Healy, Cahir (1877–1970), nationalist politician and language revivalist, was born Charles Everard Healy, on 2 December 1877 at Doorin, near Mountcharles, Co. Donegal, the son of Patrick Healy, a small farmer and merchant. A catholic, he was educated at Drimcoo interdenominational national school, which must have contributed to the spirit of broad-minded tolerance that marked his long political career. After study at Derry Technical School he became a journalist, working for the Fermanagh News, Roscommon Herald, and Sligo Times, and in 1897 married Catherine Cresswell of Enniskillen, who belonged to the Church of Ireland. About 1900 Healy left journalism and became an insurance supervisor, settling at Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh.
The product of a bilingual household, Healy was active in the Gaelic revival of 1893–1916: he wrote articles and verse for Shan Van Vocht, an advanced nationalist journal published in Belfast by Alice Milligan (qv) and Anna Johnston (qv) (under ‘Ethna Carbery’), frequented F. J. Bigger's (qv) advanced nationalist ‘Ard Righ’ circle in Belfast, and was a founder of the Gaelic League and the GAA in Co. Fermanagh in the early 1900s. A founder of the Fermanagh feis, he brought in the later revolutionary Patrick Pearse (qv) to open it in 1916. He was present when Sinn Féin was launched by Arthur Griffith (qv) at a historic meeting in Dublin in 1905; as a convinced separatist, he strongly supported Sinn Féin's novel policy of dual monarchy, and subsequently campaigned for the party with Griffith during the North Leitrim by-election in February 1908. When Sinn Féin was defeated Healy joined the revolutionary IRB; although he was not involved in the 1916 Easter rising, following the ‘blood sacrifice’ of the IRB leaders his admiration for them intensified until he could eulogise them as: ‘Ye Holy dead Who died that we Might taste the sweet of liberty’. (Catholic Bulletin, 1918).
By 1918 Healy was a leading member of the Sinn Féin movement in Ulster and he was prosecuted for opposing wartime conscription. He campaigned for the party in the election of December 1918, which saw the return of Griffith in North-West Tyrone and Sean O'Mahony in South Fermanagh. During the war of independence of 1919–21 he took advantage of the peripatetic nature of his job to promote the revolutionary movement over a large area of Fermanagh, Leitrim, and Sligo, where he set up republican arbitration courts. As a northerner, Healy was preoccupied, above all, with preventing partition, and in August 1921 he led a deputation from the nationalist-controlled Fermanagh county council to Dublin to impress on Éamon de Valera (qv) the county's claim to be included in an Irish state. Although the stand against partition failed, when the Anglo–Irish treaty was signed in December 1921 Healy shared the ill-fated optimism of border nationalists – reinforced by assurances from Griffith and Michael Collins (qv) – that the boundary commission set up under the treaty would ensure the transfer of Fermanagh and Tyrone to the Irish Free State. In an attempt to undermine the authority of the new Northern Ireland government, Healy threw his support behind Collins's policy of ‘non-recognition’ of the northern state in education and local government from January 1922 onwards, but he was later to criticise ‘the rather jumpy efforts which, with Collins, passed for statecraft’ (Ulster Herald, 21 Feb. 1925). None of the Sinn Féin leaders, he declared, understood the ‘northern situation or the northern mind’.
In April 1922 Collins appointed Healy to serve on the provisional government's north-eastern advisory committee, set up to formulate a northern policy following the breakdown of the agreement between Collins and James Craig (qv), the so-called ‘Craig–Collins pact’ of 31 March. His membership of this body, together with his efforts to prepare the Fermanagh nationalist case for the boundary commission, indicted him in the view of the unionist authorities, and he was interned in May 1922, along with 500 republican suspects, on the Argenta, a converted cargo vessel in Belfast Lough. It was not until he had been twice elected to the Westminster parliament – in 1922 and 1923 – as a Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh and Tyrone that the Craig administration grudgingly acceded to appeals from the British and Free State governments for his unconditional release in February 1924. The Irish government was determined that Healy, as ‘one of the sanest and most far-seeing leaders of northern nationalism’ (Phoenix, Northern nationalism, 294), should take his seat so as to keep the boundary issue alive. While opponents of the treaty attacked his ‘fruitless apostasy’ in the press, Healy believed that de Valera's irregulars were the real betrayers because their ‘reckless actions’ had delayed a decision on the boundary.
