Welcome my friends to the show that never ends

The reality of life behind the scenes at Galway’s epic count

To say the Galway West count centre in Leisureland was an epic drama which made War And Peace and The Lord Of The Rings look like minimalist short stories is an understatement.

Galway West is notorious for overlong counts, but the constituency outdid itself for Election 2011 running from Saturday morning to Tuesday morning.

Yet, in my 10 years of covering elections it was possibly the most exciting and given that this was a historic election, and one where Galway West finally became unpredictable, it was a privileged to be part of it.

Indeed the voter turnout in Galway West was 69 per cent and the level of interest in the count was in evidence by the high numbers of people there - one of the busiest I have ever seen.

“It’s great to see so many people here,” said Tanya Kovacic from Slovenia, who is studying at NUI, Galway. “It’s great that so many people care about the system and take an interest in it.”

The tallies took up the entire morning and early afternoon of Saturday. By 2pm they were completed and there were surprises in store. Even those who predicted big changes would have their political antennae and powers of prediction tested to the utmost this weekend.

The campaign teams for all candidates pored over the figures, particularly the Fianna Fáil tallies - widely regarded as being among the most accurate. The first thing the number crunchers discussed was the one non-surprise of the day, that veteran TD Frank Fahey would lose his seat.

“Will Frank be in later on to see the vote?” one man asked.

“He hasn’t a f****n’ notion of coming’ in,” said his friend.

“He will be in.”

“He’d be better off staying at home drinking a few pints,” came the reply.

When Frank eventually arrived he was openly conceding defeat, yet he refused to be downhearted or despondent, and took it in his stride. Then again, he had seen this day coming and was no doubt prepared.

“We lost today,” he said. “We’re doing badly all over, but you have to take it graciously,” he said.

Otherwise many predictions were being turned on their heads. The tallies were showing Labour’s Derek Nolan and Fianna Fáil’s Éamon Ó Cuív on course to take seats, with the Labour man set to top the poll.

“It’s a good result. Substantial,” said a very satisfied Michael D Higgins, after he learned of the tallies. Indeed Labour members were holding their heads high all day and there was no prouder man in the building than Derek’s father Dominick.

Noel Grealish was nervous but readying himself for whatever would happen. “It’s still touch and go,” he said. Meanwhile Cllr Connolly was in good spirits, saying she was happy with how things were going and confident that she was in with a shout. Would it go down to the wire and be a fight for the last seat I asked? “Unfortunately,” she laughed.

Opinion among Fine Gaelers was divided though. They were nervous for Brian Walsh, but felt he should be safe. Brian’s brothers were there for every minute keeping a watch on things. As for FG taking a second seat, half the party was predicting a win for Sean Kyne, the other half for Fidelma Healy Eames.

The majority of FGers though wanted Kyne. “There are even FG members here at the count that are saying decades of the rosary that she doesn’t get in,” one man told me.

At least Hildegarde Naughton was happy. “I was a late addition to the campaign but I’m very happy with how I did,” she said, before hinting that future Dáil runs are not out of the question. “It gives me a base to build on.”

From this point on there was only set of question on everyone’s lips from Saturday to Monday: “Will Fidelma make it? Will Kyne take the seat? Will Grealish hold on? Does Catherine have a chance?”

There were as many opinions and theories on that as there are layers of an onion.

Yet an election count is not just about politics. It is one of the great social occasions in Irish life. You will meet old friends at a count who you would otherwise never see and have long, in-depth, discussions and craic with people you have never met before, yet they will seem to you, and you to them, like old friends.

There is also the ‘unexpected observer’ you will encounter.

An American man was here to take a look at all that was going on. Noticing he wore a Pittsburgh Steelers hoodie, we struck up a conversation about our shared interest in the American Football team founded by an Irish-American. It also turned out that our American friend had his own connections to politics, having worked in the White House developing fitness programmes for George W Bush. “Politics aside, George W is the fittest man I ever met,” he said.

As I said, it’s not just a count, it’s a social occasion.

Predictions may have been difficult to make about Galway West this time and while we were all expecting a long count, nobody could have foreseen how long this one was going to go on for, except perhaps for Noel Grealish.

“We’ll have to get the sleeping bags out,” one man commented.

“We’ll be here ‘till Monday,” I replied.

“We could be here ‘till this day next week,” laughed Noel.

Saturday stretched from 9am to 12 midnight; Sunday from 10am to 1am (with a break from 4pm to 6pm ); Monday was the epic day, starting at 10am and finishing on Tuesday at 6am; and then Tuesday it was another case of afternoon to the wee small hours. I was only half-joking when I suggested to singing councillor Hildegarde she could belt out a version of The Kinks ‘All Day And All Of The Night’.

As the votes were announced, it became obvious that a recount would be called for. At 7.30pm on Sunday it came. Returning officer Marian Chambers Higgins said she accepted the request from Fidelma Healy Eames. The news was greeted with a mixture of pained resignation and disbelief that it was all about to be dragged out even further. It is no exaggeration to say that Fidelma was the only happy face in Leisureland right then.

That was in severe contrast to Monday when she had a face like thunder, then shell shock, and finally distress, as it became obvious she had no chance of taking the seat. Yes there was a lot of Schadenfreude around, but considering that Ms Healy Eames implored Ms Chambers Higgins for the recount by saying “That’s my seat! That’s my seat!” this was understandable.

As we waited and waited for the recount on Monday heads dropped, minds wearied, enthusiasm waned, and numbers dropped. It seemed that everyone was about to give up and pass out, until the figures for the re-count started coming through.

Many of us had not slept in 24 hours but as Cllr Terry O’Flaherty said: “We’ve stayed here this long, we might as well see it through.” The announcement of the new results was the tonic we needed. It kept us going and the count centre filled up again and the life, buzz, excitement, and craic, that had been such a feature of event earlier on returned.

Noel Grealish’s team kept people going with tea and biccies while in-between counts every theory and scenario as to whether it would be Sean Kyne or Catherine Connolly to take the seat was discussed until no new theories could be devised.

Then, finally, past 5.40am, the final result was announced. Kyne and Grealish had taken the seats. Cue pandemonium and boisterous singing as the two men were hoisted aloft on their supporters shoulders. Yet we all knew another re-count was coming. Ultimately though Cllr Connolly was not to be elected. Fine Gael would take that last seat.

As it all drew to a close and we finally started to wander home to catch up on long overdue sleep, NUI, Galway student Brendan Gallagher pondered: “And Galway West still won’t elect a woman.”

Despite all the change, some things never change.

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