Healy-Rae, Jackie (1931–2014), politician, was born John Patrick Healy on 9 March 1931 at Reascaisleach, Meelick, near the village of Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, the first of four sons and two daughters of Danny Healy, a farmer of Reascaisleach, and his second wife Mary (née Riordan). Danny Healy had another six children with his first wife. Healy was such a common local surname that the family members were known as the Healy Raes, after their townland. Raised on a sixty-acre farm composed mainly of bog and coarse grazing, Jackie had an impoverished upbringing especially once his father was permanently disabled c. 1939. He left Kilgarvan National School aged thirteen to help on the farm and from the late 1940s also worked in forestry and drove trucks and hackney cars.
In 1953 he ferried an American tourist, Julie Healy (a distant cousin), around Kerry, then followed her to New York where they were married in August. Visiting Kilgarvan that Christmas, he decided to stay and took over the family farm with his new wife; they would have four sons and two daughters. Julie was a talented linguist, fluent in seven languages, and it was at her prompting that he later distinguished himself from the many other John Healys by styling himself Jackie Healy-Rae.
He had earned enough money in America to buy a hackney car and a second-hand tractor, which allowed him to operate as an agricultural contractor. By the early 1960s he was buying bulldozers and JCBs for road making, land reclamation and site clearing, beginning a long, fruitful relationship with Kerry County Council. For recreation, he played the melodeon and saxophone in local bands and featured from the mid-1950s into the late 1960s as a fast and fearless, if not particularly skilled, wing-forward for the Kilgarvan senior hurling team, winning county medals in 1956 and 1958.
He became active in Fianna Fáil during the 1966 South Kerry by-election, overseen by the party’s by-election expert, Neil Blaney (qv). Enraptured by Blaney’s electioneering, which combined traditional torchlit rallies with methodical canvassing and American-style motorcades, Healy-Rae joined his specialist team, distinguishing himself in a series of by-elections into the mid-1970s. Healy-Rae became noted on these occasions for his pyrotechnical flair, once pouring gasoline along the centre of a main street and setting it alight; processions where participants held blazing sods of turf aloft on pitchforks were his staple.
From 1969 he organised a succession of much-praised (annual) county fleadh ceoils in Kilgarvan, and one Munster fleadh ceoil (in 1972), becoming chairman of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Kerry (1970–75). In December 1969 he bought a hotel in Kilgarvan for use as a pub, opening a new singing lounge for ballad groups. Despite his growing prosperity, he lived modestly and worked long hours politicking, farming (eventually acquiring 300 acres), operating heavy machinery for hire, and serving alcohol, being himself a moderate drinker. He separated from his wife in 1977, discreetly finding another partner in Kathleen Cahill, a widow who lived outside Killarney, Co. Kerry, with her young child. She was later his secretary.
Co-opted onto Kerry County Council by Fianna Fáil in 1973, he topped the poll for the Killarney district in the 1974 local elections, running an impressively professional campaign. He held his seat comfortably thereafter. While capable of making constructive contributions, he emerged as the most colourful of Kerry’s famously voluble county councillors, his histrionics and outlandish outbursts gaining him extensive local newspaper coverage. Conversely, during his two terms chairing the council (1980/81 and 1995/6), he clamped down on such theatrics. Offstage, he dealt pragmatically and effectively with council officials and fellow representatives, appearing personally affronted by suggestions in 1975 that officials were leaking information to certain councillors. He was foremost in advancing motions that enabled the proliferation of one-off rural housing in Kerry.
Arising from his televised rabble-rousing at the 1983 ard fheis, he developed a national profile as the quintessential Fianna Fáil backwoodsman. Dublin-based radio shows turned to him whenever they needed some colourful rural filler. He lamented Fianna Fáil’s expulsion of Blaney (for his diehard nationalism) and readiness to compromise on issues such as extradition and coalition government, yet stopped short of leaving. Similarly, as chairman of the Southern Health Board (1987–9), he fiercely resisted a Fianna Fáil government bent on imposing tough budget cuts before toeing the line. An unideological clientelist politician, he was unusually shameless in seeking to combine the benefits of power with the freedom of opposition.
