Writing the Sky review: A valuable guide to the myriad-minded Dermot Healy

It’s heartening to see a contemporary Irish writer being treated with such seriousness and dedication

Writing the Sky: Observations and Essays on Dermot Healy
Writing the Sky: Observations and Essays on Dermot Healy
Author: Edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper
ISBN-13: 978-1564789242
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Guideline Price: £28

Planned before his untimely death, two years ago, Writing the Sky and The Collected Plays – two hefty books – are part of a multivolume sequence devoted to Dermot Healy, and it is heartening to see the work of a contemporary Irish writer being treated with such seriousness and dedication. They are a valuable guide to the work of a man who truly was myriad minded: poet, playwright, short-story writer, novelist, memoirist, editor, actor and director.

Writing the Sky is divided into two parts, the first a collection of memoirs, poems and writers' responses to the man and his work, the second a series of critical essays. The two sometimes sit uneasily together, but on the whole they illustrate the range of Healy's achievement.

Like many of the writers here I clearly remember the jolt of reading his first collection of stories, Banished Misfortune, in 1982. Here was a young Irish writer who had obviously read Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez but who also lent an ear to the battened-down, seldom-heard voices of the local and the ancestral, and wrote in a language of dazzling physicality.

But Healy was also a considerable if undervalued poet, whose poems have an ease, purity and directness reminiscent of Old Norse poetry, as in The Funeral:


The shovels
work like oars

rowing the dead man
from this world

to the next.

Carefully wrought, often minimalist, it is if they are an escape from the emotional and linguistic Sturm und Drang of the novels. A stimulating essay by Michael Cronin makes a convincing case for Healy’s poetry as contributing to “a transformative ecology of place and new, emergent forms of subjectivity”.

When it comes to discussion of the novels, something of a split emerges between the two parts of the book. Celebrated and admired by his fellow novelists, the novels present the academic critic with a conundrum. Already in the introduction the editors Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper are lamenting the fact that “Healy’s writing was consistently overlooked for the major literary prizes and, partly as a result of this neglect, he has not yet received proper international attention.” But this is to presume, naively, a direct connection between literary prizes and literary achievement.

It is also claimed that Healy was the natural heir to the experimental-narrative tradition in Irish literature – a counter-realist tradition that includes James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien, and not one that wins prizes, as we know, apart from the Nobel. The second issue of international attention is also problematic. Like that of John McGahern, that other midlands-born son of a Garda, the work is, as Neil Jordan writes, “recognisably, almost impossibly Irish”. The emotional weather, the language, the shared history make the works particularly attractive to Irish readers, but, as with McGahern, Healy’s very personal approach to the formal aspects of the novel may be a barrier to a readership expecting something more conventional.

Afternoon of butchery

A revealing insight into Healy's attitude to the novel comes from Timothy O'Grady, who tells us that A Goat's Song was a book "that swelled to 740 pages at one time and then came down to around a third, through paring, excision to avoid a lawsuit and, finally, a wild, fatalistic afternoon of butchery at his publisher's office when he took out 200 pages in a few hours."

Healy's The Bend for Home is widely acclaimed as one of the best Irish memoirs ever written; its success may be due to the constraints imposed on him by the more or less conventional memoir form that he adheres to, which gives free rein to his wit, empathy and unmatched powers of description.

The critical essays also focus on the notion of the local and the idea of place. Kavanagh's parochial/provincial dichotomy is referred to, and the poem Epic ("I made the Iliad from such / A local row"). Seamus Heaney is quoted as declaring, with his characteristic trace of ambiguity, that Healy is "the heir to Kavanagh". But if Healy is Kavanagh's heir it is due not to the importance of place in his work but to the ambition to give expression, as Kavanagh did, to the fact that "ordinary" people can have inner lives of great complexity and richness.

This is particularly clear in his work for the stage, here gathered for the first time in a handy volume. Many of these pieces were developed in collaboration with particular groups in the community, such as prisoners and pensioners, and they are testament to Healy's engagement. Similarly, he founded and edited two pioneering "local" literary magazines, the Drumlin and Force 10, now much missed.

But behind this critical interest in the local, perhaps, lurks the old fallacy that somehow the man in a cottage facing the Atlantic Ocean has more literary value than the man facing the computer screen in a call centre in Tallaght. These discussions are being superseded, however, by a new generation of brilliant young writers from outside Dublin, like Colin Barrett and Oisín Fagan, who are now writing the hyperlocal, the local as a nowhere, as a void in which swirls the detritus of globalisation.

The first part of the book presents a moving and often hilarious picture of the Dionysian creator. In these memoirs Healy seems to be always dancing: from a stately sean-nós to Tess Gallagher’s portrait of Healy and Sean McSweeney, after a night of revelry in Sligo, dancing a jig in the moonlight on the roadway. Most memorably we see him in Danny Morrison’s piece recalling Healy in a pub in Belfast in the 1980s: “He stood on the pool table, a Commanding Officer of Words, declaiming to an Officer Commanding the local IRA that he could beat any man in the bar at pool.” Morrison invites him for a drink, and “he leaped off the table with the alacrity of a mountain goat”. This is the Dermot Healy who continues to dance, triumphantly, through the pages of his works.

Michael O'Loughlin's Poems 1980-2015 is due to be published by New Island in January 2017