Michael and Danny Healy-Rae: Gombeen men or political geniuses?
Weekend Read: The brothers carved up Co Kerry and took the spoils of two Dáil seats. How did they do it? The voters in Healy-Rae Kingdom speak out
The home village
A sign outside one of the three pubs in the Co Kerry village of Kilgarvan promises Ireland’s first round pool table. And O’Reilly’s really does have a remarkable circular pool table, the size of a Jacuzzi. But that’s not what Kilgarvan is famous for.
The village is the home of the Healy-Rae family, three generations of which have been involved in local and national politics. Jackie Healy-Rae, who died in 2014, was an Independent TD for 14 years. His son Michael, who was elected in 2011, was joined in the Dáil this year by his brother Danny, a former member of Kerry County Council. Danny’s son, Johnny, has been a councillor since 2012.
Michael and Danny picked up so many votes that Johnny could probably have been elected to the Oireachtas alongside them. That would have given the family three of the five seats in the county. As it was they took two: the phenomenon of the general election.
That said, they prefer to be known as a family of politicians rather than as a political dynasty, according to the journalist Donal Hickey, whose book The Healy-Raes came out last year.
The first person I talk to in Kilgarvan is Ned Sweeney, who tells me he’s known as Ned of the Hills. “There was a time when Jackie Healy-Rae was as famous as Bill Clinton,” he says. “Every time I turned on the telly I’d see one or the other of them.”
Kilgarvan’s short main street has such sharp curves that, walking along it, I need to keep changing from side to side, to avoid traffic coming around blind bends. It’s a walk that require-s you to have your wits about you.
As well as the three pubs there are two shops, two Portakabin toilets, a hair salon, the Village Grill takeaway and lots of bright flowerboxes and hanging baskets.
The man in Quills grocery shop doesn’t want to talk to me. “If I talk to you they’ll all be on to me, trying to get me to go on the radio,” he says. The other shop is a Mace, owned by Michael Healy-Rae; it includes a post office and petrol pumps. One of the two other pubs is the Jackie Healy-Rae Bar. Hickey reports that Jackie installed a condom machine in the men’s toilets there in the early 1990s.
The bar is now run by Danny; it has a large photograph of his father at its entrance. There’s also a life-size cut-out of Jackie on a grassy bank at the Kenmare end of the town, waving as you leave the village.
In the February general election Michael Healy-Rae received 20,378 first-preference votes, the most of any candidate in the country and a clear 7,000 beyond the quota. Danny, who decided to run only at the last minute, received 9,991 first preferences and was elected on the second count. It was the first time that Kerry, previously a two-constituency county, had voted as one constituency.
Although untested in areas within the old North Kerry constituency, the Healy-Rae vote dominated there, too. Why?
Gavin is behind the counter of O’Reilly’s, the pub with the round pool table. He is not surprised that both brothers were elected. “They don’t promise what they can’t deliver,” he says. “They’re as effective as a small army. They’re hard workers. They’re a force to be reckoned with. People outside Kerry underestimate them.”
TJ, a customer at the bar, says, “Their politics are local, but politics should be local. Why would I vote for someone who won’t help me?”
For two days I talk to dozens of people on the streets and in the businesses of five towns and villages in north and south Kerry: Kilgarvan, Kenmare, Killorglin, Tralee and Castleisland. Unless they’re all lying the Healy-Raes have an impressive support base across the county.
There are only a few voices of dissent. In Killorglin one man says, “This is not Healy-Rae Land, or their country, and anyone up in Dublin who thinks that Kerry is Healy-Rae territory is insulting us all. They’re not successful at all. They haven’t done anything. Success is getting re-elected, and we’ll see what happens next time.” I point out that Michael was re-elected, but this man is having none of it. He seems angry that Kerry now has two Healy-Rae TDs.
