Tributes are flooding Irish publications and airwaves for Dermot Healy, poet, novelist, memoir writer, screen writer and mentor of emerging writers, who has died at age 66. He died on 30th June 2014 at his Sligo home. While Seamus Heaney was Ireland’s international literary star, it was Healy who was a national star, one who was actively engaged in cultivating the next generation of Irish writers. His contribution to the Irish arts culture was recognized by his membership of Aosdána, an association of a select number of artists and writers who are considered ‘living treasures’ of Irish culture.
Born in Co. Westmeath in 1947, he spent most of his upbringing in Cavan Town. In later years he settled on the Atlantic coast in County Sligo, near Ballyconnel. Like the late Irish novelist John McGahern, his father was a member of the Irish police force, or Gardai. While McGahern’s father was stationed in Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim, Healy’s family lived in Cavan, at nearly the geographical dead center of Ireland. His memoir, A Bend for Home, is a classic – evocative, pitch perfect and beautifully written.
His early writing career was as a screen writer and playwright. However, he tried his hand – and excelled – in almost every literary genre. His credits include several volumes of poetry, novels, and short stories. Seamus Heaney is attributed as saying that Healy was the natural heir to poet Patrick Kavanagh. While not wishing to disagree with the late, great Nobel Prize winner, Healy’s eclectic output makes him stand out in the Irish literary pantheon as a true original.
Healy’s literary output is also notable in that he is one of the few writers of his generation from the Republic of Ireland whose work engaged with the dark drama that was happening just over the border in Northern Ireland. While every major Northern Irish poet from Louis MacNeice to Nick Laird has poetry addressing the conflict that raged in the six counties throughout the 20th century, Healy was the voice speaking to a part of the Irish nation that willfully ignored much of what occurred on their doorstep.
One other aspect of Healy’s life has made his passing a truly sorrowful event. For many years Healy has been active in fostering new writing talent in counties Sligo and North Leitrim. He led workshops at Manorhamilton’s Glens Center over the past decade, mentoring many a budding writer. I was fortunate enough to participate in a Master class weekend, also at the Glens Center, back in 2007. He had a generous presence, not directive, but exuded encouragement. Rather than an event where we all sat at the feet of a literary giant, the ‘master’ class felt like a meeting of writing colleagues, each of us at varying stages of practicing the art and craft, but equals in our quest to become better writers. There was no public critiquing that I can remember. My memory is having a sense of Healy being horrified at the prospect of potentially making a wounding comment to another writer, novice or experienced, published writer. What struck me were his sense of humor and humility.
About a year later Healy shared the platform with Seamus Heaney, again at the Glens Center, for an evening of poetry reading. Heaney was a consummate performer of his poetry. Healy, while being no stranger to the stage, was more obviously nervous and vulnerable on stage. Yet, his poetry will, in my opinion, go the distance, as much and as far as Heaney’s.
It also impressed me that only knowing me on the most passing of acquaintance, that he remembered my name when we met in the foyer after the performance and greeted me.
While many favor his novel Goat Song, my personal favorites are his memoir and collections of poetry, in particular, The Reed Bed. His passing is premature, but we have a large body of work to read and remember him by.