Mary Davis was back home in Kiltimagh yesterday, no doubt feeling the better of meeting familiar faces
ALL POLITICS is local and it doesn’t get any more immediate than standing in the middle of your very first classroom and examining the school roll book that has been recording attendances since 1920.
When Mary Davis attended Kinaffe national school in the early 1960s, it had 150 children. Today, 16 children go there and all were present for the visit of Mayo’s presidential candidate.
The school itself – on a country road between Kiltimagh and Swinford – is straight out of McLaverty's The Poiteen Maker: the long windows with broad sills, the two big classrooms and that powerful energy particular to all classrooms created by generations of schoolchildren who have passed through the place before.
In an interview with Tommy Marren on Midwest Radio yesterday morning, Davis had spoken fondly about her first three years of walking to school to Kinaffe in the morning and of heating milk in the open fireplaces.
When she arrived, she seemed genuinely disappointed that the fireplaces had been bricked up but the walls, austere in her time, were bursting with colour and imaginative artwork and studies and posters. The old school no longer needed fires for warmth.
Yesterday was a homecoming visit for Davis. To people of a certain generation in Kiltimagh, she will always be Sgt Rooney’s youngest girl or, perhaps, a sister of Eugene, star on the Mayo football team of the late 1960s.
The polls are not predicting a happy result for the Davis campaign but there has been no evidence of her spirits flagging and yesterday’s meeting with familiar faces must have been restorative.
It is a little known fact that Kiltimagh has one of the most eloquent pieces of street art in the entire country. Outside the Teach O'Hora pub – where Davis was serenaded to a boisterous version of The Town of Kiltimaghin the morning drizzle – there is a bronze life-size figure sculpted by Sally McKenna.
The man is dressed in his blazer and carries the big square suitcases of the classic emigrant. He is walking towards the road that leads to Knock. There is something about the loneliness of the figure that gets you every time.
The theme of emigration has been knocking around edges of this campaign but no candidate as fully grasped it. Leaving has never been far from the narrative of Mayo and as Davis spoke of her own story, it was typical of the county. Her brother has emigrated.
When her father retired from his Garda posting in Sligo, the family saw him off from the train station in Claremorris to go to London to work until the boys had finished their education.
“It was a tough time in Mayo in the Sixties,” she told Marren. “My mother had a huge burden of work while my Dad was working away, but one of the things I brought from Mayo was that strong sense of community and that is what we need in our society today.”
Davis’s affection for her local county is plain to see. When the phone calls came in to the Marren show, the questions wanted clarification on certain issues.
Does she believe in God? (Yes.)
Does she believe in the right to homosexual marriage? (She does.)
Doesn’t she know that would be in breach of the Constitution? (It could be changed.)
Where does she stand on abortion? (She believes in the sanctity of life but also feels debate is needed about the wellbeing of the mother in certain extreme circumstances, such as pregnancy through rape.)
Does she believe the salary for president is too high? (Yes. And she would have no problem taking a cut.)
Yet again, money was an issue. The disclosure of Davis’s salary with Special Olympics Europe at the outset of the campaign seemed to alter the general perception of her and she has never quite recovered in the polls. For some reason, Davis’s long record of volunteering for people with intellectual disability has rarely shone in her message.
As the drizzle continued, her husband Julian recalled meeting newspapers editors all of 30 years ago to see if they couldn’t feature photographs of such kids now and again. And they were told, no, that it wouldn’t appeal to readers.
His point was that she was out there lobbying for intellectual disability back in the dark ages. For 10 years, she ran a gymnastics club in Crumlin. The Special Olympics in 2003 was just the culmination – the fireworks and celebrity glitz – to those countless evenings spent guiding kids along a narrow beam.
This reminiscence took place on the doorstep of Maureen Walsh’s house.
The house on the bottom of the hill is where Louis the pop impresario grew up. His mother has baked scones and has tea going for the Davis team – and for anyone else who cared for it.
Maureen has the effortless gift of making visitors feel as if they have known her all her life.
A big oil painting of Louis hangs in the living room and in the dresser in the kitchen stands a small photograph of Simon Cowell and the rest of the X-Factorteam, not far from a picture of Padre Pio.
They say it will take a divine intercession for Davis to turn her presidential bid around. It has been an unreadable campaign which has seen Seán Gallagher, a man who has had more careers than Louis Walsh has had pop hits, surging ahead in the polls while Davis, with decades of solid volunteerism on her slate, has seemingly been lost in the slip stream.
But she fights on. She is far from disheartened, standing at the top of her old class in Kinaffe and talked about being in the Áras. The children cheer and she sounds like she believes it will happen. They sing for her a full- hearted rendition of The Green and Red of Mayo("The feeling, it came over me to stay forever more . . .").
Then a young boy raises his hand to ask the presidential candidate a question about her days in the school.
“What were the teachers like?” he demands.
There is a split-second pause and then veterans of the classroom laugh along with Davis.
“Well, they may have been a bit stricter,” she says diplomatically.
“Times were different.”
The grown-ups laugh. The children’s eyes in momentary wonder stare. For all they know, they may be looking at the next president of Ireland.