The month of November, with its decreasing hours of daylight and lengthening nights, offers an opportunity to turn inwards. It is traditionally a month in Ireland when we remember those who have passed on, indeed the 1st and 2nd of November are known respectively as All Saints and All Souls days. On Trasna, our focus this month will be on Irish writers who have passed on and who are remembered by contemporary writers and scholars.
In this essay, poet and playwright Daniel Wade introduces readers to the poetry of Dermot Healy.
“On You Go: A Remembrance of Dermot Healy”
by DANIEL WADE
“What would the living do If they had not the dead to see to?”
– Dermot Healy, “Rosses Point” from The Ballyconnell Colours (1992).
In the winter of 2019, when I was working as an assistant cameraman on a documentary covering the Sligo-based rock band Indian, I was asked by Shane Collins, the director, to head up to Rosses Point for a week, to join the rest of the film crew. We’d get to work on what we needed, setting up equipment for shots, interviewing the various band members, filming them at rehearsals and gigs and so forth. There was a decent wage packet at the end of it for me.
Those were a good few days, mostly spent driving around various locations of that glorious county and town in search of some gorgeous scenery to film (and in Sligo, gorgeous scenery is abundant). I was happy for the work and eager to get some street-level experience on a working film set. I had other reasons to be up there, however.
As a child, back in the mid-nineties, my parents brought me and my sister to the lesser-known townland of Ballinfull, a bit further up the coast from Rosses Point, where my aunt Margaret lived at the time with her partner, Mary. It was something of an unofficial artists’ colony, though I was too young to appreciate this at the time. My memories of that time were delightful; Sligo made a welcome change to Dublin and there was no shortage of wild beaches and seemingly-untracked fields to explore. It was also, as I was to discover, a place of savage mythology and rugged storytelling, of Ben Bulben and Streedagh, of Yeats and Countess Markievicz, sunken Spanish Armada ships and Granuaile, Fionn mac Cumhaill, Dairmuid and Grainne, and all the warriors of the Fianna. To work on the documentary in that county offered me a rare opportunity to see it again, and view it through more mature eyes.
Sligo has been particularly, and rightly, storied due to its association with W.B. Yeats, who once described it as “the country of the heart.” Indeed, Ben Bulben could be clearly seen from the living room window of my aunt’s house, hulking regally over the landscape around it. Nearby was Lissadell House and Strand, Drumcliffe Church and graveyard, and the famed Lake Isle of Innisfree, becalmed in the placid waters of Lough Gill, all of them immortalised in Yeats’ majestic verse. To say my young imagination was ignited by all these places is a massive understatement.
Daniel Wade (age 10) with Dermot Healy in Ellen’s Pub, Ballinful, Sligo, 2001
But I came to associate the county with a very different poet, albeit one who was still alive at the time. This was Dermot Healy, who lived with his wife Helen in a whitewashed, clapboard cottage in Maugherow; it was situated on a remote cliff at the peninsula’s far end, on the very cusp of the Atlantic. Flocks of migratory barnacle geese flew in from Greenland every six months, wintering on the offshore islands. Dermot once told me they were his way of marking the passing of each year. “You can tell the time by them, the daily clock of the sky,” he said. His house kept watch over the northern Sligo coast with the constancy of a lighthouse. I had an inkling that, were you to dive off the cliff and presumably survive the considerable drop onto the rocks below, you could swim out and, were you to keep swimming, the next landmass you’d reach was Canada. That’s how remote it was. On the crescented strip of beach below stood a long, blackened barricade hewn from limestone, lashed tautly together by wire net: a sea wall, built to protect his home from the beautifully vicious conditions of the Irish coast. Dermot built it after his house experienced repeated flooding (“The house / Turns into a ship / And rides out to sea… thunder strikes the earth from under the bed,” he writes in The Ballyconnell Colours). “Move the wrong stone, / the ocean pours in” are the concluding lines of his poem “July Storm,” from What the Hammer. In his poem “The Wall I Built” he declares: “The wall I built / the sea took. / The stones I gathered / the sea scattered …”
Clearly, the fragility of the place, the gradual reclaiming of the land by the ocean, was a daily reality with which he had to contend, though that sea wall managed to hold true throughout the years. Healy’s work proved both an affirmation and refutation of the bromide, “write what you know.”
