Only myself, said Cúnla: in memory of Dermot Healy by Timothy O’Grady

As part of ILF Dublin, Timothy O’Grady presents Only Himself, a star-studded celebration of Dermot Healy on May 24th. This essay is from Dermot Healy: Writing the Sky, to be published by Dalkey Archive Press

The final act of his funeral was in the graveyard at Maugherow. The day started with the corpse being carried out of his home to the accompaniment of Mongolian throat-singers and ended in a whirling of shovels as the mourners took turns piling the earth on the coffin. They laboured until all that had been dug out to make the grave had been replaced, a local custom that had intrigued him. Around a thousand people had come to the little church at Maugherow, poets, carpenters, nurses, farmers, the president of Ireland, a poet himself. They were there in the graveyard as the earth flew and the priest prayed and the poet Theo Dorgan read out the poem The Funeral.

Twelve shovels 
dug the grave;

the same twelve
fill it in.

It takes the length
of a rosary.


All together
tap the dab,

kick muck
off a heel,

toss old bones
into a bag.

The shovels
work like oars

rowing the dead man
from this world

to the next.
Then the lights

go back
to the west.

Dermot had written this in memory of his friend and neighbour Jimmy Foley. Steve Pyke took a shot of him by firelight in Jimmy Foley’s kitchen on a winter night in 1994. Jimmy lived with a dog named Victor in a house filled with newspapers and in a condition of long bachelor neglect. It lacked electricity. He trapped lobsters in a device made of stones, played the accordion and lit a paraffin lamp in his window, by which Dermot knew when to call, which he did most days.

Dermot’s house was just above on a rise at the end of the peninsula, back and sides to the Atlantic, a kind of cathedral-like chair looking out over land that some neighbours came to call Inishhealy. Wind stirred the grasses, clouds skimmed and churned, the sea beat on the cliffs and set the stones on the beach clattering. He set flowers and vegetables, built sea walls against winter storms, kept a donkey. He watched the geese fly over year after year and finally his thinking about them came out in the long, late poem A Fool’s Errand, as Jimmy Foley did in Uncle Joejoe and the Blackbird in his final novel Long Time, No See and the sea and the wind and the sound of the stones in lines and phrases elsewhere. He talked to the postman, walked the lanes, provided feasts, listened to birds and tales of ghosts, watched the play of light, cooks’ hands, glasses raised to lips, fingers moving over the buttons of a concertina and collected jokes, exclamations, sayings, idiomatic twists, shrugs, gestures, the way a thought or feeling broke into a face. You could feel when you were with him that it was all being stored and transformed and milled, the living world read as text, or something on the way to text. He seemed to be looking for the point where this living world would dissolve and reveal something truer and more mysterious beyond. It went on without cease. The act of writing was a taking down rather than a making up.

He became known for his silences because of two decade-long lapses between prose works, but in fact produced five works of fiction, a memoir, thirteen plays and five collections of poetry, constituting, in the reckoning of many, mine too, one of the greatest achievements in all of Irish literature. He also edited magazines, directed and ran writing workshops for convicts and the mentally ill, among others, wrote for newspapers and sat on innumerable committees.

His heart stopped beating when he was just sixty-six.

I felt I heard him coming from a long way off. I met many young writers in Dublin when I was in my twenties, people in the main around the then just beginning Irish Writers’ Co-op. They spoke of this one or that one, him or her, but when they spoke of Dermot it seemed to have a different tone, as if he could hear something others couldn’t hear, work with tools they hadn’t access to. It was as if what he did came not out of a mingling of erudition and ambition and a verbal skill and imagination, but rather out of some act of bestowal, an anointing, an almost chilling natural gift. He lived differently too. He left university after a year. He had red hair and wild practices and appetites, with a recklessness like someone from Dostoevsky. He worked on building sites, trawlers, a toilet seat factory and in Wallace Stevens’ profession, insurance underwriting. He lived in unexpected places, neither urban nor romantically rural. One of the more expected was London, where he seemed to be interested in everything other than literary manoeuvring. He sought no agent, editor, network of connections or entrance to a club. He was ambitious for the text but not a career. It would remind you of the saying about the richest man being he with the least needs.

If there was an anointing there was also an education of his own making. He talked to everybody. He sought the far reaches of the consciousness, assisted and unassisted. He read Basho, Nazim Hikmet, Borges, Miroslav Halub, Lorca, Isaac Babel and Frank O’Connor among many others that included Joyce, someone who he later claimed he once thought was a woman. Joyce, above all perhaps, for his ability to listen.

