One country, one general election, and cautious tales of two recoveries
Campaign fever of past years has been replaced by a wary hope in struggling rural towns, writes Liam Collins
When you go searching for the heart of Election 2016 along its main arteries, off the N4 and N5, you find that the towns and villages that were once transfixed by this gladiator-like struggle appear now to have relaxed into a contented apathy.
The car radio is buzzing with election issues, endless discussions about the health service and futile arguments among prospective candidates. However, real people appear to have other, more exciting things on their minds.
"They're more interested in the gangland shooting up in Dublin," says Bridgie Caslin, who is tending the bar in one of my all-time favourite pubs, Gunning's of Rathconrath, perched beside the undulating highway between Mullingar and Moyvore in Co Westmeath.
But what about the old country practice of the candidates rolling into the bar and buying a drink?
"There's not enough people in the pubs any more," says Bridgie, a student in Maynooth who comes back to work in the pub when it opens at 5pm. "But we're lucky here, we have good, regular customers and the place is full for the cards on a Wednesday night."
When you leave the motorway and travel the old roads, you find the villages and towns of the midlands are awash with contradictions and contrasting fortunes: Mullingar buzzing, Longford lifeless, the fields around Tulsk colonised by ducks and swans.
"There's no crime here, sure there's no one around to rob any more," says the wit on a barstool in Boyle, Co Roscommon.
"We could do with a bit of crime, at least then we'd know the place was alive," he says, sipping a pint in one of the few pubs that open during the day.
Bridge Street in Boyle is not very long, but one side of it is closed up completely.
The Royal Hotel along the river is a sorry sight. The local Tidy Towns committee has filled the windows of empty shops with colourful photographs from historical sites in the locality, but it's no substitute for commerce.
But there is some activity, even if it takes place in the dead of night.
"We have an escort agency, there's a boys' night in the town and there are quare goings-on up at the Gaelic Chieftain statue on the Curlew Pass," says Sean O'Dowd with a twinkle in the eye.
If one local businessman is now more famous because his son plays for 'The Rossies' (as the country Gaelic team is now known), Sean is famous for his website Realboyle.com and for the fact that he is Chris O'Dowd's father.
"I remember when there was great excitement here at election time," he says. "Sean Doherty being carried shoulder-high from the railway station to the Royal Hotel to address an election rally. There was such drama; something has vanished, the colour and the spectacle."
We get to talking about the excitement that a general election generated in those glory days of 1980 and '81.
I recall Albert Reynolds and his election agent Noel Hanlon going through Longford (and parts of Westmeath they shouldn't have been in) in a convoy of Mercedes cars, like Panzer divisions conquering Poland. There were the legendary territorial battles with Mary O'Rourke in a cut-throat race to top the poll.
"Ireland is still in intensive care," concludes Sean O'Dowd.
The county is full of under-age football teams, but once the children grow up, they gravitate towards the bright lights. Fielding a senior team is increasingly difficult, which is why beating Kerry recently was so important.
The big political talking point that day (Wednesday) was the dramatic entrance of former goalkeeper Shane Curran on the Fianna Fail ticket in Roscommon.
Down in the small towns and villages where politics is visceral, often the enemy is not the opposition, but the politician sharing the same platform and policies - and fighting for the same votes.
Frankie Feighan, who knows a fair bit about "the dark arts of electioneering" himself, thinks this election is more civilised than most.
The former TD is director of elections for Fine Gael in Sligo-Leitrim and claims that all the candidates are sticking to their allotted areas in the constituency.
As another former TD, Louis Belton, used to say about election candidates from the same party: "There's two dogs and only one bone." In Sligo-Leitrim, there are 17 candidates and only four bones.
There are all sorts of battles, internal and external, in every constituency that will colour and shape the next government. To an outsider, most are as mysterious as the sunshine beaming on the snowcapped Slieve Anierin.
