Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Goats are Singing - The Bend for Home

The Goats are Singing
The Bend for Home - Dermot Healy

My enjoyment of re-reading Healy's sparkling and generous memoirs has been enhanced by reading it alongside his other books. It is possible to see how many of the incidents outlined here have metamorphosed into parts of his fiction.

The forces that create the writer are at the very heart of this book, with even Healy's birth connected umbilically to the well of fiction. The book opens with the story of his birth, or at least the story he long believed was of his birth. The mix of humour and contrariness reminded me of Laurence Sterne, and also of Monty Python.

The doctor has paid one visit to Dermot's mother and decided that, as she will be a while yet, he will go down to Fitz's.
"Some time later she goes into labour again. My father runs up the village and gets the doctor from the pub. 
He feels her stomach, counts the intervals between the heaves, then says, move over.
My mother does. He unlaces his shoes and gets in beside her.
Call me ma'am, when you're ready, he says and falls into a drunken sleep."
Mary Sheridan is called and "at three in the morning the midwife delivers the child."

He goes on to tell us that "the child" "did not grow up to be me, although till recently I believed this was how I was born. Family stories were told so often that I always thought I was there. In fact, all this took place in a neighbour's house up the road, and it was my mother, not Mary Sheridan, arrived on her bike to lend a hand.
It is in a neighbour's house fiction begins."

Healy lets us know that he himself is an unreliable narrator, his own memories changed by the constant retelling. An inaccuracy in a lyric from the famous nineteenth century songwriter (and road engineer) Percy French which mentions Healy's birthplace Finea, inspires an early epiphany: "For the sake of a song Percy French got his geography amiss. Even road-engineers are capable of giving wrong directions in order to get a couplet true. And that's how I found out writers not only make up things, but get things wrong as well. Language, to be memorable, dispenses with accuracy."

Be wary reader!

But forewarned is forearmed and it is impossible for me to write this without expressing how thankful I feel for the generosity and openness of this memoir which traces a life which is not exemplary but is lived and considered. Also, as I pointed out above, the fictional work of Dermot Healy acts as a metatext to this memoir, as we can see how incidents from life have been polished and transplanted into fiction, either as narrative elements or simple character traits lent from the living to the fictional.

One of the most striking incidents in A Goat's Song relates how a man hangs himself between the Catholic and Protestant churches during mass. The memory of seeing this hanging man is of deep significance to the character of Catherine Adams. Healy tells us that he has a similar memory himself, although he is not sure if the memory is true. "I mind to see a man hanging from a tree. Maybe I didn't see a man but heard it from my mother. Whatever she saw I saw it again through her eyes, as I do now, writing this down."

In another passage I really enjoyed he mentions how Joyce used Mullingar in Ulysses as the place where Leopold Bloom's estranged daughter was dispatched 'in a brief haunting aside". He connects this with Joyce's own experience of Mullingar, which involved coming second in a feis, a singing competition. (Second to Count John McCormack, by the way. An honourable defeat) Healy considers how "He must have thought that County Westmeath had about it that sense of separation, of inwardness, of dullness even, that was necessary to portray a guilt over unfinished things. For it is the halfway house between the magic realism of the West and the bustling consciousness of the East."

He sees the relationship between fiction and reality with great acuity. The fictionalisation of life is something that everyone does but I guess the writer of fiction does it more openly.  Yeats pointed out that in the end all inspiration comes from "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart" where bits of memories lie waiting to be re-cycled.  This can be dangerous for those memories: "I've stolen so many of Maisie's phrases over the years and inserted them into the mouths and minds of fictional characters that she herself has become a work of the imagination." And memory too, can be a trap, especially when it is seasoned with nostalgia: "nostalgia that steals material from the same source as fiction, and then leaves the reality wanting."

I found myself using this book as a mirror in which to try and understand my own relationship with my memories of family, particularly my grandparents who lived in the same rural milieu that Healy so brilliantly captures. He also catches town life, as his family moved from the small village of Finea to the bigger town of Cavan. His mother and aunt ran Milseanacht Briefne (The Sweets of Cavan) a bakery/restaurant which they were left by an aunt of theirs. He writes of his discovery of an attic full of old memorabilia including a medical text book which along with the smell of flour from the bakery below becomes fused with his sexual awakening. He also finds "receipt books from the 1920's, with each item entered in copperplate writing. The symbol for the pound note was drawn in like a ballet dancer."This memory was used in his creation of the top floor in the bank in the story The Tenant from Banished Misfortune.

He also finds books in the attic and retreats there to read and "It was that attic that made me want to write. The first real essay I wrote was about rain. " "I stole the lines from a book by Charles Lamb that I found in the attic. Imagination, says Brodsky the Russian poet in his book Less Than One, begins with our first lie."

A large part of the book is made up of one of Healy's own diaries from his adolescence, written in "a code so good I could hardly decipher it." This gives a hot immediacy to the account of his coming of age, and it allows Healy to avoid the trap of nostalgia. His mother had kept the diary and she gives it to him, a quarter century after it was written. It helps fill in gaps in his own memory, as, after his father's death "A void opened". And it is no wonder. Healy writes tenderly and heartbreakingly about his father's illness and the easy closeness that develops between them. It makes an interesting contrast to the relationship between John McGahern and his father in his Memoir. The trauma is increased when his distraught mother goes with one of her sisters to London, leaving Dermot to be brought up for a long while by his aunt Maisie, the staff of the Milseanacht Briefne his teachers, and the streets of Cavan.

