Healy: A literary giant with lyrical gift
THE death of anybody is sad for those family members, friends and acquaintances who are left behind, but the death of a contemporary is especially so, and not a little troubling, too, in its unsettling reminder of one's own mortality.
These were the emotions I immediately felt on learning of Dermot Healy's untimely passing at the age of 66.
Mind you, there had been a few occasions down through the decades when Dermot's engagement with life seemed so reckless as to be downright dangerous for his health and well-being, but then he approached everything he did – not least the books he wrote – with a passionate sense of commitment.
Among his finest works was his lovely 1996 memoir, 'The Bend for Home', which documented his upbringing in Finnea, Co Westmeath, where he was born in 1947 and from where he was wrenched when his father, a garda, moved the family to Cavan.
Both of these childhood places, though, are beautifully evoked in a book that has affinities with John McGahern's 2005 'Memoir' – both of the authors countrymen (though McGahern was born in Dublin), both the sons of guards, both with a special feeling for rural communities and both graced with a lyrical gift for description of landscape and character.
I first met Dermot in 1974 when he won the first of two Hennessy literary awards. I was working for the 'Irish Press', in whose New Irish Writing page his winning story had been published, and I accompanied literary editor David Marcus to the reception in Mountjoy Square, where Dermot turned out to be as excited by the honour as I'd been a couple of years earlier.
Then he won it again with a different judging panel, proving that he really had what it took, though it was almost another decade before his first story collection was published.
During those years we met on a number of occasions, usually in such hostelries as Mulligan's of Poolbeg Street or the Scotch House on Burgh Quay, and would reprimand each other on not getting our respective literary acts together – I citing the daily demands of journalism as one of my enemies of promise and both of us citing the equally perilous allure of pub life.
Then came that first collection, 'Banished Misfortune', in 1984, followed soon after by his first novel, 'Fighting with Shadows', which was set on the border between North and South and powerfully conjured up a sense of political and personal unease.
I seldom saw him after that, though I always kept up with his work and was as struck as most other readers by his 1994 novel, 'A Goat's Song', a powerful story of tormented and doomed love in the West of Ireland, where the author had moved after a long spell in London – the English capital and his experiences there providing the basis for his fine 1999 novel, 'Sudden Times'. Both books received critical plaudits, though neither sold especially well, and Dermot wasn't someone to push either himself or his talent.
He was writing plays and poems, too – his 2010 verse collection, 'A Fool's Errand', consisting of loving and beautifully observed poetic vignettes of the migratory barnacle geese, which flew each year from Greenland to the Sligo coastline near his home.
Seamus Heaney was one of his greatest admirers, both for his verse and for his prose, but the man himself always seemed unsure of his talent. He shouldn't have been because he had a unique and distinctive sensibility.
Recognising this, Faber and Faber recently acquired the rights to all of his novels and will be republishing them in the next couple of weeks. Time, then, for discerning readers to catch up, though sadly Dermot won't be around to modestly acknowledge their admiration.