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Dermot Healy: A Goat’s Song

The title comes from the literal meaning of the word tragedy, which translates as goat’s song. However, this book, while it has tragic elements, is certainly not a tragedy, having a more or less happy (and artificial) ending. It is a love story, though a decidedly messy one, but also a story of the difference between the North and South of Ireland during the period of the Troubles. We start and end with the relationship between Jack Ferris, a playwright, drunk and occasional seagoing fisherman from the Republic of Ireland and Catherine Adams, an actress and also a drunk, from the North. At the start of the book, Jack has recently finished a play, which is in rehearsal and is to star Catherine. Despite the fact that she says that she loves him, they have split up, primarily because of his drinking and she refuses to see him or even to speak to him. He lives on the Mullet Peninsula and spends the early part of the book wandering round there and going to Dublin, missing her and drinking.

Healy then takes us into her background. Her father is Jonathan Adams, a Protestant policeman in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). He is a fairly decent sort of policeman till he is called on to resist a civil rights march passing through Derry and does what he thinks is his bit. However, when he sees a TV report, he is readily visible beating defenceless civilians. It is this as much as anything else that persuades him to go and spend the summer in the South of Ireland, specifically the Mullet Peninsula. The family – he has another daughter, Sara, beside Catherine – spend their summers there and Jonathan makes considerable efforts to understand the Southern Irish, reading the history and legends and even trying to learn Irish. When he retires, it is to Mullet that he retires. Jonathan eventually gets ill and dies but, in the meanwhile, Catherine has started her affair with Jack, whom she met through her sister. Their somewhat tempestuous affair is punctuated with a lot of drinking. Jack spends time with her in Belfast, nominally doing research for a play about the North but finds himself getting deeper and deeper into dangerous territory, till the two are forced to leave, as his life is at risk.

Healy’s novel is certainly messy and a bit of editing would not have hurt but he manages to tells an excellent story of the North/South divide as well as throwing in an uncomfortable love story which does not always really work but remains certainly lively. The character of Jonathan Adams is certainly well drawn, even if the his wife and older daughter remain somewhat sketchy. But maybe he is better as a playwright.

Publishing history

First published in 1994 by Collins Harvill