Maisie could be tough, but she was loving; teachers were sometimes brutal but the streets are recreated with an excited sense of the particular. I was reminded of Proust's descriptions of Paris waking to meet the new day, although here there is the easy familiarity of the small town boy who knows the streets and the people on them like his two times tables. I feel like a long quote:
"It was again Thursday, half-day in Cavan town. The haranguing public were barred form the door. The ladies mellowed. It felt like a home again.
Soon after noon, all activity ceased. The town gave a sigh of relief.
Potato sacks were taken in, shop gates raised, grids pulled across displays; the restaurant closed; the bells on the doors of the grocers went quiet; Maisie emptied the till, and the shop went dark; Flood's flowers were brought indoors and watered; today's bread was put in behind yesterday's; the shift changed in the barracks; the last cones were served in Katie Bannon's; Hughie Smith, the county secretary of the GAA, stood on the steps of the courthouse, stroked the sparse down of grey hair on his chin, and headed in the direction of the White Star; the cobbler wet his thumb, cut a deck of cards and began a game of poker in the CYMS snooker hall; Mr Tom McKenna, in a large neat pinstripe suit, stepped carefully on stockinged feet into his window to undress a model; Maisie paused in the entry and, with one hand on her hip, sneezed; Hickey's the butchers pulled in their awnings; the man left the caravan at the weighbridge; the bank manager's wife stood estranged at her window looking down on the town; Mother hung out clothes to dry; a dog sprinted across Breifne Park; five labourers sat eating sandwiches and drinking milk in an Anglia on Main Street; a woman steered a pram down the town archway; Brother Cyril threw the glantoir for wiping the blackboard at someone; a traveller for Jacob's Biscuits stood behind the faded curtains of the White Swan and wiped his glasses; Mrs Battle put away her camphor balls; Fox's shoes and wellingtons and high heels were taken indoors; Vera Brady's Fashions was shut; business came to an end in the Central Café and Mrs McManus (née Moloco) broke into raucous Italian; the post office workers leaned against Whelan's and watched with envy the town close down."

The book ends with a description of the time Healy spent looking after his mother as age and ill health gradually wore her down. It is tender but true, including the harsh facts but bringing a sense of the wonder of life to this account of it's extinguishing. Like Jonathan Adams approaching his death in A Goat's Song he finds himself thinking of myth, particularly the myth of Hy Brasil, an island which was supped to rise from the sea just off the coast of Sligo where Healy settled as an adult. He tries to lose himself in the myth: "But the minute I start imagining it, my mind refuses Hy Brasil. The language won't budge. Instead I think of trivial things, irritations, domestic affairs; a dream of the previous night where an old lover, with astounding familiarity, visited, and a book I can't finish writing presented itself. Nursing. Drinking. How the smell of my mother's waste made me retch as I cleaned her this morning.
But I suppose those who dreamed up Hy Brazil must have also known these irritations and mood swings. Mythology is full of sordidness. The fears of storytellers are exaggerated in the tales. The unbelievable takes on a human presence. What has happened repeatedly turns into a ritual. What has not happened turns into mystery. The island is peopled with our uncertainties. Peace is only allowed a certain passage of time before terror intrudes again.
So that is how it must be on Hy Brazil for those who live there, and how it must have been for the makers of Hy Brazil, the ones that dreamed it up and make it sink and make it rise.
It's not the island that rises out of the sea but the observer out of the torpor of everyday. And on the Hy Brazil I imagine there is someone looking back on us, wishing that they might begin again, be trapped once more among all that human and domestic trivia. Someone out there would probably like to swap places with me, they'd like to hear human voices again, listen to human despair and laughter, wake to a new day."

In life I never met Dermot Healy, but in the pages of this book I can meet him whenever I want. A great writer and humanist, and one I will choose to meet up with at regular intervals through whatever time is left for me.

Photo Appendix:

I was looking online for an image of the Milseanacht Briefne but didn't find one. However I did find this from the programme for an award winning production of Waiting For Godot produced by Dermot which is archived HERE. I found the notes on the production echoing with the voice of the writer of The Bend for Home.


  1. Great post, Seamus. How interesting it must be to read Healy's memoir alongside his fiction looking for examples of how scenes and themes from his own life have made their way into his work. I love the extended quote on the town shutting down after midday. It reminds me a little of childhood holidays to my aunt's house in Co. Cork (my mother's family hail from there).

    1. Yes, it's been really interesting to read all the books together. I'm really enjoying his final novel (Long Time, No See) at the moment and will be sad to finish - although I've made lots of reading commitments and am not short of plans.
      Healy really finds the beat of Irish rural life, doesn't he? It's my childhood holidays I connect these pictures to as well, although I now live in the Irish midlands.

    2. He does. The rhythm and pace of life come across in the passages you've quoted. Looking forward to reading your review of his final novel.