Shay Healy obituary: Man of many talents and considerable charm

‘He thought the best of people ... was just interested in people. That’s what got him through’

Born: March 29th, 1943
Died: April 9th, 2021

Shay Healy, who has died aged 78, was an entertainer and a broadcaster who achieved national and international success as a songwriter.

His 1980 Eurovision Song Contest winning number, What’s Another Year, sung by Johnny Logan, is notable for its enduring popularity – a fate that has eluded many other winning songs of that competition.

Healy had a lengthy and varied professional life, a reflection, perhaps, of his assorted and restless curiosities as much as RTÉ’s difficulty in slotting him into any particular career-defining groove.

He was born to parents immersed in showbusiness but was the only one of six children – four girls and two boys – to follow their lead. His father, Seamus, was a civil servant and part-time actor who was in the first production of John B Keane’s The Field and was in several films, among them Black Beauty and The Great Train Robbery. He also appeared annually as Santa Claus at Dún Laoghaire Shopping Centre.

Healy’s mother, Máirín Ní Shúilleabháin, was an actor and writer of plays and poetry, which she read on radio, and a singer of traditional songs.

The young Healy grew up in Sandymount and went to school at CBS Westland Row before decamping to England where he had various part-time jobs, among them as a migrant harvester, picking peas. Back in Dublin, in 1963 he started as an apprentice cameraman with RTÉ, the beginning of a life-long association with the broadcaster.

Before long, however, he became a programme presenter, fronting shows including Twenty Minutes with . . . , Ballad Sheet and Hoot’nany.

In 1967, he met Dymphna Errity at a social in Bective Rugby Club in Donnybrook, just down the road from RTÉ. They courted, married and had two boys, Oisín and Fionán. It was a happy marriage, surviving the vicissitudes of Healy’s up-and-down career.

“He was always hustling, always moving,” said Fionán, “trying to get stuff together, trying to make money . . . He had no airs and graces but had time for everyone.”

Although Healy’s broadcasting career progressed – in 1971, he presented Reach for the Stars – he decided to explore America, spending five years living variously in Cape Cod and Nashville. The memories of this period provided material for a late novel, The Danny Boy Triangle (2013), a picaresque following the fortunes of fictional singer Danny Toner from Dublin to New York and Nashville.

Back in Ireland, long-standing friend, disc jockey Jim O’Neill, then gigging at Stillorgan’s South County Hotel with Martin Phelan and the Knights with whom he played piano, remembers working with Healy. The pair entertained patrons of a super club on St Stephen’s Green.

Part of their medley included Healy’s mickey take on Abba’s 1974 Eurovision winning song Waterloo, a spoof number he titled What a Loo.

“Shay never looked for the big bucks,” recalls O’Neill, “he just wanted to be in the business . . . he was unbelievably intelligent. He thought the best of people and was just interested in people. That’s what got him through.”

At RTÉ, he co-hosted (with Bibi Baskin) The Evening Extra, The Birthday Show, The Dublin Village (with Ingrid Miley), and Hullaballo (a children’s programme). He made several documentaries with his own production company. They included The Rocker – a portrait of Phil Lynott; First Lady – a portrait of Tammy Wynette; and Roy Rogers, king of the cowboys. He also wrote two musicals, The Knowledge and The Wiremen.

An interest in photography led him to record parts of Dublin that were fast disappearing – material for two exhibitions in the 1990s.

Apart from his Eurovision win, Healy’s lasting claim to broadcasting fame may well rest with an off-beat late-night chat show called Nighthawks that ran on RTÉ2 from 1988 to 1992.

Charles Haughey disclosure

On the January 10th, 1992 show, disgraced former minister for justice Seán Doherty chatted on air to Healy inside the bar of Hell’s Kitchen, an establishment in Castlerea, Co Roscommon. Healy could be forgiven for his lack of reaction when Doherty said, almost casually, that Charles Haughey was aware that he [Doherty] was tapping journalists’ telephones 10 years previously – when Haughey was Taoiseach, as he still then was.

Few doubted this was the case when the tapping was revealed (by this newspaper in December 1982) but Haughey had always lied about it, blaming Doherty as a lone transgressor.

Off air afterwards, Doherty wanted to be sure Healy understood the import of what he had said. Chatting, he leaned into Healy and emphasised: “Don’t forget, I’ve said something very significant that I’ve never said before in my life.”

Others needed little prompting and in the ensuing political furore, Haughey was gone within days, his political career over, the ignominy of the McCracken Tribunal yet to come.

Healy’s career at RTÉ ended in 1995, one of his last programmes being the prophetically titled Where Are They Now? which looked at life after celebrity.

Shea Healy was a happy man whose friendship was treasured by those who knew him well and whose company was a source of fun and pleasure. His and Dymphna’s home was a place of fond memory for the many people they entertained over the years. She predeceased him and Healy’s own declining years were blighted by Parkinson’s.

He is survived by his sons and grandchildren, Fionn, Nia, Zach, Felix, Ella and Amelia.