Pivotal to the local party machine, he was an outstanding director of elections for South Kerry in four general elections between 1977 and 1989. But he felt ill-served by his party, which regarded him as an embarrassment in a national setting. Partly as a result, he had failed in bids for general election nominations in June 1981 and in February 1982, and in repeated attempts to win a seanad seat. That he openly wanted to be a TD caused tensions with the closest Fianna Fáil incumbent, John O’Leary. He declined to act as the South Kerry director of elections in 1992 and orchestrated a robust national campaign by the vintners against the Fianna Fáil government’s anti-drink driving legislation during 1994–5. When O’Leary announced his retirement from politics in 1996, Healy-Rae’s bid for the dáil nomination was again thwarted by the party establishment, which endorsed O’Leary’s son instead. He threatened to run as an independent unless he was added to the ticket, meeting fruitlessly with Fianna Fáil leader, Bertie Ahern.
With a general election looming, he declared in April 1997 that he was standing as an ‘Independent Fianna Fáil’ candidate. He had been dealt an inexperienced Fianna Fáil rival, a Fine Gael party in local disarray and a South Kerry electorate that felt neglected by the main parties. Touring the constituency atop a truck or double-decker bus amid a convoy of cars blaring Irish music, he mounted a slick, high-spirited campaign focused on local issues that traded on his personality, experience and genius for self-publicity – professional photographers were among his biggest admirers. The final ingredient came when he began canvassing in Killarney’s nightclubs where he was embraced as a cult figure. He topped the poll after scooping Killarney’s youth vote, supplemented by support from his traditional rural strongholds.
Making him one of the three, later four, independent TDs that the Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats coalition relied on for its dáil majority, his sensational victory also turned him into a national celebrity, identifiable by his checked cap, strong Kerry accent and archaic idiom. The checked cap, which hid a sprawling, black-gelled comb-over, was new, as he had for years sported an astrakhan hat. When the new dáil opened, his arrival in Dublin with a hundred boisterous partisans captured the media’s attention. He played up to the cameras, sometimes working himself into an incoherent state.
He swiftly concluded a deal with Bertie Ahern, who, once installed as taoiseach, made good on his pledge to channel funding towards South Kerry. Accordingly, while Healy-Rae might publicly seek clarification or express disquiet, even outrage, about certain policies, he voted with the government for the duration of that dáil. He only tried to block legislation that particularly hurt South Kerry or his private interests – with mixed results. If rivals argued that much of the increased local spending would have occurred anyway, his influence clearly determined developments such as the Kilgarvan area’s improved road network, the egregious (subsequently Brussels-reversed) classification of Kerry as a disadvantaged area in Ireland’s 1998 application for ‘Objective One’ EU funding, the attraction of foreign investment in 1999 for reviving a Killarney hosiery factory and the rushed approval in 2000 for marina projects at Kenmare and Cahirciveen over well-founded civil service objections. Keeping the details of his deal secret allowed him to claim underserved credit for assorted initiatives. The government never contradicted him, though his similarly opportunistic constituency rival, the minister for justice, John O’Donoghue, was often able to reach the Kerry media first with good news. Healy-Rae eventually insisted on being told of any relevant developments at the same time as the cabinet.
Ahern appointed him chairman of the oireachtas committee on the environment and local government (1997–2002), sweetening him further by granting all independents an untaxed, unaudited leader’s allowance worth £15,000 yearly (rising to €39,000 by 2007). After the 1999 local elections, whereby Jackie’s youngest son Michael joined him on Kerry County Council, Ahern forced Fianna Fáil’s dismayed Kerry county councillors to control the council in alliance with the Healy-Raes, doing so again after the 2004 local elections.
Healy-Rae justified his negligible contribution to dáil debates by maintaining that he was achieving much behind the scenes. Along with the other government-aligned independents, he received weekly briefings from a senior civil servant and the Fianna Fáil chief whip; there was also open-door access to cabinet ministers who Ahern urged to facilitate the independents’ representations on behalf of their constituents. When the dáil was not sitting, Healy-Rae exhaustively toured his constituency holding clinics. He was a notably effective fixer, drawing on all his tenacity, charisma and personal connections in importuning officialdom.
