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What's another year . . . Shay Healy's still cool and creative at 70


Lunching with a legend: Maggie Armstrong and Shay Healy at the Bewley's Hotel.  Martin Maher

Lunching with a legend: Maggie Armstrong and Shay Healy at the Bewley's Hotel. Martin Maher

 Multitalented: Shay Healy

Multitalented: Shay Healy


Lunching with a legend: Maggie Armstrong and Shay Healy at the Bewley's Hotel. Martin Maher

I can't pin Shay Healy down. Not that he won't stay – "there are no time limits", he assures me. He's keen to have as long a lunch as we need, which could be pretty long and detailed. He's been a TV host, folkie, showband player, composer, joker, musical arbiter, journalist, novelist, photographer, probably more things. How do you describe yourself? I ask. "Impecunious dilettante."

The man made famous by the Eurovision and for presenting RTÉ's 1980s/1990s cult TV show Nighthawks is one thing though – he's cool. Cool, despite having started being cool in the 1950s.

He shows up in throwback, faded denims and a T-shirt, which he wonders might be "a bit blasphemous" for the occasion. With his, let's say, relaxed appearance, and his unwillingness to try and impress the interviewer, you could forget about the depth and complexity of his achievements.

That he was able to hide those poignant lyrics – 'What's another year, for someone who lost everything that he owned; what's another year for someone who's getting used to being alone' – behind a baby-faced pop star in Johnny Logan is an example of his curious modesty.

He was 70 this year. Is he happy being known, above all, as the writer of the winning song at Eurovision 1980? Yes, because he loves the song.

"It's a good song no matter what anyone says. It's about watching my dad go through the pain of losing his wife, and they were a great couple. They had a lot of similar interests, in the Gaelic language and the theatre."

His Kerry-born mother, Máirín, a folk-singer and writer, died in 1969 aged 58 from breast cancer. Shay started writing 'What's Another Year' in 1976 and three years later he placed it in Logan's tender care (though on the same day he vowed never to get in a car with Logan again, his driving was so scary).

How was watching the young comet take all the credit?

"I remember us standing on the stage in The Hague when we'd just won. As Shakespeare said, we forged our friendship 'with hoops of steel'. Oddly enough, the songwriter is treated like muck. They're the least important person on the stage. I realised that nobody was asking me any questions so I slinked off, I put my hat on, walked across this great big plaza, and I had a feeling of great contentment."

But no one noticed him? "Nobody really cares who the songwriter is. I wasn't insulted. Though I was doing my best, I was wearing a f***ing stripy jacket and stripy trousers and a straw boater hat – very Gatsbyesque."

He admits he "shamelessly wrote songs to be hits and generate income", but was "the biggest fool you could ever give money to".

Being a dilettante is a "tight-rope", he says, and that's why it's exciting. Lately he's had fewer commercial excitements than he'd like. This year, he mentored a band that didn't qualify for the Eurovision. "I thought I'd share the love," he says grimly. "I miscalculated. We utterly missed the mark."

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His 2005 musical The Wiremen about rural electrification was "the biggest disappointment of my life, it didn't take off. It got buried, the reviews buried it."

One bad review caused him to go to a T-shirt shop and have certain sentiments printed across a T-shirt, which he then wore to the performance. It's a typically devious Shay Healy stunt, to make a protest that the target couldn't but find funny.

It's hard to imagine him causing trouble today – he is so polite, civilised and reflective. He enjoys a good conversation and he chose Bewley's Hotel because he has a "ropey back and it's a three-minute walk from my house". He doesn't talk about it at first, but this is an effect of the Parkinson's disease he has had for 10 years.

It's also right beside Wilfield Road where he grew up, in the middle of six children with bohemian parents who encouraged his writing talent, though he was "not adverse to robbing orchards". He met his wife Dymphna in this neighbourhood, too – "at Bective", he says, doing a boogeying motion. Cool.

His first job was aged 18 in the Irish Press where he designed the pages. "I love geometry. I like seeing street lamps, I like looking at things and seeing their shapes," he says.

He also liked the sound of the work, finding something "emotional and primal" about the hot metal newspaper machines. He joined RTÉ in 1963 as a cameraman and four years later he was presenting the TV programme Balladsheet, then travelling the country for radio.

