Ballintra, a small village on the coast of northwest Ireland, is home to the inhabitants of Dermot Healy’s first novel in more than a decade. Long Time, No See focuses on a group of characters bound by blood, geography, love, enmity and the knowledge of one another’s secrets. This story raises questions about what it means to be a good neighbor, exploring the intricate complexities of old friendships, the routines and rituals of daily life and the gradual process of recovery that follows the experience of a major loss.
The story is narrated by a young man named Philip Feeney (referred to as Psyche) who devotes much of his time to helping out his aging granduncle Joejoe and Joejoe’s neighbor the Blackbird. The story begins approximately one year after Psyche undergoes a traumatic experience, the fallout of which casts a heaviness over the entire novel.
Joejoe’s friendship with the Blackbird takes center stage when a bullet is shot through Joejoe’s window sometime after the two neighbors had shared a bottle of Malibu rum and the Blackbird had seemingly gone home. This incident disrupts the otherwise sleepy neighborhood and leads Psyche’s father to wonder if the two friends can no longer handle their beloved drink. He also seems suspicious of the Blackbird in general, though for unknown reasons.
Frequent storms and pounding surf work their way into the novel’s atmosphere, providing a fitting backdrop for the tension mounting between these colorful characters. Who sent the bullet through Joejoe’s window? Why does the recently graduated Psyche prefer to spend more of his time constructing stone walls than hanging out with his girlfriend? What does the Blackbird mean when he says he held the last of Ireland’s fairies in his palm? For such a small village, Ballintra seems to hold more than its fair share of mysteries and puzzling figures.
In this novel, Dermot Healy explores the rhythms of contemporary Irish life with a cast of memorably eccentric characters. A master at capturing conversational subtleties and crafting distinct voices, Psyche and his parents, Uncle Joejoe and the Blackbird, Ms. Jilly, Anna and an array of neighbors and travelers bring this tight knit community to life in an exploration of what it means to depend on the kindness, and forgiveness, of others.
Dermot Healy was born in 1947 in Finnea, County Westmeath, Ireland. He is a playwright, poet and novelist, and governing member of Aosdana, an Irish association for Artists. Mr. Healy has received the Hennessy Award for Short Stories (1974 and 1976) the Tom Gallon award (1983), the Encore Award (1995), and he won the 2002 America Ireland Literary Award. He lives in Country Sligo, Ireland.
Q. You have written both novels and plays. Long Time, No See is told mostly through dialogue. How did you decide to write this story as a novel rather than a play for the stage?
I did not intend to write the novel at any time as a play. My intention was to let the reader fill in the plot by listening to the voices and watching the landscape. There are also descriptive sequences in the book without dialogue, but again the interior lives of the characters are avoided. Mister Psyche sees and hears but can never quite tell what the story really is, though he is the psyche.
All he can do is listen. I wanted to hand on that dilemma to the reader.
Q. Did your early experience of living in a small village inform your depiction of life in Ballintra? How did you choose this as the novel’s setting?
I now live by the sea in Sligo, and so the landscape and neighbors here have provided much of the inspiration, but growing up in Finnea by Lough Sheelin would have started the journey.
The wake, with folk sitting up all night with the corpse and neighbors digging the grave and filling it in with the mourners present, is still a tradition in these parts of Sligo.
Q. The friendship between Joejoe and the Blackbird is a complex depiction of companionship in old age. Are these characters based on people from your own life?
They would have been based on many local folk I met over the years, but especially the bachelors and spinsters I met in these parts when I moved in by the Atlantic, many lived alone, and as they met up with neighbors one of the keys to their characters is the lengthy conversations they hold with each other over sometimes mundane matters, but behind the scenes they were suggesting another world, of sadness and fatalism, and humor.
Q. In Long Time, No See you point out the modern Irish tendency towards language inflation (this, of course, is a problem in America as well), noting the overly used “Brilliant” and “Absolutely.” How do you feel about this shift in the way English is spoken?
What is amazing is how words that were seen as landlord talk have now entered the everyday conversation via the television.
“Absolutely” would in earlier times have been avoided by the common folk as would “At the End of the Day,” now they are repeated over and over throughout the day. Oh my God, is repeated over and over by folk who would not see themselves as religious. How we communicate via speech contains a story in itself. I was holding back on how the characters think in Long Time, No See.
Q. How do you write such convincing dialogue? Are you a habitual eavesdropper?
On a train I keep a notebook, noting down language use, and last thing at night the spoken words, heard on the streets, in the pub, in the kitchens, on the mobiles, the repeated talk of weather, of weather, of weather, Dear God, keep entering my consciousness.
Eventually the plot became speech patterns, and then silence.
