Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 February 2018

'I never had a grand plan': Michael Healy Rae talks politics and farming

Representing the people of Kerry is a 24/7 job for Michael Healy-Rae as our reporter discovered when she tracked him down on his home patch

Michael Healy-Rae TD pictured on a farm in South Kerry dealing with constituency matters. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Michael Healy-Rae TD pictured on a farm in South Kerry dealing with constituency matters. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

In his national school days, the demise of a rural TD was music to the ears of nine-year-old, Michael Healy-Rae.

It meant three weeks out of the classroom to go around the country fighting the by-election with his father, Jackie.

He insists it wasn't a doss, but a great education that prepared him for the fast-paced life of politics in The Kingdom.

So fast moving in fact that the outspoken Independent TD, and part-time farmer, forgot about this interview with the Farming Independent when I arrived in his native village of Kilgarvan last Tuesday.

After a four-hour journey to his home village, where murals, a statue and posters of the Healy-Rae family are as prominent as the surrounding hills and valleys, turning around was not an option.

"I'm terribly sorry, I've been on the road all morning, I'm in Tralee now, I have to go to Killarney this evening and I won't be back in Kilgarvan until 9 o'clock tonight," he tells me on phone.

The Healy-Rae brothers Michael (left) and Danny, Independent deputies for Kerry, at Leinster House
The Healy-Rae brothers Michael (left) and Danny, Independent deputies for Kerry, at Leinster House

"Tralee is 40 miles from Kilgarvan, I'm at the Manor West Hotel, I can meet you here if that suits? I'm parked outside."

I zipped out after a farmer driving a New Holland tractor with 'Healy-Rae No 1' displayed on his front dash to catch the charismatic flat-capped politician.

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"I never had a grand plan for politics, it was just the way it worked out," says Michael sitting in his heavily trademarked black Skoda that essentially operates as a clinic on wheels.

"My father was an excellent organiser of by-elections so he was always brought in. I'd be putting up posters, giving out leaflets, all the work that needed to be done during the election.

Michael Healy-Rae. Pic Tom Burke
Michael Healy-Rae. Pic Tom Burke

"It was very interesting, it was an education. The men with my father were smart people. He had a great team advising and helping him, and I learned a lot from them at a young age. They were politically astute about everything," he says.

Working after school in the family pub - now run by his brother and fellow TD Danny Healy-Rae - and at a local piggery opened his eyes to issues affecting the rural community steeped in farming, forestry and turf cutting.

"It would have been a waste of time for me to go to college because I was after being at college already in my own mind. I'd met all these sensible, sound people. All you had to do was keep your mouth shut and your ears open and you'd be fine," he says.

Despite his strong political upbringing, politics wasn't an immediate route for Michael.

Spending his Leaving Cert year at Pallaskenry Agricultural College in Limerick cemented his love for farming, a tradition he still maintains on his 100-acre suckler, sheep and forestry holding in Kilgarvan.

"The opportunities for full-time farming weren't there for me when I finished ag college. Where I'm from, the land wouldn't sustain it in a million years.

Danny Healy-Rae’s comments about drink driving have outraged road safety campaigners Photo: Don MacMonagle
Danny Healy-Rae’s comments about drink driving have outraged road safety campaigners Photo: Don MacMonagle

"The minute I finished in college, I borrowed money and bought machinery and went away on hire and I gave my life driving diggers," he says.

In between calls from troubled constituents in Tarbert and Portmagee, and a steady flow of locals knocking on the window seeking advice, it seems only natural that he would one day follow in his father's well-respected footsteps.

But the youngest son of Jackie Healy-Rae wanted to get there on his own merit.

After directing all his father's general elections, he says it became evident in 1999 that somebody should run for Kerry County Council.

"The one thing you can't ever do is rely on anyone else to carry you. My father had an excellent reputation for hard work, for being a genuine committed person, but you have to make your own name and do your own work and get your own respectability.

"I ran in a place where my father had never been a councillor. I couldn't say 'vote for me because my father was Jackie Healy-Rae' - that was nonsense. I had to say 'please vote for me, please take a chance'.

Under fire: Michael Healy Rae was criticised for not showing proper respect to the Dáil
Under fire: Michael Healy Rae was criticised for not showing proper respect to the Dáil

"It was difficult but I ran, got elected and tried to build on it after that," he adds.