He faced a tough re-election battle in 2002. The novelty factor was gone, taking the fickle youth vote with it, while Fianna Fáil fielded a stronger second candidate. Powered by a formidable personal machine that spanned the constituency, he stuck to his shrewdly picturesque methods, including after-Mass speeches and pre-election rallies featuring bonfires and blazing pitchforks. His first preferences fell sharply, but he survived because he was transfer-friendly and Fianna Fáil mismanaged its vote. Although the Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats alliance won a healthy majority at that election, Ahern kept his options open by handing Healy-Rae the vice-chairmanship of an oireachtas committee and permitting him limited access to officials. Healy-Rae reciprocated by usually voting with the government.
With deputies newly-prohibited from being local councillors, he relinquished his county council seat in 2003 to his eldest son Danny, who had by then also inherited the pub and plant hire company – the latter being one of the main beneficiaries of Kerry County Council’s spending on contract work. The three-pronged Healy-Rae dynasty tirelessly outstripped all comers in attending funerals, clinics and functions, further solidifying its rural electoral base by eliciting metropolitan outrage with provocative comments on asylum seekers, hunting, drink-driving laws and the ban on smoking in pubs. They deviated from their populism only in supporting contentious property development schemes advanced by their business backers. By 2007 political donations from such sources were financing their heavy spending on election advertising and posters.
Jackie baited Fianna Fáil into attacking him during the 2007 general election campaign, reprising his favourite tactic of casting himself as the persecuted underdog, and squeezed through again on transfers. Despite having a dáil majority through his coalition with the Green party, Ahern covered himself by striking deals with four independents, Healy-Rae included. Healy-Rae’s bill came to €71 million, mainly for road projects, though events determined it was not paid in full. He became chair of the oireachtas committee for social and family affairs, also regaining his weekly briefings and access to government ministers. As before, his closest allies received state appointments, including his younger daughter, Rosemary Healy-Rae, a well-regarded barrister who checked the fine print of his deals with the government; she served two terms on the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal (2007–13).
The political fallout from the 2008 financial crisis increased his leverage, as deaths, by-election defeats and defections eroded the government’s majority. Throughout 2008–11, he bemoaned the many unpopular austerity measures yet aided their passage through the dáil after ostentatiously trading his vote for local benefits. Thus, the much-needed Castleisland bypass in his constituency became the only new road scheme to get funding in 2009. He cooperated closely with fellow independent deputy, Michael Lowry. By September 2010, their influence was such that they deterred an internal challenge to Taoiseach Brian Cowan by declaring their unwillingness to tolerate any other Fianna Fáil leader.
This strategy carried clear risks, and Healy-Rae was bitterly criticised even within his constituency. If Fianna Fáil considered him steadfast under pressure, numerous commentators damned him for exemplifying a grubby, myopic and feckless political class. In an era of implausibly high expense claims by some dáil deputies, he was consistently among the worst offenders, despite normally travelling to Dublin by train and being entitled to do so for free as an old age pensioner. Latterly, he was averaging over €200,000 a year in dáil pay and expenses. After his retirement, it emerged that during 2007–11 he had sat through fewer than half the meetings of the oireachtas committee for social and family affairs even though he was its chairman (for which he received €20,000 a year), and that over 3,600 premium rate phone calls, costing €2,639, had been made from the dáil in 2007 for the purposes of voting for Michael Healy-Rae in a reality TV show.
The International Monetary Fund–European Central Bank bailout imposed in November 2010 left the government desperately needing his and Lowry’s backing for the punitive budget so required. Healy-Rae found himself thrust into the international spotlight, his stage-Irishry a gift to foreign journalists. Appraised by finance minister Brian Lenihan (qv) of the dire consequences of failing to implement the bailout terms, Healy-Rae and Lowry helped pass the Finance Act in January 2011 after some last-minute brinksmanship that produced concessions for students, the self-employed and the elderly. Lowry did most of the negotiating, but Healy-Rae extracted €1 million for local roadworks and guarantees regarding the intended Tralee bypass and Kenmare community hospital, both of which were later built.
In poor health, he retired at the 2011 general election when Michael Healy-Rae held the family seat with an increased vote. Jackie Healy-Rae died in Kerry General Hospital, Tralee, Co. Kerry, on 5 December 2014 and was buried in Kilgarvan cemetery. In 2016 Danny joined Michael in the dáil, and by 2019 three of Jackie’s grandchildren were Kerry county councillors. Another of Jackie’s sons, John Healy, was president and deputy general secretary of the Garda Representative Association.