Byelection: not all family favourites in Kilkenny cat fight

Political dynasties and new names pitched against each other using hurling metaphors

Irish Times political correspondent Michael O'Regan meets with candidates in the forthcoming Carlow Kilkenny byelection which takes place as a result of the appointment of Phil Hogan to the European Commission.Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

The hurling metaphors alone on the Kilkenny canvass leave the outsider in need of a lie-down. “Nine minutes to go, a point behind but we have the goalposts in sight . . ,” says the Fine Gael candidate.

“You’re ground-hurlin’ now.”

“It’s a CAT fight . . . get it?”

In the Hub, a kind of farmers’ shopping mall just outside Kilkenny city, the showpiece is a beautiful ICA-sewn banner, depicting the county’s legendary hurling clubs. The Hub’s working heart is a modern mart, with comfortable, amphitheatre-style sales rings. As we climb the stairs towards one of them, a farmer gives me a kindly pat on the arm and an earnest “good luck now”.

Turns out the driver licensing centre is on the same floor and women are in short supply around here.

Locals caution against assumed Kilkenny city liberalism. Political dynasties like the Aylwards and the Crottys tend to bob up again and again, generation upon generation, as the flood waters recede.

Cat fight

David FitzgeraldKieran Crotty

Fitzgerald is a relative political novice, but Fine Gael and north Kilkenny to the marrow and flaithiúlach with the hurling metaphors.

To please The Irish Times, he agrees to separate from Simon Coveney – sharp suit, Yes badge, high boots straight from Horse & Hound – to do a little canvass of the Hub’s restaurant. Snatches of a ministerial ding dong –­“silage . . . suckler herds . . . semen . . . four-star bulls . . . Let me finish, you’ve been very vocal” – drift across the tables as the candidate dutifully stands for his starter question: “How d’ya fill Big Phil’s shoes?”

Pause. “I’ve my own shoes,” he replies snippily. Not one for the Enforcer’s killer banter so.

Discussing his campaign with the Kilkenny People, his wife, Paula, said: “He has enlisted and he’s a good man to soldier.” Which is exactly how he appears: regimented, earnest, armed with well-rehearsed messages.

One recurring message – clearly a strike against the protest candidates – says, “this isn’t a little, local bunfight for the short-term . . . this is about electing someone for five to 10 years. Voters don’t want to put in a dud.”

Another is a jab at Bobby Aylward’s age. “He’s 60. How much more potential has he left? I’m 46 – old enough to have sense and young enough to have energy.”

Yes, he says happily, he thought up the last bit just now. One can only assume he believes this journalist is well under 60 or the message is deemed to be so powerful that stuff like casual ageism is irrelevant. Once he has moved on, farmers agree that he is “very straight” and “clean of baggage”.

Another – a Big Phil fan – suggests “he’s the kind who’d steer clear of trouble”. But they lack enthusiasm. The one thing they all agree on is that it’s “a two-horse race” between himself and Aylward. Perhaps.

Down the town in the spartan Renua office on Patrick Street is a dark horse by the name of Patrick McKee. Vice-chairman of the county council, apprentice solicitor and young enough at 26 to tell Fitzgerald that he’s past it. But that’s not his style.

He defected from Fianna Fáil, however, which raises questions. “I joined Ógra Fianna Fáil in college because I always had a republican outlook . . .”

Grandfather

Paddy Dollard

So here he is, the first candidate to go to war for a new party in a hurling-crazed area, though he probably wouldn’t recognise a hurling metaphor if it smacked him on the nose.

He came out as gay nearly three years ago after a former mayor triggered huge controversy and “a lot of negativity” by flying the rainbow flag over the town hall. He has met “100 per cent positivity”.

A rather earnest persona lightens considerably when he hits the streets. And here’s the surprise. People come over to him; they willingly take the leaflets; they want to engage with him. They are intrigued by this pleasant, soft-spoken young man from the “new party”.

He hands leaflets to two women, throwing in the key words, “change” and “new party”. The women nod furiously – “Change? Oh we need plenty . . . PLENTY . . . New blood, that’s what we need.”

A small boy waves from a passing car and the driver pulls in. McKee leans in to chat easily with him and his father.

Walking by the outdoor market, well-known Waterford fishmonger Pat Hartley, (brother of Kieran, the former FF MEP and related to the Aylwards), is closing up his stall. He talks animatedly of the escalating costs of being an employer.

Hartley was one of the lifelong FFers who “loaned” a vote to Fine Gael in 2011 because he “wanted change”, but now describes himself as a floating voter. “I don’t mind doing what’s needed to help out this country but I’m damned if I want to see my money going to civil servants – even though my wife’s a nurse – or social welfare.”

He may not be a constituent but he is singing Renua’s song.