A banner year for Dermot Healy, an unsung, risk-taking truth seeker

The year after Dermot Healy’s death has been a banner year for his work. Faber has reissued three of his prose books; there is a volume of last poems from Gallery; Dalkey Archive has four publications on the way, including a volume of essays about him; and there have been commemorations around the country, including a large-scale tribute that closed the literature festival in Dublin. The funeral itself was a national occasion, with a large crowd spilling out of the church in Maugherow and the President in the front row.

“Have you heard of Dermot Healy?” I’d ask around the world. “No, no,” an occasional “vaguely”, a rare “yes”. He was untaught in the universities, unknown in London and unacknowledged by prize juries. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, isn’t it? The genius labours in obscurity and is then lauded with a trace of melancholy upon death.

But of course arts and entertainment industries strive ceaselessly to create fame and often succeed, even on occasion for geniuses. Why didn’t it happen for Dermot?

"Modesty was the thing you were brought up with," he said. Perhaps that was part of it. Nor did he manoeuvre, or strive to be clubbable. I thought of him when I heard Cyrano reply in Glyn Maxwell's adaptation to the charge his poems were unread: "Better that than stalk the airless salons / of the literary; better that than praise / a popinjay because he's got a column; / better that than being seen where people / cluster to be seen, a shadow does that. / Poems should be written by the unseen / about the unseen, for the unseen." While others were in the salon, he was doing a community play, a prison workshop, or driving a pensioner to a shop.


But more likely the answer lies in the work. He moved freely across genres. He didn't make entertainments or ornaments to be admired or stick to the familiar. Often the most crucial moments in his work were the least defined, where consciousness dissolves. He left open large spaces for the reader to enter, but to which the reader had to bring all of him- or herself. Neil Jordan said: "In an age of user-friendliness, he's not that. He has been in an immense and private struggle with language and the imagination. He reminds people of what the novel can be, like John Berger did with G., or Beckett. We have so many novels here, pieces of therapeutic writing about childhood or the North. But Dermot has none of that. He writes facing the irreconcilable conflicts inherent in living. It's the voice of tragedy."

When I first met Irish writers in the mid-1970s it seemed he'd been designated the Prince already, with his linguistic dexterity, charisma, risk-taking and search for the essential truth. He worked with big themes, made things mythical and language for him was as clay for a sculptor. The early stories already showed that, and then in A Goat's Song he took on the whole island, expressing through a fraught love story, as Ronan Sheehan put it to me once, "the agonising desire of the country to unite itself, and failing". I've read almost everything – stories, novels, memoir, poems, pieces in Force Ten (though not the plays) – and read them repeatedly, because the company is so good. I do the same with Chekhov, and there are some similarities – intelligence, humour, a capacity to ruthlessly expose, tenderness, an understanding of frailty. I find he makes you laugh and weep, he can make the mundane extraordinary, he can make you fall in love with nature or with people you may have forgotten to notice and he can take you to places you may not wish to go alone, or even knew existed.

Now is your chance. Everything will soon be in print. But whether you take it or not, I believe his day will come. Timothy O'Grady's works include I Could Read the Sky, in whose film adaptation Dermot Healy starred