Forgotten no more . . .
EOIN BUTLERon a new RTÉ documentary about troubled writer John Healy that airs on Tuesday
NO ONE COULD ever have doubted that John Healy’s life story contained enough raw material for a compelling memoir. A former boxer, soldier, deserter, wino and mugger, the London-Irish author overcame addiction in his 30s to become an unlikely tournament chess champion, after having learned the game during one of his frequent spells in prison.
But few would have predicted the success The Grass Arenawould achieve when it was published in 1988. The memoir was an immediate sensation, winning a PEN/Ackerley Prize for literary autobiography in 1989 and being adapted into an award-winning film, starring Mark Rylance and the late Pete Postlethwaite.
Overnight, the 46-year-old found himself feted in literary circles and asked to appear as a guest on chat shows on both sides of the Irish Sea. But just as suddenly as he had arrived, John Healy vanished from public view in the early 1990s.
Exactly how was such an extraordinary character neglected for so long? “He wasn’t neglected so much as he was actively pushed out of the limelight,” explains filmmaker Paul Duane, whose documentary, John Healy: You Have Been Warned, is to be broadcast on RTÉ1 next Tuesday.
The programme outlines the tensions that arose between the former vagrant Healy and his middle-class handlers at his British publishers. Those tensions culminated in a 1991 phone call in which Healy made threats against his editors.
“He was at the height of his public acclaim when he was taken out of print,” says Duane. “The impression among the media and the intelligentsia was that he was more trouble than he was worth and it wasn’t long before he was completely forgotten.”
Indeed Duane, who had attempted to purchase the film rights for The Grass Arenain the early 1990s, assumed Healy was dead until an appearance by the author at the Cúirt literary festival in Galway in April 2007 was announced. Even at that remove, a lingering cloud of suspicion continued to hang over Healy.
A preview in the Observeradvised anyone planning to attend the appearance to “ensure appropriate protection”.
But while there is no doubt that Healy is a difficult and sometimes volatile personality, the picture that emerges from Duane’s fine documentary is of a vulnerable character whose career was casually destroyed by people who could have helped him.
John Healy: You Have Been Warnedwill be broadcast on RTÉ1 on Tuesday at 10.15pm. The Grass Arenais available from Penguin Modern Classics, with a foreword by Daniel Day Lewis.