Thursday 21 November 2019

'I can feel the hate off some people...' - Michael Healy-Rae on life, politics and almost paralysing Woody Allen

On a night out in Kerry, Michael Healy-Rae tells Barry Egan why he didn't become a priest, coming close to paralysing Woody Allen, Bishop Eamonn Casey doing his First Holy Communion, people who want him dead, the effect his parents' break-up had on him when he was 10, his own marriage and dealing with the suicide of a constituent

Michael Healy Rae last Sunday evening in Kerry. Photo: Sally MacMonagle
Michael Healy Rae last Sunday evening in Kerry. Photo: Sally MacMonagle
Woody Allen (Ian West/PA)
Nana Mouskouri
Simon Coveney
The late Jackie Healy Rae
Bishop Eamonn Casey
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

It's midnight in the Kingdom. From beneath his famous flat cap, Michael Healy-Rae is waxing lyrical about the eternal verities. He is also gently bemoaning the Catholic Church doing away with purgatory, because when he was younger he prayed for the poor souls in the intermediate state after physical death as they underwent years of expiatory purification.

"But sure no harm! The prayers didn't go to waste!"

The Kerry TD says he wasn't tempted to become a priest. He can recall a Mass in Killorglin as a teenager when the priest asked everyone to pray for a young Irish man who was training to be a priest in a foreign land but had taken suddenly and gravely ill. Young Michael later heard the full story outside the gates, about the young trainee priest on the other side of the world.

"He was inside in bed with a woman when the door opened into the apartment and it was her husband. He made the fatal error of sitting up in the bed. Your man had a gun. Pow! Pow!"

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Michael is doing gun sounds. "I think it was two times or three times he shot him in the chest. If he had hidden under the bed it would have been a lot harder to shoot him. He survived. But when he was in hospital he was dying. He swore that if he survived he would devote his life to God. Now this fella would be the exact same as me in that he was a very ordinary person like…"

But you wouldn't be jumping into bed with other men's wives, would you? I joke.

"But you know what I mean!" roars Michael with laughter. "I don't know what way I'd put it: he wasn't what you'd call priest material, but he made this promise, this commitment. So he did actually become a priest. I believe in God and heaven and hell but I think I am committed fully enough to my constituents to not consider being a priest!"

Walking around Kerry with one of the county's most unmistakable names is an experience in itself. People honk car horns when they see him. Others have a look of amazement that it is really him. It was the same look Michael had 30 years ago when he literally bumped into an American film star.

Woody Allen (Ian West/PA)

"Do you remember when Woody Allen went on the run? Do you remember he ran away with Mia Farrow's daughter?" he says referring to Soon-Yi Previn.

"Technically she was his daughter, in a way. I was driving a machine inside in Kenmare and everyone in the world was talking about Woody Allen and where was he. Nobody knew where he was.

"I was walking out of the Atlantic pub after having my dinner. I had my brace on my legs [he had a road traffic accident in 1990] and a big pair of work boots. When I came out I was swinging my legs forward with the brace. I was a bit like a robot.

"The next thing there was this little man. I put my foot on top of his foot and the two of us were going to hit the deck. I literally put my hands around him to hold him because we were going to fall. I could have paralysed him if I fell on him.

"He was a very slight man. I looked at this man and there was also a very young Oriental girl, who looked actually like a child. I said to him, 'Oh, Woody. I'm very sorry. I only barely held you there like.'

"And he got a fit of laughing."

There's a tap at the window - we are sitting in Healy-Rae's car, parked on a street in Killarney. A woman wants to tell him that she thinks he's the greatest because he went to the funeral of her grandfather. An hour earlier in a shop another woman thanked him for helping her get an operation. ("I remember her case.") Leaving the shop, a local man wants Michael to pet his dog; the dog, the man says, is from Cork. Everyone - even, I suspect, the dog - laughs.

But Michael gets a lot more than his fair share of dog's abuse. He says the perception of him is completely different to the reality.

"I met a person lately, randomly. And this wasn't in Kerry now. He is working with a man. He told me that every morning when the man gets going all the man says is that he would give anything to see me dead. The person told me, 'This fellow is so bad that I'm convinced that if he thought he could get away with killing you himself, he would, just to have the satisfaction of seeing you dead'."

I ask Michael Healy-Rae why anyone would want to see him dead.

"I don't know, but that is there. There are people who have this thing where they really hate me."

Why would they hate him?

