, God or Buddha or Allah, was the life raft I really needed to be happy.”
Being sick made him realise how fragile he was, “and how thin the ice is that separates us from illness, infirmity and death”.
He didn’t ever fear death when he went into hospital. “I feared ending up in a wheelchair or losing the functionality of a limb or an organ.”
Even if he had died, Harding didn’t believe that death was the end. The Buddhist view is attractive, he says, that we are “in being forever, and simply on a journey closer to the bliss of fully enlightenment. What Christians say is that we will be gathered in the rapture of Christ returning in glory; that’s a bit more challenging linguistically.”
And if you drill down on that?
“You realise that both are expressing a kind of truth about the nature of consciousness that cannot be expressed rationally. Poetry meets Religious faith here.
“So, my answer is that death is not the end. I believe in the resurrection of the body as a Christian. And as a Buddhist I believe in the subtle body and the gross body and the vajra body. And in multiple cosmic matter arising eternally from the mystery of being. Yes, it’s simple.
“I believe. And in all the saints, even the ones I knew who have passed away. And I pray to them all. And that is the magical poetic dance of faith.”
Why do it?
“Because it’s our deepest nature. And because it brings us more fully into the present moment.”
Some of the happiest moments in his life were, in no particular order, “planting saplings in the garden; purchasing a cot in Sligo for the new-born child and crossing Mongolia in a jeep with seven Tibetan monks, one nun and a nurse from Switzerland; when I’m with my beloved.”
He means his wife, the sculptor Cathy Carman. They married in April 1993 in Skehana, Co Galway. He spoke before “about the mutual solitude of marriage”.
“A walk on the shoreline or a glass of wine with my beloved makes me happy. A barbecue with the children, an afternoon with precious friends. If we could see that these are what make us happy because they are all encounters with the divine.
“Other people make me happy. Especially when I see in them the presence of the divine, we meet the sacred in every landscape and every encounter. With the cosmos, and especially with other human beings. Buddhists might call it Enlightenment, and Christians might call it Theosis. We become absorbed by the divine in a way that allows us to forget our own self.”
He quotes the author Iris Murdoch on that moment when you look out the window and see something beautiful, like a hawk hovering and you forget yourself for a moment.
The Beloved is a word I use to describe my relationship with my partner
“So, this sense of encountering the Divine is not limited to religious pathways. What makes anyone happy is when this encounter with the divine happens. And people experience it all the time. I don’t think you can parse love with psychological grammar.”
He believes psychology has its value, up to a point. “But if we are spiritual beings embodied in history, then the social sciences cannot encompass the nature of human existence adequately. We need to use poetic or religious language, which are both the same thing. In this context I can say that other people make me happy.
“The Beloved is a word I use to describe my relationship with my partner. But you and everyone else has a beloved. If you’re not in a long-term relationship you still have a beloved. Your beloved is the next person you meet. Because behind all the surface of reality is the divine presence.
“And the new book is an attempt to describe an encounter with the transcendent Beloved over a 12-month period in poetic terms.”
It’s getting dark in Donegal. Harding is walking along the seafront in Bundoran. It looks like there’s a storm coming in. We get into his car for a final chat. It is hard to imagine sitting in a car overlooking an angry sea in Donegal having these chats with anyone other than Harding.
One minute he is discussing God. The next it’s his c**k. The next it is how Augustine adopting the mistranslation of original sin (“all men had sinned in Adam”) from the 4th century Latin Bible corrupted the human condition for centuries by saddling us with guilt for something we didn’t do.
How do you think the world (and Ireland in particular) would have been different without that guilty form of Christianity?
“I take the Buddhist view. If we had been better people, we would have made a better world, regardless of what religion or ideology we were in hock to.
“Ireland would not have been better with a different form of Christianity. Because it was the humans that are responsible. It is us that did what we done. Let’s hope we make a better version of the future, because neither religion nor ideology can make us better, or save us in the long run.
“There is a tendency to blame others and to blame history and to think of history as a failed enterprise which we need to abandon and begin again. You ask would we have had a different history if we had a different version of Christianity. Maybe if the Vikings had not devastated the early church and if the Normans had not brought the jurisdiction of Rome to the island which finally put an end to the golden era of creative monastic life, we would be slightly different.
“Maybe Irish theology would have remained more orthodox. But in the end, there was something very deep in the Irish psyche that shaped a patriarchal world, repressed women and renounced sex as worse than tobacco smoke.
“So, I suspect that regardless of the finer points of theology those problems would have arisen through history. History is all tangled up and every single event has multiple causes. But would we be different if one thing was different. I don’t think so. It’s us what is the problem, and what is the solution. It’s people who need to change, and then the institutions change.”
Do you have regrets?
“Yes, at an individual level. I could have always done better as a lover, parent, friend. I could have listened more and reached out more. But in the big picture of life, I’m very grateful for the companion I have shared the journey with, the children we have, and the blessings of faith.”
Michael Harding’s ‘All Things Left Unsaid: Confessions of Love and Regret’, published by Hachette Ireland, €15.99, is out now.
https://www.independent.ie/life/michael-harding-walking-around-wearing-a-catheter-i-crossed-the-rubicon-to-be-an-old-man-42068070.html Michael Harding: ‘Walking around wearing a catheter, I crossed the Rubicon to be an old man’