Miriam Lord: Musical matinee with Mary Lou goes down a treat

This was republicanism with jazz hands and glitter balls as delegates assembled for Sinn Féin’s ardfheis

"Time for change," said Sinn Féin, and all the clocks in Ireland went back that very night. That's the sort of thing which happens when you're on a roll.

Spring forward, fall back, as the saying goes.

Or Falls Road back, spring Dublin forward, as was the case in the Helix on Saturday evening.

“Very slim pickings,” lamented a reporter from the North after the party’s one-day ardfheis came to a restful close. “It’s nearly all about the South.”


He was right, and no amount of geographical balancing on the platform could change that.

The drive is on to get into government, hence the slogan: “Time for change, don’t frighten the horses”, although they only used the first half of it for the sake of simplicity.

The Helix theatre was an appropriate venue for Sinn Féin’s conference as it was a pleasant late afternoon confection of political and musical theatre. It was the sort of matinee you could bring your nana to see, and she could regale her buddies afterwards with tales of Mary Lou’s sparkly necklace and the beautiful colours on the stage and lovely songs.

And she would have been bursting to tell them how she saw Shane Ross pootering around the place for most of the day and the smiling Shinners being openly nice to him. She could tell them how former transport minister Ross, aka Winston Churchtown, is writing a book about Mary Lou but there wouldn't be much point as he's told the whole world about that already, and then some.

And on the way out you could buy nana a ticket in the National Draw (tenner a pop and four chances to win €5,000) and a copy of the new Republican Resistance calendar for 2022 (€6, two for €10), and then pose for a photo with that nice chap Eoin O'Broin (very well spoken) and still be home in time for tea and Strictly Come Dancing.

Glitter balls

This was republicanism with jazz hands and glitter balls as delegates assembled for their annual Let’s Do the History Time Warp Again, which is always entertaining because the arrangement changes so often.

Renowned traditional ballad singer Elle Marie O'Dwyer entertained the crowd with a couple of songs before the keynote address. Teacher Elle Marie, who is from the village of Freemount in north Cork, looks very glamorous in a gold lamé dress as she launched into her opening number. "I joined the Flying Column in nineteen and sixteen…."

She followed The Galtee Mountain Boy with a six minute rendition of a song about hunger striker Joe McDonnell. As she sang, images and silent footage from that era was projected on to the curved backdrop.

There was one more number. “We want to liven things up and get ye in the spirit for Mary Lou” said Elle Marie, before breaking into Óró ‘Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile, the ditty most beloved of Sinn Féin delegates. There was clapping of hands and mild stomping of feet. Nothing too strenuous and not at all like the raucous, room-shaking renditions of previous years.

And no Little Shop of Republican Horrors selling Provo tat.

The traditional Adoration of the Adams was abandoned too. Probably for the best because the appearance of their former leader Gerry – with over three decades of unopposed rule under his beret – might have sent the crowd wild and this would not have conveyed the right message to the worried middle classes approaching retirement and eyeing up Mary Lou’s promise to keep the pension age at 65.

Instead Gerry was tweeting about the ardfheis from an undisclosed location which was not a jail.

“I have been attending ardfheiseanna since 1967 except for times when I was in prison. This unique ardfheis is one of the best of them. Ar aghaigh linn. Ádh mór Mary Lou nios moille.”

Maybe he was there but in disguise, wearing a face mask, which will have been a novelty for him as he was never in the IRA.

Closing number

John Finucane, MP for Belfast North, introduced the party leader: "The time for real change in Ireland is now. The time for Mary Lou McDonald is now."

And she sashayed from the wings for the big closing number, opening her arms wide and almost did a twirl before hitting her mark at the green lectern in front of a swaying chorus line of senior colleagues up on their feet and clapping. All that’s missing was a blast of “Hello Dolly” over the PA.

“It’s been a while. It’s great to be with you all again in my hometown” gushed Mary Lou. “I missed you.”

And off she went, breezing through a classic “Anything Goes” script which hit all the right notes in the songbook of the historic struggle against the old boys’ cosy club network of millionaire bankers and developers with gold-plated pensions.

Boy, does Mary Lou know how to deliver. Her script, on paper, was a clever if predictably cliched pitch from a Sinn Féin leader in with a strong chance of taking her party to the epicenter of government in Ireland. She made it sing. There is no substitute for good rehearsals.

Sinn Féin is up for the workers and for families. “Sinn Féin will deliver that government for the people. We want to lead that government. I want to lead as taoiseach if you give us that chance.”

That’s a showstopper.

And for her fans in the auditorium and in TV land? “To those who have told me – again and again – to be sure we run enough candidates in the next Dáil election…” Mary Lou threw her hands up theatrically. “I hear you!” she sing-songed into the mic. “Loud. And Clear.”


It was a easy romp through all the greatest hits – housing, health service, cost of living, Irish unity and change – delivered with aplomb.

The star of the show finished with a few lines which we couldn’t quite place but we are sure we could hum.

“So let’s do this. Because this is the moment. This is our moment. This is the time. This is our time. Let’s change Ireland.”

Sinn Féin, channelling what Dr Jekyll sang in the Jekyll and Hyde musical?

“This is the moment/This is the time/When the momentum and the moment/Are in rhyme

Give me this moment/This precious chance/I’ll gather up my past/And make some sense at last.

The audience burst into applause. In the chorus line behind Mary Lou, beneath the crystal clear curved backdrop where the colours subtly moved across 40 shades of green to orange and, finally, burnt orange, the chorus stepped towards the front of the stage. Pearse Doherty and Michelle O'Neill on either side of Mary Lou, all hands joined and held aloft.

Then Elle Marie O’Dwyer shimmered in from stage left and led the entire ensemble and audience (on its feet) in the National Anthem. This was followed by a slow and orderly exit from the stage and the theatre seats to the stirring accompaniment of “Do You Hear the People Sing ” from Les Miserables.

None of that hackneyed blasting out of young people’s music to signal artificial hipness, as favoured by other parties. All very polished in an expensively simple production. No. Nothing there to frighten the horses.

Long queues

One of the last to leave the theatre was Winston Churchtown. He wasn’t even thrown out.

The only contentious incident happened in the Multi-Bobby Storey carpark when only one ticket machine was in working order, leading to long queues after the event. But everyone took it well.

All together now: “to dream, the impossible dream…..”

And to that small minority of speakers who opposed the party's changed stance on the Special Criminal Courts: "Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, you're rockin' the boat."