"Sure, some people would, because it is perception," says Michael, whom I found especially charming and extremely likeable, a charismatic chatterbox with a permanent twinkle in his eye. "One day, I couldn't go forwards because the cars were stopped and there was a car behind me. And this car pulled up beside me. Jesus, he was really bad. He was effing and blinding and he told me what he thought of me. It sort of rattled me a bit."

In a more general sense, the colourful independent politician believes that if the people who profess to hate him knew him "they'd probably think I was fine; but a pile of people have different ideas because they don't know me. If there was 20 people inside in a room, I could point to the people that would hate me. You could feel it off them, the hate."

You can feel the love off Michael for his wife Eileen, from Kilcummin outside Killarney, when he talks about her. They were married in Yonkers, New York on March 30, 1989. "My God, a lifetime ago!"

They met in 1986 "here in Killarney, in a dance hall". (Eileen told Lucy Kennedy on TV3's Living With Lucy in 2017 that they met at the Gleneagle Hotel on an August bank holiday weekend "when he was entertaining his cousins from America".)

What was his opening gambit to Eileen in the ballroom of romance?

"'Will you dance!'" he smiles.

Post-dance, they now have five grown-up children: Ian, Juliet, Rosie, Kevin and Jackie. Does he bring them to the cinema?

"We go about once a year."

Michael's philosophical attitude to life was inherited from his mother. One day the oven of the family home went on fire. As the flames grew higher, his mother left the house and stood outside in the yard in the rain. One of her sons, Denis, pulled up to the house on this Friday evening and asked her why was she outside in the rain. "Because the kitchen is on fire."

Denis ran into the burning house, got a fire extinguisher and put out the fire. "My mother's attitude was, 'I wasn't going to get burned for a kitchen'."

Would Michael be the same?

"I wouldn't get burned trying to save my house either, oh God, yeah."

"I had a very interesting incident recently with a fire," he goes on. "I was coming out of a funeral before the Rose of Tralee. I was all dressed up. I was taking a woman whose husband had died. I brought my own wife another night. I was coming out of the funeral and I smelt it before I saw.

"I looked up the street and I saw a tractor and your man had just realised he was on fire. I ran to my car and grabbed the fire extinguisher and put it under the tractor and the flames shot up. I was awful conscious of the time to meet the widow. So, I shook hands with the fella on the tractor and off I took and to the Rose ball."

The following morning, the woman Michael brought to the ball rang him. 'You didn't tell me about the excitement last night.'

'What excitement?' asked Michael.

'The fire!' she reminded him.

Michael had forgotten it. The woman hadn't.

'Well, I did think there was a terrible strong smell of smoke from you but I didn't like to say anything!' she laughed.

Michael can recollect the vague whiff of sulphur that came out of a private party in Kerry hosted by Bishop Eamonn Casey that his parents attended in the early 1970s. Annie Murphy, an American with whom Casey had an affair and a child, had been introduced as his cousin.

"My mother told me the story, there was maybe 20 people at the function near Cliff House where the Bishop was living with Annie Murphy. The Bishop was there at the party with Annie Murphy and my mother and father would have been there because they were good friends with him. In the car going home my mother said to my father, 'I'd have my suspicions about the girl!' And my father's attitude was to bless himself and to say, 'How could you say that about the bishop!'

"Then a few years after my father told me the story, 'I knew all the time!'; and that he was only covering for the bishop when he told my mother that there couldn't be anything in it."

Bishop Eamonn Casey

Did Michael ever meet Bishop Casey?

"He did my Holy Communion!"

Michael was out in Kerry last Sunday night with me ostensibly to promote the brilliant new book, A Listening Ear, which is full of stories that could only come out of his mouth. The youngest son of Jackie (a TD for Kerry South from 1997 to 2011) and Julie (who was born in Delaware and grew up in New York), Michael was born on January 9, 1967. He has five siblings: Joan, John, Denis, Rosemary and Danny. The latter was elected to the Dail along with Michael at the 2016 general election.

Perhaps one of the most entertaining men I've had the good luck to meet of an evening in Killarney, Michael is also one of the most eccentric. Ask him about the music he loved as a teenager, and don't expect U2 or The Smiths.

"Your man was very good, I loved him. What was his name? Howard Jones! Odd stuff that you wouldn't think I'd listen to, I'd listen to!"

I am frightened to ask who.

Nana Mouskouri

"Nana Mouskouri! Cucurrucucu! Lovely singer."

