I've never talked publicly, or at length, about John Healy before. Tonight I'm going to do that. In the spring of 1977 I was in my second and final year at the School of Journalism in Rathmines. There were sixteen students in our class, four males and twelve females. The Director of the Journalism School was Sean Egan, who freelanced in several places, including RTÉ, The Sunday Independent and The Sunday Mail. Sean was a native of Swinford where his mother was a teacher. We buried Sean last year.
In April 1977, the word came to Sean Egan that his fellow Mayoman, John Healy, might be in the market for a reporter, Healy and Jim Maguire were planning to start a new newspaper in Ballina.
I went to see Healy at his home, up the road from the Rathmines College, in Fortfield Terrace.
We immediately hit it off. During my time in Dublin I had been submitting articles to The Sligo Champion. The previous summer, as part of our training, I had worked for six weeks in the Champion offices. The reporters there were wonderful to me and the editor, Seamus Finn, agreed to take my reports of Sligo Rovers' Dublin matches when I returned to the Journalism School.
Healy was trawling for information, sizing me up. He checked to see what I knew about Sligo Leitrim politics and then asked when I thought a general election might be called.
" June," I predicted.
" Why do you say that ?" he asked.
I told him how a friend in Sligo, Bairbre Ferguson, had a father who ran Arks Advertising Agency and their clients included Fine Gael. I explained how Padraig Ferguson and his wife had cancelled a planned summer holiday on the basis that he would be busy with election business.
Healy was sitting opposite, head slightly bowed, looking up from under his sunken eyebrows. He looked at the patch on my trousers.
"Who fixed that for you?, he asked.
"Granny," I answered.
She lived with us in Sligo. She came from Leitrim. Her husband died and left her with seven children including my mother, who never met her father. Granny used a sewing machine which came home in a parcel from America, to help rear her family.
"You are from snipegrass, kid. You are hungry.I like hungry kids."
May came and by then Healy had put a gun to my head. The new paper, The Western Journal, would be hitting the streets in June. If I wanted a job, I had to be in situ for June.
I could go back in September, at repeats stage, to do my exams.
It was a very easy decision to make. The choice was to stay lovesick in Dublin or be smitten by Healy and his great adventure.
One May morning Sean Egan and I boarded a train at Heuston Station. He bought me a cooked breakfast on the journey west. When we arrived in Ballina Sean sought out a hackney car which ferried us to Garden Street and Sean handed me over to his fellow Mayomen before heading off to visit his mother.
It was a most unexpected sight. The office of this new enterprise was located in a house in Garden Street, between Mullen's Newsagents and Ernie Caffrey's pub next door. Healy was up the stairs, on the first floor. Between what was Jim Maguire's office and a room for the reporters, there was a sink and cooker.
It quickly became clear that in the hectic days and nights running into the paper launch, Healy, the legendary reporter, had been sleeping in a bed on the floor.
I didn't know it but I was joining an enterprise built on very dodgy foundations.
Healy and Maguire had been loyal workers in what was one of the institutions of Irish provincial journalism, The Western People. But while they were respected for their craftsmanship within the trade and by the general public, they seemed to have a sense of a gulf between them and the owners, The DeVeres.
They perceived an unbridgeable gap between workers, even editors and owners. That was a view shared in many of the country's local newspaper offices.
The paper they established was going to be different. On many levels.
Firstly, they went in search of investors to fund the enterprise. Then they decided on modern production methods to steal a march on the Western, which, like many of the country's provincial papers, was produced by huge, old hot metal presses.
And finally they talked up the content – they were going to create a bright, breezy, young newspaper and put clear water between the Journal and the Western.
The first error they made was the amount of investor money. Experience subsequently taught us that any new paper, seeking to take on the likes of the Western, would need at least three loss-making years before gaining a foothold in the market.
The Journal had some committed shareholders. Like Ernie Caffrey, a publican and local Fine Gael councillor who lived next door, a bright, well-read man who was constantly coming up with interesting ideas. Ernie it was who made the apt observation about the yellow masthead on our new paper. "It's kinda skittery" was his view.
Another stalwart was Cathal Duffy, a then Volkswagen dealer and businessman from Castlebar. The other key directors were Paddy Smyth of Claremorris, whose family would later start the toys empire, and two more businessmen, Laurence Barrett and Paddy Lavelle.
Others like Michael Keohane and Joe Murphy had put in some money. But as the going got tough, and it did get tough, there was a fall-off in the number of directors who were willing to reach once again and deeper into their pockets.
