I can still hear Dermot's cackling
John McEntee recalls lock-ins, banter and emigrant life with his friend, writer Dermot Healy
Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30
In his tribute to his friend Dermot Healy, President Higgins was right to emphasise Dermot's particular affinity with the Irish community in Britain. Dermot was an emigrant himself. When I first came to London, he presided in regal splendour in a squat in Denbigh Street near Victoria Station.
His publishers, Allison & Busby, had given him an advance on his first novel and with no words appearing, Dermot agreed to paint the company's office by way of recompense for the book.
Banished Misfortune did eventually emerge and was followed by works of genius, including The Goat Song, The Bend for Home and, more recently, Long Time No See.
It was during these early years in London that he turned up at the pokey London office of The Irish Press seeking any sort of commission to keep the wolf from the door. I knew that de Valera's Press would not advance cash for words to Dermot. But one decent man would: Michael Hand of the Sunday Independent. I called him and put Healy on. Mickser immediately arranged a mutually agreeable transaction but whether Dermot ever delivered any prose, I don't know.
I had been to his first wedding to the lovely Ann Marie Cusack in the church at Ballyhaise, where Fr A B McGrath had to marry the couple at a side altar because the new Mrs Healy was with child.
Later, back in a Brixton pub to talk about his latest book, Fighting With Shadows, we spent a hilarious six hours in the darkened bar during what is termed a lock-in (English pubs closed for the afternoon then). The Kildare-born manager happened to mention that he had introduced the Irish game of skittles in the garden and it had proved hugely popular with his West Indian regulars.
I expressed an interest in writing a feature about it. Dermot piped up, "If McEntee writes something about the skittles will you cancel my slate? This was followed by Dermot's infectious cackle. Too much drink taken then, I called the pub the following lunchtime and was put through to Dermot at the counter in the saloon bar.
I wanted to correct any howlers from the stout-stained notes. Mid-conversation, he excused himself and left the phone on the bar. I was left listening to bar talk, clinking glasses and darts thudding onto a board.
Dermot was gone for a full five minutes, a long time to hold on. When he returned I demanded to know where'd he'd been.
"Having a sh***," he replied cheerily, explaining that he liked the idea of me waiting for him at the bar.
Years later, when I had to miss the London launch party for The Bend in the Road, I was astonished when I walked into the bar of the Crover House Hotel on Lough Sheelin the following day to be greeted by Healy.
"Where were you last night?" he asked, with a cackle. I was with my parents, who knew and liked Dermot. He'd launched his book and taken a dawn flight home for the funeral of an aunt in nearby Finea, where he was born.
As we spoke, there was the horrendous din of a helicopter landing outside. It was cement tycoon Sean Quinn landing for refreshment after watching the Ryder Cup golf at the K Club in Kildare. The locals studiously ignored the noise.
PJ Kramer, a golfing friend of my mother who worked for Quinn at his Sliabh Russell golf course, was one of the passengers and couldn't resist peeling away from his boss to boast about his helicopter flight.
"Judy," he addressed my mother, "Guess how long it took us to fly from the K Club to here? Give a guess!"
My mother ventured: "An hour?"
PJ: "No, no, nooo, much less than that."
Judy: "40 minutes?"
PJ: "Nooo, just less than 25 minutes. Can you believe it!"
Dermot interrupted his Guinness to ask: "PJ, how long would it take to fly to Sligo?"
Chest expanded, PJ replied, "Why, about 10 minutes, Dermot."
Po-faced, Healy replied "Can you give me a lift home?"
I can still hear Dermot's cackling. RIP.