20. Shay Healy and how the end of life’s journey might not be the end of everything

Shay Healy died last week.

For those of you outside Ireland, the name will probably mean little. But for many people within Ireland, especially for those above, say, 45 years of age, Shay Healy will conjure up a variety of thoughts and feelings and memories.

Healy was a master of many trades. Journalist, broadcaster, songwriter, entertainer, musician, philosopher and someone who — not many can say this — was instrumental in ending the political career of the leader of a country.

Let’s make a short aside into the Ireland in which Shay Healy came to prominence, before we return to the end of his life and what we can learn from the way he lived.

The two moments that could be said to book-end Shay Healy’s sphere of public influence came 12 years apart, in 1980 and 1992. The 1980s were a bleak time for a generation of Irish people, with a deep recession resulting in extended high levels of interest rates, joblessness and emigration.

Ireland has, in a way, always been like this: at least since the Great Famine of the 1840s, mass youth emigration was almost a Government policy (whether that Government was based in London or Dublin). Every generation has endured the reality of waving a probably permanent farewell to a high percentage of its young people, destined for new and hopefully brighter lives elsewhere. Official statistics tell us that between 2011 and 2015 alone, during the austerity years after the global financial crisis, 350,000 people aged between 15 and 44 emigrated from Ireland. (Ireland is a small country; 350,000 people is about 7% of the population.)

Indeed, the economist David McWilliams put forward a compelling theory about Ireland’s COVID-19 figures in a recent episode of his podcast:

COVID is a disease that kills old people. Ireland is the country with the least amount of old people per head in the EU. If you look at the numbers, Ireland has the least amount of people over the age of 65 as a percentage of our total population.

Why is that? Where are all those old people gone? Those old people now live in England. They are the people who emigrated in the 1950s and 1960s. Five hundred thousand people emigrated to England alone in the 1950s. Three hundred thousand more left in the 1960s. That’s 800,000 people who would have been living in Ireland now, who would have been old, who are now living in the UK.

So think, what has actually happened? COVID kills older people. And our older people are disproportionately living in the UK.

That was the 50s and 60s. The 80s were also dark and difficult, a time when for many Irish people survival meant leaving.

Shay Healy came to prominence at either end of this dark decade. First, as the songwriter of “What’s Another Year?”, which Johnny Logan sung to the top spot at the Eurovision Song Contest of 1980, and towards the end of the decade, as host of Nighthawks, an electric, rambunctious, often controversial late night chat show, where in January 1992 he set in motion a domino fall that resulted in the resignation of Charles Haughey, a charismatic, domineering and often hypocritical figure who had led the country as Taoiseach on three separate occasions between 1979 and ’92.

Healy’s questioning, and maybe the unique atmosphere of the Nighthawks nightclub setting, led to the revelation by a former Government politician that Haughey had tapped — or approved the tapping of — the phones of journalists to try to get a handle on political media leaks.

Nighthawks lasted four years (1988-92). “What’s Another Year?” is an emotive three-minute song from 1980. Those moments are what Healy is remembered for, but they are just that: moments. Peaks of performances in the course of a 78-year life.

What really lasts about Healy — and maybe this is the best any of us can hope for from the course of our physical time here, on this piece of rock and water spinning through space — is the way he approached, and thought about, life itself.

This became truly apparent in his later years, especially after the onset of Parkinson’s Disease and the effects it had on his day to day. In an interview with the Sunday Independent writer Barry Egan a few years ago, he said,

Parkinson’s is good fodder for gags but in reality I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It is ugly, painful and distressingly intrusive into my daily life … The drugs help by alleviating the symptoms but there haven’t been any new drugs in 30 years. So they’re a bit of a blunt instrument. And there are lots of side-effects.

I can turn into a shopaholic, a gambling addict — and it can also drive up the libido, resulting in high levels of priapism. You’d be spoiled for choice if you were in the whole of your health.

The other weird thing I deal with is the constant hallucinations. When I go to bed, I will see people in the bedroom or lining the stairs … I know I am projecting these images and, if I want to, I can get rid of them with a blink of my eyes. But sometimes they are oppressive.

