'Hurricane Higgins is dead. Last photograph of the People's Champion.'

I had to stare at the picture for several seconds before I recognised Alex Higgins. He was lost in his overcoat and looked 90. It was shocking to see the man who had once been a twitchy, aggressive 'hurricane' looking as if a breeze could knock him over.

Tributes were cued up. 'Hero', 'maverick', 'legend'… and eventually nostalgia snookered common sense. Higgins wasn't a hero. He was a very good snooker player who, for a while, rose above humble beginnings but ultimately returned there. He was a gouger who had once threatened 'Mr Nice', Dennis Taylor. His life was a string of run-ins and scraps. He was a sad mess. He was loved by his fans, but he was no hero.

The obituaries recalled his hellraising. We like to make heroes of our hellraisers. Harris, Behan, Lynott: all heroes, because they had the whiff of sulphur and booze about them. What's heroic about being a charismatic drunk?

That said, Higgins will probably have a statue raised to him in Belfast – just as Boyzone's Stephen Gately is to have one raised in his memory in Dublin.

Gately was not a hellraiser, but he was charismatic. Like Higgins, he came from a humble background. Like Higgins, he used his talents to become famous and has been called a hero. This was for 'coming out'. He inspired other gay men to do likewise.

His friends had wanted Docklands railway station to be named after him. Instead they got a statue. There are many others who deserve statues before Gately. Does being a nice guy from a boy band really merit one? Maybe, but I'm not totally convinced.

The Gately memorial formed part of the silly season talk last week about renaming places after Irish heroes. Fianna Fáil want to rename Dublin Airport after Sean Lemass.

[Imagine the Yank tourists: "Gee honey, where are we?"

"Lame-ass airport, honey."]

There was a debate about renaming Cork's airport after Terence MacSwiney who starved himself to death during the War of Independence. Two other names that have been mentioned are Rory Gallagher and Christy Ring.

These memorial debates show how the lines between heroism and fame have become blurred in celebrity-obsessed Ireland. How can hurling a ball or playing guitar be more noteworthy than sacrificing your life as MacSwiney did?

Heroism is not defined by what you say, how well you play sport or sing. It's defined by what you are willing to lose.

There were two good examples of real 'everyday' heroism in the papers last week.

The first emerged from an Irish Times interview with comedian Des Bishop whose dad, Michael, is dying of cancer. He's based his new show, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond, on his life.

Bishop described how Michael had been a model and an actor, getting parts in Day of the Triffids and Zulu. He was even asked to audition for James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. He had the kind of fantasy life young men dream of.

Then, when Des was born, Michael turned his back on fame. He knew that acting wouldn't provide a steady income for his family so he became a retail manager.

"He gave that up to raise us in a stable way," says Bishop. "That is so much more heroic than any nonsensical James Bond, celebrity thing."

It struck a note. Des's dad is a hero for sacrificing his dream. Heroism isn't found at the end of a snooker cue or a microphone or a lens. It's found changing nappies when it could be sipping a vodka martini. Everyday heroism is about giving yourself up for the benefit of others.

The second example of everyday heroism came via Facebook. I got word that a hero of mine was celebrating finishing chemotherapy. Her name is Marie Carberry and she has been fighting breast cancer. She writes a diary about her experiences in the Evening Herald. It's brutally honest and very moving. It's also very, very funny. Here's an example:

"'Excellent, excellent,' the oncologist murmured. I would like to say he was talking about me as a whole package, but he was actually talking about the workmanship of the surgeon who had carried out the mastectomy..."

Marie's decision to write about her cancer is, presumably, part-cathartic. That doesn't undermine her bravery. When Jade Goody chose to film her cancer battle she was pilloried for it. Cancer, despite our general enlightenment, is still taboo.

Marie's sacrificing of her privacy will have helped many people facing into a similar situation. She's bared herself to educate others. No amount of maximum snooker breaks or CD sales can compare with that. She won't ever have an airport named after her. A statue's unlikely too. (Sorry, Marie.)

With this in mind, I've decided to dedicate this column to her instead. Statues are placed on columns, so we're halfway there, Marie. It's not much, but it will exist in cyber space for a few years. Someone's bound to come across it in the future and read the following words:

'Marie Carberry: you'll never be a snooker champion and I don't know if you can hold a tune, but you're a hero.

'A real hero – whether you like it or not.'