MICHAEL Harding thought he had failed at everything in his life - he was, in his own words, “a failed husband, a failed priest, and a failed writer.”
Yet only one of the above may actually be true. The Irish Times columnist left the priesthood after four years in the eighties when he realised he had taken the wrong path in life. Religion, he felt, was only a blanket and a glove for his inner turmoil.
On the first charge levelled against himself, he has been married to the sculptor Cathy Carman for over 30 years, sticking together he says when other middle-aged men in crisis decide to run off and attempt to halt the ageing process with a younger model.
“It can be very hard for men to accept that they’re ageing,” he told the Limerick Leader this week.
“You could have a man of 50 thinking he’s 25. Men do have an adventurous side that needs to be filled, and can find themselves like Tarzan walking off into the jungle, and two years later they’re alone in some apartment at the side of a town, very sad creatures.
“When we came to about 25 years together we probably could have slipped apart, people do drift apart.” So instead of making a move for one of the blonde Latvians in his local coffee shop in Leitrim, he and Cathy did what people of a certain age tend to do - they went for a drive and stared at a lake.
They are still happily together, albeit working at either ends of the garden and sometimes living in different counties.
So that’s not a failure either. Of all of the above, he is most certainly not a failed writer. After more than 30 years of writing plays, novels and columns for nearly eight years for the national newspaper, he has become what headline writers might like to call an overnight success.
“I always wanted to write this kind of chronicle of midland life, about the type of feelings that people have and they hide.
“I didn’t expect it to do as well as it has done, to be honest with you. I think this melancholy or sadness is something that everyone experiences in the day, the week or the life. I’ve had a great connection with readers, strangers, and friends who I’ve known for years said to me ‘I suffered from that but never bothered talking about it’.”
“The whole story was the story of a disaster and now it has turned in to a book that I’m very happy with and proud of.”
His memoirs, which he has been writing steadily for decades, have become the number one bestseller much to the surprise of the Cavan native. He still sits down to write every day, believing it’s the key to keeping the writing muscles alive, and after six months of collating all the notes on his life, Staring at Lakes - A memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking was born. It is truly a beautifully written book, which holds its’ readers close from the outset. Michael is in bed, suffering from depression and an illness, colitis, an irritation of the bowel, and was “locked inside myself”, as his wife brings up porridge to him, and traces his life from this point backwards.
It was won applause from another great writer, Limerick native Kevin Barry, who described it as ‘wonderful’, and indeed there are parallels in each other’s work, writing with humour of the banality and loneliness of life in the midlands. Both are currently working on a play for radio, which Barry has written and Michael acts in, due to be broadcast in the next month.
“I was so delighted that he read it and was prepared to critique it. I am such a fan of that man’s work. I think he is one of the great writers alive in Ireland today,” he said.
It also garnered great praise from the comedian Tommy Tiernan, who on the Ray D’Arcy show described it as “brilliant” and said it was “almost a relief to read someone who writes of all the different moods that might possess you.”
It is a relief because inspite of the weighty themes - depression, death of a father, leaving the priesthood, and the travails of marriage and middle age - it is not at all depressing to read.
Paraphrasing Samuel Beckett, he said: “Nothing is as funny as complete misery” and he feels “you need to be able to look in the mirror and laugh,” and this cuts through the thread of victim-hood running through the book.
And this has brought him to Limerick. He will be back in his old familiar place on stage in the Lime Tree Theatre in Mary Immaculate College on Wednesday next, May 22. Old because he is used to performing around the country in one-man plays, including in the Belltable Arts Centre and Friars Gate in Kilmallock. But this is also a new venture. He has never been to the Lime Tree before, and admits he has “never met the man [Tommy Tiernan] in my life”.
“I’ve tried psychotherapy and it didn’t really work so maybe chatting to Tommy will help. It’ll be an enormous privilege to stand on the same stage as him. I don’t know whether the night will be intensely serious or awfully funny or a mixture of both.”
While there is a “zero script” at present for their conversation, he nonetheless believes it’s a “great idea”. Basically it will centre around two men talking about “men’s things that men don’t talk about”, including no doubt, as he frequently writes in the book, the irks of a wife who continually overloads the dish-washer, chipping the plates, and continuous disagreements in this vein.
“The amount of men and women that have come to me and said ‘You should hear the rows in our house about the dishwasher’. I think I could make money if I set up therapy groups for people about their dishwashers”.
The theatre dreamt up the idea of putting them on the same stage to see what might evolve after hearing Tiernan’s thoughts on the book. They expect it will be another sell-out, following the success of the Whistleblowers talk on Lance Armstrong in recent months.
Michael admittedly still suffers from bouts of depression, but he has learnt to deal with it. He has seen two therapists, including one in America via Skype, and meditates.
“Two things I found crucial,” he told this newspaper, “you’re not alone. There’s somebody for you that you can talk to, that you can say to ‘Help me’. And secondly, the thing that was very helpful to me, is that it won’t last, no matter how intense or bad you feel when you’re depressed. It’s still only temporary. The darkness will go.”
He has travelled to Italy, India and Mongolia in search of meaning and enlightenment, long before the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love, and the search goes on. Now he’s working a new one man show about a man from Westmeath who travelled to Newfoundland and married an Eskimo. Tommy Tiernan will certainly love that one.
- Michael Harding will appear in the Lime Tree’s ‘In Conversation’ series with Tommy Tiernan on Wednesday, May 22 at 8pm. Call the box office on 061 774774