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BOOKS Harding’s memoir much more than lakeside liltings

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Michael Harding pictured at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim
Michael Harding pictured at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim.?Pic: Brian Farrell

Memoir much more than lakeside liltings

New book offers an intimate insight into author Michael Harding’s life and outlook

Áine Ryan

AS someone who has spent over 30 years staring at the ocean, while looking for answers, I have an immediate empathy with the title of my old friend Michael Harding’s memoir: ‘Staring at Lakes: A Memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking’. Although, when he told me some months ago about its pending publication, I thought rather smugly about the flatness of lakes and about their confinement within landmasses. I even suggested to the author, who lives in Leitrim, that his muse might be liberated by a day on the edge of the Atlantic, particularly if the whimsical ocean was in one of its anarchic moods.
Turns out Harding didn’t need to go to the ocean to unfurl his quest for meaning and answers. Instead he had the self-assurance to look deeply into his own soul and exhume simple truths, only discoverable after a painful pilgrimage. He shares this journey – about love and faith, birth and death, depression and renewal – in ‘Staring at Lakes’, proving his already acclaimed ability as a writer but also his utter bravery to lay himself so bare to the world.
In many ways, this memoir completes the picture of the persona that inhabits Harding’s weekly columns in The Irish Times. Except the humour and self-irony he uses so cleverly in his quirky weekly parables are more muted in the book. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t afford himself the protection of the mask of humour.
The intimacy of the charming narrative invites readers to sit beside the author, become his confidante, jump in beside him in his sick bed, mop his depressed brow while he mulls and meanders over life in his shed at the bottom of the garden, on the edge of the lake, in his mother’s empty house in Cavan, across the Urals in Mongolia or at the Jampa Ling Buddhist centre in Co Cavan.  
Harding sets the scene in the opening chapter: “I wanted to leave her, even though I loved her. In my 50s I needed space to myself. Like all men of that age, I felt I was in the last-chance saloon. And I needed to push more. So I did. I pushed hard and bust my gut. I got sick and depressed. I spent six months in bed remembering the sorrows of my childhood, and how my attempts to find meaning in life had all ended up in failure. I had been a Catholic priest for a short time and I had tried Buddhism for 17 years. I travelled as far as Mongolia in search of meaning, but in the end I was forced to let go of magical thinking altogether. When I was sick, I became so helpless that for the first times in my life I began to rely on someone else. And, ironically, the someone else who happened to turn up was the woman I had left.”
After his marriage to sculptor Cathy Carman – ‘my Beloved’ – the couple moved to a small cottage in Leitrim, where he continued writing in a converted coal shed, found himself staring at lakes and donkeys, often with a ‘dark brooding shadow within’, watching with ‘indifference’ as he wandered ‘in the past along laneways of regret and remorse’.
So when the time came for the couple’s only child, Sophie, to attend secondary school, the rather spontaneous decision was made for Michael and his horse-crazy daughter to move to Mullingar where she could attend the Loreto school and indulge her equine passion.
Like his decision to leave the priesthood (“Dear Bishop, I’m off. The clerical life makes no sense to me. Goodbye.”), the reader gets a strong sense of the author hurtling headlong into a new search. And in the beginning, the cosmopolitan glamour of Mullingar proves a welcome distraction. There he could head down the N4, like a Mongol on horseback, free from financial pressures or relational distress.
But it was a freedom that came with a price, and while, on the one hand, the author says his subsequent pilgrimage through sickness and depression meant he had to finally banish the comfort of ‘magical thinking’, it is obvious this quest is not over.
The fragility of love and the power of ‘now’ may have provided epiphanies that helped Michael Harding’s recovery from the bark of the black dog of depression, but his inherent spirituality means that his seven golden water bowls are still filled, while a candle flickers in his studio at the end of the garden.

Michael Harding will read from Staring at Lakes, at a special Rolling Sun Book Festival spring event, in The Clew Bay Hotel, Westport, at 8pm on Thursday, March 28 (not March 21). Bookings for reading, wine and tapas (€10) at 098 28088. Numbers limited.

‘Staring at Lakes: A Memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking’, by Michael Harding; Hachette Ireland; circa €16.