In Tralee the owner of a 30-year-old business talks for 15 minutes nonstop about why he has no time for the Healy-Raes. Every time I think he’s finished he starts up again. He doesn’t want to go on the record, but he wants me to write it all down just the same. It goes something like this. They’re ruthless. They’re hillbillies. That dancing outside the Dáil was making eejits of all of us. They’re only in politics for power and money. They’re a disgrace to Kerry, which has produced so many writers and fine minds and intelligent people. They’re of the same ilk of politics as Charlie Haughey; the only difference is that Haughey wore better suits, not to mention shirts. They have no education, and the rest of Kerry is very well educated and has almost no working class. Their election was a vote of contempt. People were voting against an Establishment that was destroying them.
Every time the man stops talking I step towards the door, thinking he’s finished, but he keeps following. I had started chatting to him at the till, at the back of a deep shop. When he finally ends we’re both at its door. “I’m not a fan,” is the last thing he says.
But there are plenty of fans elsewhere, from what I hear in towns both old and new to the Healy-Rae vote.
Why people voted
“North Kerry voted for the Healy-Raes because they saw the work they’d been doing in south Kerry and they wanted to have the same,” says Carmel Moriarty in Castleisland. “They are good to people who find it hard to get things done. They’re very visible. They’re on the ground all the time, and the ground needs a few more workers and a lot less legislators.”
Noel O’Mahony is waiting to get served at the Slice of Life health-food shop in Castleisland. “They got elected because they are always to the forefront when there are any problems that arise, whether it’s health or housing or roads. They are down-to-earth, common people, people you can approach, and they are always at everything. The day is over for those politicians who only come to your door at election time and think they can depend on your vote when you haven’t seen them for years.”
Paudie Broderick has a shoe-repair shop in Tralee shopping centre. “Michael Healy-Rae came in here before the election and asked if I had five minutes to talk to him,” he says. “I said I didn’t but would he give me five reasons why I should vote for him. He said, ‘I’ll give you one reason: I’ll work for you,’ and that was good enough for me.”
Broderick was also canvassed by another TD. “That fella stood in my shop and told me how much the economy had improved. Did he know where he was? He was in a shopping centre where 10 out of 22 shops had closed. ‘Don’t blow smoke up my ass,’ is what I said to him. Pardon my language.”
Paul Kelly is a goldsmith in Kenmare; Enda Kenny gave one of Kelly’s Ring of Kerry rings to Michelle Obama when he went to the White House this St Patrick’s Day. “You have to accept the reason they’re so successful is that they work incredibly hard,” he says of the Healy-Raes. “They have clinics everywhere. They pay attention to detail on the ground.”
“They get stuff done,” Tomo Burke, in Castleisland, says. “They’ve never forgotten their roots, and it’s paid off for them. They’re very hard workers, and they have a good ear for anyone with a problem. They have the common touch.”
“They get work done,” says Vincent, who is behind the counter of O’Sullivan’s supermarket in Kenmare. “If you have a problem it doesn’t matter what your politics are: they’ll help you.”
“They work very hard, and they listen to people,” Clare Counihan at Blossoms Flower Shop in Killorglin says. “I’m not surprised they got elected, because they had a machine behind them. They divided up the county between them, telling people how to vote.”
“They’re foot soldiers,” says Joe Ryle in Tralee. “They put the legwork in, and they’re very visible. They were getting stuff done for people here in Tralee before the election. You hear the stories all the time. People getting hospital appointments or medical cards. There are always queues for their clinics.”
In Declan Crowley’s menswear shop, in Killorglin, there is a grand piano among the wellies and jackets that customers sometimes play. “They’re very hard workers. Much harder than me,” he says. “They are career politicians. It’s their vocation. They are a voice for the plain people: for farmers and people who are struggling. They’re very much rooted in the community. I’d have an issue with Danny on his opinions about the environment and climate change, mind you.”
