Well-deserved recognition for Dermot Healy fixes him in the canon

Here are two additions to the ongoing reissue of the work of Dermot Healy, novelist, playwright, and poet, each volume edited and introduced by Keith Hopper and Neil Murphy.

The project already includes his Collected Short Stories and his first novel, Fighting with Shadows. The latest volumes were already underway when Healy died suddenly in 2014, aged 66.

Dalkey Archive Press, based in America but also with a Dublin office, is known for its adventurous list of fiction, much of it in translation.

Its publisher believed Healy’s work deserved to be reissued, in the hope was that this would bring it to the notice of an international readership, as well as highlighting his place as one the foremost writers at work in Ireland today.

The editors had to cope with a dramatic change of perspective when the subject of Writing the Sky died suddenly while it was being written. What was intended as a celebration of an under- appreciated living writer turned overnight into an elegy for a lost friend.

Writing the Sky (to which I contributed an essay, co-written with my late husband, Aidan Higgins, an early admirer of Healy’s work) includes informal short essays, memoirs or poems by Dermot’s fellow writers and film makers, including Neil Jordan, Colm Tóibín, Harry Clifton, Roddy Doyle, Michael Harding, Brian Leyden, Annie Proulx, Bill Swainson, Mary O’Malley and Molly McCloskey, alongside more conventional academic pieces evaluating his work in an international context.

Well-deserved recognition for Dermot Healy fixes him in the canon

The editors, Keith Hopper and Neil Murphy, met as students at NUI Galway under Professor Pat Sheeran, and both have academic posts abroad, Hopper in Oxford and Murphy at NTU Singapore.

They are of the generation that read Healy’s work as it was published, and discussed it long into the night: his powerful tragic novel, A Goat’s Song (1994), his unforgettable memoir The Bend for Home (1996), the haunting London-Irish novel Sudden Times (1999) and his triumphant last novel Long Time, No See (2011), set in a small community on the Sligo coast.

In addition, Healy published one collection of stories and six volumes of poetry, including the book-length masterpiece, A Fool’s Errand, a work that took 15 years to complete, inspired by the barnacle geese’s annual migration to Inishmurray Island near Healy’s home.

And then there are the 13 plays collected here, running to 583 pages.

Dermot Healy was also a generous facilitator of other people’s writing, running workshops in his community, at literary festivals and in prisons, and was the founder-editor of two influential literary journals, The Drumlin and Force Ten.

The ‘observations’ in the first part of the book give a multi-faceted picture of the writer that bring him vividly back to life in all his complexity.

Read Pat McCabe and Michael Harding for sharp observations on the man, and his London editor Bill Swainson for the bigger picture of a major writer as seen by a publishing professional, while his friend, the academic Seán Golden, attempts to capture the essence of Healy’s work under the title ‘The small stone that no one sees gives all the balance’.

There is an almost uncanny consistency in the accounts. More than one person mentions that Healy knew from early on the books he had to write, and Neil Jordan is one of several to stress his “maddeningly tangential way of talking about things. It would seem like nonsense and a strange kind of genius at the same time”.

It builds into an intriguing portrait of a literary artist who remained consistently true to his vision. The big hope is it will send readers back to his work — the highly innovative plays collected here for the first time, the poetry, the memoir and the novels.

Writing the Sky: Observations and Essays on Dermot Healy

Dermot Healy: The Collected Plays

Edited by Keith Hopper and Neil Murphy

Dalkey Archive Press; €33 and €17.70


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