Ireland’s great abundance of gifted writers has made literature our best known export, and readers around the world can list the biggest names. But we also have those treasured authors who are beloved and respected here, while somehow largely escaping the notice of readers elsewhere. Dermot Healy was one such treasure, and his recent death is greatly mourned by Ireland’s literary community. He was not as high profile as some others, but those more high profile writers have often cited him as an inspiration, a literary hero. His admirers and mourners include fellow writers Eugene McCabe, Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle as well as Ireland’s poetry-loving president, Michael D. Higgins. Seamus Heaney also praised his work highly.
Healy’s death comes 30 years after the publication of his first novel, Fighting with Shadows. He was born in Finea, a small village in County Westmeath, in 1947. His father was a member of An Garda Siochana – a policeman. The family relocated to Cavan town when Healy was a child because his father was transferred there. Many critics believe this childhood move was the groundwork for the sense of alienation and displacement in Healy’s work. In his teens, he moved to London, an even bigger and more alienating transition. His 15 years in London seemed rootless as he went from one casual job to another, occasionally living in squats. He filled his time reading poetry, and then writing. When he returned to Ireland, Healy settled in Ballyconnell, County Sligo with his wife in a house where they could see and hear the Atlantic Ocean.
A truly versatile writer, Healy penned novels, short stories, plays, poetry and autobiographical works. He also founded and edited two literary journals, Force 10 and The Drumlin. A co-writer of the script for the film Our Boys, Healy even starred in the 1999 film I Could Read the Sky.
Healy’s best loved works are arguably A Goat’s Song and The Bend for Home. A Goat’s Song, published in 1994, chronicles the relationship between a Catholic man and a Protestant woman in County Donegal and took Healy ten years to write. The Bend for Home is an autobiographical book about his childhood experiences growing in Ireland in the 1950s. He published four books of poetry.
His immense talent was recognized in Ireland by his membership in Aosdana, an elite association of Irish artists supported by the Arts Council of Ireland. Membership is by nomination and is capped at 250 individuals. Healy served on the governing board. He was also part of a more informal and intimate artistic community in Sligo. He passed away in his Ballyconnell home surrounded by his loved ones after abruptly becoming ill. He is survived by his wife, adult son and daughter and one grandchild, many friends and loved ones, as well as a growing number of readers touched by his works. His death was mourned with a two day wake and funeral at the local church.
Healy died this week aged only 66, but he left us with a tremendous legacy – a literary treasure to enrich our minds and souls.