He wrote poems and Seamus Heaney published a selection, after calling him up to ask, “Do you know how good you are?” Stories began to appear in David Marcus’ pages in the Irish Press. Aidan Higgins, judging the Hennessy Award, declared that first, second and third prizes should go to him for the single story Banished Misfortune. Higgins and Neil Jordan told a young editor in London named Bill Swainson that the person writing the most interesting prose in Ireland was Dermot. Swainson wrote a letter. He heard nothing and wrote several more, all of them unanswered. “London at the time seemed so far away,” said Dermot. Years later Swainson received a call and they met in a pub in Wandsworth. “The first thing that came out of it was that I was given the job of painting their office.” Eventually, twelve stories collected under the title Banished Misfortune came out in 1982.

This was when I first encountered him on the page, as many years since I’d first heard of him as it would be until I met him in the flesh. I went first to the title story. I remember that the feeling of reading it was like throwing myself against a hedge. I’d read Naked Lunch and Finnegans Wake and some poems by Hart Crane by then, but still the mind seemed to move along tracks that expected order, sequence, meaning, identifiable people, and a mind in that condition could not meet this text. Yet you can be taught by the text how to read it, essentially by letting go and letting it happen to you. They are less stories than rendered sensations of consciousness. Time past and time present, space elsewhere and space here are brought together in this consciousness as radically sometimes as in Benjy’s section in The Sound and the Fury. They are fields of language in the way that there are fields of music, the music of what happens you could say, meaning just itself. Not in each case. Sometimes there is symbol, or parable, or, rarely, conventional narrative, but mostly, it seems, he is trying to bring you intensified feeling. There is a lack of reference to a set of meanings, and no plot. Nor are there hierarchies. The sound of a bird or rushing water or the sight of the stretched leg of a hare can weigh the same as a kicking in a bank of snow or the wail of human loneliness.

The trick to experiencing Finnegans Wake, Joyce said, was to read it aloud. I think the trick with these stories is to read them twice. Then you can take them in as breath.

I took down the book again to read it in the days I am writing this. I’ve been struck by the intellect, the ambition about form, the honest rendering of feeling, the great, churning, Biblical cadences, such as – “For whatever reason the house might fall, the sleeping MacFarland would build again with a sense of adventure anywhere north of the lakes and in good time, son of Saul, master builder of Fermanagh country (sic) but by pneumonia put away while tended by his wife Olive, Glan woman and descendant of J. O’Reilly who danced once with flax in his trousers, and though nominally Christian died in foreign and pagan lands fighting an unjust war, but MacFarland sensing the lie of the land grew away from a sense of guilt or desire for power and prayed that the haphazard world would not destroy his family so well grounded among the moralities of chance and nature, if one could remain loyal to the nature of a people and not the people themselves, for whatever reason the house might fall” – and the delicacy of touch – “Soft Chinese music of the rain on glass and leaves, lightly touched cymbals, ducks crashing onto the waters, the primitive crane stretching her awkward wings in a lone high flight, the land below so cold and misty it looked as if a healing frost had settled”.

You can see Faulkner in the former of these sentences, Faulkner who went back to the Bible and forward to Garcia Marquez, Ken Kesey, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison and Dermot. I’ve been struck by the distress behind the stories, the sense of an aching, dislocated consciousness, of yearning for place or a woman or ease of mind, something smeared, unknowable about the self, a feeling of agony for the agony of others. The war in the North comes in, but as sensation rather than ideology. There is humour. A lonely and mordant columnist named Blake reviewing a collection of essays titles his review Tin of Sardines and declares of the author, “I think he has settled for the well-turned phrase, rather than exert the imagination, for what once ran cleanly through the ocean has been parboiled, salted, oiled and tinned, still it bears a very Christian label…”

And finally I’ve been struck by the tremendous confidence in the rendering hand and a capacity to launch character into myth. Neil Jordan once said to me, “He speaks out of a world I never knew existed – an extraordinarily alive, dangerous rural Irish world. I don’t know how he makes this world mythical, but he does.” Of course most writers would like to make the world they describe have the feel of myth. But there is no recipe.

