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Writing the Sky: Observations and Essays on Dermot Healy

Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper
Dalkey Archive
Writing the Sky


From the Introduction

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 Joyce, Beckett, Flann O'Brien, and Higgins himself (21). 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. Many other Irish writers have offered similar testament to the importance of Healy's work. Timothy O'Grady, for example, claims that Healy's A Goat's Song (1994) is Ireland's "most ambitious novel since Beckett's Trilogy" ("Dermot Healy: An Interview" 26) 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" (121). More generally, Patrick McCabe considers Healy's fiction to be "truly revolutionary work, and high literary art" (qtd in O'Grady, "Only Myself" 21) 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."1

Despite these writerly accolades and comparisons, 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 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 perhaps made him difficult to pigeonhole, and this creative eclecticism may have served to complicate his critical reputation. Moreover, Healy was always fascinated by borderlands and liminal states of mind, and he frequently transgressed 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 behind publishing this volume is to address the extraordinary neglect of one of Ireland's most gifted and industrious modern writers. The aim is to acknowledge Healy's immense creative achievement while also establishing an initial body of critical work, drawn from a variety of vantage points. The collection includes a broad spectrum of writerly responses—short memoirs, poetry, and commentary-reportage— and an array of literary-critical perspectives covering the entire range of Healy's work: his poetry, short stories, novels, and plays, as well as Healy's own memoir, The Bend for Home (1996), and his editorship of Force 10.

Many of the writerly conrributions in this volume blend memoir with critical commentary. In Neil Jordan's "Foreword," for example, the exciting emergence of Healy's story "Banished Misfortune" is remembered for its "frothy, bubbling, ironic, and almost spookily magical" language, and as a moment which marked the beginning of many years of mutual engagement and friendship between the two writers. A fusion of critique and remembrance drives other contributions, as in Timothy O'Grady's "Only myself, said Ciinla," which spirals outwards from Healy's funeral to offer fulsome testimony to the significance of Healy's oeuvre: "one of the greatest achievements in all of Irish literature." O'Grady ultimately settles his gaze on A Goat's Song, which he argues belongs in the same company as Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), Mairtin O Cadhain's Cre na Cille (1949), and the work of Joyce and Beckett. Similarly, Patrick McCabe offers us a glimpse into "Catweazle" Healy in Cavan, Dublin, Brixton, Granard, and Longford town, all the while marvelling at the uniqueness of his persona; Tess Gallagher's memories of Healy's unique presence revolve around a sense of what she calls "sea-strangeness" (a term borrowed from Sean O Riordain); and Ronan Sheehan blends his reminiscences of an early meeting with Healy while offering insights into the story "Banished Misfortune" and a collaborative translation of Catullus.

Alannah Hopkin offers a split account of both her and Aidan Higgins's relationships with Healy, which traces, respectively, the elder writer's early mentorship, and Hopkins account of Healy as mentor to her. Kevin Barry, alternatively, responds very specifically to chapter fourteen of Long Time, No See (2011), or more precisely, to the extraordinary strangeness that commands its pages, while Mike McCormack, similarly, marvels at the "shamanic intensity and electric charge" that he finds in the early collection Banished Misfortune and Other Stories (1982). More personally, Philip O Ceallaigh offers an account of a series of meetings with Healy, while mapping them against his own awakening as a writer; Danny Morrison recalls meeting Healy for the first time in Belfast, at the height of the Troubles; Glenn Patterson provides a glimpse of Healy via one mischievous encounter; and Roddy Doyle acknowledges him via a playful piece of dialogue redolent of Myles na Gopaleen. Brian Leyden and George O'Brien, separately but valuably, offer their insights and observations on the importance of Healy's editorship of Force 10, a journal which has acquired almost legendary status among Irish literary periodicals.