Hobbits, elves and independents: How we frame the story of an election count

Mary Coughlan “is in trouble”, but is “battling to keep the seat”. Martin Mansergh is “fighting for his political life”. He “faces an uphill battle”. There’s a “dogfight for the final seat” in Dun Laoighaire.


We are pan narrans, the storytelling apes. Culture, ultimately, is about storytelling. We make sense of the random by telling ourselves stories. Sometimes, the stories are true. The best stories are tested, and become science. But sometimes, they’re just stories.

As television and online commentators struggle to make sense of the numbers emerging from the count centres, you will hear lots of stories today. Listening to some of those stories, you could be forgiven if you imagined a count as a climactic scene from Lord of the Rings, the dark forces of Sauron driven from the land by a coalition of hobbits, elves and independents.

Photo of Brian Cowen
He’s had better days. Image © Faduda

Legends and mythic battles don’t tell the full story

At the heart of every decent story lies a conflict, and the story will be framed in those terms. Battles, fights, struggles, candidates clinging on desperately, but not giving up yet.

It’s a fiction.

The outcome of every “battle” was settled at 10pm on Friday night, when the polls closed. All we’re doing now is totting up the scores. There is no fight, because the outcome is already determined. We just don’t know it yet.

A journalist’s job is simple. We tell stories. Sometimes, we use metaphors. Markets rise and fall, and pass judgements, as if they were sentient beings. The electorate stops being a collective noun, and becomes a single – sometimes confused – hive mind, “sending messages” and “punishing” candidates.

There are elements of blood sport about an election count, as the story unfolded number by number from the count centres. But remember that pan narrrans doesn’t always get the story right. Just because it’s a good story doesn’t always make it the most accurate story.