Times have changed.
When I was a strap of a lad, a tall gaunt figure visited my home parish of Glencolmcille. The near-blind Eamon de Valera probably had difficulty seeing ten feet in front of himself, but crowds turned out from far and near to save him. Party affiliation didn’t matter, Fine Gaels stood beside Fianna Fáils, rubbing shoulders with the occasional non-aligned voter, to hear the President utter a few words.
Last Thursday in Killybegs, not only did the crowds stay at home, most of them didn’t even seem to be aware the Minister was in town. In Ireland’s Premier Fishing Port, the visit of the Minister for the Marine was greeted with indifference.
Lots of things have changed in the last 30 years, not least our attitude to our rulers. Maybe we just had better things to do on a sunny Holy Thursday, or maybe it was something to do with the fall-off in voter turnout in elections these days. At any rate, there was little sign of the ordinary five-eighths when the ministerial helicopter touched down.
I’ve been away a while doing the emigrant thing, so things like this are probably already taken for granted by most people here. But when I arrived in Killybegs, I didn’t expect it would be so difficult to locate the Big Event. Surely, I thought, there’d be a crowd standing around, hard to miss.
No such luck.
By good fortune, I stumbled across my brother, and we drove around the pier and Coast Road looking for clues, eventually stumbling onto the TG4 van. Out I hopped, to see a small well-dressed crowd.
Pat the Cope was there of course, working hard on his mobile, making sure minutes of the working day weren’t wasted while we waited. Timlí Ó Cearnaigh was there for TG4, along with his cameraman. A few photographers, a couple of other reporters, the lads from the KFO and some others made up the numbers.
In fairness, the crowd swelled as the ministerial chopper became more and more overdue, so there was a reasonable gang by the time Frank Fahy and Mary Coughlan landed. Still, no sign of the seething throngs I half-expected in the middle of an undeclared election campaign.
Anyway, Timlín got his interview, the Pat the Cope grabbed the Minister’s arm to lobby him for a few minutes before we all headed up to the hotel.
You can tell Frank Fahy is a Minister because he dresses differently from the rest of us. Nice jackets, polo necks and no tie, very mod altogether. When I’d arrived I wasn’t in a suit and felt underdressed. At least I wasn’t so out of sync now, though I doubt Mr Fahy buys his sweatshirts in Penneys.
Hovering near The Minister at all times stood The Handler. Managing the neat trick of whispering in his ear from ten feet away without being overheard by anyone else, at first I thought he was a member of a new elite bodyguard escort. Just goes to show you should never pre-judge someone just because they wear cool sunglasses. When he reached into his jacket pocket though, it was to produce a press release, not a Magnum .45
The day went well enough, even if the neatly typed schedule of events was never going to be adhered to.
The Minister posed beside slipways, signed contracts,pressed the flesh, said a few words, met local delegations to hear their concerns.
The biggest laugh among the assembled crowd (yes, it grew as the day went on) was probably when the photographers were signing the contracts for the new 50 million euro pier. The Cope, Dinny McGinley, Mary Coughlan and various councillors and local representatives stood behing the Minister and the man from the builders, smiling for the camera, when someone shouted “Where’s Gildea?”
As it happened, he was in the middle of a conversation with Gwen Breslin, and at first seemed reluctant to pose for the cameras until Mary Coughlan shouted “Come on Tom, you’re the one claiming this!”
Modesty is a rare enough trait in a politician these days, even one who has announced his intention to retire. The moment stuck in my mind for some reason. If I was a better writer, I’d put down a few more lines here about Tom Gildea’s innate human decency and modesty.
The mobile phones were everywhere of course. Some of the more glic among us had them on silent mode, buzzing rather than ringing out in the middle of a speech. At one point though, I heard a phone ring, reached for my own as did several people nearby, and Dinny McGinley laughed and said “It’s like watching the boys go for their holsters at the OK Corral.”
Things wound down eventually.
All the speeches were given, all the photographs were taken, all the delegations met. Well most of them anyway. One group got caught out because of the lateness of the hour. The helicopter can’t fly at night, and so had to take off in order to get back to Galway before sundown.
Walking out into the bright evening and blinking in the sunlight, the town was going about its business unconcerned.
It shouldn’t be that surprising though. Frank Fahy had spoken earlier about the “great buzz” he always found in Killybegs. It was a town full of confidence in itself, he said, taking on the world. Last Thursday, they were simply too busy buzzing to check out a politician signing a piece of paper.