Shay Healy: A Bit Of Stardust

Dermot Carmody

He composed musicals and a Eurovision Song Contest Winner, brought down a Taoiseach on the ground-breaking TV show he presented without really realising it, and had a song banned from RTE and made famous by Billy Connolly. The genius of Sandymount native Shay Healy, who died aged 78 in April, was partly in the diversity and proliferation of his endeavours and the heart of him was the way he picked himself up, dusted himself down and embarked on the next scheme with gentle optimism, wearing the bruises lightly and giving it a good punt.
Shay Healy was born in Wilfield Road in Sandymount in 1943. His Mother, Máirín Ní Shúilleabháin, from Killorglin in Kerry, was a singer of traditional Irish music, an actress and a writer. His father Seamus, a Mayo man, worked in the civil service and acted part time on stage, including as a member of the cast in the premiere of John B. Keane’s The Field.  They met at a céilí in The Mansion House, as his eldest sister, Una Gere, recalled in an interview with The Kerryman following Shay’s death. To her and his four other siblings Shay was always Seamus Óg, or Ogie for short. Una recalls in the same interview that when young Shay got a guitar he used to lock himself in the toilet to play it, to the despair of his uncomfortably jigging sisters outside. To the best of my, admittedly non-binding, recollection of visits to Shay and Dymphna’s house in Prince Albert Terrace many decades later, the Eurovision trophy was proudly displayed in the outrageously appointed bathroom. Hardly unconnected facts.
In 1963 Shay left the Irish Press Group, where he had worked for two years in the advertising department, and began his career in broadcasting as a trainee cameraman in RTÉ. At the same time, Shay was very involved in the vibrant folk scene in Dublin in the 1960s, performing a mixture of folk songs and his own parody songs which drew on current affairs, foreshadowing his involvement in later decades with the TV show Nighthawks, an entertainment show with current affairs and satire and comedy as two of its major strands. As well as playing in the pubs and clubs in the 60s, Shay was part of a show produced by Noel Pearson at the Gate in 1966, which was meant as a platform to bring to wider public notice to  The Pecker Dunne and other folk artists, like Shay and Danny Doyle. As the host of the show Shay undoubtedly leant his affability and comfort with organised talent to proceedings with good effect. Gate Crashers was a success and an eponymous album of songs from a live recording of the show featured Shay’s song, Dollymount Strand.
The year after Gate Crashers, Shay met his wife Dymphna Errity at a do in Bective Rugby Club. They remained devoted to each other until Dymphna’s death in 2017 and are survived by their two sons Fionán and Oisín. 
Shay’s career as a presenter on RTÉ television also began in 1967 when he became the presenter of Ballad Box, featuring popular folk artists. He went on to present and work as a reporter on a number of shows including Hootenanny, Twenty Minutes With, and the talent show Reach For The Stars. The latter aired in 1971 and after that Shay spent a lot of time in the USA, living in Cape Cod and Nashville at different times and, according to himself, performing on St Patrick’s day somewhere in the US every year for ten years. It was his experiences from that time that provided the material later for his 2013 novel about the exploits of an Irish musician in the States, the Danny Boy Triangle. While in Nashville Shay and a friend opened an Irish bar, The Tara, at which he would perform regularly himself for a couple of years until it closed. 
Around that time, Shay recorded an EP including the song The Country And Western Supersong. It’s opening line “My granny is a cripple in Nashville..” hints at the unstinting roll call of disaster to come. In an early example of cancel culture, the song was barred from airplay by RTÉ, though it was adopted by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly who made it famous. 
From the mid to late 70s Shay returned to Ireland and attempted for a while, unsuccessfully, to make his way as a solo performer here and in the UK. Then in 1977 he collaborated with actor Nial Tobin on a musical about the life of Elvis called The King, which was produced by Noel Pearson and had runs in the Cork Opera House, Limerick and The Gaiety in Dublin. Shay wrote other musicals including a dramatisation of rural electrification in his father’s native Mayo in the 1950s, The Wiremen. Riverdance producers John McColgan and Moya Doherty attended a workshop of the musical, which Shay wrote in 2003, in the SFX and produced it for a run in The Gaiety in 2005. Another attempt at musical theatre, a rock opera he wrote in 1983 called “The Knowledge” failed to get off the ground, although a song from it, Edge Of The Universe, won the Castlebar Song Contest in 1983 when sung by Linda Martin.
Shay’s most famous musical triumph had of course come a few years earlier when he wrote the winning entry in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest. Sung famously by Johnny Logan, the ballad ‘What’s Another Year?’ was inspired by Shay’s reflections on how his father coped with the loss of his wife, Shay’s mother Máirín.
Shay continued working as a broadcaster in RTÉ throughout the 1980s, but it is as the presenter of Nighthawks on RTÉ 2 (originally Network 2) that he is best remembered. The show was broadcast live from the set of the fictitious diner for 298 episodes from October 1988 to April 1992. It combined live interviews with personalities from sport, the arts and politics with live performances, a running soap opera among the staff of the diner and comedic sketch and monologue inserts, signalled by the snowy tv screen “hash” interrupting the live action in the bar. Nighthawks and Shay are famously credited with initiating the downfall of controversial Taoiseach Charles Haughey. Shay was interviewing former Minister for Justice Sean Doherty, who had taken the rap ten years earlier over revelations of phone-tapping of journalist’s conversations, something Haughey had always denied. In the course of the interview, recorded for a special edition of Nighthawks in Hell’s Kitchen in Castlerea, Roscommon, Doherty revealed that Haughey had known about the phone tapping, which the then Minister for Justice had authorised on behalf of the government. In a very short space of time after the casual revelation, Haughey’s political career was over.
Shay’s contract with RTÉ ended in 1995, but he continued his happy assault on success on all fronts, writing books, producing documentaries, on one occasion acquiring a large number of internet domain names thinking there must be something that could be done with them. Even the vicissitudes of his Parkinson’s disease (he was diagnosed in 2005) did not kill off his enthusiasm for his own efforts or the efforts of those he knew to be successful and create things. Thousands who would surely have thronged the streets for his funeral watched proceedings online as Shay became, in his own words, “a bit of stardust.”
Having known Shay myself, I can only concur with President Michael D. Higgins, who said in his tribute to Shay following his death, to have known Shay Healy as a friend was “a great privilege.”

All Images – Google