Jackie Healy-Rae, who sprung to national prominence after being elected an independent TD against the odds in 1997 and who died in hospital last Friday, aged 83, had been ill for eight months.
Yesterday, the powerful and — more importantly to him — the so-called plain people who voted for him turned out in large numbers to bid him a final farewell in his native Kilgarvan, Co Kerry.
“Right up to the end, he struggled to live. He did not give in, he never gave up,’’ his son and successor, Michael, emotionally told the overflow congregation at the end of the funeral Mass in St Patrick’s Church.
“And it took an awful amount of time before his mighty heart finally gave out. We will always remember that he did not give up without fighting the mother of all battles.’’
Remembered as a music aficionado, counting Acker Bilk, Paddy Cole, Charley Pride, Johnny O’Leary, and Jim Reeves among his favourites, a CD he made with trumpeter Johnny Carroll was recalled, with Carroll sounding the ‘Last Post’.
There was also levity amid sadness and, to warm applause, son Danny, on accordion, played traditional tunes with his daughters, Maura, Elaine, and Teresa.
Traffic backed up around the village which came to a standstill as the coffin was shouldered from the church to the local cemetery, led by a Garda car and a JCB, symbolising Mr Healy-Rae’s love of machinery.
The cortege stopped briefly outside the family public house where it was joined by his pet pony, Peg, which was given a “hairdo’’ and washdown for the occasion and which then led the way.
A lifetime in which the politician wore many caps was recalled. He grew up the hard way, moulded by a rural background which gave him a close affinity with country people and their needs — values he espoused all his life.
Chief concelebrant of the Mass Fr Con Buckley told how he would ask permission to leave the local national school early to go home to foot the turf. He would bring donkey loads of turf to sell in the village to help the family survive.
“I’m reminded of (Pope) John Paul II who broke stones in a quarry for a living early in life. Jackie also learned in the real school of ordinary life and people and, like John Paul, they were the ones he always served,’’ said Fr Buckley.
But he also developed many other talents. “You might not think it seeing his rotund shape in later life, but he was a fine hurler, earning three county championships with Kilgarvan,’’ the priest went on.
‘’They say he was the fastest thing on two feet to a ball over 10 to 15 yards; he was also noted as a cyclist and musician, founding a band and playing the melodeon and saxophone with distinction. He could do anything and even made a wheelchair for his father from old bicycle wheels.’’
Former taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin were present, among several other politicians.
Danny told the congregation his father was a loyal, dedicated man in whom people confided and he always did his “level best’’ for them.
“When it was popular to kick Bertie Ahern, he stood up (for Ahern) when a lot of Fianna Fáil fellas didn’t,’’ he said.
Recalling deals his father had made with Mr Ahern in return for supporting Fianna Fáil minority governments, Danny, who spoke for more than 30 minutes, said his father had never made “outrageous’’ requests and only looked for what was achievable. “He was offered a State car early on but told ’em he had his own car and that it wasn’t for a state car he was elected — he only wanted to work for the people in his constituency,’’ he said.
Michael said the family’s only wish was that he be remembered for helping people and, over the years, he had brought a massive improvement to infrastructure and services all over Kerry. His father had prevented the closure of smaller hospitals in Cork and Kerry, he said.
“To the people that have tried taking credit for his work, I have only one message for you here today — please don’t let yourselves down by trying to take credit for something that you never had a hand, act, or part in,’’ Michael declared.
On a humorous note, he invited the visiting politicians to stay around and see how money secured by his father had been spent in Kerry.
Jackie Healy-Rae is survived by his partner Kathleen Cahill; sons Danny, John, Denis, and Michael; daughters Joan and Rosemary and their mother, Julie; brothers Denny and Mick; sisters Hannie and Cathy; stepbrother Timmy and stepsister Peggy.
An accordion, a basket of turf, a hurling jersey, a canvassing card, a mobile phone, a JCB, and that unmistakable tartan cap.
All symbols of the life of Jackie Healy-Rae, who, mourners were told at his funeral yesterday, put a ‘‘massive effort’’ into each day of his 83 years.
The items were handed up by family members at a requiem Mass in his native Kilgarvan, Co Kerry, at which there was an overflow congregation of around 1,000 people, including leading political figures past and present.
Glowing tributes were paid to Mr Healy-Rae — a TD for 14 years and a county councillor for 30 years — during the two-hour service, at which there was an outpouring of emotion, with a standing ovation for his sons, Michael and Danny, who spoke at the end of the Mass.
Former Fianna Fáil taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, as well as current Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, were present. President Michael D Higgins was represented by his aide de camp, Lt Commander Patricia Butler, and Taoiseach Enda Kenny by his aide de camp, Commandant Kieran Carey.
Others in attendance included Independent TDs Shane Ross, Michael Lowry, Mattie McGrath, and Tom Fleming; senators Paul Coghlan and Terry Leyden; and former Fianna Fáil minister and MEP Gerard Collins.
Also present were renowned Kerry footballer of yesteryear Mick O’Connell and top trumpet player Johnny Carroll, who once made a CD in which Mr Healy-Rae played saxophone.
Seven priests concelebrated Mass, with chief concelebrant Fr Con Buckley saying Mr Healy-Rae’s greatness was in never losing touch with his family roots and the people who elected him.
He described Mr Healy-Rae as a true democrat.
Mr Healy-Rae’s coffin, draped in the Tricolour and topped by the red and white colours of Kilgarvan GAA club, whose members provided a guard of honour, was shouldered through the village.
The cortege was led by a JCB and by Mr Healy-Rae’s pet pony for part of the journey to the local cemetery.
“He was a good guy to deal with, very honourable. He was only concerned about issues in his own constituency. He was hugely loyal and we knew he was never not going to support us (Fianna Fáil) because he was Fianna Fáil at heart.
“I never tried to woo him back to Fianna Fáil. In my own view, he would not have got elected had he run as a Fianna Fáil candidate in 1997, but he got massive publicity with his pictures all over the papers when he decided to stand as an independent.’’
“He was a character, one of the old characters, a throwback to a different time. He was able to adapt very well to modern politics and modern communications. He was a guy not to be underestimated.
“He was very knowledgeable about what his local priorities were and he was reasonable in his dealings. He knew when there was a bit of leverage to be used but never overdid it to the extent that he could come back.’’
“He was a very decent courteous man whose use of language had the capacity to catch people’s attention — his lyrical use of words. I remember getting a lovely letter from him about an embryonic Southdoc which he said was the most important letter I would ever read as minister for health.’’
“A most astute person, exceptionally intelligent, and someone who could communicate with people at all levels. He had an exceptional ability to attract media attention in a positive and entertaining way.’’
“His character was a once-off and Kerry and the people of Kerry were his everlasting pride and joy and that was all that mattered to Jackie. I’m sure people in urban centres and Dublin in particular didn’t understand that, but Jackie knew his people.’’
“Jackie proved he was a man of the people. He stood for the people of Kilgarvan and south Kerry and delivered for them and some national media poured scorn on him, but Jackie was a shrewd operator. He was able to negotiate and look after his people but he had many national policies as well.’’
“He was a great colleague on the council and lightened many serious debates with his sense of humour. I told him once that it would be only when he went independent that he’d go places. He has left an indelible mark in South Kerry.”