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

Dermot Healy near his home in Ballyconnell West, Co Sligo: 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. Photograph: Alan Betson

Dermot Healy near his home in Ballyconnell West, Co Sligo: 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. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

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.

Dermot Healy’s The Collected Short Stories and Fighting with Shadows will be launched by the Irish Laureate for Fiction, Anne Enright, at the Long Hall Hub, Trinity College Dublin, on Thursday, October 22nd, at 6pm. Both books are part of a multi-volume sequence published by Dalkey Archive Press and edited by Neil Murphy & Keith Hopper. Healy’s The Collected Plays and Writing the Sky: Observations and Essays on Dermot Healy will be published in 2016. 

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.