Shay splits his musical influences in three: folk, The Beatles and Elvis. He taught himself guitar and in the 1960s was part of a "trendy, left-wing agitprop movement". He wrote parodies which he sang to politicians (and still does). He wanted social justice. He hated the "blatant racism" shown towards Travellers, something he got from his mother who used to take Travellers in and give them a bath. He was attracted to their musical culture and collaborated with figures like Pecker Dunne, The Fureys and The Keenans.

Elvis, though, was "someone who crept into my head and stayed there ever since". He cites an extreme example of fan fetishism. "I'd get about six Elvis interviews from different magazines and I'd cut all the quotes out and get on the floor and assemble this fantastic wide-ranging dialogue with Elvis. He was just so exciting."

Folk music aficionados envy the scene he was part of when he lived in the US in the 1970s, settling in Nashville, Tennessee, for two years with Dymphna and their sons Oisin and Fionan.

Fans of Nighthawks remember the calibre of grandee that came into Shay's fictional diner. Is he proud of his life so far, the things he's done and the people he's known? He is circumspect. "If I accomplish something and it's good enough to stand up to examination by my peers, then I'm happy," he says. So who are these peers? My ear is cocked and ready for anecdotes.

But Shay and I are momentarily light years apart. I have absolutely no idea who any of the people in his stories are. So I ask him about the former Fianna Fail justice minister, whose interview with Shay in January 1992 caused Charles Haughey's resignation as Taoiseach.

"There was a whiff of gunpowder off this man," he says of Sean Doherty, who had ordered the phone-tapping of journalists 10 years previously. In what Shay sees as a "conspiracy", the late Doherty told Shay that other members of the cabinet knew about the phone-tapping. This impugned Haughey's honesty and he came under pressure to resign. Obviously, Shay's written a parody about it, 'The Night They Drove Old Haughey Down'.

Shay has aged considerably from his days as the wiry madcap with the bowler cut on the telly. His face is strong and handsome but his hair is almost white. He is becoming frail. He gets a healthy plate of salads but doesn't eat much; however, for dessert from the buffet he helps himself to a huge plate of panna cotta and cream.

"The best thing," he confides, "is ice cream with cream."

Until last year, Shay was a judge on TV3's talent show Glór Tíre. What happened? "I stopped doing Glór Tíre out of consideration for the people who make it. Whatever's happening with my Parkinson's, my mouth gets tight and I start to stutter. I felt for the crew – it was a bit like watching Edith Piaf perform. They were lovely people," he says with some melancholy.

But even though he sways and judders and his words are clasped, there is a rhythm and elegance to his movements. How does Parkinson's affect his music?

"Playing music has a fantastic effect. I can't hold on to the strings of a guitar very well any more. But when I go on to a stage my Parkinson's just fecks off. The pain in my back disappears. Music is the best healing that's available."

Parkinson's interferes with typing, though he spends much of his time writing on his third-floor study – fiction, Christmas songs, a new musical.

"I have a nightmare time just hitting the wrong keys," he says, showing me how difficult it is to pour from the teapot. "The tips of my fingers are kinda dead. Even picking up one of my tablets can be a nightmare. Opening a Magnum – it's like an Olympic sport."

Then there are the hallucinatory side-effects of his medication. "I'm walking towards a hat stand. The hat stand would become a Spanish dancer, this little thing here would become a dwarf. There's a big flower in front of the fridge, and that becomes sort of a head. Thankfully, it's not frightening, it's kind of amusing sometimes."

Two hours in his company reveal some of the suffering Parkinson's wreaks on him and his family. But Shay still has an enviable creative energy.

"I'm not finished, there's still a bit more to come. Last week I wrote this song which will literally overcome 'What's Another Year', it'll be my epitaph," he says.

"This'll be one for Willie Nelson, or Tom Jones, or Sinéad O'Connor. It's called 'When You Become Stardust Too'. You see I believe I'm going to be a bit of stardust when I die. And I'm looking down and saying, I see you, I'm taking care of you. Maybe we'll meet again, when you're stardust too."

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