The Big Election of 2020

I was just about to toast the mustard and cumin seeds for my toor dal when the car covered with placards pulled into our yard near the kitchen door and two fellows hopped out. I knew what they were here about.

When our daughter arrived for Christmas bearing quality Indian spices for me, I was eager to try them. Tonight, I was making butter chicken using turmeric, garam masala, and ground cumin, along with the toor dal, some naan, and rice. Reluctantly, I put the fry pan to the side of the hob and went to the door to greet the men.

“We’re canvassing for Brendan Griffin,” the first man says to me.

“Would ye consider giving him a number one?” the second follows-up.

Brendan is one of the five TDs (Teachta Dála, a member of the Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Irish Parliament) for Kerry, where we live. He is a member of Fine Gael, currently the plurality party in the government, and a Minister of State for Tourism and Sport. He seems a likable enough young fellow and is very good at standing beside road signs to announce new road works funded by the government.

I’ve been expecting these visits from canvassers for the candidates, so I’ve been doing my homework.

“I have a few questions for ye about Brendan,” I say.


They blanch, not quite prepared for questions.

After they leave, I go back to my spices.

Leo Varadkar, the current Taoiseach (akin to Prime Minister), announced the dissolution of the Dáil on January 14 and scheduled an election for a new Dáil for Saturday, February 8, in just over three weeks. Candidates are chosen, posters go up on roadsides and intersections across the country, canvassers go from door to door, the leaders of the major parties have a few televised debates, and then, in short order, we vote.

This, I must say, is quite refreshing for someone from the states who is used to a never-ending campaign starting the day after the previous election.

A few days after the first canvassers were here, I had a Guinness lamb stew simmering on the cooker, when a pickup truck rolled in covered with decals and blasting traditional music. This, I thought, has to be for Michael Healey-Rae. Michael, and his brother Danny, are Independent members of the Dáil from Kerry and members of the dominant family in local politics. Their father, Jackie, was a legend in Kerry. Other members of the family are on the County Council, and fortuitously, one serves as the director of elections.

Michael, the younger brother, a slim man in his early fifties, always dressed in his trademark black flat cap, is renowned in the area for his service to his constituents. Stories abound of his personal and timely assistance in dealing with the bureaucracy of government. Sadly, less savory stories also abound.

Danny, the older brother by 13 years, is rumored to be in some electoral difficulty this time around. He is well known for his opposition to drink driving laws, claiming “Sure, shouldn’t a man be allowed to have a few pints and drive back to his home?” He does, it should be noted, own a pub. He also is opposed to climate change, saying recently, “To hell with the planet and the fellas that say we must save the planet and forget about the people.” The next day, fair play to him, he apologized to the planet. His position on the influence of fairies on road construction has also been criticized. He is, shall we say, a character.

The brothers are best known for sitting together on the back benches of the Dáil and giving out to the others in the assembly, feeding off each other like an Irish version of Diamond & Silk, but with thick Kerry accents.

I go to the door. A man and woman approach.

“Ah sure, that stew smells lovely,” they begin. “Will ye be voting in the election?”

“I will,” I say.

“And would you give Michael Healey-Rae a Number One? He is very good for the people.”

“Well, let’s say, I’ve heard both good and bad about Michael.”

They shake their heads, sighing deeply.

“And what’s the bad ye’ve heard?” the man reluctantly asks.

“To be honest with ye,” I say, “I’ve heard that Michael isn’t afraid of the occasional brown envelope.”

“Well now, I couldn’t be denying that,” the man answers.

“And the good?” the woman jumps in, trying to turn the conversation.

“That if you have a problem, Michael will take care of you,” I offer.

“So, you’ll vote him Number One, then?” she replies brightly. “And Danny Number Two?”

All politics, as they say, is local.

Later that week, two fellows from Ballyferriter stop by after our stir-fry dinner. I was already in my pajamas. They were canvassing for Pa Daley, the Sinn Fein candidate. Sinn Fein has been a minor party in Ireland, but recent polls show them gaining strength across the country. I pepper them with questions about immigration and direct provision centers, housing and health care, and other hot topics of the election. They have ready answers and are easily the most prepared of the canvassers that have shown up to our kitchen door.