The model they developed was built around the over-optimistic premise that the Journal would break even within a year. What actually happened was that, faced with a threat, the Western People, under editor Terry Reilly, upped its game and used the considerable muscle and track record built over the decades.
One of the main reasons why the Journal struggled was the actual product and production methods. Most local newspapers had two revenue streams – circulation, the profit on each copy sold, and advertising.
The Western Journal was a new bird, literally flying on one wing. Its collection of journalists, columnists and advertising salespersons produced the raw material. It was then up to a team of typesetters – we had four of them – using very modern type-setting machines to move the paper onto the next stage.
The written stories, in typeset form, the photographs and ads were then made up by compositors, into pages. Again, using modern technology, the pages were photographed with a special camera and the negatives were sent off to Galway.
And there's the rub. The final stage, the printing of the paper, took place at The Connacht Tribune plant in Galway. The Journal didn't have the money to invest in its own printing plant. That function was farmed out and as a result, we were paying to the Tribune the full cover price of each paper printed.
In other words, we were not making one penny profit from the printing of the paper. In fact we had to make sure that we had a low level of returns, or unsold papers from newsagents because, the higher the level of returns, the more money we had paid to the Tribune and wasted.
The second income stream, advertising, was also fraught with difficulties. The Western People became very competitive and boasted about its circulation at every opportunity. To shopkeepers, auctioneers, supermarkets, garages, the Western was constantly emphasising its circulation figures and seeking to undermine the bona fides of the upstart, attempting to make its way in the marketplace.
So the Journal had to fight for every ad – and remember advertising was our only income stream. We didn't have the repeat business from auctioneers like Miko Browne or guaranteed pages from Dunnes Stores.
The public view was that Healy and Maguire were blood brothers, the terrible twins of Irish provincial journalism. The truth was a lot more complex.
Sometimes we hurt those we love because they are the only ones who would take it. Over the years they had come to know one another, inside out, faults included. Healy's nickname for Maguire was 'Frostie'. Maguire was more inclined to listen than expound but sometimes he would say with the air of someone who had learned from years and years of experience "sure you know what John is like."
In many respects they were yin and yang. The white and the yolk. Maguire, as an editor, had learned about the practical side. He loved early copy – stories in early, work for compositors, material to facilitate the smooth production of a weekly paper.
Healy was typical of most journalists, a last minute merchant, waiting to get the last vital piece of information before the paper went to press. Maguire knew the cost of everything. Healy was the romantic.
Maguire went through your expenses to make sure there was no overpayment. Healy told all the staff that the aim of the newspaper was to give all workers a bonus of a week in Spain with the family.
I was about a fortnight into my new life when I got a terrible shock. I discovered that I was not on the staff of the paper. Jim Maguire hadn't budgeted for me. Healy had brought me into the enterprise and as far as Maguire was concerned, I would be working as a freelance. And in those days, freelance meant paid by the word or line, the more you wrote, the more you were paid.
My brief was to develop the business in Sligo. In many ways, it was like being released into a sweetshop. As in Mayo where the Western People was the established weekly, Sligo had its own institution, the Sligo Champion. It was in many respects a copy of the Western model...owned by a family, the Townsends...old hot-metal printing presses...and a staff that felt a gulf between them and their employers.
I quickly set about writing my head off. The first story I covered was the Fianna Fail convention where James Gallagher pulled a fast one and outmanoeuvred an innocent Mattie Brennan to retain the nomination. I wrote up an account in a racy style.
Healy loved it. Sligo Rovers, GAA, local gossip and humour......the subject matter was endless. Within a month Maguire put me on the staff because it was cheaper to do so. The paper was selling well in Sligo and it was easy to see the potential for growth.
Soon we had a photographer, Martin O'Dea, taking pictures and using the Journal's quality printing advantage. Later he would be succeeded by Ken Keane. By the end of August the paper was featuring two Sligo pages. And then came a dilemma. Sligo Rovers were in the European Cup, playing against Red Star in Belgrade. The Champion wouldn't be sending but the Journal might.
Maguire encouraged me to solicit support advertising...good luck to Sligo Rovers in Belgrade. Now a choice had to be made. Do I go back to Rathmines and sit the exams I had missed in June or do I head for Belgrade. Healy's view was 'kid, do you need a bit of paper to tell you that you're a reporter?'
I went to Belgrade. I never did sit those repeats.
Charlestown figured prominently in Healy's life and in the history of the Journal. The place was in his blood. He knew every line in its streets. On his way down to Achill he would stop off here and stay with his younger brother, Gerry, who used to deliver papers for the Journal in his spare time. He was our intelligence officer on the ground.