[Also] the tips of my fingers have gone numb. I can’t pick up peas if they fall on the floor. They stay on the floor.

Despite these struggles, and a much diminished public presence, Healy was able to shine a powerful light on the world. At 73, he received his first recording contract with a reflective, heartfelt and emotional take on life and death, a song called “Stardust”.

The song (you can watch his lovely television performance below) outlined his beliefs about the soul: that in the here and now we might occupy physical bodies, but that our souls might live on eternally, and that the end of one life might not be the end of everything.

As he wrote, and sang:

Dry away your tears now, our souls go on forever
And maybe we will meet again when you become stardust too.

Earlier this year Tommy Tiernan, the comedian, writer, actor and broadcaster, told a little anecdote about meeting Healy a few years back, and the power of the invisible torch that can pass — unseen but truly felt — between two people.

If I’m thinking of a “song line” that’s gone through my life, for a lot of my life, it’s definitely been “attention”. The desire for attention can be the thing that makes you good at stuff. If you want to be good at soccer, you try really hard, or if you want to be good at stand-up … all of the things I’ve gotten into over the years, part of it has been motivated by the desire for attention.

But it’s changed. Now, I think, the song line that’s replaced that is the song line of “togetherness”. I’ve kind of had my fill of attention! Now what interests me most is teamwork. Getting together with groups of people and saying, ‘What can we do together?’

Bob Dylan talks about a moment when he was about 16 years of age and Buddy Holly came to play in Hibbing, Minnesota, a small little place where Bob Dylan lived. And Dylan said, ‘There was a moment, Buddy Holly f***in looked at me’. Dylan was unknown. Buddy Holly died three days later in a plane crash. You’re talking about two of the greats of rock’n’roll. And Dylan says, ‘He f***in looked at me. He’s up on the stage, he’s playing his songs, and he just turned, and he f***in stares at me.’ And Dylan says, ‘Something happened. He gave something to me. A torch was passed.’

Buddy Holly looks into the crowd, at this young Jewish fella called Bobby Zimmerman, and Holly just stares at him. And years later that young fella becomes Bob Dylan.

The same thing happened to me, with Shay Healy.

I met him recently, about two or three years ago. Shay has Parkinson’s now, but the fire is still in his f***in eyes. He grabbed my arm, and he stared at me, [there were] loads of other people there, and he said, ‘Other people. It’s about other people.’

I took it in, or whatever. And [a bit later] I’m sitting there at the dinner, and I’m munching away at my food. And I look up, and he’s two tables away from me, and he’s f***in staring at me.

And I got it. Something happened. And the message he gave to me was, ‘Other people’.

And that has informed my life since that moment. The song line of togetherness. Of not doing stuff with myself. Of finding teams of people. Where the product is one part of it, but the community of togetherness is the other.

We might be troubled always and inevitably by loneliness. We might begin life alone, and exit it alone, and be alone with our thoughts and feelings and what they might mean.

At some point we might have to blink away the hallucinations, and leave the peas on the floor.

But through it all, the invisible connection to other people is something to hold onto, something to cherish and nurture.

The language of connection is difficult, often impossible, especially in the moment. (How often do all of us think of exactly the right thing to say, hours or days or a lifetime after the right moment to say it has passed?)

But there’s something invisible that connects us all. Shay Healy believed it to be the soul. Tommy Tiernan believed that an invisible, unspoken but absolutely real torch can occasionally pass between people.

This is something we’ve missed during the pandemic.

The sense that community is somehow a luxury, that we can remove it or postpone it indefinitely, and that everything will be alright.

But everything won’t be alright, because while aloneness, and occasional loneliness, is inevitable over a long life, community and togetherness are essential to a life worth living.

We are single beings, and finding and honouring the truth within ourselves, and bringing it to the world, is a lifelong task that each of us must shoulder for ourselves.

But the flip side of that paradox is that by honouring ourselves, we will honour others. By fully and truthfully living our own individual values, we allow others to do the same, through the power of our souls or invisible torch that we pass between us, one person to the next to the next, and on through time forever.

This essay is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.

Here’s Shay Healy, singing “Stardust”.