He sings the title for me. "Cucurrucucu! "And Duran Duran! Loved them in the 1980s," gushes Michael, who has a cat at home called Freddie.

After the singer in Queen?

"The cat is just Freddie," smiles the cat in the hat. "My daughter Rosie picked his name."

In January, 2018, on RTÉ's The Tommy Tiernan Show, Michael told the host about an elderly man in his constituency in Kerry who had died by suicide. The poor man, who had financial worries, had talked to Michael 24 hours earlier by phone. Michael had told him that unfortunately there was no option but to pay the Revenue he owed them.

"You can imagine how I felt," Michael told Tommy.

What did Michael learn from what happened? Does it haunt him?

"I hope I've learned a lot from it," he says now. "It does get to me at times. I would not be human otherwise."

What did he learn?

"To listen and read between the words," he says.

Michael takes a phone-call in the car from an old man in a bad way. The phone call goes on for the guts of 30 minutes.

"You can ever treat someone with head trouble the same as you would someone else. You have to be more patient, understanding. You have to take them to the dawn of the day."

Michael recalls "Santa night" 22 years ago when he went to 'the dawn of the day'. He was doing the presents for his kids when his phone rang.

"So I was getting the stuff, the Santa stuff, for the young lads and didn't the phone ring and it was a fella in a certain place. I was 30 and he was 60. I thought he was going to kill himself that night. I started talking away to him. I remember I was sitting at the bottom of the stairs on a land-line phone, and I sat there until the morning talking to him."

What about the Christmas presents for the kids?

"Eileen was able to do Santa."

And the poor man at the other end of the phone?

"It took the whole night, that Christmas Eve; I wore him out, and then when I said to him, 'are you going to go to bed now?' he said, 'I am'. He went to bed and at dinner time on Christmas day I went to his house 30 miles away and I brought him to a family member where he ate his dinner."

Simon Coveney

Twenty years ago Michael was on a board of the Psychiatric Services Committee. "The other man who went on with me was a young man starting out in politics by the name of Simon Coveney. We got to know each other very well. I got to understand how his head works."

So how does Simon's head work?

"His head works in sort of a smart way. He has a good understanding. That's why when Leo and himself were going head to head [in the race to become Fine Gael leader], there was a monumental error made by the people who thought that Leo was the proper person to lead.

"I shouldn't be sticking my nose into their affairs at all. The man for that job was Simon Coveney. But his time might come again in the future and I'd say he probably knows that in his own head. All I can tell you is, he is a person of great capability."

Whatever about Simon's head's, what's it like inside Michael's head?

"The biggest dread is my head has to be kept busy. It's just the way I've always been. Like from early in the morning until late at night, there has to be things happening."

A psychologist would ask what is Michael Healy-Rae frightened of by never stopping? Is he frightened of being still?

"It'd probably be the truth to say something like that."

What would his wife say?

"Probably the same; that there's never a dull moment. My mother used to say about my father; that he was never boring."

The day I met him. Michael left home at 6am to open the shop; he is never home until after 12 at night. On Tuesday mornings he leaves before 5am because he is in Dublin for the Dail. He leaves his phone on all night in case he gets an urgent call. Is that routine not difficult for his wife?

"I suppose she has hardened into it. Other people do other types of things."

The late Jackie Healy Rae

Michael was ten years of age when his parents broke up. He says his father Jackie worked the same hours as him. Did Michael's mother ever say to him that his father worked too hard?

"No, she never criticised him, no."

But she would have liked to have seen him more?

"I suppose she would have, but my mother was very smart. My mother could see around turns."

Does Michael think his parents' break-up affected him?

"Ah, no. I was ten. A lot of that sort of stuff is gobbledygook. I don't go in for soft sort of nonsense like that."

But it's not soft nonsense.

"It is. Do you know the way people go around with a chip on their shoulder? The only thing I'll admit..."

He pauses.

"...the only thing I will admit is that it was unusual for that time. That wasn't sort of the done thing. So, sure, if you like, they were ahead of their time."

His father (who passed away in 2014) moved out and Michael lived with his mother (who died in 2015)?

"Yeah. That wasn't a usual thing FOR that time, in those years; whereas now there is no notice taken of it."

What is Michael like as a dad?

"I wouldn't like to think that I would be a bad person or anything like that - and I don't tell lies... if I have a fault about myself I tell it... I'd hate anyone to think I'm on a self-promotion exercise.

