Helen vows to make most of bittersweet day for McEntees in Meath east by-election
THERE were still a few lingering flakes of snow swirling over the primary school nestled on the side of a quiet country road as Helen McEntee and her family arrived just after 11am to cast their vote.
She walked up the path of Heronstown National School with her mother Kathleen, her brother Vincent and her sister Sally.
Missing, of course, was the large, comforting presence of her dad Shane, whose death last December set in motion yesterday's by-election in Meath East which saw 26-year old Helen bid to follow in her late father's footsteps.
She admitted it has been a gruelling three-week campaign. "But I've enjoyed it, everyone's worked extremely hard," she said. It was a bittersweet day for her family. "I'm here because my dad isn't," she said. "But we make the best of the situation."
The little polling station was quiet. A few miles down the road in another national school deep in McEntee country in Castletown, the presiding officer described the volume of voters as "steady".
Emerging from the voting station was Siobhan Grey with her 18-month old daughter Laylagh. "I'm hoping whoever gets in will do something to fix the potholes, as they're a disgrace," she said.
And jobs were to the forefront of her mind too – Siobhan had been working in a solicitor's office, but was made redundant last May.
"I don't know who'll win the election, though around here I'm sure there'll be a big sympathy vote for Helen," she reckoned.
But as the day wore on, it was clear that there wasn't a big vote for anyone at all. A lethal combination of flurries of snow in a biting wind, along with school holidays and voter apathy or disillusionment kept large swathes of the almost 64,000 eligible voters at home.
At the other end of the constituency in the largest town of Ashbourne, the polling-stations were similarly quiet. In St Mary's National School, there was little activity, even during lunchtime.
Among those casting their vote were John and Annette Dolan. And Annette explained that she had worked in the school as a special needs' assistant until she was let go last June. "There used to be six of us here, now there are just three. And I know we're still needed," she added.
Across the town in the community centre, the presiding officer Joan O'Sullivan and clerk Darina Lynch sat huddled under blankets, clutching hot-water bottles.
"I'm the best-dressed officer in the constituency," she said with a smile. But here, too, turnout by mid-afternoon was only about 11pc to 12pc. "That's low," said one of the staff.
Among those who did make the trip into the icy venue were Tommy and Bernadette Linnane and their two children, Niamh and Thomas. "There are a huge amount of issues affecting people, from mortgage debt to unemployment and water and household taxes," said Tommy. "Everyone's trying to manage on limited means."
He believed that there would be a strong vote for Helen McEntee. "Her dad was very well thought of. She has big boots to fill," he said.
As the day wore on and the temperature dropped further, there was little stirring in Nobber.
The polling-station is just a few minutes down the Main Street from where the Fine Gael junior minister was laid to rest last Christmas Eve.
This had been one of the busier spots, with a 30pc turnout by late afternoon. "We even had a bit of a queue, which is rare," explained the presiding officer.
Farmers Majella and Gene Lynch had just voted. They were unhappy over various issues, from college fees to the introduction of the property tax.
"This government made lots of promises before the election, but they have let us down," said Gene.
The couple thought that Helen may be too young for the task ahead. "Her father had a lot of experience, but she doesn't really."
Majella and Gene both knew Shane well. "It's still hard to believe he's not around," said Majella. "He was the heart and soul of our village."