Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Goats Are Singing - A Goat's Song

The Goats Are Singing
A Goat's Song - Dermot Healy

They say that character is fate and that that is the key to great tragedy. A Goat's Song has a character damaged by sobriety and one damaged by drink. The real tragedy, though, is not to be found in character but in a country, divided.

If you want to see a character fall you have to walk him over the edge and Jack Ferris, playwright, fisherman, drunk and lover does just that. Healy, who lived where Jack lives, on the western edge of Mayo, seems to have had an instinctive understanding that the marginal sees clearest, and while Jack feels the pull of Belfast and Dublin, it is the sea that hauls hardest and he always returns to the peninsula and the fishing boats.

The pull of the two cities is mostly due to Catherine Adams, one of two Northern Protestant sisters who's parents bought an old lightkeeper's  house on the peninsula. Their father Jonathan was an RUC man who was caught up in an infamous attack by the police on a Civil Rights march in Belfast. Ignorant of the TV camera focused on him he gave vent to his worst feelings and became a poster boy for police brutality in scenes that would replay over and over whenever the 'Troubles' were featured on television.

After retirement the family spends more and more time in their southern retreat which allows them to escape the fear that envelops them in the north. He, who had kept notes on all his neighbours which grew into an 'intelligence' file to be used as the Troubles escalated is afraid that the locals may have some intelligence on him. He does not want to be revealed as some kind of bogey man and when his Southern neighbours travel North for his funeral they are surprised to find out that he was a RUC man.

He is also afraid of his daughter's independence, of their sexuality. He is a moral man but his morals are rigid and restrictive, and distorted by prejudice and fear. However, his need to remain invisible in the South gains the girls a level of independence they didn't have in the North. "Life in the South was the beginning of freedom for the girls. To curtail them as he'd done at home would only draw attention to Jonathan Adams. He disapproved and yet consented when they asked to attend dances in the Barber's Hall. Discos in Belmullet. The Chieftains in Castlebar. The Dubliners in Pontoon." A later, crucial scene will take place at a Folk Festival headlined by Planxty, which seems like a good excuse to break up this review with some music.

He finds some kind of equilibrium for a while researching the history of protestants on the Mullet Peninsula, a lost tribe, and their lost traditions.  "The South was a museum in which Jonathan Adams, at least, wandered as a stranger. It stored quaint phrasing, soft vowels, superstitions, unpunctual tradesmen, maddening loungers, stray donkeys." He also attempts to learn to speak Irish, thinking that it will help him fit in, and allow him to do better research, to bring about, even, a coming together of the two sides of him, in what is described as "Jonathan Adams' search for some marvellous reconciliation."

Jack and Catherine crossed the border in the opposite direction to live in Belfast where Catherine worked in a community theatre. Jack feels impelled to explore his surroundings from their home in a Loyalist area. He hobnobs, variously, with everyone from off duty RUC men to loyalist youths, to Republicans, to an ex-English soldier who owns a bookshop, even entering a pub in an area he knows to be dangerous in which he meets a pimp who shows him pictures of young girls. He ends up "scared out of his wits yet turning maudlin and drunk, watching an old melodrama." In another he is shown a gun and teeters on the brink of being shot. It was not a city to be drunk and careless in and only the knowledge that this is a flashback tempers the sense of impending doom.

It is a place where you have to belong to one side or the other. Neutrality is not an option. Catherine is consumed by worry that something will happen to Jack and considers doing more to fit in. "Do you know that Helen Wynne goes to mass? I'm beginning to think she's right. We don't believe in anything but we suffer for breaking the rules all the same."

There is a tension throughout the book between being trapped in a tribal or individual sense of being and belonging and the possibilities of metamorphosis. Is it possible to become something new? The book opens with the possibility of Jack and Catherine coming back together again but we only find them together in the past. For there to be some kind of reconciliation there must be change. Near the end of his life Jonathan Adams listens to readings of the old Irish myth of The Salmon of Knowledge and the many changes that occur in it. In the tale Fionn licks his finger when cooking the salmon that his master Aengus has sought for many years. Instantly he changes into a woman and Aengus falls in love, "not knowing if he loved her because she was a woman, or because she possessed the knowledge he craved." Knowledge may prove a curse, though, for Fionn "shall never know human shape again. He may turn into what he is not. That, the knowledge will allow. He can be a girl today, a bird tomorrow. A fir tree the day after. He can exhaust all possible shapes but can never return to be a man again."

Jack is also presented as having been transformed from a man into a billy-goat: "He was the deer with the beard, the tragelaph, whining each night for the return of his beloved who he himself had sent away." The novel is his song, the goat's song, a tragedy. It is how he introduced himself to Catherine.
""I do a spot of writing. And I fish here for the summer on the boats."
This made her pause. "Writing," she said disbelievingly. "What sort of writing?"
"Plays. I'm interested in plays."
"What kind?"
"I pen songs of the buck. Billy tunes."
"I'm sorry?"
"Goat songs."
"Is that so?"
"That'd be the height of it."
Catherine looked at him. "That's all very interesting. But I don't know what you're talking about."
"Tragedies. Tragos - goat. Oide - song. From the Greek.""

The novel is full of wonderful observations and set pieces on top of it's powerful expression of how difficult it is to be ourselves, especially with others. The hold which drink has over Jack is powerfully portrayed, the ease with which attempts at sobriety can come to an end "It was only as he entered the sun lounge that Jack became aware of the glass in his hand." There is comedy amoung the tragedy as well, such as the time Jack "opened the front door to find an elderly Irish playwright of the absurd standing there with his wife." The dinner they share is as absurd as it should be.

It also tells us that we can tell all the stories but our own. And surely it is in our own life and how we live it that imagination becomes most apparent, or the lack of it. "For the first time, after all the sleepless nights, he considered the word illness, which led to the word disease, which led to the phrase failure of the imagination. For the first time in his life he had a slight insight into what the word imagination might mean. To live on in a different world, to transcend, to enter a new story. As they passed through Crossmolina he realised that it was not going to happen."

I wanted to live in this book longer than I did, feeling the excitement of its attempt to encapsulate so much of the character of Ireland, and it's grief. Just like Catherine tries to escape her grief for her father in books: "Finishing a book was something she never wanted to do. And it was not just being steeped in the character or plot - it was a fright to her that a feeble story could contain a truth that assembled far from the meaning of the actual words."

The book begins and ends with a letter from Catherine to Jack, promising the resurrection of their love, so that they can "grow old and sober together." But, by the end, it is clear that this will hardly prove to be the case. Borders, once drawn, become difficult to erase. When it seems that hope lies in the past and it is easy to fall under the narcotic spell of nostalgia. But life also wreaks change upon us, and where there is change there is hope.


  1. This is a wonderful review, Seamus. I read the book a long time ago and it brings it all back. The quote from the book about a character's failure of the imagination - is that Jonathan?

    1. Thanks Brendan. That quote is from Jack, early in the book.