Thursday 5 December 2019

Obituary: Dermot Healy

The writer's death at 66 came with a terrible sense of shock and wide bereavement to literature, writes Emer O'Kelly

PASSIONATE: Healy saw himself as a reflection of the world, and embraced its totality
PASSIONATE: Healy saw himself as a reflection of the world, and embraced its totality

Emer O'Kelly

When Dermot Healy died suddenly at his home in bleakly beautiful Ballyconnell, Co Sligo last Sunday, Ireland lost one of its leading poets, one of its leading novelists, and one of its leading short story writers. Healy was all three in a life that was cut short far too soon; a quiet artist of fierce intensity, unique vision, and above all, in possession of an intrinsic, innate inability to compromise.

In a country where there is inclined to be a uniformity of cultural vision among the artists who drink from the fountain of what can loosely be called "nationhood", Healy was different.

His first novel,Fighting With Shadows was published in 1984, and was set in the Fermanagh lakelands, where a small community is battling the effects of drought, a blight of nature, while the political blight of deathly warfare between patrolling soldiers and the IRA drifts from a few miles away. It is a society displaced by its people rather than its history, and that was the essence of Healy's work: the human soul, that strange melding of heart and mind, were what fascinated him, and provided the pre-occupation for all of his work, whether writing a novel informed by his time in a myriad of short-term jobs as an Irishman in London, or in 1996, recalling and documenting his life and sense of fierce personal displacement in his memoir The Bend for Home.

A Goat's Song was his second novel, published in 1994, and is the most widely acclaimed of his books (it was mentioned most widely on mainland Europe in news reports of his death; noted with regret even though he was considered here not to have "cracked" an international reputation). Technically a love story, it too has an undercurrent of the estrangement imposed by religion that is never far from the surface in Ireland. The central character is a playwright whose life is consumed by his alcoholism, leading to the destruction of his relationship with his lover, Catherine, who is an actor. But the strains are more than the dual tragedies of alcoholism and the selfishness imposed by the struggle for artistic survival in a hostile world: the hostilities inherent in our cultural tribalism, expressed unconsciously in the behavioural clashes between Presbyterianism and Catholicism run through the work like a visceral cry of pain.

Seamus Heaney has been much quoted in the days since Dermot Healy died; he called him "the heir to Kavanagh." Without disrespect, that seems to me to be very far from the mark. Healy's poetry collections may be fine examples of lyric poetry, but they lack the innate bitterness that underlies Kavanagh; they have an awareness far beyond the personal, while remaining intensely the poet's own vision. The preoccupations are finite, the passions the ephemera of world turmoil, seeking tranquillity, but preventing itself finding it. Kavanagh saw the world merely as a reflection of himself; Healy saw himself as a reflection of the world, and embraced its totality.

He had won Hennessy Awards for literature in 1974 and 1976, and the Tom Gallon Award in 1983. In 2011, he was shortlisted for the Poetry Now Award for his collection A Fool's Errand. But perhaps most significantly, he was nominated by libraries in Russia and Norway for the International IMPAC Award three years ago for what was to turn out to be his final novel Long Time No See. The intensity of the best of Russian literature was in everything Dermot Healy wrote, just as its sense of isolation had echoes of the fastnesses of the intricate Norwegian coastlines.

It was probably no coincidence that he and his wife Helen made their home in Ballyconnell, the wildest and farthest point of Europe, and where he, the painter Sean McSweeney, and fellow writer Brian Leyden became the nucleus of a thriving if quiet artistic colony. Shunning the public posturing of much of the literary world, and maintaining a fierce privacy, Dermot Healy nonetheless gave the hand of friendship and assistance: he edited the journals The Drumlin and Force 10, where many emerging writers of the time received encouragement.

His death at the age of 66 came with a terrible sense of shock: and indeed of wide bereavement to literature. There should have been much more to come.

Sunday Independent

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