During 1924–5 Healy worked closely with the Free State boundary bureau in preparing the case of the border nationalists for presentation to the boundary commission. He demanded that the Irish government should insist on a plebiscite in border districts but his appeal was ignored, and he was vindicated in his expectation of failure when in November 1925 the commission collapsed following a leaked report confirming that it had recommended only minor changes in the 1920 boundary. The tripartite agreement of 3 December 1925, by which the Free State government recognised the 1920 border in return for financial concessions and the suppression of the report, led to an irreparable breach in Healy's relations with the pro-treaty administration: the northern nationalists, he declared, had been ‘sold into political servitude for all time’ (Healy to editor, Ir. Independent, 30 Nov. 1925; Healy papers, PRONI, D2991/B/1/10A).
Healy was elected to the Northern Ireland parliament as a nationalist MP for Fermanagh and Tyrone in 1925. He took the realistic view that a reconciliation between his own border supporters and the home rule remnant under the Belfast politician Joseph Devlin (qv) was the only means of reuniting nationalism and providing effective political leadership for the demoralised minority. In 1928 he and Devlin founded the National League of the North, a nationalist party committed to bringing about Irish unity by consent and constructive opposition in parliament. But his desire to promote a less sectarian political system was thwarted by Craigavon's abolition of proportional representation in 1929, and by 1932, when all hope of pursuing their ends by constitutional means seemed futile, Healy, Devlin, and their small party walked out of the Northern Ireland parliament in frustration.
When Devlin died in 1934, Healy assumed the role of nationalist leader. However, his Sinn Féin background and Fianna Fáil orientation made him suspect among the old Redmondite wing of the party, which identified with the Belfast MP T. J. Campbell (qv), and he faced increasing opposition from republicans and the advocates of an abstentionist policy. Until 1935 Healy, in common with the majority of his colleagues, boycotted Stormont and waited for de Valera – now returned to power in Dublin – to reopen the partition question. In 1936, at Healy's instigation, the British National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) mounted an inquiry into the operation of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act; the result was a damning indictment of the unionist regime. Healy always regarded Westminster as a valuable forum in which to air the minority's sense of injustice, and he played an active role there during two further periods as an MP (1931–5 and 1950–55).
Healy was bitterly disappointed by de Valera's failure to gain concessions on partition at the 1938 Anglo–Irish negotiations, but during the second world war he hoped that Britain's defence requirements might result in a British offer of Irish unity in return for the use of Irish ports by British forces. In July 1941 a letter that he had written to a Fermanagh parish priest about the likelihood of a German victory was intercepted and he was interned in Brixton prison for eighteen months under the Defence of the Realm Act. Among his fellow prisoners was the British fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, with whom he formed a lasting friendship.
After the war Healy sought to mobilise world opinion against the partition of Ireland, and to that end in 1945 co-founded the broadly based Anti-Partition League (APL), along with James McSparran (qv) and Malachy Conlon (qv). He also helped Hugh Delargy, a Labour MP at Westminster, to establish the Friends of Ireland, a parliamentary pressure group. The decline of the APL coincided with the IRA border campaign of the 1950s; Healy was a vigorous opponent of the use of force and continued to advocate peaceful constitutional means for achieving Irish unity, both during his last years as a Westminster MP and until he retired from political activity some ten years later. He was the author of the pamphlet The mutilation of a nation (1945), which sold 20,000 copies and became the ‘bible’ of every anti-partition orator, including de Valera. Moreover, in his later years he became convinced that the abstentionist policy that he had earlier supported was unavailing. He was scathing towards his inflexible republican opponents, accusing them of failing to ‘face realities’ and ‘thriving on a diet of theories’ (Healy to O'Kelly, 1 May 1948, PRONI, D2991/A/166B, Healy papers).
