7 minute read

Dermot Healy Biography

Nationality: Irish. Born: Finea, County Westmeath, Ireland, 1947. Career: Worked as laborer and insurance underwriter in England and Ireland; owner and editor, Drumlin magazine, 1978-79; director, Hacklers Drama group, 1980-81. Awards: Hennessy Literary Awards, 1974, 1976; Tom Gallan Award (Society of Authors), 1983; All-Ireland Athlone Award. Agent: c/o Allison & Busby Ltd., 6A Noel Street, London W1V 3RB, England.



Fighting with Shadows; or, Sciamachy. London and New York, Allison & Busby, 1984.

A Goat's Song. London, HarperCollins, 1993; New York, Viking, 1995.

Sudden Times. New York, Harcourt, 2000.

Short Stories

Banished Misfortune. London and New York, Allison & Busby, 1982.



Our Boys, 1979; Interrogations (also radio play), 1980.


The Ballyconnell Colours. Loughcrew, Ireland, Gallery Press, 1992.

What the Hammer. Oldcastle, Ireland, Gallery Press, 1998.


The Bend for Home (autobiography). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1987.

Contributor, Soft Day, edited by Sean Golden and Peter Fallon. Dublin, Wolfhound, 1977.

Contributor, Paddy No More, edited by William Vorm. Dublin, Wolfhound, 1978.

Contributor, Firebird. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1982.

Contributor, A Feast of Christmas Stories. London, Macmillan, 1983.

* * *

Dermot Healy's first novel, Fighting with Shadows, is set in the rural border village of Fanacross, the midlands country between Northern Ireland and the Republic, during the renewal of the Troubles and the civil rights movements for Catholics in the 1960s and 1970s. No one else talks or thinks like the characters of this novel. If Healy's singular representation of human behavior wins belief, then every other novelist is wrong, or centuries of conflict in Ireland have produced a tribe for whom a different psychology and sociology is needed.

It is possible to evoke a story from this novel of forty-two chapters in eight parts. The extended family of Allens suffer. Joseph Allen's aunt was run down by a car, a murder more likely than an accident. His uncle George futilely searches with a gun for the car. Joseph's father was shot opening the door of their home, perhaps mistaken for his twin brother George; George disappeared into the South, returning only to clear his dead brother's name so that his widow can be compensated by the State.

Perhaps to get him clear of trouble, Joseph is sent to another uncle in the South. He works in their hotel which eventually fails because the Troubles ruin the easier atmosphere that it requires. When Joseph and his friend the hotel chef try to break up a fight, the chef is arrested; Joseph asks to accompany him to jail where he is beaten savagely, and made to confess to a misdemeanor to get rid of their attention. The novel closes on Joseph's mother receiving compensation by ignoring the advice of her lawyer to settle the case against the State (Frank Allen's killer was a part-time member of the UDR, in company with the Royal Ulster Constabulary [RUC]). They buy a house and move what is left of the family out of Fanacross.

No plot summary does justice to a novel, of course. The tone and sequence of narrative is skewed, lost. What happens in Fighting with Shadows violates no laws of probability. But Healy offers characters who think differently. There is some explanation at the beginning, perhaps to accommodate our customary psychological understanding. Fanacross is between North and South; there is a severe drought; even an improving economy in the South is named as cause of a greater questioning, and a greater consciousness.

In a chapter given over to letters, we read one that Joseph receives from Margaret, his cousin, describing his mother's distress. "It was not your mother's sanity went but her memory. She sees things isolated, as they are, connected to nothing in the past, irreversibly severed from their fellows and therefore offered up obscene." Her perspicacity is in no way unusual among fellow characters. If it were not for their troubles, the book would read like Nightwood: a set-piece for poetic prose.

A Goat's Song is Healy's second novel, after ten years (he also writes short stories and poetry). Thirty-four chapters are distributed over four sections. "Christmas Day in the Workhouse" is the first section, which sees the way Jack Ferris's drinking frustrates his career as a playwright and his love for Catherine. He works off a fishing boat in the west of Ireland. His time on land is devoted to drink, not his plays or Catherine, except for making things between them worse. As the novel begins, Jack comes back to his cottage with a letter from Catherine, which says that she loves him and will rejoin him.

Their promise to each other is that they will grow old and sober together, but Jack can't keep the promise. Because Catherine knows he has broken it, she doesn't return. Jack embarrasses himself by repeatedly phoning her at the Dublin theatre which is rehearsing the play he wrote for her. At the end of this section Jack has finally taken himself to the hospital to dry out. He knows that his relationship is over, that once he writes about her, they can never get back together.

The novel offers no gimmick to prove it is Jack's own work, but the following sections tell the story he intends to write. We blame Jack in the first section, but that is not tragedy, which is what the novel's title seems to mean. The following sections begin by telling the story of Catherine and her family as Protestants from the North. Her father trained for the clergy, but couldn't preach. He joined the RUC to answer his sense of duty. His life provides an effective incentive to the reader to leave blaming behind. He is a serious family man, thoughtful, even scholarly. Yet when he is caught up in the early stages of the civil rights in Belfast (he is one of the constables imported into Belfast to increase security), he is surprised to see himself on television beating an old man with his truncheon.

We follow Catherine's early life in the North, and her family's gradual shift to the South. We learn more about her life than Jack's life. When it comes to her time with him, we get a different view from our first one. They are both drinkers, both unable to be constant to each other's love. When the novel closes in the present time of their difficult relationship breaking up, at a moment of unreasoning hope, blaming or accusing either of them is behind us now, replaced by our sorrow for them.

Sudden Times begins in Sligo. Oliver Ewing (Ollie) is a damaged narrator and central character, reminding an American audience of Faulkner's Benjy, but an Irish readership will think of McCabe's "butcher boy." The source of Ollie's trouble is reflected in a series of flashbacks that gradually fill in, taking us back to London. He first shared a portakabin with his friend Marty Kilgallan, night-watching a construction area. Their life is an idyllic late (male) adolescence, drinking, partying, staying "home" to listen to music. But Marty is worried about having angered some toughs who run a protection racket in the construction industry. Eventually Ollie finds Marty's corpse in the back of his truck, disfigured with acid.

Ollie's brother Redmond arrives after Ollie has confronted Silver John, an employer of day laborers, with Marty's death. The first-person narration helps the reader to understand how Ollie allows himself to suspect Silver John yet find it necessary to work for him. Silver John's bodyguard gets into a fight with Redmond at a party. He returns to torch Redmond, burning himself as well. The novel closes on the trial, where the judicial system makes a fool of Ollie through cross-examination, turning what we have read as understandable decisions against him. One example: after Redmond is taken to the hospital, Ollie cleans up the flat, sickened by the traces of the violence. Yet the defense for Redmond's killer accuses Ollie of destroying evidence. All that we have to balance against Ollie's diminished being at the end of the book is the reconciliation with his father, narrated to us by Ollie early on before we understand the basis of their estrangement.

Although three novels in twenty years is less than his immediate peers in Irish fiction, Healy has so far produced original work without repeating himself. The prose style of his autobiographical The Bend for Home most closely resembles his first novel, which suggests that originality requires that he move further away from himself as subject.

—William A. Johnsen

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Bob Graham (1942-) Biography - Awards to Francis Hendy Biography - Born to Sew