Cavan born author, playwright and columnist MICHAEL HARDING speaks to DAMIAN MCCARNEY about his new memoir, fear of death and the "guff" of Catholic moral teaching.
The sickbed provided Michael Harding with the perspective, motivation and time to reflect on his life, that has resulted in his latest book - Staring at Lakes, A Memoir of Love Melancholy and Magical Thinking. Back in 2010, professionally speaking things were going very well for Michael as he performed his wonderful one man show 'The Tinker's Curse'. Venues across the country, and even the Edinburgh Festival, sought his mesmerising performance of a tale in which a Traveller, Mikey Rattigan struggles to overcome the loss of his daughter. However performing three emotionally draining, extended monologues each week for four months weighed heavily on Michael's health. A chest infection was the first symptom.
"I kept doing the show and I wasn't getting rid of the infection - I'd take antibiotics for it and they'd half work and then a week later the thing would be back, and then I'd take more antibiotics. And then eventually I was taking steroids.
"I started getting these pains in my back and I would wear a girdle and I used to take two pain killers before the show - it was insane. People say how did you survive? I didn't survive because I collapsed.
"One day I just got this pain in my stomach and I started bleeding from the back passage and I was taken into the hospital - they were looking at me and said it could have been catastrophic - I could have burst the heart, but what I did burst was the gut. So my whole gut kind of exploded inside and left me with a condition that weakened me hugely for about six months."
Rashes, depression, and exhaustion, left him feeling like "an 80-year-old man".
"I was absolutely broken," he recalls. "It got me thinking that life is short and it could end very quickly, and that started me thinking about my whole life."
That life began in Cavan, growing up on Farnham Road and saw Michael become a priest in the 1980s. When he commenced his studies at Maynooth in 1976, he insists it was "a time of optimism and hope" for the church, with a "reasonable expectation" that the future would bring reform, married clergy and women priests. He and his fellow seminarians read liberal theologians such as Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff, and he admired the selfless priests and nuns who were putting their lives on the line by supporting peasant rebellions in Latin America. However, Michael says the arrival of Pope John Paul II heralded the dawn of a more conservative papacy and the books of Küng and Boff were banished from the seminary shelves.
"The church went in a very different direction, a very old-fashioned conservative direction and a lot of the abuse wouldn't have been covered over if the church had have gone in a more liberal direction, because people wouldn't have been afraid to say, 'Look there's a problem here'.
"But when things went conservative there was a tendency to keep all the bad news secret. I really think the hierarchy, the middle management of the church let people down. It's a tragedy that in Ireland now our children don't have a church to guide them and its a tragedy that women feel so alienated."
He dismisses the moral positions that the Catholic church has held for the past 40 years as "guff", but he claims to have been opposed to the church's conservatism under the Polish pope even before he took his vows. Michael, then in his mid-20s, claims he confided in Bishop of Kilmore, Frank MacKiernan that was questioning his the advisability of going through with his ordination.
"'I can't take this new trend of clericalism seriously'," Michael told Bishop MacKiernan. "'So what will I do?' He said, 'Go ahead, get ordained and we'll see how you get on'. He was probably thinking - here's a young man, hot in the head because of revolution and everything and when he gets a nice parish and an old Volkswagen he'll be happy enough. But he was wrong."
Ordained in 1980 he remained a priest for three and a half years. An incident which occurred during his spell in Derrylin persuaded Michael he was in the wrong profession. He witnessed republican gunmen celebrate as they made their escape from gunning down a school bus driver, who was also a part-time UDR man. When the press showed up Michael told them of the masked men "roaring" and "yahooing" in the back of the getaway van and this description made the headlines.
He writes in Staring at Lakes, of the way his description brought a fresh dimension to the reporting of the killing: 'The story was personal, it revealed something about the killers. They were not disciplined. They were full of sweaty vengeful lust and as they went away they were as delighted as football fans when a goal had been scored'.
He tells the Celt that this was pivotal in his decision to pack away his vestments. "What I did was describe what happened, and I think that more than anything else made me realise, I'm a story teller and I really wanted to get out at that stage."
Michael married an artist he met at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, and became a father and became a successful story teller in many forms - author, playwright and columnist. However his thirst for spiritualism hadn't dissipated. In 1994 he became interested in Buddhism and attended the Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Bawnboy.
"I would say that for 17 years I would have been a devoted student with the rinpoche there, I travelled all over the world with him."
Having immersed himself in two faiths, Michael concludes:
"This sounds odd - I believe in both of them and in another sense I don't believe in either of them. I'm not trying to figure out are they true - religion is like poetry. Religion is a poetic expression of hope in the future."
It was on a visit to a remote and impoverished area of a Mongolian desert where his travelling companion, the Jampa Ling rinpoche was to ordain seven youngsters in a "galvanised shed" that he gained an insight into his own life. Recalling the comical ordination of the children in his memoir he writes: 'They looked silly, squatting like chickens beneath the yellow cloth, but no more silly than I looked when I prostrated myself on the altar of Cavan Cathedral to accept Christian ordination, no more silly than a couple of newly weds reciting their wedding vows with trembling hands, no more silly than anyone in fear, afflicted by anxiety who reaches out and takes refuge in something or someone and asks for help or deliverance from the abyss.'
Dread of the abyss, Michael opines, is omnipresent.
"If there was one insight I got coming out of it was the sense of death anxiety. Underneath everything, we're all anxious about dying. Because you can talk about heaven all you like but in the end of it there's the sense, they put you in the ground and that's it. And that anxiety is in all of us. It mightn't surface hugely when you're young, but it will eventually surface and sometimes it surfaces as something else. You find someone who's very neurotic or anxious or have problems with their social life and underneath everything, it seems to me, that the thing that really gives us peace is facing up to the idea of our mortality and so I decided to write a book."
The title of that book - 'Staring at Lakes' comes from a reflection on lakes' as a source of comfort throughout his life. As a child he would frequently cycle out to Lough Oughter and Killykeen to fish and play.
"I think we went to the lakes, the lakes were beautiful," he recalls.
The lakes' significance came to Michael again when he was recovering from his illness, and his wife urged him to join her for an outing.
"It was just the phrase she used to get out of the house for an hour - 'Drive down and look at the lake.' And I always remember when I was a young, old people, you'd see them looking at the lake and you'd be feeling sorry for them - 'Jaysus they've got feck all to do,' sitting looking at the lake. And now I find myself, I'm nearly 60, and there I am, looking at the lake. I used that as the title of the book - Staring at Lakes - because eventually, that's what you do."
For Michael, these moments of quiet enable him to become absorbed in the moment.
"The whole trick of mindfulness is calming the mind and turning off all the tape-recorders in the brain and then just being present at the moment - and that's what happens with me in staring at lakes."
Staring at Lakes - A Memoir of Love Melancholy and Magical Thinking will be launched by Tom MacIntyre in Johnston Central Library, Cavan on Thursday, February 21 at 7.30pm.