Despite his passionate commitment to Irish unity, Healy was sceptical of nationalist attempts in the post-war years to gain admission to the dáil for the representatives of the northern minority. ‘We have no work to do in the dáil’, he wrote in 1950, ‘we are needed outside badly’ (Healy to Canon T. Maguire, 5 Nov. 1950, PRONI, D2991/B/4/11B, Healy papers). His desire for dialogue between the two traditions in Northern Ireland led him to support the ill-fated ‘Orange and Green talks’ between leaders of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Orange order in 1962–3. (In an effort to promote greater north–south understanding, he had been instrumental in arranging in 1949 a private meeting between the Northern Ireland prime minister, Sir Basil Brooke (qv) and the Irish minister for external affairs, Seán MacBride (qv).) He was sensitive to the mounting criticism of the image and structure of the nationalist party from such middle-class ginger groups as National Unity in the early 1960s, and suspected that such critics really wished to supplant the traditional party. However, he was alive to the possibility of Westminster intervention after the return of the Labour government in 1964, and sought to draw Harold Wilson's attention to the system of gerrymandering and discrimination in Northern Ireland.
When Healy finally retired from Irish public life in 1965 at the age of 87, having been returned by Fermanagh South in every Stormount election from 1929, he had attained an almost patriarchal status within the legislature whose very creation he had opposed. In his last years he turned his attention to Irish history and folklore, on which he wrote numerous articles for the Irish, British and United States media. He was a founder member and trustee of the Ulster Folk Museum in the 1960s. His personal friendships were eclectic and included the unionist MP and historian H. Montgomery Hyde (qv), the left-wing socialist republican C. Desmond Greaves (qv), Seán MacBride, and Sir Shane Leslie (qv), writer and cousin of Winston Churchill.
Healy's career provides a focus for a study of the political fortunes of the northern nationalist minority from the onset of partition until the late 1960s. He represented a distinctive strand within the nationalist movement whose political origins lay with the original Sinn Féin party rather than with the Irish party of Redmond and Devlin. A member of the IRB after 1908 and an early admirer of the Easter rising, he was later to combine the rejection of physical force with an unswerving attachment to the ideal of a united and independent Ireland. A fervent supporter of the view that the boundary commission would render the fledgling northern state non-viable, he recovered from his deep sense of betrayal by the Free State government and joined with Joe Devlin in creating a constitutional nationalist party in 1928. In 1932, despairing of any hope of achieving reform at Stormont, he looked to de Valera and, to a lesser extent, the British government to undo partition. He saw the Irish language as a badge of national identity for nationalists and identified the nationalist party closely with its revival in the 1930s and 1940s. In later years, Healy adopted a more conciliatory attitude towards Ulster unionism and expressed the view that the 1916 rising had made partition inevitable.
He died 8 February 1970 at the Erne Hospital, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, and was buried three days later in Breandrum cemetery. His wife predeceased him in 1948. He was survived by his three children, Victor and Peter (both bank managers) and Dr May Leavy, a medical doctor in Co. Monaghan. Apart from The mutilation of a nation (1945), he was the author (with Cathal O'Byrne (qv)) of a volume of poetry, The lane of the thrushes (1907) and wrote an unpublished account of his internment experiences of 1922–4 entitled ‘Two years on a prison ship’ (PRONI D2291/C).
He stands out as one of the few leading Sinn Féin figures from Ulster in the years 1917–22, as a significant leader of constitutional nationalism in the Northern Ireland under Stormont, and as a largely self-educated man who made a wide-ranging contribution to Ireland's literary and cultural heritage. Personally charming and erudite, Healy, with his quiet advocacy of a tolerant, non-sectarian form of nationalism, earned the respect of political opponents.