Healy, John (1930–91), journalist, author, and editor, was born 22 April 1930 in Charlestown, Co. Mayo, eldest among three sons and two daughters of Stephen Healy, insurance agent, of Charlestown, and Nora Healy (née O'Donnell), nurse. He was educated at the primary school, Charlestown, and at St Nathy's College, Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon. He became one of the country's most influential and best-known journalists from the 1960s through to his death. He began his career with the Western People in Ballina, Co. Mayo. In 1950 he joined the Irish News Agency in Dublin. On the closure of the agency he joined the Irish Press, where he remained till 1959. He transferred to the Irish Times Ltd – which also published the Evening Mail and the Sunday Review. He served as editor of both publications at various times between 1959 and 1963. When the Evening Mail and Sunday Review ceased publication, he moved to the Irish Times, then under a new editor, Douglas Gageby (qv). Healy and Gageby were close collaborators and friends. They shared many interests including politics, the environment, fishing, and the development of the European Communities. Healy was convinced that membership of Europe could stimulate economic growth in the remote areas where government had failed.
While editor of the Sunday Review, Healy had written a political column entitled ‘Backbencher’. But it was its relaunch in the Irish Times in 1963 that gave him his first real journalistic success at national level. The column represented a radical break with the staid, respectful traditions of Irish journalism. Purporting to describe politics from within, it was well-informed, iconoclastic, and provocative. Simultaneously, he wrote a more conventional column, ‘Today in the dáil’. He became a well known public figure through appearances on the recently launched Telefís Éireann. He was a natural television performer – outspoken, forceful, and colourful. The central necessity of clear democratic accountability was a recurring theme in his writing. He was an enthusiastic proponent in the 1960s of the new economic growth programmes being pursued by the government of Seán Lemass (qv). His sources of journalistic information were many. They often included the young ministers of the Lemass administration, Charles Haughey, Donogh O'Malley (qv), and Brian Lenihan (qv) and others. Some also became his friends. He was particularly close to O'Malley, who died suddenly in 1968.
He campaigned unremittingly for more investment in schools, industry, and infrastructure in the west of Ireland. He frequently described himself as representing the views of those from the ‘snipegrass country’. His strong sense of identification with his native Co. Mayo generated two successful books, The death of an Irish town (1968) and Nineteen acres (1978), which addressed rural depopulation and decline. They were regarded as significant social documents and were frequently cited in public debate.
When Douglas Gageby stood down from the editorship of the Irish Times in 1974, John Healy discontinued the ‘Backbencher’ column. He was engaged for a time by Independent Newspapers, but his material was not published because of industrial difficulties. About this time, he bought and developed a home in Achill, Co. Mayo, and divided his time between there and Dublin. For a time he operated an art gallery in Achill. He was ambitious as a landscape painter, but his artistic skills did not match his writing talents. However, he developed an active commitment to painting and was instrumental in securing the patronage for the RHA Gallagher Gallery in Dublin. He also co-founded and was part-owner of a local newspaper, the Western Journal.
In 1976, when Gageby returned as editor of the Irish Times, Healy was commissioned to write a column entitled ‘Sounding off’. His enthusiasm for Europe deepened and he took a particular interest in the European parliament. With the first direct elections to the parliament in 1979, Healy began to write regular reports from Strasbourg and Brussels. His writing brought humanity and popular insight to policy and decision-making processes which many readers heretofore considered unfathomable. In 1988 he was appointed by the taoiseach, Charles Haughey, as a special information counsellor during Ireland's presidency of the council of ministers. John Healy was a consistent supporter of Charles Haughey in his ‘Sounding off’ columns during the 1980s. In this, he found himself increasingly out of step with the consensus of his newspaper peers. But he held unwaveringly to his conviction that Haughey had the vision and resolution to bring Ireland through difficult years, to regenerate the economy, and to achieve peace in Northern Ireland.
He won the Television Script Writer of the Year Award in 1967. In 1968 he was nominated as ‘Mayoman of the Year’. In 1989 he was given an honorary doctorate of laws by the National Council for Educational Awards. His energy and high work rate were adversely influenced in the later years of his life by respiratory health problems. None the less, his sudden death at his Dublin home on 6 January 1991 came as a shock to his many friends and admirers in journalism, politics and the arts.
He married (1953) Evelyn, daughter of Raymond Duffy (a founding member of the Garda Síochána) and Brigid Duffy. A bronze bust of John Healy, by the artist Caroline Mulholland, is on permanent exhibition at the RHA Gallagher Gallery, Ely Place, Dublin.