It was here that some of the heavy board meetings of the fragile enterprise took place. Over dinner at the Riverside Guesthouse a number of acrimonious sessions were held.
After one of them Jim Maguire decided that he wanted to move on. After another Riverside dinner, Liam Molloy,Jim's replacement resigned.
True to the Mayo tradition, Jim helped to get Liam a job in RTÉ-Jim had once been a member of the RTÉ Authority; George Waters of Ballina was once the director general. Liam, Lord rest him, worked in Dublin for a number of years before returning to Ballina.
It was after a meeting in the Riverside too, that the decision was made to appoint me managing editor. I was coming towards the end of my 22nd year.
What followed were fascinating, challenging times. I was in charge of a staff of almost 30 people, in the middle of a recession, with a badly-financed business.
It was a desperately competitive situation. Michael Begley was the assistant manager in the local branch of AIB at the time.
During my period as editor, I was the one signing the cheques. Then, as now, I rarely remember opening a bank statement where the bottom line was a pleasant surprise. Then, as now, I always seemed to be ambushed by a few unexpected deductions, undermining the bottom line.
Often on those days when I'd go out for a sandwich to the Coffee Bean at lunchtime, I used to take a special route to avoid passing Michael Begley's door. I knew by looking at the different pages how much advertising revenue we had attracted that week. The formula we evolved for a successful paper was one with the lowest acceptable circulation and the highest possible acceptable ratio of advertising.
We were attempting to establish the paper in the teeth of a recession. One day I asked the main directors to come to a meeting at the Downhill Hotel and requested that they bring their chequebooks. Three of them turned up. Cathal Duffy, Ernie Caffrey and Seamus Monaghan, the investor I had recruited in Sligo.
Over lunch in the Downhill I went through the precarious nature of our finances and then requested them to produce their chequebooks. In later years Duffy often asked his pals did they ever attend a £5,000 lunch? That was exactly the figure, £5,000, that I extracted from each of the three directors.
I was drawn to Healy. He looked out for me. After he wrote 19 Acres, he gave me a signed copy of the hardback and autographed it "To My Godson in Journalism. Someday you will write a better book than this." In a burst of generosity one day I lent the book to someone and I have never set eyes on it since.
He used to coach me and write to me. Every few months I would receive a long, stream of consciousness typed letter, full of observations and wisdom. I had them in a drawer for a long time but lost them. We would also have long telephone conversations, first when I was based in Sligo and later when I moved to Ballina.
I hear him talking to me regularly. In recent years I've had a role managing a number of journalists including younger ones like Sean Whelan in Brussels, Declan McBennett and Eimear Lowe in Belfast and more recently, two new recruits in Belfast, Sharon Gaffney and Laura Whelan.
In conversations Healyism's flow. He always said his formula for a good story is "the four C's." Crime, Cash, C and Cookery." I won't use that third C because it is a particularly vulgar word beginning with C and ending with T. But I would not question the import of his theory.
He had lots of other ones too, like "when you are starting off in our trade, watch the clock in the morning but forget about it at night".
At the time Benson and Hedges sponsored the annual journalism awards. Healy was dismissive. "Kid, I don't need cigarette makers to tell me if I'm good."
He had another formula..."tell them you are going to tell them, tell them and then tell them that you told them".
One time he was named as political journalist of the year. His view was "they say I'm top of the heap. Some feckin heap."
Another Healy tip. "Always keep a few damning facts up your sleeve. If they come after you over some controversial story, have an even more explosive piece of information to throw out and that will shut them up."
I've heard many people talk about him over the years and I've usually left them at it. But in a gathering like this, it now seems appropriate to share memories and views about him.
Several times he told me about his life. At school he once wrote an essay and got pulled up for his description of cats, basking in the sun. His teacher accused him of copying it from somewhere. In fact it was Healy, the writer, beginning to emerge at the very early stage.
In that early period in Dublin Healy was untouchable. He wrote with extraordinary clarity. He expressed himself in language that ordinary people understood. And he told the truth. He was fired up. He took no prisoners. He was in hock to nobody.
The typewriter was his best friend. His work was his hobby. His work was his life.
He was witty. He gave people nicknames that stuck. And of course he was a great observer. Best of all, he was an outsider. It is for all of these reasons that I say Healy, at that stage of his life, was untouchable.
I've often asked myself why did he change and the same answer comes back each time. He loved the west of Ireland so much, he was so concerned about it, that he became an advocate for it. He also had a warm, affectionate, compassionate streak.
