Custard pies, cabbage and close encounters

Election (B)log – Paul Healy

I was very excited, not to mention very nervous, when the man from Rooskey agreed to be interviewed.

  The man from Rooskey was Albert Reynolds, and he was Taoiseach at the time.

  I was working for the Longford NEWS then. It was the early 1990s. Albert was immersed in the historic peace process, but, despite his busy schedule at home and abroad, he always had an eye on – and frequently both feet in – Longford.

  We arranged to meet in the Longford Arms Hotel. I got there at the appointed time, a bag of nerves. I had expected the lobby or bar to be quiet, but, lo and behold, the place was overflowing with wedding guests.

  I rang the Taoiseach directly (it was the early 1990s, after all). I was only in my twenties. I was panicking. The hotel is full, I said, wondering if he wanted to suggest a change of venue.

  ‘Ask for a room upstairs’ he advised, and I wondered at my stupidity.

  We ‘got a room,’ so to speak, and Albert – with no advisors present – proceeded to give the Longford NEWS man a state of the nation interview.

  There was only one interruption: when Gerry Adams rang. Rang Albert that is, not me.

  “Do you trust him?” I asked when Albert had finished with Gerry Adams.

  “He paused for a few seconds.

  “I do. Gerry has worked hard for peace.”

 As a journalist based outside Dublin, it’s primarily at election-time that I get up close and personal with the political leaders.

  When I was with the Roscommon Champion, I remember Charlie Haughey arriving in Athlone in 1991, as Taoiseach, to open the bypass. He got a hero’s welcome; crowds surged forward to acclaim him.

  He oozed charisma. At a press conference, someone asked Charlie how he expected Fianna Fail to do in Roscommon in the then upcoming local elections.

  Haughey said words to this effect: “I expect Brian Mullooly (then Council chairman) to deliver lots of seats for us.”

  All Brian, a true gentleman, could do was smile. No pressure, then!

  Haughey came to Roscommon, but I never went to Kinsealy. Had I done so, I would have seen the antique bar taps in Haughey’s private bar, which Charlie bought from my father on a visit to the Kon Tiki (which we owned at the time) in Rooskey. On that far-off night in the early 1970s, Haughey and Brian Lenihan Senior arrived in the Kon Tiki bar with Peter Hanley of Hanley’s bacon factory in Rooskey. Haughey took a shine to the bar taps and they had pride of place in Kinsealy from then on.

  Many years later, a friend who did get to Kinsealy – for a charity dinner – thrust his menu in front of Haughey and asked him to sign it for “Paul Healy, a journalist who I think has a soft spot for you.”

  The by-then-retired Haughey looked up.

  “A journalist with a soft spot for me? Where were they when I needed them!”

  Bertie? He called during every election campaign. On one visit, the hangers-on trailed him like he was the pied piper. In the Lyon’s Den pub in Roscommon town, that well-known character, Sean Callery, now deceased, was having a quiet pint when the leader of the country breezed in.

  “Bertie!” said a startled Sean, “many’s a pint I had in Fagan’s in Drumcondra!”

  On a later visit, Bertie paused – I think they have to, by law – to hold up cabbage plants in Main Street, Roscommon, so that the photographers could capture the ‘funny’ and ‘man of the people’ moment.

  ‘Country on verge of nervous breakdown; leader holds cabbage aloft and smiles’ – that’s how we do things here.

  Back in my Longford NEWS days, I remember then-Taoiseach John Bruton arriving in town to officially open the Longford bypass. Afterwards, well over 100 guests went to the old Annaly Hotel for dinner.

  Bruton, an affable man, sat at the top table with Louis Belton and others. He ordered a pint of Guinness.

  Then he ordered another.

  And another.

 And another.

  It was extraordinary. He was fairly letting them down. The Taoiseach of the country, who could sink a pint very quickly indeed, was lowering four or five of them over lunch. It didn’t seem to have the slightest effect on him. It was kind of refreshing to see. Presumably he had a clear enough diary that night.

  Perhaps a young Enda Kenny or some minister had been left in charge.

 Brian Cowen called to the Roscommon People office in 2007, posed holding a photo with the paper, and then the worst recession in history came along.

   Actually he too was personable and ‘sound.’ He was Minister for Finance at the time, and what a time it was. The country was awash with money and optimism. We had no idea of what was to come.

  Micheal Martin, as has been much documented, was a regular presence in Roscommon at the time of the 2014 by-election. Nice man, shame about the shadow of the IMF. Still, he’s still hanging in there.   I was on holidays in France when Gerry Adams appeared in our office in Abbey Street, supporting Martin Kenny in the 2011 General Election.

  Apparently, when told the Editor was away, he said: “Tell that mon I’ll be back.” I expect he will be back soon.

  Pat Rabbitte sat in my office with Senator John Kelly, and a few years later, with Rabbitte now gone as Labour leader, it was Eamon Gilmore who was talking up their candidate’s chances.

  I asked Gilmore about Roscommon A&E. This was a few weeks before the 2011 General Election. He assured me it would be safe on his watch.

  When Michael Noonan was Fine Gael leader, I had a chat with him outside Regan’s in Roscommon, where he was due to address supporters. I don’t know what refreshments he had there, but dessert came later in Boyle, when a disenchanted woman covered Noonan’s face with a custard pie.

  The political leaders. They’re all the same, they’re all different.

  Probably – certainly possibly – wonderful, lovely people in private, but metamorphorised when in public, part-ruthless, part-disingenuous, part-performing, part-circus act, part-actor, parts of everything.

  I’ve met Enda a few times. I am sure he doesn’t remember. He was perfectly pleasant. It was pre-2011. Also pre-2011, I met James Reilly, I as a member of Roscommon Lions Club, James bursting with enthusiasm as Fine Gael Health spokesperson and soon-to-be Health Minister.

    At the end of the meeting, he made impressive eye contact with me, handed me his card and said ‘ring me any time.’

  I never rang him, and he never rings me…sure what would we talk about? 

  ‘Do you trust Gerry Adams?’ I had asked Albert, the man from Rooskey.

  Do we trust Charlie? Bertie? Enda? James? Eamon?

  Oh, well, most of it is water under the bridge now. The faces change, but not much else does. The circus comes to town again in the next few weeks. I look forward to the visits of the leaders. Codding ourselves no doubt, we will have our questions ready.

  More importantly, the lads in Main Street have the cabbages lined up.

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