With gray beard, tousled hair and wrinkled coat and pants, writer Michael Harding descended upon Donegal Friday night looking all the world like the modern risen Messiah and promptly mesmerized his disciples.
As one who enjoys a night at the theatre – pointing my rickety but faithful jalopy weekly out my pebble-stoned driveway enroute to one venue or another – it has been a long while since I last saw An Grianan theatre so packed (a shame really as it hosts so many enjoyable performances).
On this occasion, rightly, theatre director Patricia McBride and her marketing adjutant, Daithi Ramsay, should be marching triumphantly all the way to the bank. Or at least to the office of Traolach O’Fionnan, arts officer at Donegal County Council, with hands outstretched for a somewhat larger annual stipend.
So what magical message did the Messiah from Cavan (via Leitrim) bring northwards to have created such a keen fan base that left nary a seat unoccupied. Notwithstanding the writer-cum-playwright-cum-columnist-cum-actor’s obvious charisma, down-to-earth homeliness and ageless, sage-like physical bearing, I’ve narrowed his popularity in Donegal down to several things –
- Humanism: Harding carries a soothing, spiritual message that – in the stress-bedraggled world we inhabit – is manna from heaven. In this respect, he is suitably qualified – as a priest, a calling he abandoned after some years, then as a Buddhist, a calling he continues still. Summing up his lifestyle message Friday night, the author of ‘Staring at Lakes’ and ‘Hanging with the Elephant,’ said, “The ultimate wisdom is that there is no wisdom, so fuck it, just relax,” adding that his secret to contented living was following what he termed “the ancient Gaelic tradition of meditation” – in a word, ‘dozing.’ “I think I’ll start organising workshops training people how to doze properly,” he said tongue-in-cheek.
- Nostalgia – he recounts homespun, heart-warming tales about life, love and growing old; about mothers and families and childhood, suggestions of innocence reminiscent of our own youth, of those fading bygone years we’ll never experience again but in which we bathe joyously for the remembering and the re-telling. In this respect, Harding is a wistful humourist, the Irish equivalent of Garrison Keillor whose radio programme, ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ I listened to faithfully on National Public Radio each Saturday evening when I lived across the Atlantic.
- Empathy – the performer’s first words after coming on stage Friday evening were, “I’m not well,” said with a downright doleful expression. Immediately he’d captured the audience’s undivided attention. After all, having all been sick at one time or another, hearing someone else who’s sick makes us feel both empathy for that person and better about ourselves, either because, fortunately, we are no longer sick or because we are still sick but as Mephistopheles tells Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s classic tale “Misery loves company.”
- Sympathy – one of Harding’s strengths is that he is unafraid to bear his soul, to show his vulnerable side. With a hint of melancholy, he touches – often poignantly – upon self-doubts, mistakes, indecisions, depression and the other suitcases of distress that life tends to carry with it. And we feel for him and support him and want him so dearly to succeed because – aside from altruism – if he emerges okay at the other end, then there’s hope for the rest of us.
- Hilarity – Harding can be belly-wobblingly funny – no more so when he is in a self-deprecating mood or on a sudden flight of fancy. The aisles rocked with fits of laughter Friday night as he launched into a story about how – in the muddled midst of a mid-life crisis – he read that shaving one’s pubic hair helped expand exponentially one’s erotic experiences. So, fortified by a bottle of wine, he sallied forth, “with a Wilkinson triple blade.” Unfortunately, the mirror he was using was not tall enough so he had to balance himself precariously on a chair to accomplish the feat. The result: “fresh breezes in the nether regions and a boil from an ingrowing hair that had to be pierced by a doctor – a lady.”
- Familiarity – Michael has been to Donegal on several occasions, last year at An Earagail Arts Festival with singer Tommy Sands and in late 2013, speaking after the launch of ‘Staring at Lakes.’ He also spent some time previously on holiday in the county and opened the Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair a few months ago.
Overall the evening with Michael Harding was a most enjoyable occasion ripe with amusing, philosophical ramblings that left the audience departing the theatre wrapped in added layers of warmth to fend off the cold, biting weather outside.
With but a mysterious suitcase on the floor stage centre, a padded armchair and his lectern as props, Harding took his listeners on a delightful stroll down ‘Nostalgia Avenue,’ his deft turns of phrase encapsulating many-layered meanings in a flurry of simple-seeming words.
His ability to mix ‘n match moods, swinging rapidly from melancholy to bittersweet to outright hilarity was impressive, all part and parcel of personal anecdotes gleaned from the trials and tribulations of his own life. One illustrative example was when he described how his mother would make him wait in the street in front of a draper’s shop while she went in to buy “women’s things” leaving him “to develop childhood neuroses outside,” then in response to the shop-owner asking if he was her son, she’d say yes but that she would have preferred a daughter.
And how, not having sisters, it took a visit by three Letterkenny girls to his home for him to see “women’s things” first-hand. “Their bras hanging in the bathroom like a line of dead rabbits,” as he amusingly put it.
The writer’s description of rummaging through his mother’s belongs soon after her death was emotive by its sheer simplicity. “I found my dead mother in little boxes and drawers,” he said, before recounting exactly what he found.
Harding’s terse turns of phrase can be poetic as when he talks about his Aunt Molly, as “a woman like a tree with so many shaking bits” or love in Cavan as “not many hugs but a lot of apple tarts and extra portions of potatoes.” Or even a dead chicken hanging on an assembly line in a meat factory as “wrinkled and naked like an old man’s neck.” His sharp observations of everyday life are also impressive as when he describes his uncle sleeping as “heavy on the bed like a hammock” or the danger of men “having ideas” especially in the toilet, leading him to warn women to beware of men emerging saying, “I was just thinking…..”
His insights on Irish rural life are delightfully illuminating whether they about the tradition of “throwing cocks over neighbours walls” to keep a healthy gene pool or the differences between the rural walk (“with chakras open”) and the urban one – both of which were accompanied by amusing on-stage simulations. Or even the annual ‘Blessing of the Graves” which he describes as, “Getting out the deckchairs and sitting on top of the dead to keep them down.”
Harding, not surprisingly, has a love for his native Cavan, though he admits, with himself foremost in mind, that, “you’re not going up in the world merely by going from Cavan to Leitrim,” adding that he is more “a refugee seeking asylum.”
An oft-quoted saying is that ‘one can never go back home,’ but Harding achieves the next best thing, resurrecting vivid memories of places and people from his past that help bring an audience on an enjoyable and entertaining journey of nostalgia.