Cheers and tears as emotions overflow on strange and bittersweet day

Enda walked up to them, his eyes already brimming. He cupped Helen’s face in his hands and they hugged. ‘Great day,’ he whispered

Labour Candidate Eoin Holmes exits  the Meath East byelection count centre in Donaghmore, Ashbourne. Photograph: Alan Betson

Labour Candidate Eoin Holmes exits the Meath East byelection count centre in Donaghmore, Ashbourne. Photograph: Alan Betson

Fri, Mar 29, 2013, 01:00

This was always going to be a difficult journey for the McEntees.

For them, it was the strangest of days – suffused with the happiest of memories, brimming with the promise of opportunities to come and yet tainted by the most unspeakable sadness.

Three generations of a family shattered by the tragic death of their beloved Shane, about to bring a closure of sorts to a devastating chapter in their lives.

They held it together until the Taoiseach arrived.

But then the emotion came tumbling out.

Enda Kenny was party leader when Shane McEntee won the Meath byelection for Fine Gael. “He won in 2005, when we were caught up in the enthusiasm and exhilaration of byelection fever,” recalled the Taoiseach. “This is different.”

Yesterday, Shane’s daughter Helen successfully retained that seat for Fine Gael.

Bittersweet was the word of the day.

The candidate, her mother Kathleen and grandmother Madge sat surrounded by their family and friends in the count centre. Helen, for whom victory seemed certain hours before the first count was declared, remained quietly confident. But she refused to make any comment until the results were in.

Well-wishers came in a steady stream to congratulate her. Helen smiled and joked with them, but all the while keeping an eye on her mother and Granny McEntee. And with them, her brother Vincent and sister Sally and the never ending roll-call of Shane’s many brothers.

“It’s a strange day,” said one. “Very strange.”

Madge McEntee (84), who buried a son not long after losing her husband, spoke with pride of her 26 year old granddaughter. But then, she’s proud of all her 24 grandchildren.

“I said all along it would be hard won and it was, but it has turned out better than I could have thought,” she said.

Mrs McEntee, her extended family gathered supportively around her, found it hard to describe how the day meant to her. “Mixed feelings,” she said, thinking of her late son, the junior minister.

“I’m sure he’s around here somewhere, watching on,” smiled Madge. “Shane . . . he’s a mystery.”

Enda’s arrival
When the Taoiseach arrived in the early evening, Helen and her mother were waiting at the door. And just inside was Madge, and her daughter Mary and collection of sons.

Enda walked up to them, his eyes already brimming. He cupped Helen’s face in his hands and they hugged. “Great day,” he whispered to her. “This is the start of a brand new day.”

Then he embraced Shane’s wife, Kathleen. “I really am so proud of Helen, he told her, as two of Shane’s brothers looked on. “And I’m so proud of you all for having done this.”

It was too much. Try as they might, they choked up.

Then it was inside, and Enda enfolded Madge in a big hug. Larry and Andy stood on either side of her, fighting a losing battle to contain their tears.

Everyone was in bits. All these big football playing McEntee men, TDs, party handlers, neighbours from Nobber.

”I’m struggling. I’m struggling, ” said Tony McEntee, as the candidate and her emotional entourage prepared to hear the final declaration.

When Helen was declared the winner, there were cheers and tears amid scenes of muted congratulation. It was nothing like the wild buck-leppin of eight years ago when the considerable frame of an air-punching McEntee was somehow lifted shoulder high and carried around the hall.

“It’s been a bittersweet day for us,” said Helen, echoing the word of the day.

“You had faith in Dad and I’m absolutely delighted you had faith in me,” she said in her short and very non-political acceptance speech. “If I’m half the TD he was, I’ll be happy.”

After the emotional roller-coaster of Helen’s election, the family and their supporters returned to Nobber and the Dee Local, the McEntee’s pub.

The Taoiseach was among them.

“I remember I overstayed my welcome on the last occasion. But I’m mindful of the new Pope and of the hour and I won’t stay on until Good Friday.”

This was Fine Gael’s day. And in the Donaghmore GAA club yesterday, there were few who would begrudge it to them.

But away from the McEntees, the business of the byelection went on. It wasn’t the most exciting of counts. Despite a very strong showing by Fianna Fail, the race for Meath East was never going to be a cliff hanger.

Party failure
One party, Labour, fell humiliatingly off that cliff. The party lost its deposit.

Candidate Eoin Holmes, who had impressed on the campaign, was soundly rejected by the voters and his party was deliberately humiliated by them. But then, it didn’t really matter who Labour put up for election. If they’d run Elvis, he’d have lost his deposit too.

Pat Rabbitte flew the red flag in the early part of the morning. But he was the only senior party member to show up.

He tried to explain what happened. But not very well.

“People are not minded to listen to macro economics” he said. They aren’t concerned about bond yields which “butter no parsnips.”

It seems Labour had decided to blame the mystery of bond yields as one of the main reasons for the party’s collapse. Keep that sort of logic up and that collapse might be permanent.

Ominously, as people talked in Meath of the future of Eamon Gilmore’s leadership and the increasingly frustration among backbenchers, rebel Labour TD Colm Keaveney maintained an uncharacteristic radio silence.

The coalition hasn’t heard the end of this story.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fail is on the March. Micheál Martin was putting himself about for most of the afternoon, trying to be very humble about his party’s impressive resurgence in the polls.

Even Donie Cassidy reappeared, working the hall like in the good old days.

All the party leaders, bar Eamon Gilmore, paid the count centre a visit. Gerry Adams talked up his party’s average performance, with Mary Lou McDonald also talking up future prospects.

But Labour, having made an almighty mess of the election, made a total hames of the aftermath. Just after lunch, their candidate arrived in the hall accompanied by a number of backbenchers and party handlers. Nobody noticed him as he talked to count staff and checked over ballot papers.

Swift exit
Then he was spotted and the large media contingent galloped over for a comment.

What happened next was bizarre. The candidate, Eoin Holmes, made a bolt for the door, which was at the other end of the sizable sports arena.

He was joined by his party colleagues, some running alongside him like American football lineblockers. He raced through the door, journalists flapping in his wake, and they hared off down the car park.

And that was the last we saw of them.

“I didn’t think the Grand National was on here until Monday,” remarked a fascinated Fine Gaeler.

But it was Helen’s day. She came through it with dignity and class. But then, she’s her father’s girl.