Michael Healy Rae: Flat of cap, slight of figure, big of personality

‘Two political hawks swoop in to pounce on unsuspecting prey of north Kerry’

It’s a dreary cold February afternoon and Tralee is taciturn. With Christmas well gone and the summer tourists months away, you’d say might be the lowest, slowest moment of the year for the North Kerry town.

But then out of nowhere, two figures appear travelling at a velocity just short of Road Runner. Are they birds? Are they planes? No - they are two political hawks swooping in to pounce on the unsuspecting prey of north Kerry.

Leading the charge is the unmistakable Michael Healy Rae, flat of cap, slight of figure but big of personality.

Riding shotgun for him is local man Eddie Carmody. He's decked out in the Healy Rae team colours, namely a flat cap and an anorak.

He could, for all the world, be a member of the clan, bringing an equal charge of energy and brio to this sprint around the town centre.

I had been speaking to an experienced Fine Gael operator in Kerry a few weeks beforehand who said Healy Rae would sweep all round him.

He instanced three examples of Fine Gael voters who would be voting for the Kilgarvan TD because he had sorted out their problems. No broadband. Potholes. Planning issues. Healy Rae had sorted them out, he said.

“Michael Healy Rae. He’s the go-to man in Kerry,” he gravely intoned, saying that not alone would Healy Rae rule the roost in south Kerry, but he would annex much of the old north Kerry constituency too.

You can see why. This is new territory for him, but in a frantic afternoon he hoovers up the whole town, visiting every conceivable business, shaking every imaginable hand.

Along the way he canvasses three jewellery shops, a fish shop, a few telephone shops, a Centra, Easons, a few pubs, a shoe shop, a clothes store and a hairdressers.

‘Our lucky day’

“Well this is our lucky day,” says a man in a jeweller’s shop. “A rich farmer from south Kerry has just walked in!” Not so much walked as jogged. And just as quickly jogged out again - after all available flesh was pressed.

The image, the accent, the Quiet Man prose, have all conspired to make Healy Rae a household name everywhere. A few people even praise him for the corny campaign song outlining all his ‘gaiscí”.

“Will ’oo think of me?” he asks each one he encounters in that distinctive accent and throw-back syntax. “I’m asking ’oo to think of me when ’oo are voting.”

In a pub, a woman behind the bar makes a proposal to him about a local Strictly Come Dancing competition in aid of Austin Stacks GAA club.

“You dance with me on Strictly this year, for Stacks, and I will give you my number one vote,” she offers.

“I’d say when this is finished me legs won’t be able to move,” he replies.

She’s not taking that refusal lying down. “They will. You did it in Castleisland. I’ll give you number one!” she pleads.

But it’s too late - he has already quickstepped over to shake another hand and has gracefully foxtrotted out the front door.

Now Kerry has the prospect of having two Healy Raes on the ballot sheet on February 26th after his brother Danny became a candidate hours before official closing.

With the departure of mid-Kerry based Tom Fleming from the race, the family obviously believes it could be in with a chance of an audacious victory, taking two seats out of five.

Locally, there’s a view that the family may be biting off more than it can chew. However, this is a dynasty that was not built up on blithe optimism - but on cold calculation.

Astute, smart, hard-nosed

For behind the Darby O’Gill stuff, Michael Healy Rae is an astute, smart and hard-nosed politician who knows what strategies to follow to survive, and knows how to strike beneficial political deals.

We manage to put a halt to his gallop for a few minutes at a corner near the Courthouse.

We put it to him that his critics regard him as the antithesis of what a national legislator should be, in other words, a parochial and parish-pump politician. His reply is surprisingly robust and bristly.

“They are very poor in their thinking. The most simple fundamental thing is that to be a national politician you have to be elected locally,” he begins.

“I see Government Ministers and them tripping over themselves trying to announce things locally,” he says with disdain.

“If there was a good day tomorrow, we have Government Ministers saying we have sunshine tomorrow ‘thanks to me’. They would claim credit for anything.

"These are the people who look down their noses at me. I will give you an analogy of what's happening in Dublin. They hailed Tony Gregory when he got millions for the north inner city.

“But when my father [the late Jackie Healy Rae], God be good to him, got money for Kerry, he was a criminal.

“If you are spending money in Dublin you are great and if you are spending it outside Dublin you are no good.”

But what about the charge that the Healy Raes ignore national issues? He bridles with indignation.

Track record

“Go over my track record in Dáil Éireann. Go over my participation in Dáil debates and committees. I could go up and down with any bloody one of them, to have these big shots look down their noses at me.

“I care for the people in my constituency. I dearly do. Because I know the vast majority of them. When I hear people say politicians around the countryside go to funerals - I go to funerals because I’m friends with a lot of people. I respect people if they are living or dead.”

A little later I ask is he really going to be the highest vote winner in the country.

“It’s well I remember one time, my father was after bringing millions and millions of euros into Kerry. In his second election he came within 32 votes of losing.

“Don’t ever believe that old nonsense. Sure, I haven’t one vote got yet. Nobody has cast a vote yet. In this new area maybe I will fall flat on my face. I don’t know.”

The interview occurred before Danny ran onto the pitch. It’s clear that it was not all “old nonsense”, even at that stage.

Healy Rae’s parting shot is: “What I am saying to people in north Kerry is to give me a chance this time and judge me the next time.”

Meanwhile, on and on they go at a blurry speed, two men with flat caps and lofty ambitions.

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