In Tralee Thomas Bermingham is sitting in the T-shirt shop he opened a few months ago. “They get jobs done,” he says. “They were very shrewd in their campaign. They’re decent and straight up, and they speak at our level. I think there is an air of arrogance about so many other politicians.”
In his book Donal Hickey observes: “The Healy-Rae machine is not a political party as the term is understood, nor does it fit into the left, right or centre slots on the Irish political spectrum. The approach is populist and intensely local. There’s no branch structure: the political machine is, rather, a network of trusted and tested key supporters in every corner of the constituency.”
A political scientist’s view
Jane Suiter of Dublin City University borrows a term from the late political scientist Peter Mair to describe Irish politics: “amoral localism”. It’s not just Kerry people who suffer from localism, she says. “People voting for candidates over party is a part of Irish political culture. But we’re a Republic for a reason; we’re not a federation of counties.
“Two Healy-Raes were elected in Kerry because Fianna Fáil took its eye off the ball. They divided up the vote across the county. They were very well organised. It was a really smart political reaction on their part, and surprisingly short-sighted of other parties.
“If you just vote for people based on them looking after their own locality, then who do you hold to account if the whole national pie turns out to be smaller in the future, and your cut is going to be smaller too?
“If you’re only going to vote for people to fix things for you locally, then who is going to ensure things are working well at a national level? Legislating is also an important political job. Otherwise elected TDs are just working as local councillors.
“People often don’t trust politicians. There is a disconnect between politicians and the people. In locally based politics you might hate all politicians, but the local ones are your people, so you’ll vote for them. In the past, when the cabinet had all the power and the backbenchers had no power, it made sense to concentrate much more on the local. But now things are beginning to change. The Opposition and backbenchers are getting more power.
“Rural Ireland often sees Dublin as the other; it’s still a postcolonial way of looking at the capital. In most states there is a centre and a periphery: look at Brexit and the divide between London and the industrial northeast of England. The fact is, there are parts of Dublin that are very disadvantaged, but I don’t know how many people in rural Ireland know that, or think some resources should be put that way.”
Funerals and functions
When Jackie Healy-Rae died more than 10,000 people paid their respects over three days, and his funeral was huge. Attending funerals seems to be a large part of how the Healy-Raes spend their time, because everyone I talk to mentions it.
In Castleisland David Costello is keen to tell me an anecdote about Jackie’s reasoning for using a State car to travel to and from Dublin from Kerry instead of the train. “He would say, ‘Did you ever try getting a train to divert to bring you to a funeral?’ ”
Another man in Castleisland tells me that the brothers are known for never using the pen that is provided to sign the book of condolence at funerals. “They bring their own pens, maybe green or red, but it’ll always be a different colour, so their names stand out on the page, and even when they’ve gone people will see they’ve been there,” he says. “That’s how smart they are.”
“They were coming to funerals in north Kerry before we could even vote for them here. Why do they go to funerals? It’s really about votes when it comes down to it,” Michael in Castleisland says. “And they go straight for the jugular.” The jugular? “They go right up to the person who has been bereaved and they make sure they are seen. No matter what political party someone is from, they go to every funeral.”
“They always appear at the right time, whether it’s funerals or weddings,” a woman in Kenmare says. They turn up uninvited to weddings? “They make their presence felt at big events,” she explains. (When Danny’s son, Johnny, the councillor, got married, in 2012, there were 950 guests at the reception, at the Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney. )
“You’d swear they were cloned,” says Clare Counihan in Killorglin. “Because they are everywhere.”
In Castleisland every shop window has a poster for the Brawl in the Hall, a charity boxing match, where one of the boxers will be Danny.
These are some of the places where people told me that the Healy-Rae brothers had been seen recently:
My uncle’s retirement party in Tralee.
Walking down the main street in Kenmare on Saturday night.
In Dingle at a parade at 7am.
At three funerals in one day in three different parts of the county.
My grandmother’s funeral in Killarney.
A festival in Sneem.
