Healy, James (1824–94), priest and raconteur, was born 15 December 1824 in Francis St., Dublin, son of John Healy, provision merchant, and his first wife, Mary (née Meyler), who was from Co. Wexford. There were twenty-three children in the family. James was to inherit his father's humour and hospitable nature. He proceeded from the Vincentian School, Usher's Quay, Dublin (entered 1834), to St Vincent's College, Castleknock (1839), first as a student and later as a novice and monitor. He decided not to become a Vincentian priest; instead he matriculated 11 September 1843 at Maynooth College. In the academic year 1847–8 he became a Dunboyne student. He left Maynooth in 1850, becoming a reader at St Andrew's church, Westland Row, Dublin, and chaplain to the Sisters of Mercy in Baggot St. In 1852 he was appointed curate at St Michael and St John's, Dublin. His fellow curate and friend was the somewhat eccentric Rev. C. P. Meehan (qv). Healy lived in an attic next to Meehan in the chapel house, Smock Alley. They dined together, but often in silence. As he stood at Meehan's deathbed forty years later, Healy brushed away a tear – the only thing, he remarked, that had been brushed in that room for many years.
Healy was devoted to his priestly calling, fearlessly risking his life during the cholera epidemic of 1849; on one occasion he lay down beside a cholera patient to hear his last confession (Memories, 41). He retained his sense of humour even while visiting the sick. On one occasion he was informed a man had been shot. The messenger said that the gun ‘went off, grazin’ his toes and carryin’ away his shoe’. Mimicking the voice of the envoy, Healy replied, ‘Why, this is a case of shoe-aside’ (Memories, 67). In 1858 Healy was transferred by Paul Cullen (qv) to a curacy at Bray, Co. Wicklow. Cullen appointed him in 1867 administrator of Little Bray, Co. Dublin, then attached to the parish of Kingstown. A year later he was appointed parish priest of the newly separated parish of Little Bray, where he remained till appointed (1893) parish priest of Ballybrack, Killiney, and Cabinteely, Co. Dublin. On his translation, Little Bray was merged with Great Bray. Healy maintained a businesslike relationship with Cullen but lamented that the cardinal's successor, Edward McCabe (qv), lacked a sense of humour.
Healy's ecumenical views and sociability led to friendships with the local protestant gentry, including the family of the earl of Meath at Kilruddery, the Wingfields at Powerscourt, and the Mocks. Other protestant friends included Chief Justice James Whiteside (qv), Lord Frederick Cavendish (qv), and Lord Justice Gerald Fitzgibbon (qv) (d.1909). Healy regularly visited Judge William Keogh (qv), a bon vivant who lived at Bushy Park, Bray. Dr Henry Maunsell (qv), owner of the Dublin Evening Mail, who lived in Delgany, was another friend. During Gladstone's first visit to Ireland in 1877 Healy was introduced to him at Earl Fitzwilliam's mansion at Coolattin, Co. Wicklow. In Healy's lifetime, such connections (which included membership of the Howth circle frequented by Lord Randolph Churchill) would have been highly unusual. Others were sometimes jealous of his social success; once when asked whence he had derived his ability to mingle with the upper classes, he replied: ‘It must be from my mother I got it, for papa was as common as any of you’ (Gwynn, 234).
In 1879 he visited Rome, Malta, and Egypt. He joked that he visited the ancient city of Helipolis in Egypt ‘to see if any of [our] family were left there’ (Gwynn, 217). In 1886 he visited New York, Washington, Chicago, and Baltimore. His health began to fail in 1889; he suffered from gallstones and dyspepsia, and went to the spa at Carlsbad (in what was then Bohemia). In January 1892 he travelled in Spain and Italy. Ill health returned in August 1894, but this time a visit to Carlsbad failed to restore him. He died at the presbytery, Ballybrack, on 28 October 1894 and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. His good friend J. P. Mahaffy (qv) wrote: ‘He probably at no time commanded more than £200 a year – his parish was the poorest in the diocese . . . he made himself beloved of his parishioners, approved by his diocesan, the favoured guest of the great, the model of what an Irish priest might be to meet him in the street was like passing suddenly into sunshine’ (Memories, 216, and webpage). His geniality made him one of the best-known priests of his time, and his anecdotes and witticisms were long remembered. Albert E. Murray (d. 1924), designed a memorial to him at Bray (1895), which was erected by subscription.