We're standing outside The Shed Distillery in the old Laird's jam factory outside Drumshambo and assorted Fine Gael candidates from Sligo-Leitrim, apart from the party's deselected/reselected John Perry, are awaiting the arrival of Enda Kenny, who is on a whistlestop tour through the north midlands. The fleet of cars sweeps into The Food Hub, but Enda halts the car immediately when he sees his favourite local candidate.
"There is Gerry Reynolds," he exclaims in mock surprise, smiling broadly, getting out of the car with joy in his eyes. The other candidates who were massed around the door of the Distillery now hurry towards their leader, one of them muttering: "He always does that. Jaysus, he loves Reynolds."
Reynolds is the quintessential local candidate, a political and party loyalist who just keeps bouncing back.
"When I lost my seat in 2002, I hadn't a pot to piss in," he was telling me moments before, "now I'm one of the biggest taxpayers in Leitrim."
He came back home and set up the Rosebank Retail Park in Carrick-on-Shannon. It is thriving and he is back on the campaign trail.
The photographers are trying to get Enda with a bottle of Drumshambo Gunpowder Gin in his hand, but unfortunately the bottle is not produced. What PJ Rigney, who made the first batch of legally distilled spirits in Connacht for 101 years, has to say is certainly music to Enda's ears.
"Despite what we've seen in the media, the JobBridge scheme has been great for us - we took on two guys and it has been transformational for them and us."
Back in the Bush Hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon, Joe Dolan, who employs 56 people, says: "The two-tier recovery is just reaching us."
His one big worry is flooding. This year his car park was empty for 38 days because of it, which means a massive loss of customers as the hotel's main trade comes from the Dublin/Sligo road. No car park, no customers.
"There is a need for confidence and stability and a multi-colour government is not good for that," he says on the morning that another poll predicts a hung Dail, with the bookies narrowing the odds on a second election in 2016 to 2/1. But after reflecting for a moment, he adds: "We have a lot to be grateful for. We have a good quality of life, a low crime rate and a good, clean environment.
"My commuting time from home to work is four minutes. I wouldn't swap it for anything."
Having skirted through Roscommon, crossed the Shannon and tacked through James Bannon country and the ghost estate of Kenagh (how it became a metropolis is a mystery, when I remember the crooked street where the bicycle shop was the only local business), I'm back in Westmeath, where Labour's Willie Penrose is one of the few party TDs who has transcended the backlash against smoked-salmon socialism.
In the Market Square in Mullingar, a group of canvassers in high-viz jackets is getting ready to head out to the outlying estates to canvass for Peter Burke of Fine Gael, while across the road workers for Robert Troy of Fianna Fail are filling the windows of a vacant shop with his posters.
But mostly the campaign consists of dropping leaflets in the dead of night.
Party leaders with proud candidates cutting each other's throats on the back of a flat-bed truck as they face the electorate has been lost to social media, YouTube and the set-piece interviews.
I take the old road towards Dublin - humming The Bank Clerk's Lament "but of all the towns I was ever in, f*** me, Kinnegad" - Clonard, past Mother Hubbard's, Enfield, a pit stop in the ever-busy Furey's pub, Kilcock, Maynooth, out past the vast Intel mega-plant and then back on the N7.
It's a road I haven't taken in years and while some of it remains familiar, even in the dark, it has, like election time, changed utterly.
The shops and pubs have changed hands - some of the familiar ones boarded up or disappeared as the fulcrum of rural life shifted from main street to the shopping centres and the suburban estates of dormitory towns.
Before setting out on my odyssey I was in the trendy CHQ Building in the IFSC. It used to be empty, but last Tuesday the concourse was packed, with queues for the coffee shops and restaurants.
In comparison, Main Street, Ireland is mostly dead as a doornail, but hopefully Joe Dolan has it right and the 'two-tier recovery' is beginning to trickle along the N7.
But you wonder what difference, if any, this election will make to the parts of Ireland that Sean O'Dowd rightly says are still "on life support".