Dermot Healy has been a presence in Irish literature for some time. He has published a collection of short stories, Banished Misfortune (1982), two novels, Fighting with Shadows (1984) and A Goat’s Song (1993), a book of poetry, The Ballyconnell Colours (1992), and has written and directed a number of plays. He founded and edited an influential community arts journal, Force 10, and has been active in regional and community theatre, particularly in the Sligo area, where he lives. With writers such as Eugene McCabe, Tom McIntyre and Michael Harding he shares a commitment to local territories of the imagination and their distinct idioms, giving us access to a set of rich dialects and views of the world, on the one hand, and, on the other, setting up a healthy opposition to the Dublin/London nexus as the centre of the Irish writer’s world. They all deal in an oblique way with the ever-present darkness of Northern Ireland; living close to the Border provides special insights into that intractable situation. They are also in their way ‘experimental’, taking sentences in new directions while remaining faithful to the spoken language. In his novels, Healy’s preoccupations have been physical and emotional displacement, family turmoil, alcoholism and the fraught nature of heterosexual relationships: all subjects of particular importance to a country which is undergoing a painful process of self-examination, as can be seen in the series of referenda held during the Eighties and Nineties on issues such as divorce and abortion, which have forced us to look at the nature of the Irish family and the central and destructive role played by the Catholic Church in the crucial area of sexuality. The novels are also concerned with the business of writing itself and with Healy’s struggle to find his own voice, which finally emerges with full force in A Goat’s Song.
There is a gap of almost ten years between Fighting with Shadows and A Goat’s Song, and while we are very recognisably with the same writer in both novels, the quality of the writing has strengthened immeasurably in the later book. Both have at their centre the tensions between men and women, North and South, Catholic and Protestant, drunkenness and sobriety. Healy is not in any sense a schematic writer, however; he prefers to trust to language and where it might take him. In Fighting with Shadows, it takes him into a kind of turmoil which he cannot quite clarify; and the novel sometimes reads like a first draft, over-philosophical and a little fey:
Anyway, desire was there that sees only the wholeness of things. No matter, no matter. They danced. Tins were being drummed in the back yard. The sound carried down to the ears of the soldiers. To the drivers halted by the bridge. The family searched round the home place for all they had dreamed of. But it was just a dark place at the foot of the mountain. So for Joseph, who could tell nothing of time passing, the short distance to the door took years, his parents followed, haunted by things no one will tell.
Healy cannot quite manage either the first sentence or the last phrase. In between, we get the short descriptive sentences he writes so well. Reading A Goat’s Song after Fighting with Shadows is like seeing an out-of-focus image suddenly slide into crystalline clarity. The poetry is subdued but not abandoned; we know where we are at every second, there are no longueurs, and things move confidently, with a sure rhythm:
In the spitting rain they turned back to the house. She would not let him go. He sat on the step of the house and looked at the mountains on Achill Island and wondered: where does it reside – the will to go on? They walked towards Scotchport. The sun pooled on a cluster of whins. Seagulls changed to ravenous crows. A seal, with a porter face, surfaced for a look around the bay. Fish jumped in ecstasy. The seawater glimmered like saved hay. And he was sorry that he had made Catherine’s simple needs into fantastic demands.
The paragraph is packed with images, but nothing is superfluous. Healy has found a way to reconcile his poetic instincts with the demands of prose, and to represent a teeming, painful consciousness without any incoherence.
The Bend for Home is Healy’s memoir of his childhood and adolescence in Westmeath and Cavan, with a final section describing his mother’s last illness in the early Nineties. The writing is superb, intensely idiomatic without being obscure. The book is in five parts. The first deals with his early childhood in Finea, County Westmeath and begins with an account of what he always thought was his birth but which turns out to have been that of a neighbour’s child. ‘It’s in a neighbour’s house fiction begins.’ His father is a policeman based in a small village, a kindly and frail man, greatly attached to his children. Most of this section of the book deals with stories told by his mother and other relatives, and with Healy’s reflections on the genesis of fiction. ‘I mind to see a man hanging from a tree. Maybe I didn’t see a man but heard it from my mother. Whatever she saw I saw it again through her eyes, as I do now, writing this down.’ He describes County Westmeath as ‘the halfway house between the magic realism of the West and the bustling consciousness of the East’. Though he has lived in many other places, Finea remains his true remembered home; the bend for home leads there, in dreams and in imagination. The family moves to Cavan town, and we see the seismic shift in the child’s life.