"But I know in my heart and soul especially after my father got elected to the Dail in 1997, I had young lads that were small, one of them wasn't born until 1999 - that was Kevin, the last one... let me put it to you this way: if this was a football game on and one of the lads was playing in it, if there was clinics on that night in Dingle, and if my father wanted me to go to it, it would be a case of [to his sons]: 'I'm awful sorry, but I have to go to this meeting'.

"It is no exaggeration to say in times of christenings, Communions and Confirmations, I could be sitting down at them and I'd have to leave to go to something. I might come back or I might not come back."

Does he feel guilt over that now?

"No, because that is more gobbledygook. I don't do that sort of thing either," he says, meaning guilt. "I don't allow myself to think that way, because that is meandering, and soft talk, rubbish. It is like people talking about their feelings and bullshit like that. I don't do anything like that."

Is talking about feelings not good for people's mental health?

"That's fine for other people. People can talk about it, but I wouldn't talk about myself in that way, because I have boxes in my head, and when I want to talk about something I'll open the box and bring it out to the front of my head and talk about it, then if I want to put it away and not think about it…

"I would have problems every day, outside of politics I'm talking about, but I can put it away in a box and forget about it, and literally I would have to be reminded about it.

"I hear some bad, some sad stuff at clinics and I have to be dealing with it. You would have real sad stuff. Things like that would bother me more than my own problems."

"I can handle all my own stuff. No problem. But when I'm dealing with somebody else, I feel sorry for somebody else. I don't feel sorry for myself, because any thing I do I draw it on myself."

But as a 10-year-old boy you didn't draw it on yourself when your parents split up?


Did his mother tell Michael that she and his father were breaking up and all would be fine? Were there any of those conversations?

"No, because my mother didn't do soft, gobbledygook stuff."

Did his father?

"No, no, not at all."

Michael just came home one day and his father wasn't there?

"No, no, I wouldn't go into that, but events that happen you in life should never define you as a person. My mother used to always say that to me: it's not what happens you in life; it's how you react is what defines you.

"Some people could lose the plot if something bad happened and they could spend the rest of their life going around saying, 'Look at poor me'. Some of the most resilient people I've met in my life have an awful cross to bear and they can manage it; mum and dads with children with disabilities. Mums and dads having to deal with awful horrible stuff. I have dealt with people who would have dealt with the lives of others because of psychiatric illness and you just have to know how to talk to people."

We have now been talking for over three hours. We return where we started: to God. "I like to go to Mass."

He presumably went to confession as a kid. Isn't the process of telling a stranger your innermost thoughts and fears in confession similar to going to a psychologist in therapy?

"Sure, it is, of course. Look, my mother studied psychology and she explained a lot to me about it. She had degrees in psychology and she did it for the heck of it."

The apple fell a long away from the tree with you, then, in terms of the mind?

"Yeah. But it all depends what you allow your mind to think. You could give all your life to your head ... when you could be using your head to be thinking about way more productive things."

It's approaching one in the morning. Time for the Kerry TD to go home. Joe Cocker once sang You Can Leave Your Hat On. I ask Michael does his leave his cap on when he is in bed with his wife.

Is he like a cowboy in those old western movies; he sleeps with his cap titled down over his eyes? Does it ever come off?

"I always take my cap off to wash my hair," MHR says, driving off to Eileen in Kilgarvan.

A Listening Ear by Michael Healy-Rae is out on November 1 (Gill Books, €16.99)

How Tom Cruise got a slap in Kilgarvan

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman during the making of Far and Away

In A Listening Ear, Michael Healy-Rae tells the tale that in 1991, when Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were in Ireland to make the movie Far And Away, Tom got a whack across the hand in The Loo Bridge Bar outside Kilgarvan from a local character named Ger The Manny.

In the chapter entitled 'Two Yanks and One Slap Across the Hand', Michael writes that when Matt, the owner of the bar, "was gone… didn't the Yank lean in over the counter. As he was about to reach out to get something, Ger The Manny grabbed his walking stick and tried to land the Yank's hand with a ferocious belt.

"Matt came running out. 'Ger! Christ, what's wrong?' he asked.

"'Ha! That so-and-so was leaning in over the counter trying to steal your fags,' said Ger, pointing the stick while practically frothing with temper.

"The shocked Yank looked at him, put out his two hands and said, 'My goodness, I'm so sorry. All I was doing was leaning in to try and get a little bit more ice.'"

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