He actually shares a name with one of Ireland’s best known journalists, the great political columnist John Healy, a noted champion of rural Ireland. Which is oddly appropriate, because the man we know as Jackie Healy Rae had similar affinities, albeit largely to his own small part of the Irish countryside.
He was born in 1931, one of six children who grew up on a farm in Kerry. The ‘Rae’ in his surname, the bit after the unlikely hyphen, comes from the area in which he grew up, Reacaisleach. He was a prominent member of the local GAA in his youth. But his prowess would be of little use to him when it came to winning votes at elections. Because Jackie Healy-Rae, as well as sporting an aristocratic hyphen, was a hurler. Now who would vote for a hurler in Kerry? Who can even name a single Kerry hurler? He was also an accomplished musician. Accordion perhaps? Maybe the flute? Neither. Jackie Healy-Rae, always a contrarian, shared a passion for the instrument made famous by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Lisa Simpson. He was a saxophone player.
Starting in the early 1970s Healy-Rae was a dedicated member of the Fianna Fail party, working assiduously and effectively at election times to get local supremo John O’Leary into the Dail over and over again. Under his guiding hand as director of elections and a county councillor Fianna Fail regularly claimed two seats out of three in his South Kerry bailiwick.
Then came the 1997 general election and it was Jackie’s turn to stand for the Dail after John O’Leary announced he was retiring. Except that it wasn’t. Despite all his hard work over the previous thirty years he was passed over for selection. Fianna Fail would go on to rue the day they messed with Jackie Healy-Rae. He stood as an independent, was given no chance, but did what far too many politicians are doing today, and defied the pollsters, by taking a seat. Not only that but he topped the poll. The seat has been in the family ever since.
He got lucky—though in politics you make your own luck—when the putative Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition was a few nails short of a governing tool box. Bertie Ahern’s government needed the support of four independents. Jackie—by now becoming known to a wider and not altogether welcoming public for his impenetrable Kerry accent and glued on cap—drove a hard bargain for his constituents, and they loved him for it. He arrived in Dublin after the election stand-off with a shopping list of road-building, pier, harbour and hospital construction, spiced with a tincture of agricultural grants, and job creation projects, for South Kerry.
His reward, during the 2002 general election, was a surprise call for a recount when the second Fianna Fail candidate, Tom Fleming, finished just over two hundred votes behind him. That did not go down well in Healy-Rae-ville. He was returned to the Dail, but the new government didn’t need his vote any longer, so the shopping list went back into his pocket. He did not get to produce it again.
Never renowned as an orator, his contributions to Dail debates were infrequent, and his attendance rate at the Oireachtas committee which he chaired left a lot to be desired. But that didn’t greatly bother his constituents. And he was nothing if not colourful. Among his most memorable Rae-isms are his immortal threat to pull the plug on the FF/PD coalition with the observation that ‘the fellas inside there [he was referring to the Dail] can be getting oil for the chains of their bikes.’ On his less affluent constituents he remarked that, ‘some people coming to me are so poor they couldn’t buy a jacket for a gooseberry.’
Though seen as a conservative political force he was no backwoodsman, and often adopted a libertarian, ‘live and let live’ approach. His attitude to a proposal for a nude beach in Ballybunion, for example, was ‘If people want to go without clothes, why should they be made wear them.’ When asked about the fate of Bishop Eamon Casey, he pointed out that the prelate had ‘got a raw deal, and what the man did was very light indeed compared with things that emerged about other churchmen afterwards.’
Jackie Healy-Rae, an independent voice, but a politician from the Fianna Fail gene pool, was born eighty-seven years ago, on this day.