Dermot Healy was an imposing presence, both in life and on the page, though it would be a while before I would fully appreciate his work. Over the years, as children, my sister and I would often see him nursing a pint at the dimly-lit bar in Ellen’s pub, chatting with whoever was present. I was reading Treasure Island at the time, which, by, coincidence, had been Dermot’s favourite book as a child. We bonded over that book, over its buccaneerish thrill and deceptive simplicity, and Dermot encouraged me to keep a writer’s notebook, something I do to this day.
Several years later, in 2002, I saw him read his work in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin–poems from his newly published collection The Reed Bed, now set to music by the composer Bill Campbell. Amid the luminous elegance of the Sculpture Hall, which was now decked with a piano and music stands for the quartet, Dermot began to intone his work aloud, his voice rising like smoke above cello and woodwind. In that moment, I remember feeling a veil in my head draw back to reveal something strange and magnificent to me.
I was then only on the cusp of adolescence, and deeply mystified by the world beyond my window. Yet, sitting in that drafty museum, hearing Dermot breathe life into his poems, I felt I’d encountered something I understood instinctively, an abiding passion. I could allow myself to run with language, find joy and wonderment in poetry, could be stirred to frenzy or calm by the magic of a story well told. Not only that, I believed that perhaps I could do it myself. Far from feeling daunted by Dermot’s prowess, I was sparked by it. When he began reading his poem “All the Meteors,” it was as if a trail of gunpowder had been ignited from within. “I’m pinned / down here in a wind / from the south / among the wooden poor / of Ecuador, the hee-hawing ass, / a dog, / a limping cat, and whatever in the wide world / awaits me after that.”
Then and now, I am now struck by the quiet ache of these words, the internal convulsions of the psyche. Dermot’s writing avowed chaotic interiorities as much as the exacting physical world around him. The poems thrummed and rippled with a mysterious vigour, one that perhaps could be netted, given a rhythm and melody of its own, moulded into shape and form to fit the many untamed thoughts that roiled relentlessly around in my brain.
Kindly as he was, I admit to being intimidated by him. To my young eyes, Dermot seemed like a figure freed from the pages of a storybook, bearing the weather-roughened features of a druid or an Old Testament prophet. Weather seemed to be his sanctum, what Yeats called “the murderous innocence of the sea,” enlivening and giving his work its power.
I don’t mean to suggest he was romantic or mystical: he was neither. But he knew his world with the intimacy of a chieftain. In many ways, it was his kingdom. He owned it, and it owned him. One afternoon, he and Helen drove me and my younger sister Layla in his battered red Toyota, showing us a still-wild landscape that hadn’t yet embraced the minutiae of civilization. He showed us everything–the Cave of Diarmuid and Grainne, the Valley of Jealousy, the length and breadth of Streedagh where the Armada ships met their rocky destiny. Another time, he even ferried us out in a boat to the offshore island of Inishmurray —the tide came in and we were nearly stranded there for the night! “Inishmurray is going up! / And all beyond Inishmurray! / And at the alt / white ash comes in with the tide. / Air thickens with salt. / Between here and Mayo.”
His world was one of salt winds screeching, white eruptions of surf and foamy geysers soaking the rocks below as breakers hurled themselves in fizzing repetition off the reef. The air was marinated in spray, chorused by the shrieks of gull and cormorant. Ships had been wrecked by such weather, galleons from the Spanish Armada dashed against this very coastline. The beach below his house was an ever-changing strip of pebbly sand, strewn with lank tendrils of blackened seaweed and bits of driftwood. Dermot acknowledges the dynamic he witnessed in the title poem of What the Hammer: “Tide-maker, hoarder of salts, / thirst-maker, / stiff mirage by / the pier, / you haunt the rocky bar / with danger.”