The second section of the book gives us a portrait of Healy’s Aunt Maisie, an indomitable spirit who runs her restaurant with force and efficiency, fuelled by a magnificent rage directed at its patrons: ‘Have they nothing to do, she’d say as she disparaged her customers, but feed their faces? The cursed whores.’ ‘Mrs Smith wants a cherry cake at five, my mother would say. Does she, the faggot.’ The child starts school, having tried and failed to walk back to Finea, and resigns himself to being trapped in Cavan for the rest of his life. He learns handball, discovers sex thanks to an anatomy book hidden in the attic, starts to read and go to the pictures. The section ends with an exhilarating three pages describing half-day in Cavan. Healy, it must be said, is a master of the list of events:
Soon after noon, all activity ceased. The town gave a sigh of relief ... Maisie carried the morning’s takings to her room; Reilly the barber brushed hair into a corner; a fire blazed at the back of ESB showrooms; butterflies flitted through the cabbages in Burke’s garden; hams went back into the fridge; Mr Donoghue, the scoutmaster, drank a cup of tea alone among the silent accordions in the scout den. Mother lay in bed with her feet propped up on a pillow for a few minutes, then was on the move again; Snowball Walsh got sick and was let go home; the Clones train came in; a lorry of Armagh apples passed south; Louie Blessing fed his pigs potato skins; the Cavan mineral lorry backed into the Farnham yard; Father McManus sat in his Ford reading his breviary; Johnny McDonagh, still tipsy and wild-eyed, emerged from Straw Lodge and went down the town roaring.
The third section of the book is devoted to young Healy’s school experiences, his attempt to escape them by mitching, and his father’s final illness and death. We get details of the casual physical and sexual abuse rampant in the town, reported without comment. Ireland has of late been convulsed by stories of clerical sexual abuse of children; a whole generation is excavating its past to reveal hitherto unspoken memories. Healy’s Christian Brother who routinely and publicly abuses boys as they take the class roll-call is presented as an almost normal nuisance in the overall spectrum of male sexuality. Unusually for those times, when Healy is physically assaulted by one of his teachers, his father goes to the school to complain, and the Christian Brother apologises. This sets Healy off on a recollection of an acid trip in London many years later, when his companion seeks forgiveness for an imagined slight. (There are a number of flights into the future whetting our appetite for a further volume of the memoir.) His father’s health is failing, and the boy spends his evenings by his bedside, unable to acknowledge his forthcoming bereavement, but cherishing the companionship and affection available to him. His account of his father’s death is heartbreaking, his mother’s distress at the loss of her husband expressed in her anguished cries to her son: ‘When I opened the door and she saw me she was so upset she was nearly angry. She stood and pointed. Now! she screamed and began to wail. Now! Now! Now you are the man of the house! Her voice went up into a discordant key and the women held her. Now! she screamed.’
The next section is ‘a version of a diary’ for the year 1963, when Healy was 15. His mother kept the diary for years: when she returned it to him in the late Eighties, it had the quality of an archaeological discovery. Church holidays and saints’ feast days are printed at the top of each page, providing a counterpoint to what Healy calls the ‘awfulnesses’ recorded below. After his father’s death, his mother left the country for an extended period, and wildness of various kinds took hold. It is clear from the diary, although unstated, that the young man is grieving for his father, but he is also intoxicated by girls and drink. His true love is Sheila, the local bank manager’s daughter, but when she is away at boarding school, he finds solace with a dizzying series of other girls.