I’ve wondered as I’ve read them what it must have been like to encounter them as they appeared, to sense the sudden arrival of this prose into a small island country so highly esteeming of the written word (still the case, it would seem, judging by his funeral and its coverage on the national news). I asked a few who pursued the same line of work. Anthony Cronin, who’d seen the generation of Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh come and go, said, “You need only read a sentence or two and you know you are in the presence of a natural writer. I don’t mean by that a kind of naïve, accidental genius, for he’s very sophisticated. I mean that he was always a writer. The first breaths he drew were writer’s breaths. And what he did with it was to make something evanescent, almost unrealizable, as if he brought something into the realm of expression that was not previously there.” Aidan Higgins, a friend and long-time sponsor of his, said, “What I like about him is that he doesn’t put on airs. There’s an honest throb there. And I admire that his idiomatic English is fuelled by the Gaelic. There is no guilt in Gaelic, no Freud. He seems to have bypassed all this and found a freedom of his own, to speak as he pleases.”

Those who find the way to speak as they please often lift others to do the same. “When I first heard Elvis it was like I was busting out of jail,” said Bob Dylan. Patrick McCabe, seven years his junior, said of the stories, “They were light-years ahead of anything else being done at the time. They came out of a naturalistic tradition we were all very familiar with, but they were shot through with another kind of sensibility of new music, new states of mind, new forms of expression that as usual were arriving later in Ireland than most other places. It was Patrick Kavanagh with a dash of mescaline. This was truly revolutionary work, and high literary art, unashamedly so.”

I finally met him near the beginning of the 1990s on a night out in Maida Vale with Pat McCabe and Neil Jordan. It was pub to pub, drink to drink, as it often was when I saw him again, in Sligo or Andalusia or Prague, on to exhaustion or the stratospheric or the otherworldly. As his work was a storm, so was he. He was a large, unmissable, busy presence who remained watchful while commanding attention. His eyes conveyed intelligence, experience, mirth and pathos. He was often on the verge, or over it, of laughter. He could be obstreperous and petulant, bewilderingly so in a person so gracious, and he offended many at some point, but I never saw him wilfully cruel, arrogant, dismissive. He was a natural democrat. He sang. He did recitations. He could be transported all on his own into strange, abstract movement. Sometimes he forsook language and spoke as a bird. He told long and great stories. Often they started hesitantly, unpromisingly, and ended with something you’d never expect. He could carry gatherings for hours. You’d never know what would happen. I often thought it must take a lot of fuel to be him, and I mean energy rather than drink. He was kind to a rare degree. He visited the sick and feeble and lonely. He was an abettor of others. He was both rigorous and generous in observing the codes of hospitality. He listened. Large numbers of people loved him.

When I met him he was in the late acts of A Goat’s Song. It was a book that swelled to 740 pages at one time and then came down by around a third, through paring, excisions to avoid a lawsuit and finally a wild, fatalistic afternoon of butchery at his publisher’s office when he took out two hundred pages in a few hours.

It began not as books generally do, from image or incident or some sense of a character, but rather from etymology – the tragos, or goat, and the oide, or song, that together make Tragedy. The goat song that he imagined was the cry of male to female over the water that separated them, a tragic cry, for goats can’t swim. He imagined the tragedy as circular, appearing to move towards a happy ending the reader yearns for, but instead, as in Finnegans Wake, returning in time to the beginning, a beginning we know will be a path of desolation. He gives to the man who moves along this path the name Jack Ferris, perhaps to suggest the fairground ride that is a wheel. He had behind him a story he had lived of love and loss, and he had a sense of an island country tragically riven, and he had, perhaps, even the connection between these two things, but he didn’t have the book until he had the form of the circle.

The bad times are over at last, Jack Ferris tells himself in the opening sentence. Just when he thought she was gone forever he receives a letter. I love you and want to be with you, she writes. Let’s grow old and sober together. Meet me at the bridge some time Saturday afternoon.

He watches sheep in a low field. He sees Christmas trees being hauled up Sean America Street. He talks with a bereaved man, goes into a paper shop, takes a lift out to her family home thinking he might have missed her, he sweeps and puts down a fire. Then he walks the miles back to the bridge, where he waits.

“I’m waiting for Catherine,” he is compelled to say.

He enters a hotel yearning for a drink but instead takes coffee with a countryman who may be mad. He imagines her driving in her Lada to meet him, the music she’ll play, what he will say to her. Dusk begins to fall. “The sand was a quiet phosphorescent carpet. Suds lay the landward side of the wrack.” The night arrives and he walks the town with the beam from the Eagle lighthouse falling over him, steps back into the hotel and orders a brandy and crème de menthe before entering a vortex of drink and grief with a crowd of priests and waking the next day alone and sick and wracked with panic.