The only time Michael had to give up driving machinery everyday was in 2011 when he got elected to Dáil Éireann after his father's retirement.

Michael continued to seek his father's guidance right up until Jackie passed away in December 2014. "He'd say to us 'everyday do your very best, work as hard as you can, don't give 100pc, give 120pc and don't ever spare anything," says Michael.

His American-born mother, Julie, who passed away just 10 months later was another shining light. "My mother could see around corners, she was very smart, she could speak seven languages, write Arabic and worked for the Syrian Consulate in New York.

"I always sought their approval and that's the worst of them not being here now. They were great advisors and key people around me always, and now they are gone," says Michael, adding that his parents are still on speed dial on his phone.

"I rang them everyday, 10 times a day, and within a 12-month period they were gone. It was a devastating blow to the system," he says.

Although it has been a "testing time" since their passing, Michael's vision for rural Ireland has helped him through.

"You can't ever give up, when challenges come in front of you, that's when you must fight."

Ensuring young farmers, like his son Kevin (18), have a sustainable future is central to his mandate. But, he says, certain EU environmental regulations are acting as a barrier.

"You actually don't own your own farm, you're given it for a while to mind in the best way you can, improve its viability, put up sheds, reclaim fields, plough it, lime it, fertilise it, fence it, try and make it better than it was when you got it and then pass it on, that's all you are doing, it's not yours," he says.

"When I hear these goody-two-shoe environmentalists going on that they know about winter spread slurry, it's all rubbish, they don't know what they are talking about," he adds.

"You could have a day in the height of black January when it would be better to go out in fields spreading slurry than in the month of August, but try telling that to an environmentalist.

"People saying you shouldn't be cutting hedges at a certain time of the year, more rubbish. I never yet seen a bird being so stupid that she'd plant her nest on the edge of the road. She'll go on the inside, in the corner where she will be out of the way.

"Who would put their nest where the bushes are rubbing by it?" he says. "The people I rely on to be judges of their farms, and what should be done, is the farmer because they are minding it for the next generation so they can carry it on," he says glancing at his watch before hitting the road for Killarney.

Shooting from the hip: Michael Healy-Rae on...

Climate Change

Climate change is a business worth an awful lot of money to an awful lot of people. Al Gore made a very successful career out of it.

But I put a big question mark over an awful lot of what goes on.

It isn't that I doubt science. The scientists are smart and intelligent, and they go to university, but who made the scientists? They didn't make themselves. God made the scientists, so it all comes back to God.

President Trump

I'm black and white about Trump. On Christmas Day in 1988, my mother gave me a book about a businessman in New York. She said we won't talk about it now until you read the book. I read it in one sitting, his name was Donald J Trump and it was called The Art of the Deal. I said, God, he is very interesting, and we had discussion.

She said, watch him in the future, he's very smart - he could finish up running the world yet. She saw this thing in him.


An awful lot of the places I represent don't have adequate broadband, they don't even have adequate mobile coverage. If you want to progress in rural Ireland, you have to have broadband, you have to have infrastructure into the county. We're very resilient and we're good at making out if we get half a chance, but we need a half a chance.

Post Office closures

We have misguided people saying the post offices need a bailout, we don't want a bailout, we don't want redundancies, we don't want a handout from anyone. All we want is to be given tools to make our post offices better, to make it more attractive, especially for young people because if you don't use it, you lose it.

Agricultural carbon emissions

Rubbish, what do they want us to do? Do away with our cows and our beef because they think they are putting out emissions, absolute nonsense. What about factories in China that are spewing out millions of tonnes of fumes into the sky every few minutes?

Turf cutting bans

The people who say they want to close our bogs down can go to a place where they're is plenty of heat, they can go to hell and I mean that. They can go to hell because they have no right telling people things like that.

For me, it's a basic human right to have water, timber and turf to keep yourself warm.

Beef trade

It's completely unfair and not right that there is such a monopoly in the meat industry, and what I call a cartel in that the prices can be controlled.

Competition was the life of trade and there is not enough competition in beef. If you take what the farmer gets paid for producing beef in his yard, and the price you pay for steak in a hotel or at the butcher, the farmer is the poor man in the middle of it all. It's not right.


The implications for our trade and our people is going to be enormous.

We have to minimise the bad effect and maximise any good effect. I'm relying on everybody to put their shoulder to the wheel.

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