Dermot Healy: a modern master

To mark the publication of Dermot Healy’s Collected Short Stories and Fighting with Shadows, the editors, Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper, offer reflections on a writer’s writer

In Aidan Higgins's view, the late Dermot Healy (1947-2014) was the natural heir to the experimental narrative tradition in Irish literature – a counter-realist tradition which includes James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O'Brien and Higgins himself. As such, Healy's work continually extended the technical range of fiction and drama, and he repeatedly explored questions of knowing and being in a lyrical, earthy and deeply contemplative fashion.

Healy is often regarded as a “writer’s writer”, and is certainly held in high esteem by his peers. Timothy O’Grady, for example, claims that Healy’s A Goat’s Song (1994) is Ireland’s “most ambitious novel since Beckett’s Trilogy”, while Annie Proulx calls it “an exceptional novel, one of those rare books that permanently colour one’s ideational map of place and human behaviour”. More generally, Patrick McCabe considers Healy’s fiction to be “truly revolutionary work, and high literary art”, while the late Seamus Heaney hailed him as the poetic heir to Patrick Kavanagh: “Kavanagh was the poet of, as he said, ‘the passionate transitory’, bits and pieces of the everyday snatched out of time. He was the poet of praise for those things. It isn’t just nature poetry, it’s gratitude for the whole gift of existence in Healy.”

Despite these writerly accolades and comparisons, Healy’s writing has been consistently overlooked for the major literary prizes and, partly as a result of this neglect, he has not yet received proper international attention for his varied and ambitious body of work. Outside of Ireland, Healy is probably better known as a novelist, but he was also an accomplished poet, short story writer, playwright, actor and screenwriter. A generous and gregarious man, Healy was also a great literary enabler: he founded and edited the regional journals The Drumlin and Force 10, and taught creative writing classes for prisoners as well as for local community groups. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Healy’s own work is its unalloyed celebration of community spirit, allied to a strong social conscience.

However, Healy’s prolific fluency across a range of forms and genres has made him difficult to pigeonhole, and this creative eclecticism may have served to complicate his critical reputation. Moreover, Healy has always been fascinated by borderlands and liminal states of mind, and he frequently transgresses the conventional boundaries between poetry, drama and fiction, and between fiction and reality. In all of Healy’s novels and stories there is a productive tension between the representation of complex lives and events, and the modernist desire to find new ways of expressing the rich subjectivity of these lives.

Though usually set in small provincial towns, Healy’s fictional worlds perpetually approach the edge of myth, and his vivid sense of place is rendered with an almost shamanistic intensity. These strange landscapes and fractured lives can sometimes appear rather alien to metropolitan critics, which may well account for some of the more tentative and confused responses to his fiction. Consequently, part of the motivation in bringing Healy’s short stories and first novel back into print, as well as publishing his Collected Plays and a collection of essays about his work next year, was to address the extraordinary neglect of one of Ireland’s most gifted and industrious modern writers.

Like many of the great Irish writers who influenced him, including Joyce and Beckett, Healy first announced himself as a writer of intricate and innovative short stories. His debut collection, Banished Misfortune and Other Stories (1982) – along with similar collections by Neil Jordan and Desmond Hogan – formed part of a major resurgence in the Irish short story tradition. Healy’s stories are set in small-town Ireland and its rural environs, and in the equally suffocating confines of the Irish expat communities in 1970s London. Throughout these pieces, Healy demonstrates a deep sense of compassion towards the marginalised and the dispossessed, without ever becoming sentimental or cliched. His language is idiomatic and imagistic by turn, and he continually seeks to extend the formal boundaries of the genre. As Neil Jordan remarked (in the foreword to the forthcoming collection of essays about Healy’s work, Writing the Sky):

“Banished Misfortune was the first story I read by Dermot Healy. It seemed as if this stranger had a passport to that imaginary country everyone wanted to inhabit at the time – magic realism. But there was nothing faux-Gabriel García Márquez about these pages, no imitation Southern American Gothic either, the story was recognizably, almost impossibly Irish. […]It had more than that again, though, an engagement with language that was frothy, bubbling, ironic, and almost spookily magical.”

This spookily magical engagement with language is at the heart of Healy’s remarkable debut novel, Fighting with Shadows, first published in 1984. Largely set in the border village of Fanacross, Co Fermanagh, as Ireland stumbles toward modernity in the 1970s, the novel follows the fortunes of the Allen family as they struggle to negotiate a bitter and troubled terrain.

As with the major novels that followed – A Goat’s Song (1994), Sudden Times (1999), and Long Time, No See (2011) – Fighting with Shadows offers extraordinary and poetic glimpses of the compelling lives of ordinary people. The novel’s landscape is of borderlands, of in-between spaces; it tells of violently sundered geographical borders, of maddening religious differences, of the anguished gaps between people as they struggle to find each other, and of how the dead reside among its inhabitants long after they’ve passed. And, as always with Healy, the manner in which the imagination encounters material reality demonstrates the author’s fascination both with the way that things are seen, and with the things themselves. At once a realist account and a nightmarish magic realist fable, Fighting with Shadows occupies a truly unique position in the history of contemporary Irish fiction.

The return to print of this novel after nearly thirty years, along with the release of Healy’s The Collected Short Stories, is long overdue. Their publication, by the redoubtable Dalkey Archive Press, is an invitation to the reader to (re)discover the work of a modern master.