In the days that follow he walks the triangle that extends from his cottage to hers and down to the town. He makes increasingly bad-tempered calls to the theatre where she is rehearsing a play he has written. She won’t come to the phone. He dreams of her and awakes weeping. He drinks through the day in the hope of dousing his virulent consciousness. He tries to get to Dublin to see her, the west of Ireland rushing at him like the roadside scenery in a video car chase game, but he collapses drunk in a bush in Ballina and is brought back to his reeking home with its starving animals by the Guards. What is the drink that will get him where he needs to go? he thinks each day. Gin? Brandy? The sherry he had put by as a surprise?

We get every twist and turn of this through forty-five pages, pieces of his being falling off as he travels the oblivious road, all of it relentlessly, brutally present, and rendered with care. This takes a long and vivid thought from a writer, and great patience in the telling.

Finally he is brought weeping in a car to an asylum to dry out, where to escape his self-loathing he takes down the stories of the mad and infirm around him. “…To give form to that which cannot be uttered,” he’d read in the Bible in her cottage. Language had rotted in him in the days he walked and waited and drank - “He was no longer able to control the darkness. But darkness was too broad a word for what was overwhelming him, as was overwhelming the wrong word, as all words were the wrong words when they had not been lived in” - but in the asylum they become radiant, curative. In time he is let out of the gate, he makes his way back to his cottage and he takes down a notebook.

“Here it begins,” he thinks, and begins to write.

What he writes is the remaining several hundred pages of the book we are holding in our hands, the story of his exhilarating and ruinous love for Catherine Adams, an attempt to transcend her by turning her into text. It is also the story of the Ireland of his time, and times beyond. It takes in the wild splendour of the West, bohemian Dublin, the bracing austerities of Northern Presbyterianism, rain-sodden Midland towns, the corrosiveness of Loyalist East Belfast, war, drink, madness and both the recoiling from and the yearning for impossible connections. Around and through it you hear the plaintive cry of the goat. It’s hard to credit one man knowing such disparate things so well. But he’d lived them all.

There are two long migrations – that of Jonathan Adams, father of Catherine, a failed Presbyterian minister turned RUC man, into Gaelic Ireland at its geographical and mythical and psychological extremes, and that of Jack, a Catholic doctor’s son from the Midlands, towards Catherine and through her into the heartland of Belfast Loyalism. They are like characters out of Beckett, crawling uncomprehendingly towards some dimly perceived light, some place or person where they hope to find completion, but then failing and falling back. The story of the love affair follows meeting, courtship, the brief and glorious mergence of their beings, the drink, the fights, chaos and loss until we are taken along a route of loneliness, disintegration and faint, vain hope to the bridge where the book opens and where it will all go on even more mercilessly than before into breakdown, the reader feeling it doubly, both as it happens and in what form it will continue. It’s tragic irony in the Greek sense, a novel that is a circle rimmed in black. That it is the story of the country as much as it is the story of Jack and Catherine is one of the things that lifts it from the personal into the mythic.

There have been Irish novels greatly ambitious about form and language – At Swim-Two-Birds, Máirtín O Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, Joyce and Beckett, among which, I believe, A Goat’s Song can live – but I know none as ambitious about comprising the island.

There are many things in this book you can find elsewhere in his work – the splendour of nature, the comedy of earnestness, the extraordinariness of the mundane, the sexual charge in the meeting of opposites, language that moves towards, and almost becomes, music, the act of writing itself. These are themes, tropes, literary garments of a kind. But there are two things at the root of this book and I think in Dermot himself that form the creation mythology of both, the big bang or Earth Diver or God’s breathing into the clay in Genesis. These would be the act of breaking down and the act of recording the story of another, both of them forms of liberation from the oppressiveness and triviality and dullness of one’s own consciousness.

He filled notebooks with others’ stories, as Jack Ferris did in the asylum, in buses, pubs, hospitals, kitchens, for plays or stories or the interviews he published in his magazine Force Ten (someone should collect these). “I never wanted to be dominated by my own voice,” he told me. “Writing is a hugely boring activity, the only boring thing that is truly wonderful. You can put in your honest day’s work and each day get away from your own consciousness.” Breaking down, far more hazardous of course, serves the same end. He had breakdowns large and small and seemed to seek them in everyday life, controlled detonations that worked as a release, a clearing away to allow things to be seen clear and fresh. One brought about his first story. He had a terrifying night among flying candles in a haunted room in Roscommon in which the concrete objects seemed to dissolve, and then wrote it. “When you break down you stop pretending,” he said. “The force of your own personality works against your writing, but when you disintegrate it comes through.”