Most Irish people of Healy’s generation will remember summer trips to colleges in the Gaeltachta, the Irish-speaking regions of the country, which were supposed to inculcate a reverence for the Irish language and the rural way of life, the twin obsessions of Eamonn de Valera. Of course, they became occasions for explosions of adolescent hormones and doomed love affairs with people otherwise impossible to meet. In a strange way, they probably achieved a connection between the Irish language and sexuality which could only be good for the language. Healy’s Gaeltacht experiences as recounted in the diary present the full range of events common to these trips, from the dreadful food to the compulsory nightly ceili. There is an old storyteller with an interminable but fascinating yarn about a woman who wants to keep her son in girl’s clothes. There are card games and midnight swims, and two splendid girls to take our hero’s mind off Sheila. There is a match between Cavan and Donegal on the wireless, with Cavan the losers.
On his return to Cavan, Healy tries to run away with Sheila and fails, takes various odd jobs including a stint as a barman in Dublin, and finally returns to school as a boarder. There, he defeats the school bully, confronts class hatred from the other boys, gets cured of his pimples by a faith healer, does well at table tennis and running, gets out for his Aunt Gerty’s funeral, and reads The Vicar of Wakefield. There are several lists of events, including an account of coming back to the college late at night and stealing through the priest’s quarters:
I wandered with my bag along the strange celibate world of a corridor that I’d never been through at night before; warm lights under doors, coughs, a floorboard giving way, friendly radios on low, the rattle of a coal scuttle, the clink of a glass, a door to a priest’s lavatory standing ajar and looking somehow sinful, classical music, dark shoes on a doorstep, a rifle resting against a wall beside a wet pair of Wellingtons, intimacies, a loud laugh that for the moment I couldn’t recognise, the smell of pipe smoke.
As a record of Irish male adolescence in the early Sixties, Healy’s diary, though no doubt augmented by later memories, is exceptional in its accuracy.
The final part of the book moves forward to the early Nineties, and another kind of diary: the record of time spent by Healy with his mother and Aunt Maisie in the period leading up to his mother’s death. Winnie, his mother, has Parkinson’s disease and her mind has begun to wander. She is impatient and unsettled, wanting constantly to be somewhere else, but also experiences moments of lucidity and good humour. She and Maisie can no longer communicate in the way they used to: ‘While my mother is shedding reality, Maisie at over ninety is entering a new phase of complex embroidery of the tangible and the mysterious.’ The days are spent seeing to the bodily needs of the women and watching TV as a backdrop to bizarre conversations. News items about Northern Ireland, treated no differently from wildlife programmes or science fiction movies, have a surreal quality. Nancy, the third sister, arrives one evening with a giant pizza and a bottle of wine, and they all sit up late drinking brandy and reminiscing. But it is ‘hard going’. Healy brings us bravely through the emotional pain of the situation: ‘They say that if someone you love is mentally available, then your self-image is enhanced. If they are not, then your identity is belittled. You’d be surprised how much you once did was, in fact, a charade to meet with the bestowal of her favours. Now praise is not forthcoming. Looking after Mother is like watching language losing its meaning.’ In the middle of his account of daily life with ‘the dolls’, he describes going to a medium in London who seemed to put him in touch with his dead father. As elsewhere in the memoir, we get a sense of an extended, complex, troubled but intensely close family dealing with pain in its own rather wonderful way. ‘It’s a strange phenomenon, this wish of ours that the dying should know who the living are. Then there is, too, a type of competition between us for her final favours. Who will be there when she finally lets go? But the truth is, the reason you sit there, that one person replaces another, is that when the moment comes the others will be called.’
While some of the events recounted in The Bend for Home – two bereavements, casual institutional brutality, adolescent male sexuality, possible alcoholism – may seem to make for depressing reading, the book leaves one with a sense of exhilaration. Healy is very aware of the tricks which memory and a retrospective desire for order can play, and is at pains to let us know that, while he cannot avoid their snares, he recognises them for what they are – as useful pitfalls and dangerous temptations. His respect for ‘evidence’ is at the same time an acknowledgment of its multifaceted and protean nature, and an expression of gratitude for the materials it supplies.