That was Dermot all over: he had the master mariner’s instinct for living alongside storms. His appreciation for the transience of the calm was a direct result of his wisdom. In part six of A Fool’s Errand, his long poem of the barnacle geese that wintered around his house, he writes of losing a stone “meant for my mantelpiece” and concludes with the startling line: “That night a bomb in Baghdad / cleared the old lettering off another page.”
Storms, natural or human-wrought, formed the life-blood of Healy’s work. For every storm leaves wreckage, and wreckage was what Dermot understood thoroughly, having witnessed so much of it in his own life. His novels undertake to grasp this blend of wreckage and exile, but the study of his battered narrators fighting their storms is the topic of another essay.
Dermot’s own exile within his art led to his outright refusal to anchor himself to any one genre. With poetry, novels, plays and film scripts to his name, he would blend styles and genres together, evading conventional literary classification. The very human, instinctive need towards storytelling is in itself proof of our ability to transcend reality but also our need to escape its severity. After a decade of silence, Dermot Healy appeared on stage at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Trinity College to read from his novel Long Time, No See. He’d lost none of his power.
At the signing afterward, he smiled in gruff recognition at me and we chatted for a bit, his eyes glinting behind his glasses above his beard. At the time, I was chancing my arm with writing and hoped to visit Maugherow to see him and get feedback on some poems I’d written. As he scribbled his autograph, I nervously put the idea to him. He wasn’t averse to it, and in fact seemed happy to know that his earlier encouragement of me had taken effect. Although I was overjoyed by his interest, I did not want to make too much of it. To have his mentorship would be a high honour indeed because he was a true writer, I felt, one who had mastered his interior troubles in full alignment with the storms that broke over his home each winter, the wind whispering harshly through the marram grass, the taste of salt, roar of freshly-broken waves, geese in full flight, the bristling life in everything he set down so carefully on the page.
Yet, in any case, I never arranged to make that trip, nor have that conversation with him. I have few regrets, but this is one of them. If I felt a neophyte’s awe for the master, then so too did I feel the young man’s harsh fear of being an annoyance. There were also many people around, waiting a turn to speak with him. We shook hands with vague promises to meet up again soon. As I left the theatre, I saw Dermot immersed in conversation with Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and Roddy Doyle, all of whom had been in the audience. Four of this country’s finest writers, whose work I’d read and admired and pored over, were all together in the same room. To a young writer, it felt a bit like seeing the gods, though that is perhaps stretching things a bit. At the time of writing this, two of them are now deceased.
Instead, I tentatively emailed him some of the poems I’d written. Looking back, they are not poems I’d ever dare allow into the light of day, but they were the best I could offer at the time. Dermot’s response was heartening: “Great physical and philosophical poems; you have a great grip on the brain and the surrounds of jazz and rhyme; on you go.” To receive words of encouragement from a master was enough to keep me going.
Upon hearing of his untimely death in June of 2014, I was indeed shaken to my core. It was months and even years before I could bring myself to begin putting the loss into words. Yet the canon he left behind and the memories I have of him are imperishable.
“Know the worth of what you’re doing before anyone else,” was what he’d tell me. I was glad to have known him as I did, and I urge you all to read his work.
I’ll leave you with his poem ‘Light’: “Each scrap of daylight / that crosses the sill / is a blank page which I must fill.”
Daniel Wade is a poet and playwright from Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland. In January 2017, his play The Collector opened the 20th anniversary season of the New Theatre, Dublin. In January 2020 his radio drama Crossing the Red Line was broadcast on RTE Radio 1 Extra, and later won a silver award at the New York Festivals Radio Awards for Best Digital Drama. Wade was the Hennessy New Irish Writing winner for April 2015 in The Irish Times, and his poetry and short fiction have been featured in over two dozen publications since 2012. His debut collection Rapids is due to be published by Finishing Line Press in 2021.