His consciousness may have eased a little with time. He’d moved often, sometimes in restlessness and chaos, but then took the house at the end of Maugherow in 1989 and lived there with his wife Helen Gillard until he died. For the first three years they were lit only by candles, with the sea threatening to take down the cliff on which the house sat. The sea wall was reinforced, the three-room house extended southwards along the cliffline to comprise the outbuildings and they filled them with paintings and books. He built flowerbeds like tiny ring forts by the side of the road. One night a neighbour called on him to help dig a grave and they felt then as citizens of the place.

The work lightened. The poems were often of things he could see from his window and had the simplicity of Japanese ink drawings. They seemed to be happening in front of you as you read them. You felt the perceiving eye, the drawing hand and, with paradox, the thing itself. “May they live long lives, / The hares that afford us a break / From the language that would explain them,” he wrote in a poem for his daughter.

He found an old diary from his youth and made the memoir The Bend for Home. The great floods of improvised language devolved at times to sentences of three single-syllable words. Humour and affection went into the ascendant. It would put you in mind of Patrick Kavanagh’s later years, when he disavowed his earlier rage in favour of acceptance, with the “leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal / Pouring redemption for me”, or of so many others in art who move from the turbulent, the intricate, the assertive display of gifts, to simple, clear expression and the pleasure of small things.

He went straight on to a novel, building it from a story he’d taken down in an asylum, about a man moving with a severely attenuated consciousness through the streets of Sligo and London. It’s a brutal tale, told with a light, comic touch. He called it Sudden Times, a phrase you can find on page one of a story he’d written twenty years earlier, “First Snow of the Year” - “Phildy stood under the gable again, surly looking, but of sudden times, nearly by inspiration, his full frame would relax, his face ruffle with silent laughter.”

Laughter is the thing in his last work, Long Time, No See, though there was anxiety in the making of it. He’d taken by a long way the largest advance of his life from Faber for two unwritten books and then couldn’t find them. He told me on the phone he was writing a book about a flood, but no such book appeared. His daughter Inor became seriously ill and they set up a care unit for her in the house. Later, the geese occupied him, and plays and community work. The advance sat heavily on him. He thought of sending it back. But then scenes began to accrue and he lined them up. He was hesitant to let it go but then finally did. As A Goat’s Song is his Tragedy, this is his Comedy, a tale of human foibles and obsessions and misunderstandings told from an Olympian height, but with affection, amusement and a democratic embrace.

“It’s all about getting out of the way,” a painter once said to me. We were on a golf course in Las Vegas, and as it happened he was talking about the dynamics of the swing. But I thought, Yes, that’s it, in life, in art, in relation to another or to one’s own consciousness. Dermot told me he wanted to write a book that would be nearly all dialogue, in which he was all but absent, out of the way, and Long Time, No See came out like that. You hear the voices and just barely scent the faintest, powdery traces of him. That may be what he was always aiming for. To disappear.

Some time in these last years he told me that when he was seventeen he’d written down on a piece of paper a list of all the books he would one day write.

“What happened with them?” I asked.

“I’ve written them,” he said.

I got a call on the morning of 30 June to tell me he’d died the previous night. I flew from Bydgoszcz in Poland to Dublin and then drove to Sligo. I got to the house after midnight. Helen was there, with neighbours and Dermot’s sisters. In the room where he’d talked on the phone and conducted his feasts and taught his classes and read his books he was laid out in a coffin, impossibly small, I thought, impossibly inanimate, dressed in pale greens and browns, spectacles, pens and a leather book of old sacred verse about him. He didn’t write about the small anxieties of his life or make entertainments or finely cut jewelled ornaments whose purpose was to be admired or tailor what he did to make it more palatable. He reached beyond himself, spared neither himself nor his readers. No one asked him to do it, he did it because he wanted to, or had to, but there was nevertheless something of self-sacrifice about it, in the scale of what he had taken on and what he put himself through to do it.

There’s a row of his books on my shelf, still but ready in a way that a corpse cannot be. On the title page of my copy of A Goat’s Song he wrote “Only myself, said Cúnla.” It’s the single answer given each time to a series of questions put in a fourteenth-century Irish song, the person within a house asking the person without, “Oh who is that there knocking the ditches down…Who is that there tapping the windowpane…Who is that there raking the fire for me…Who is that there tickling the toes of me…Who is that there pulling the blanket from me…? ‘Only myself,’ said Cúnla.” He disappears. He comes back.

In 2015-16 Dalkey Archive Press will publish a multi-volume sequence of Healy’s works edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper, including a new edition of Fighting with Shadows; Collected Short Stories; Dermot Healy: Collected Plays; and Dermot Healy: Writing the Sky—Critical Essays and Observations