Wild West's biggest guns come to play
Barry Egan visits Mayo to talk salmon, GAA, the cliffs and to find out why the striking Michelle Mulherin can't find romance
Night has fallen on Ballina. Outside the glass-and-steel of the magnificent Ice House, the River Moy is gushing past to meet the Atlantic at Killala Bay. Impassioned Fine Gael politician Michelle Mulherin is gushing out a glorious list of Mayo women that she says characterises what the female soul of the county is about.
"Grainne Uaile, Pirate Queen ... Dr Kathleen Lynn, chief medical officer, the Citizen's Army in the 1916 Rising ... Mary Robinson, first woman President of Ireland ... Cora Staunton, best senior ladies gaelic footballer in the country ... Princess Grace of Monaco, whose grandfather came from Newport. Need I say more? Mayo women are a force to be reckoned with I would say."
Michelle, a fine-looking woman, is mystifyingly single. To wind her up a little, I ask her why she can't find a man.
"Why can't I find a man? I've had several men. But I am on the look out for Mr Right. I regularly get propositioned online and in the flesh and you could say if all the propositions turned into votes, the sky's the limit."
Does she only have eyes for Enda?
"Yes, two eyes on him - in the constituency," she says of An Taoiseach, who is her running mate in Mayo.
The TD who was at the centre of a controversy over 130 phone calls she made from her Leinster House phone to her friend Danson Kole in Kenya is definitely not short of colour or character. I was going to call her fiery, but her office was fire-bombed in January after she repaid the Oireachtas €2,000 for calls she made to her pal in Kenya; so that description would perhaps be in poor taste.
Over a few glasses of wine, she tells me that she used to love the circus as a kid and then jokes that instead of running away to join the circus she joined Enda's travelling circus instead. She lives on her own, with her large collection of shoes and clothes, and has a penchant, she tells me, for country music. Michelle sings country songs when the mood takes her. The last time she sang publicly was in Maughan's bar on Church Street in Crossmolina at a fund-raiser for Western Alzheimer's in August. "It was one country song and one song as gaeilge," she says adding that what she likes about country music is that it's "full of stories about the human condition - about love and loss, life's dramas and comedies. It can be lively but never aggressive. It doesn't feign sophistication. I mainly sing to myself including when I drive and listen to the radio.
"Singing country is fun and it's good for a sing song as people tend to join in. Also I feel good when I sing it. It reminds me of all the spontaneous singing and dancing we did to it around the kitchen in our house when I was a child."
The internationally-acclaimed archaeologist, Dr Seamus Caulfield, was born "down here" in 1939.
"There was no electricity," he says. "All open fire. All heating and cooking done on the turf fire. There was paraffin oil lamps. We had the only radio in, I think, in 10 miles. And the wet battery for the radio had to be charged every two weeks. Last night brought it home to me, because of the difference in communication."
Seamus can remember one year, 1946 or 1947, when the late Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin was giving the results and the battery faded on Sunday before, laughs Seamus. "We got the result of The Connacht Final - Mayo and somebody else - and we had to wait until Tuesday evening until the papers came with the travelling shop. Compare that with last night: the Junior B Championship in Castlebar with Ballycastle playing, and my next door neighbours," begins Seamus with a smile "... every score was sent to their two daughters in Abu Dhabi by text on their mobile phone. My son Declan was playing."
A large gang of local luminaries gathered at The Ice House in Ballina for a feast last Sunday night to wax lyrical about their beloved county.
Michelle's earliest childhood memory in Mayo, she says, was taking a spin out home from Ballina town with her grandfather, Frank Convey on his horse and cart. "Summer days spent on the bog and in the hayfield and climbing on the freshly-saved hay in the hay shed much to my grandmother, Bridget's consternation. When no one was looking dipping into a box of bars of Cadbury chocolate behind the counter of the pub and shop which my other grandparents, Paddy and Mai Mulherin ran on Abbey Street in Ballina. I love here in Mayo. It is an amazing part of Ireland."
"I think the light in this particular part of Ireland is very special," says Bernie Keogh, co-owner of the Ice House. "It is not the light in Dublin. There is also the lack of pollution in the air down here, the scenery is fantastic. There is something very, very special about Mayo".
"Mayo is where creative people come to kind of hide," says best-selling author Morag Prunty. "Because the landscape is so beautiful, it is very conducive to creativity. But we don't have that thing down here they have in Sligo or Kilkenny where we have an artist community living together. What we have is a lot of artists and writers who live here but we don't gather in a little cliquey community. Everyone is just getting on with it."
Fianna Fail TD Dara Calleary takes up the theme of getting on with it, albeit from a different angle. "We have fantastic enterprise culture in Mayo, We're very proud of our multi-nationals. We'd welcome more of them.
"If people are given the chance and given the openings to set up business in Mayo, they will and they will employ people. We need to see more of that."
"I did an angling programme on Sky for 20 years," says Judd Ruane, who is a local legend of the waters around Ballina, "and when the producer came in to do it and make plans for the week of the filming, he said to me: 'Tomorrow we are going to Achill for some scenery.' I said: 'You don't have to go anywhere away from here.' The amount of scenery that is around here is absolutely breathtaking and it is unknown.
"Unfortunately when you get people like Bord Fáilte, you could take a line from Dublin to Galway and south of that was the easy target. It was the proven market and that's where they concentrated.
"Now it is Westport, the gateway of Connemara and what have you. We're not even on the main road here."
"I think in Mayo we often undersell ourselves," says Seamus. "It is described as the salmon capital of Ireland. And I ask people, 'So where is the salmon capital of Europe?' I think it is here."
What else does Mayo undersell?
"I will tell you what we undersell and don't challenge enough. If we had time, I would take you to see the cliffs of north Mayo.
"They are one and a half times higher and three times longer than the Cliffs of Moher. The Cliffs of Moher are magnificent but the cliffs of north Mayo are more rugged and much more spectacular. One thing I do recognise about the Cliffs of Moher is that you have the ordinary land, you could be a field in Kildare or in the midlands, and suddenly the world ends and you have 600 feet of a drop. The Cliffs of north Mayo are over a thousand feet of a drop but it is rugged, mountain land, craggy cliffs. I'm not knocking the Cliffs of Moher. It is all about perception."
"When we were starting the Ceide Fields" - the world famous neolithic site under the untamed boglands of north Mayo - "25 years ago, Professor Martin Downes and myself were making two world claims: we have the largest stone age monument in the world; we have the oldest fields systems in the world.
"And when we said the Cliffs of north Mayo are three times longer and one and half times higher than the Cliffs of Moher everyone would shake their heads and come up to us and say: 'You better check that out.'"
"All you need," smiles Seamus, "is a stone and a piece of string."