An Octopus at the Window
After publishing a prize-winning volume of short stories and an accomplished early novel, Dermot Healy won the plaudits of the literary world with A Goat’s Song, one of the most powerful pieces of fiction to emerge from Ireland in the past few decades. It was published in 1994, just as the Celtic Tiger was starting to roar, but belonged in spirit to an earlier, less well-heeled and self-assured society. Most of the book is set on the wild western coast of County Mayo, a place with some symbolic resonance in Irish letters. It is the setting for Synge’s great drama The Playboy of the Western World, and has come to be associated with all that the Celtic Tiger was busy putting behind it: priestcraft, mythology, the Celtic Revival, folk wisdom, romantic nationalism, dancing at the crossroads, an English language replete with the rhythms of Irish.
Synge, as it happens, was allergic to some of this as well. The Playboy of the Western World is a devastating critique of the rural west that so many of the Revivalists idealised. It is as full of violence, illusion, futility and sexual frustration as any of Martin McDonagh’s wicked parodies of the traditional Irish play. As the years of prosperity rolled on, some of the more doctrinaire modernisers grew increasingly contemptuous of their own history. The suggestion that aspects of traditional Irish culture were to be valued was only a breath away from wielding an Armalite. To speak of the Great Famine became morbid nostalgia. One of the half-dozen best Irish plays of the 20th century, Brian Friel’s Translations, evoked a few well-bred sneers from the Dublin literati for being set in 19th-century Irish-speaking Donegal. The play also takes the odd swipe at the British, which in liberal middle-class Irish circles is equivalent to cavorting around in a green suit brandishing a shillelagh.
In the years when the Gate and the Abbey were the two main theatres in Dublin, the former was run by a gay couple while the latter was noted for staging traditional Irish plays. The theatres were known as Sodom and Begorrah. Around the time of A Goat’s Song, Ireland was in transit from Begorrah to Sodom, from leprechauns to gay nightclubs. For the first time in its wretched colonial history, it was savouring the fruits of modernity: a booming high-tech economy, feminism, multiculturalism, secularism, liberal values, drugs, pornography, bent politicians, voracious greed, huge social inequalities and spectacular financial corruption.
A Goat’s Song fitted uneasily into this world. Healy’s west is not a region of computer chips and pharmaceuticals, but a place where clothes are boiled in a saucepan, brides-to-be are roped to poles and pelted with bags of soot, and men occasionally take their pleasure with donkeys. Not much Mary Robinson there. The novel includes a portrayal of a Northern Irish Free Presbyterian, done magnificently from the inside (Healy lives in County Sligo, which is within hailing distance of the North) but a good deal more cold-eyed than anything one would expect to find in the work of Sebastian Barry.
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