Wednesday 13 December 2017

Wild geese and a poet's soul: my day with Dermot Healy

The celebrated novelist, playwright and poet, who died last week, had the smile of a child and the eyes of a priest who had heard one confession too many

Dermot Healy
Dermot Healy
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Dermot Healy opened his volume of poetry and showed me how he had fashioned the pattern of lines on the page to recreate the shape of a flock of birds in flight. It was beautiful to look at. The slanting V of the stanzas is visible now in my mind's eye: short lines, followed by long lines stretching towards a point, ebbing back to short lines. I smiled reflexively, and his face lit up.

"Show the audience, too," I said, remembering belatedly that we were conducting a public interview at the Dalkey Book Festival. Conversation with him appeared intimate, regardless of the setting. "Will I?" he asked, and with bashful pleasure, turned the book around and held it up.

I found myself watching him while we talked. The writer had the eyes of a priest who has heard one confession too many, the smile of a child handed a long-promised treat, and the wildness of a woodland creature. His shock of white hair was dramatic, above a speckled beard, but it was the eyes which signposted him as someone who observed life, storing away what he witnessed to make sense of it later.

We were discussing A Fool's Errand – a single, book-length poem about the annual migration of barnacle geese between their breeding grounds in Greenland, and their winter habitat on an island near his Sligo home.

He watched the geese closely as they walked about a field near his house, and later in our conversation described them as nuns in a cloister telling their beads. His imagery has clarity and resonance, above all when he references the natural world.

The poem is broken into sections, one of which has the title, 'The Sound of Time Flying', because the birds act like a seasonal timepiece.

Our interview took place two years ago; to check the date, I lifted down my copy of his most recent novel, Long Time, No See, and saw that in addition to signing it with a jaunty "good luck", he had dated and placed it precisely. "Dalkey, June 17th, 2012."

Dermot Healy used words with precision. One of the phrases in A Fool's Errand, published by The Gallery Press, lodged in my mind after he read it aloud that Sunday: the geese arrived "in beautiful stitches/along a thread". "It's extraordinary how ordinary life is," remarks one of the characters in Long Time, No See.

We tend to discuss Healy in relation to other writers, from John McGahern to Patrick McCabe to Patrick Kavanagh, but his is an uncommon voice, always compassionate, sometimes surreal. To compare him to others is to do him a disservice.

He was a poet, a novelist, a playwright, and founded and edited the literary journals The Drumlin and Force 10. He lived by the sea in Ballyconnell with his wife, Helen, who arrived with him for the talk, and sat in the audience for it.

The only disappointing element to the event was that more people did not turn up to hear him speak and read. That tells its own story. Perhaps he was appreciated better by writers than readers. But those who made the effort to attend were not disappointed: he gave of himself, holding nothing back. Healy had an innocent, fragile aura. He was somewhat nervous before facing the audience, but proved articulate and humorous when the time came. And while he had the air of a man who has battled more than his share of demons, there was a sense of a master who respected the need to labour at his craft.

Afterwards, we went to hear Seamus Heaney read at another venue, and Healy had brought a gift to give to his old friend. His attention as Heaney read was rapt. It was not difficult to trace the connections between the two writers: both countrymen, both alert to the rhythms of rural life.

But Healy was also a novelist. "It's in a neighbour's house fiction begins," he says in his memoir, The Bend for Home – overheard stories provide inspiration for a writer's work.

That day, discussing Long Time, No See, we touched on his take on a community untouched by the Celtic Tiger. Time passes, not a great deal happens, and the wind blows in from the Atlantic Ocean. Plot is as sparse as the landscape, and yet moments of insight glitter between the pages.

Healy was born in Co Westmeath and moved near the border, to Cavan, as a child – he is on intimate terms with the topography and tensions he discusses. A Goat's Song is regarded as his masterpiece: a gripping novel dealing with Ireland's religious divide.

Sudden Times is another tour de force: a story imbued with intensity and real life experience about life in London's casual labour market on building sites. A recurring theme in his work is the issue of not belonging.

In general, the wheel of fortune is not generous to Healy's protagonists. Perhaps that's true to life as he charted it. His dialogue has the ring of truth, and he writes with grace about damaged characters.

In his final novel, which he talked about that day in Dalkey, he dwelled with a sense of elegy on the effect the Irish landscape had on his work.

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