"Like Bertie Ahern, I am very good with people. I felt that if Fine Gael was going to change – and it seems vain to say it – it needed someone like that."
On a grey day on Castlebar's Tucker Street almost 15 years ago, a slightly bruised Enda Kenny couldn't stop smiling and joking as he discussed his first and unsuccessful attempt to become leader of Fine Gael, and his subsequent exclusion from winner Michael Noonan's front bench.
By then the fair-haired, slightly television shy “Lochinvar” had 25 years in politics, 10 general elections, several junior ministries and a full tourism brief behind him.
His party colleagues would “never know what they had missed”, he said.
One of his consolations was that Castlebar was doing well in 2001. The town's rapid growth was mainly due to political influence, he told this reporter – wielded by former EU commissioner and Fianna Fáil minister Pádraig Flynn and himself.
"As Charles Haughey said, the only place to be in the Dáil is in government," Kenny laughed.
Within a decade that wish would be realised after Kenny secured the party leadership, rebuilt it from the grassroots up, and then led it into government after the 2011 general election.
But whereas the late Haughey – arguably Mayo’s first taoiseach – has a plaque marking his Castlebar birthplace, and Flynn is credited with the town’s bypass, there are mixed feelings about “Lochinvar” now.
This week he has been nicknamed the “ginger whinger” – a play on his own dig at political opponents last Saturday which touched such a raw nerve.
Head briefly in hands, former Fine Gael mayor of Castlebar Ger Deere says he "never wants to hear that word again" as he sits down in the Linenhall arts centre for a quick coffee.
He knew exactly who the Taoiseach was talking about when referring at a Fine Gael rally to some “all-Ireland champions”, who were not the winning Castlebar Mitchells GAA club, but who were the “whingers that I hear every week saying there’s nothing happening”.
Deere, who has worked with Kenny for the past 12 years, says his boss was only ever referring to certain Fianna Fáil councillors who spent years complaining about inaction on local projects – such as the New Line road works, a new 25m swimming pool, and development of the town’s Sacred Heart nursing home – only to criticise him again when money came good.
"We had two big employers here – Volex and APC – which had a workforce of 1,500 between them," Deere says. "But between 2007 and 2009 both shut when Fianna Fáil was in government."
Last week’s closure of one of the town’s established family businesses, the Welcome Inn, could not have come at a worse time, just a week before the election. Still, Deere emphasises that the priorities identified by industrialists – improved roads, broadband and further development at Knock airport – are “all being addressed”.
Even as the phones hopped on Midwest Radio’s Tommy Marren show on Monday morning, with much outraged reaction over Kenny’s remarks, there was an announcement about funding for regional airports, including Ireland West (Knock), says Deere.
There was further good news on Tuesday with the Connaught Telegraph reporting a "multimillion euro investment" in vacant buildings on Bridge Street and moves to convert the former Volex plant into a manufacturing facility.
Out on the streets, however, there is a sense of scepticism about the timing of such reports.
Nora Gillane, a local resident now working in London, recalled on Tuesday how Kenny had officiated at an announcement of 150 jobs just over two years ago. "We haven't heard anything much about that company – Northgate – since."
There has been a question mark over the Northgate jobs since the HSE directed its internal audit unit to review how the same company won a contract to install software for the Saolta University Health Care group managing public hospitals in Galway Mayo, Sligo, Roscommon and Letterkenny, Co Donegal.
Northgate Public Services was the only company asked to bid. The then Saolta chief executive Bill Maher had previously worked for it as a consultant. Although this was declared at the time, Saolta has confirmed that the contract was not renewed.
Northgate said on Tuesday that it was providing back-office scanning services to a number of customers from its Castlebar centre, and was “working towards securing new contracts from public service organisations”.
Supporters of Kenny stress that these are factors outside his control.
Castlebar’s big problem is that it does not have the same community spirit as neighbouring Westport, the supporters point out. Any such spirit was crushed by former Fianna Fáil minister Flynn who, in developing his power base, also nurtured a “sense of entitlement” in the county town.
It is not a view shared by Flynn’s daughter and former TD Beverley Flynn, who stresses that Castlebar has, as with many regional centres, experienced a tough time over the past eight years, with “no real sign of recovery”.
She is very optimistic about her party’s local candidate, Lisa Chambers, and says the response has been “very positive” in the town.
The Welcome Inn’s closure is a serious blow, Flynn says.
“Most of us were married there, or know someone who was, and the staff are all local, and it has been such an institution for over 50 years,” she says.
“There was a lot of hope when Enda was made Taoiseach, and yet there have been no significant new jobs in Mayo.”
Castlebar president of St Vincent de Paul Martin Waters says that families and small businesses are "hurting", many of them silently.
“Emigration is as big as ever, and then we are seeing a whole new group of people who would have contributed to us before, and are now seeking our help,” Waters says. The fact that there are no homeless sleeping on the streets is largely due to a highly efficient group of officials within Mayo County Council, he says.
Yet rented property is under pressure as families who cannot afford to live in Galway or Limerick move up to slightly more affordable tenancies in Mayo.
Sinn Féin councillor Gerry Murray, based in Charlestown, says that Kenny would be far better off to address the “elephant in every constituency”, as in the impact on public services and on small businesses of a “neo-liberal European agenda”.
Taking Ireland West airport at Knock as an example, he says Kenny has “agonised” over how it should be supported at a time when the EU wants to phase out State aid for regional airports.
"Michael Noonan had no such reservations when he took a number of measures to support Shannon Airport back in 2011," Murray says. "With investment of €100 million – which is not enormous in the context of investment in Irish Water – Knock could become an industrial hub supporting 1,000 jobs." .
Kenny’s unassuming nature – a factor stressed by Deere – can be to his disadvantage, says one local business owner who preferred not be named.
“He wants to do what he can for his constituency, and he went into government declaring himself to be a Mayo Taoiseach, but he doesn’t want to be perceived now as another Pádraig Flynn.
“The problem is that Mayo looks to the counties that beat them at football – Dublin and Kerry – and sees how the Ministers there have no such qualms.”