Former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, as well as current Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin, were among the thousands of mourners that turned out to bid a fond final farewell to the late Jackie Healy-Rae in his beloved Kilgarvan this Monday afternoon.
They expressed their sympathy to his extended family before joining the throngs that packed the small, rural St Patrick’s Church – and the grounds outside – for a poignant Requiem Mass.
President Michael D Higgins, who is on a State visit to China, was represented by his aide de camp, Lieutenant Commander Patricia Butler, and Taoiseach Enda Kenny was represented by his aide de camp, Commandant Kieran Carey.
As the tri-colour draped coffin was shouldered on a last journey through Kilgarvan village, past the landmark Healy-Rae public house, Jackie’s pet white pony, Peig, was brought to join the cortege as it slowly wound its way to the local cemetery. A photograph of Jackie and Peig adorned the coffin in the church.
A JCB digger also joined the procession to illustrate Jackie’s earlier career as a plant hire contractor.
Gifts brought to the altar to symbolise Jackie’s 83 years of life included his trademark flat cap, a hurley and Kilgarvan GAA jersey, an accordion, a well-worn mobile phone on which he conducted many of his political dealings, an election canvas card a miniature digger and a basket of turf.
In an emotion-charged eulogy, Jackie’s son, Danny, said he was very proud to have had the opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with his father and that he had been by his side for close on 60 years
“I don’t know how it’s going to go from here on but he has really put me on the spot because it is he who should be here doing the talking,” he said.
Danny, who is a poll-topper in his own right having stormed to a first count local elections victory in the Killarney area, said his father was “yards ahead of the rest” and he possessed a great brain which he put to good use.
Danny said Jackie’s greatest trait was that he always kept his word and he advised all of his family to follow that example.
“He had his word and his honour and if he had nothing in his pocket he was happy that he had these. He did his level best,” he said.
There was a light-hearted moment when Danny divulged that Jackie had been offered a State car and a driver as part of the first deal he negotiated to support the Fianna Fail led government.
“He told them he had a car and it wasn’t for that he came to Dublin,” he said.
Fr Con Buckley, who was the principal celebrant, said the funeral was like a great election rally with those in attendance gathering to send Jackie to “the eternal Dáil”.
The former South Kerry Independent TD and a councillor for over 30 years was laid to rest in his native village.
On Sunday evening between 5,000 and 7,000 people queued to pay their respects to Jackie as he lay in repose in the Main Street, Kilgarvan public house.
Observers said it was one of the biggest ever funerals ever witnessed in Kerry.
The removal had all the trappings of an election campaign. A giant poster-sized photograph of Jackie in campaign trail mode, showing the beaming former Independent TD with his jacket draped casually over his shoulder, right hand in his trousers pocket, was placed on the window sill at the entrance to the family pub where he was waked.
Jackie’s trademark green tartan cap adorned his head, a Vote No 1 Healy-Rae sticker on the lapel of his jacket and what was surely the most realiable mobile phone in the history of Irish communications – a 1997 Nokia – was placed in the coffin alongside a hurley to recall the 1950’s championship successes he enjoyed with his native parish.
For hours, mourners gathered and queued in the biting cold December air, three deep behind safety barriers, and they stood for up to an hour and a half to meet the family.
Inside they filed silently and respectfully past his remains, pausing to catch a final glimpse of the man whose face was so familiar to them all, before expressing sympathy to the extended, heartbroken family.
In true Healy-Rae tradition, nobody was allowed to leave without a persistent offer of a cup of tea, a sandwich or other refreshments.
“The one thing that stood out was the warmth of the greeting and the welcome they had for everyone. They really appreciated the messages of sympathy and the respect in which he was held,” one mourner said.
Such was the crowd that attended the removal, the funeral was over two hours late arriving to the nearby St Patrick’s Church where Fr Con Buckley received the remains, with the coffin draped in the red and white flag of Kilgarvan GAA club, shortly after 10 o’clock.
In one poignant last gesture, two men with burning sods of turf escorted the cortege through the village, recalling an iconic pre-election rally scene on the streets of Killarney some years earlier.