Elections collections: one man’s campaign to preserve posters

‘Some of the stuff from the referendums is real social history. The scaremongering involved is unbelievable’

Alan Kinsella at the exhibition What You Maybe Meant to Keep, at the National Print Museum, Beggars Bush, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Alan Kinsella at the exhibition What You Maybe Meant to Keep, at the National Print Museum, Beggars Bush, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times


It’s election time and as we fight the onslaught of posters, leaflets and manifestos, Alan Kinsella rubs his hands with gleeful anticipation. The man behind the Irish Election Literature blog and co-curator with Dr Ciarán Swan of an exhibition, What You Maybe Meant to Keep , at the National Print Museum in Dublin, he began collecting political ephemera during the 1982 election, when he accompanied his family to vote.

“In those days, outside the polling station was like the Spring Show,” he says. “I started collecting cards and stickers. Barry Desmond was the local TD and he signed a canvas card ‘To Alan from Barry Desmond’, so I kept that and then there was another election in the November of that year and I kept the stuff from that also.

“Other people started to hold on to the material for me as well. My aunts would keep things. Then there was a byelection in ’83 in Dublin central and then there were the European elections in ’84 and the local elections in ’85 . . . and then there were the referendums, which were mad.”

It’s a strange hobby for a child, all the same. “Well, it was a very exciting time politically,” says Kinsella. “There were heaves against Charlie and there was the rivalry between Charlie and Garret. [Desmond] O’Malley was getting kicked out of Fianna Fáil . . . but my friends thought it was a strange hobby – and I was embarrassed about it in a way. ‘You know that stuff coming in your door, you wouldn’t mind keeping it for me, would you?’

‘What do you want that for?’
‘I collect it.’
‘Ah right’.”

His interest didn’t stop with collecting. “I was at the first ever meeting of the PDs,” he says. “I would have been 15.” He laughs. He eventually left active party politics because “campaigning was so boring.” He never lost his fascination with collecting, though. He says it is interesting to look back and see the major issues that aren’t such big issues any more, “divorce, the North, the Good Friday agreement”, and to see other issues recurring.

“The property tax stuff now is like the property tax stuff in the past. The arguments are the same.” His favourite material? “Some of the stuff from the referendums is real social history. The scaremongering involved is unbelievable. I’ve one leaflet where the argument is, ‘if a husband batters his wife, if there’s divorce, he’ll batter someone else’. There are some leaflets from a crowd called the Christian Principles Party whose slogan was ‘jobs for youth, not condoms’.”

He also enjoys seeing how party identities change over the years. “In the Eighties, Sinn Féin leaflets were all ‘so-and-so was a volunteer, in the movement, five years in jail’. Nowadays it’s ‘so-and-so is a small business owner interested in bringing down rates’.”

Time though isn’t always kind to bygone political slogans. “There was a Fianna Fáil leaflet from Offaly talking about the funding Fianna Fáil got for the area. The leaflet read: ‘It was Fianna Fáil that did it!’ But a couple of months later when the bank guarantee happened, that wasn’t a slogan you wanted to have around.”

Some others? “In 2007: Trust the Greens We Won’t Let you down’. The PDs, ‘The Best is Yet to Come’.” He laughs. “Then there’s another Fianna Fáil one, ‘Let’s take a Step Forward Together’ it says, and there’s a picture of Bertie smiling with a young couple. Now when I look at it I think, ‘Jesus, I wonder what happened to them’?”

The day before, someone asked Kinsella if he could put together a database of broken promises – “but where would I start?”

In 2009, Kinsella, a trained IT professional, put his collection online and very quickly candidates began to send their own efforts. “Candidate A would send me his leaflet and I’d put it up, then candidate B from the same area would send me a leaflet because they didn’t want to be left out.” In recent years they even ask his advice.

These days there is more literature than ever, with politicians regularly publishing newsletters and updates, but they tend to be much more careful about avoiding controversy. “In 2011 everything Fine Gael did was all about their five- point plan, you didn’t even have biographies of the candidates. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaflets have the same templates these days. All the Fine Gael leaflets have the same blue sky. Fianna Fáil leaflets have a different blue sky . . .

“You learn more about controversial issues in society from the Independents’ literature. In 2011 nearly all of them were saying ‘jail the bankers’, but there’s not a hoot about it now.”

One thing seems to unite all political persuasions – poor spelling. “It’s because people are doing more and more printing themselves and no one is proofreading,” he says. “I’ve had people running in West Meth. There are loads of Independ-ants running. There’s someone who wants to be a councilor with one l.

“One fellow’s leaflet says he’s running for South Dublin County Council when he’s actually running for Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council.”

The candidates will be pleased to know these mistakes are collected for posterity both online and among the 10 crates of ephemera he keeps in his attic. The exhibition at the Print Museum only contains “maybe 2 or 3 per cent” of his collection, he says.

He is pleased to note that when his 14-year-old-son took a few people on a tour of the exhibition, he seemed surprisingly knowledgeable. “Whether that’s genuine interest or osmosis, I’m not sure,” he says.

He clearly still enjoys the familiar madness of election time. “There’s always a ‘candidate with common sense’ or ‘the candidate with experience’, and everyone’s either ‘a fresh voice’ or ‘a new voice’. “I was laughing when I watched House of Cards because in the first series, when your man goes for governor, they come up with the slogan ‘A Fresh Start’” He laughs. “I was thinking ‘I’ve a whole box full of ‘fresh starts’ up in the attic’.”
What You Maybe Meant to Keep at the National Print Museum, Beggars Bush, Haddington Road, until May 27th

* This article was edited on May 1st.