Buying a round of drinks for the entire pub in a bar in Milltown.
At a charity fundraiser in Castlemaine.
“They’re everywhere,” Paudie Broderick says. “If you were at one function in the county and the Healy-Raes were there, and you got into a plane and flew to another event in Kerry, the Healy-Raes would have got there before you.”
A bit of polishing
“Danny could maybe do with a little bit of polishing,” says Lorraine Griffin, who is on the desk at the McCloskey Photography Gallery in Kenmare. “Who’s that woman at Carr Communications? Terry Prone? Danny could do with Terry. She could tell him how to come across better. So when he says things like he did about the environment, he’d be able to say them in a more correct way. And Michael is a lot smarter than he comes across.”
“More fool the people who don’t take them seriously and think they are stupid. The joke is on them,” says Clare Counihan in Killorglin.
“The cap and the dancing and the accent is all part of the image,” Mary in Kenmare says. “They put it on, and some people don’t see beyond it.”
Paul Kelly in Kenmare says, “When Jackie Healy-Rae got elected, because he had a funny accent and wore a cap and came from Kerry, the stupid-Kerryman joke persisted. It’s a type of racism by a different name, to judge someone on their accent and attire.”
“Their father came from the mountains, and he spoke for the people of the mountains, and his sons have the same common sense to them,” says Noel O’Mahony in Castleisland. “Some people call them gombeen men, but it’s not true.”
“A lot of politics is showmanship, and the Healy-Raes are excellent at what they do,” Declan Crowley says in Killorglin.
Kerry versus the country
I hear a couple of phrases a lot in Kerry. One is a phrase I also hear in Donegal: “We’re the forgotten country.” The other is “the Pale”, a term I probably hear more in two days than I have in two decades.
Kerry people don’t look at all pleased when I point out that Donegal people also claim to be the forgotten county – as, in fact, do people in Mayo, Roscommon and Leitrim. “We’re more forgotten,” one man in Tralee says. “That’s why we need the Healy-Raes, because otherwise nobody in the Pale would do anything for us.”
“I’m a very selfish person,” Kerrie Hardwick of Something Crafty in Kenmare says. “I live in Kerry, so I’m more concerned about what’s done here than what’s happening up in Dublin. The Healy-Raes are very good for Kerry. It doesn’t bother me that some people think they’re a joke. I think they just do that for publicity.”
“Kerry is down in the arse of the garden of Ireland,” Thomas Bermingham says. “There are no factories in Tralee, and lots of unemployment. People are struggling. The Healy-Raes get things done, and they are the only ones up in Dublin trying to help Kerry.”
“If anyone is going to make an impact for us, the Healy-Raes will. They’ve been criticised for just being about Kerry and local politics, but at the end of the day voters are going to put their own patch of the country first,” says Catherine in Castleisland.
“The Healy-Raes are only taking care of the people they were elected to look after,” says Paudie Broderick. “I support politicians based on what they can deliver, and they put Kerry first and Ireland second. You have to take care of your own first. People here know they’re not gombeens, although people up in Dublin think they are.”
Donal Hickey writes that “the first commandment in Healy-Rae land is: thou shalt not turn off thy mobile phone”. Apparently even during Jackie’s funeral Mass Michael’s phone was ringing with people looking for him. One of Jackie’s offertory gifts was a mobile phone, as he was never without his.
After a while I start asking people if they have the brothers’ mobile numbers. Most do. “I don’t, but I know how I could get it in five minutes if I needed it,” Joe Ryle in Tralee says. Several people also say they are Facebook friends with Michael, who has more than 13,000 of them.
In Kenmare Mary is putting up models in her shop window, one of which has just fallen down and almost knocked her dog out. “The Healy-Raes don’t sleep,” Mary says. “Politics isn’t a job for them. It’s a vocation, a way of life. Everyone has their number. They take calls at midnight. Sure, where else would you get it? Who else would do that for you?”