Because of that combination of factors, he stopped being the complete outsider and sometimes he went inside the tent. To parley. To lobby. To plead.
In that new mode he struck up friendships with the likes of Donagh O'Malley...with Charlie Haughey...with Brian Lenihan. They were the young Turks of his day and he found them more natural soulmates that many of the up and coming Fine Gael figures. I remember him once joking with Mary O'Rourke that he came across her during her student days, working as a waitress in a family hotel in Athlone.
Some of the purists often argued that Healy sold out. But I hold the view that he changed, became close to people, because he cared so much for the west of Ireland, the land of No One Shouted Stop. There possibly is an interesting thesis on the subject "By Going Inside the Tent, Did Healy Lessen or Increase his Influence."
But his motives should not be doubted. It would be wrong and unfair to suggest it was motivated by self interest.
In the Journal I saw him in action, close up.
He would frequently name check his friends in his columns. "My old Nathy's classmate, Ted Nealon"." My old Nathy's friend, Noel Dorr, Ireland's ambassador at the UN." He loved using nicknames." Garret the Good".. "The Sunflower Kid"...the name he gave Padraig Flynn who one time had owned the Sunflower Lounge in Castlebar.
He had two weather vanes, two sounding boards whose instincts and observations constantly featured in his work. One was Cathal Duffy, the garage owner, businessman and Fianna Failer in Castlebar. The other trusted friend was Michael O'Malley, in Achill Post Office. They were Healy's best advisors and scouts during all the years I knew him.
Duffy was a remarkable hustler. When Charlie Haughey replaced Jack Lynch as Taoiseach and Fianna Fail came to power, Healy arranged a meeting at Kinsealy.
They went to make a case for including Padraig Flynn in the cabinet. Haughey had already decided on his team of senior and junior ministers and Flynn's name wasn't on the list. During his conversation with Healy and Duffy he asked them to set out their case in writing. Before he died Duffy gave me a copy of that document.
Healy and Duffy's version of what subsequently happened is that Flynn was added to the list....given what he called "a car with the star" and, according to the late Cathal Duffy, the person knocked off, to make way for Pee Flynn, was an accountant from Co. Kildare, one Charlie McCreevy.
By chance in the autumn of 1980 RTÉ advertised for a North West Correspondent. I would have missed the application date but for my mother who drove over from Sligo with the application form, watched me fill it in and then take it away for posting. The threads and twists that shape a life.
Healy didn't want me to leave and it was years later that some of my bosses like Mike Burns and Barney Kavanagh told of the glowing references Healy had given me when they consulted with him.
It disappointed me when he and Evelyn weren't available to come to our wedding in 1983. We called to see him afterwards and he gave us a present of young trees.
The last time I saw him was in the late '80s. I was making a report for RTÉs Countrywide programme about Emigration. Part of it sometimes features in the Reeling In The Years series. I interviewed him at the family home in Fortfield Terrace.
I was based in Brussels in January 1991 when the news came through of his sudden death. I had spent Christmas at home in Sligo and had just gone back to work and news markings when I learned of his passing.
I didn't return for his funeral. I have regretted not doing so ever since.
A few times in the years since Ernie Caffrey, Cathal Duffy and myself gathered to chat over a long lunch in The Riverside Guest House. We'd talk about the wild days of the Journal. The paper went out of business in 1982 or '83. But any half honest assessment of the time would say that it broke new ground.
In this setting I think it is appropriate to raise the theory that Healy, Duffy and company were pivotal in the establishment of Knock Airport. They were friendly with James Horan, they lobbied on his behalf, Cathal Duffy was Chairperson. So too was Seamus Monaghan, who was brought in as a Sligo director into the Western Journal company.
I've listened many times to assessments of Healy. There was a school of thought in Dublin which suggested he had sold out to Charlie Haughey and became an apologist for Fianna Fail.
There were times when I was almost ready to empathise with that view. But just when you'd write him off, Healy would produce a column full of fire and originality. The lion would roar and 'Backbencher', 'Kipper' would be alive again.
Thank you for the invitation to come and talk here about Healy. In many ways I found writing about him both instructive and cathartic.
He often said " kid, by the time you get to forty, you should be able to sign your name to the Our Father and claim a week's wages."
I'm afraid I've failed on that one, John.
At some of the most difficult moments of my life I hear him saying:
" kid....you are nothing without your guardian angel. Listen to that voice...don't be foolish enough to ignore your guardian angel."
Here's to you, John Healy, reporter.