Q. Who are your main literary influences?
The novel and short storyIsaac Babel, Sam Beckett, Annie Proulx, Borges, Maria Edgeworth, Kafka, Joyce, Mary Lavin, Herman Hesse, Aidan Higgins, Liam O’Flaherty, Raymond Carver, Charlie Dickens, Maupassant, Alice Munroe, Edgar Allan Poe, John Updike, Eudora Welty, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Coetzee, William Trevor and Elmore Leonard, who I discovered through Roddy Doyle and introduced me to the plain use of dialogue.
In poetrySeamus Heaney, Stevie Smith, Rilke, Ezra Pound, Richard Murphy, Emily Dickenson, Wallace Stephens, T. S. Elliot, Yeats, Lorca, Anna Akhmatova, Sylvia Plath, Nazim Hickmet, Miroslav Holub, Basho; and Irish Language Poets like Sean O’Riordain, Cathal Bui Mac Giolla Ghunna; and poems by the great Anonymous versifiers, translated by Lady Gregory among others. One of the great anthologies is The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.
PlaysBeckett, Jean Genet, Synge, Brian Friel, John Arden, Arthur Miller, Eugene McCabe, Tom McIntyre, Eugene Ionesco, Yeats, Shakespeare, and a host of others.
Q. We’d like to congratulate you on your latest book of poetry, Fool’s Errand, being shortlisted for the Poetry Now Award. How does your process for writing fiction and plays differ from writing poetry?
Fictioni.e., the novelfor me has to be written and worked at every day till over a period you reach the end of the first draught.
I am never quite sure what is going to happen next in the story, but one day lost can harm the process. If I leave the novel to pursue another discipline I may have to start the novel all over again upon my return. But if you work each day, even for a couple of hours, you open your consciousness, and find sleep is a great editor. Wakening, the story is beginning again.
Plays I work on for a number of weeks after keeping notebooks over a few months. The play could have been in the head for years, but once you start again it means working everyday, listening, watching. Plays are based both on the visual and the spoken. You have to keep that stage in view throughout the writing.
Poetry arrives from nowhere and appears nearly as one piece. I put it aside for a long time, and return down the line to see if there are any changes to be made.
That might take, in some cases, years. I often find poems hand written in old abandoned notebooks.
Sometimes there are mere lines waiting for the echo to catch.
Q. To what extent have Irish folktales and mythologies informed your work?
Irish mythology I would have used in A Goat’s Song, especially the story of “The Salmon of Knowledge,” and to a certain extent mythology does come in the back door of Long Time, No See.
The Bible has entered much of my work as have Latin and Greek mythology and verse.
But etymology, the history of words, is where I often find the meaning and the key to the story, plus the title. A Goat’s Song means tragedy; Fighting with Shadows came from sciamachy, both words of Greek origin with a long story hidden in their meaning.
Irish music also provides me with titlesBanished Misfortune, my book of short stories, is the name of a reel, but the music also provides me with hidden rhythms in the writing of poetry and in the layout of dialogue.
The visual world is also a prime source of inspiration, as is the sense of place and place names which have been Anglicized from the Irish language, and the story remains hidden till you chase down the meaning.
Our classwhen I was fourteenwas introduced to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. The teacher set aside one class a week for a novel that was not on the curriculum. It was a key moment for me. I could not wait for the Wednesdays to come when we’d read out the next section.
Q. How has Ireland’s tumultuous political history shaped your writing over the years?
Certainly events in The North of Ireland would have been the inspiration behind A Goat’s Song, but also emigration would have been the key to Sudden Times, and bird migration the key to A Fool’s Errand.
Q. Do you have a project that you’re working on now?
Been on the road a lot over the last year. Will soon have to turn back to a new poetry collection, and perhaps the odd short story or two.
If I say too much I’ll stand in my own way. Good luck.
- How does weather affect the tone of the novel and the moods of the characters?
- Early on, the Blackbird claims to have seen the last of the fairies before they left the country. What do you make of his remark, “I saw him all right but the question is . . . did he see me? . . . You see, what you don’t believe in might believe in you.”
- Psyche often reads to Uncle Joejoe in the evenings from the Psalms. How do these passages work within the narrative as a whole?
- How do rituals play a role in the lives of the characters?
- What does it mean to be a neighbor in the small town of Ballintra?
- What does Psyche’s act of building/rebuilding the stone wall symbolize? In what ways is Psyche “walled off” and in what ways is he vulnerable?
- Moby Dick is mentioned repeatedly throughout the novel. How does Melville’s classic work seem related to the story of Joejoe and the Blackbird?
- The story begins about a year after Psyche’s accident with Mickey, and the weight of this tragedy is palpable throughout the novel. How does Psyche’s ability to cope with loss change over the course of the novel?
- What roles do Joejoe and the Blackbird’s dogs, Timmy and Cnoic, play?
- Near the end of the novel, Ms. Jilly remarks on the community’s habit of using nicknames (such as the Blackbird and Psyche) saying, “We are all rechristened in this part of the world.” What significance do nicknames have in this story?