Poet and novelist Dermot Healy dies aged 66
He is as important a social commentator as John McGahern and John B Keane
Writer Dermot Healy pictured near his home in Ballyconnell West, Co Sligo. Photograph: Alan Betson
“The bad times were over at last.”
At a sad moment such as this the opening sentence of Dermot Healy’s finest novel, A Goat’s Song (1994) has even further irony.
Healy’s premature death at 66 is shocking for many reasons, particularly because he was always so tenacious and resilient, no matter what, and he did age very quickly, he seemed able to carry on.
The daunting energy that drove his work suggested that Healy too would weather all storms and emerge defiant.
He was part of a singular artistic community based in Ballyconnell, Co Sligo that includes painter Sean McSweeney and writer Leland Bardwell.
Once described by Seamus Heaney as the heir to Patrick Kavanagh, Healy personified the notion that some writers write because they simply have to.
He is as important a social commentator as John McGahern and John B. Keane, he knew Ireland, better than that; he understood and loved it, without rancour and without a hint of sentimentality.
Healy also possessed a political consciousness and gives the southern perspective of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Born in Finea, Co Westmeath in 1947, his work was a response to life.
He never forgot the sense of upheaval he experienced when his policeman father moved the family from Westmeath to Cavan – more shades of McGahern.
Displacement would come to dominate Healy’s artistic vision; a period in London compounded this.
His first book, Banished Misfortune, a volume of short stories was published in 1982 and secured him two Hennessy awards.
Healy began as a fully formed writer, there was no apprenticeship; he had a confidence in his feel for words and speech as spoken.
He wrote poetry, plays, acted in them, directed them. Within two years of publishing Banished Misfortune, his first novel, Fighting with Shadows, followed.
Anyone interested in nominating the most underestimated Irish debut should consider it a contender.
It deals with tragedy and survival. Set in the lake country on the Fermanagh border, it observes a small community dealing with drought in the South and ongoing news of death and soldiers patrolling the North.
As a story of the two Irelands that co-existed during those years, it is unique and comparable in the weight of its content with Francis Stuart’s classic Black-List: Section H (1971).
Healy was very aware of the utter ambivalence that determined the Southern attitude to Northern, one of horror undercut by indifference.
Along with the politics though there was also the robust humour and the talk. His sense of theatre enabled him to write scenes as vivid set pieces; his characters are studies in vulnerable bravado; they drink, declaim, argue and brawl with abandon, before often engaging in profound remorse.
The aftermath of a wedding in Fighting with Shadows remains a stand-alone interlude. With A Goat’s Song (1994) Healy wrote his great book, it is one of the finest Irish novels.
A love story set in the West of Ireland, it tells the story of Jack Ferris, a playwright and alcoholic – not necessarily in that order – and the destruction of his relationship with his lover Catherine who is an actress.
Healy juxtaposes the two traditions, Catholic and Presbyterian. A Goat’s Song is an angry, eloquent lament and it is the book for which Healy will be remembered.
A later novel, Sudden Times (1999), took on his London experiences. The central character, Ollie Ewing, is a young man burdened by multiple problems, both internal and external, a variation of Shane McGowan of The Pogue’s, adrift in a London populated by often violent crazies, poets and dreamers and losers.
Vivid and dream-like with a generous helping of nightmare, Healy understood how the human mind ebbs and flows, invariably at the mercy that come and can only be held at bay with liquor.
Yet before Sudden Times had come The Bend for Home (1996), the best memoir by an Irish writer. The problem with The Bend for Home was that it simply could not be bettered, it was Healy absolute personal statement.
He recalls the day his mother, then dying, gave him the diary his younger self has kept in the year following his father’s death. Anyone who has read The Bend for Home, ranks it among his or her favourite books.
The long-awaited Long Time, No See (2011), despite its obvious parallels with McGahern’s That They May Face The Rising Sun (2002) in that both novels are moving and intimate portraits of small communities engaged with the extraordinary ordinariness of daily life. But Long Time, No See, did ramble and simply did not measure up to Healy’s other work.
Even so, if a writer’s novel may be seen to fail simply because his previous is so very good, that is hardly a failure.
I remember sailing out to Inismurray island, off the Sligo coast, on an expedition to see the Brent geese organised by McSweeney and his wife Shelia.
Dermot Healy was one of the party and he agreed that no one picnicked in quite the style of the McSweeneys who provided us with Belgian chocolate.
It was Healy who wrote of McSweeney as an enlightened witness. “He reminds me of the hares that sit on their hind legs on the beach looking out to sea with the herons. Or the winkle-pickers that come with the full moon.”
He could as easily be writing of himself. Healy looked at people, watched and listened, talked at length and provoked the response.
He wanted to know why I didn’t warm to Long Time, No See, and when I said because I like his other books too well. He paused and considered before saying “Right so,” a country man’s response.
Small matter, Fighting With Shadows and Sudden Times would assure any writer their legacy, but A Goat’s Song and The Bend for Home places Dermot Healy among the masters.