‘Banished Misfortune’ by Dermot Healy

In the early seventies, at the height of the Troubles, an Irish musician and his family set off on holiday from their farmhouse home in Fermanagh in the North to the city of Galway in on the West Coast. On arrival, McFarland the fiddler goes out alone, plays some reels, gets drunk and comes home to relate a story he’s been told to his sleeping wife. Somehow, Healy manages to pack into this deceptively slight tale levels of richness and intensity that have reverberated in my mind since I first read it in the early 1990s. The sense of family anticipation as they pack the car “talking in a holiday voice”, the feral beauty of the landscape (“the thump of chestnuts on the soft floor of the night”), the menacing helicopters and checkpoints, McFarland obsessively reading Scott’s account of his final trip to Pole, his wife wanting to take a young man’s mop of hair and “squeeze his face between my thighs so he might scarcely breathe”. The language is layered and nuanced and needs to be read and re-read slowly for the magic to take hold. Few writers can move from modernist interior monologue to comic vernacular dialogue like Healy. You sense that he is already building out towards something bigger, and it’s possible to read ‘Banished Misfortune’ as a dry run for A Goat’s Song, his masterpiece which wasn’t published until almost two decades later in 1994. The best line is given to McFarland’s father, not a musician but a self-taught master builder, who had raised the farmhouse his son’s family now live in from the rocks and trees of the land itself: “In a foot of land there’s a square mile of learning.”

First published in Best Irish Short Stories, edited by David Marcus, Elek Books, 1976 and collected in Banished Misfortune and Other Stories, Allison & Busby, 1982