Candidates for other parties miss us. I see no one from Fianna Fáil or Labour or the Greens.

There is also a smattering of small fringe candidates in the race. One, in particular, intrigues me. He is an emigrant from California who is running on an anti-immigration platform demanding to “Keep Ireland for the Irish.” I wonder if he forgot to pack his sense of irony when he moved here.

Saturday, February 8th, is a bitter, stormy day. There are concerns that the high winds and rain will suppress turnout. There is also a major rugby match between Ireland and Wales in Dublin that afternoon that may keep people glued to the telly. Pundits warn people to get out early to avoid the worst of the storm.

I drive into town around 8:30, holding onto my hat and leaning into the wind as I walk down Goat Street to my polling place in the old convent. The nice ladies behind the table check me in and hand me my ballot. Here in Ireland, we have a form of ranked choice voting. I place a number one beside my first choice, a two beside my second choice, and so on. I vote for five total candidates out of the twelve on the ballot, fold the ballot in two, drop it in the box, thank the kind ladies, and head back into the storm.

That afternoon Sara and I turn on the news to catch up on the turnout. Despite the storm and the big match, turnout seems to be quite strong. There was some concern early on in Malin Head, the northernmost constituency in Ireland. The RTE correspondent there reported that the morning turnout was abnormally light, but local people blamed that on a dinner dance on Friday night. Turnout picked up in the afternoon when voters had sufficiently recovered. There was also a problem in Connemara where one of the polling places lost power, so they had to move to a private home. Fortunately, tea and cakes were offered by the homeowner. As it happens, voter turn-out is 63 per cent nationally and a robust 69 per cent in Kerry.

The first round of votes is counted on Sunday. Explaining how votes are counted, though, is like explaining the rules of cricket.

Here’s how it works. Say a constituency like Kerry has five seats to fill and there are 64,000 votes cast, then a candidate would need 12,500 votes, or one fifth of the total, to be elected. Michael Healy-Rae and Pa Daly exceed that threshold on Sunday and are declared elected. Their excess votes above 12,500 (each had between 1,000 to 2,000 extra votes) are then distributed among the remaining candidates in a second round based on ballot preferences. Candidates with low vote totals are removed, which happened to the confused fellow from California. And so it goes, round after round, with low-vote candidates removed and their votes redistributed, until all five seats are filled. This process stretches the vote counting into Tuesday.

Danny Healy-Rae and Brendan Griffin are elected in Round 6 and Norma Foley, a Fianna Fáil candidate in Round 8.

Now you would think that would be the end of it and all the TDs would assemble in Dublin and get on with governing the country.

Alas, no.

Sinn Fein, in a major upset, received the most votes, and 37 seats. Fianna Fáil had the second most votes but won 38 seats. Fine Gael, the party that currently leads the government, came in third with 35 seats. The rest of the 160 seats were won by a smattering of other parties and independents, including the Healy-Raes. To form a government, someone must cobble together a coalition of eighty TDs.

And here we stand, three weeks out from the election, and no government has been formed. Negotiations continue.

Stay tuned.

While we wait, I’ll be cooking. Uninterrupted.

The Man Who Swept the Oscars

“Is this the man who won a Gold and Silver at the Blas na hÉireann Awards?” I ask as I reached my hand across the counter to shake Jerry’s hand.

He smiles proudly as he takes my hand. “And the Rogha na Gaeltachta to top it off,” he beams.

The Blas na hÉireann Awards, given each year at a ceremony during the Dingle Food Festival in early October, celebrate the very best in Irish food and the people who make it. Jerry has won medals in the past for his lamb sausages and for his Dingle Distillery mash-finished ribeye steaks, but never multiple awards in one evening.

Sara and I had missed the food festival this year because we were on a trip back to the states, so this was the first that I had seen Jerry since his big night.

He set the awards on the top of the cold case so that I can admire them. There was a Gold for Herbed Rack of Dingle Peninsula Lamb and a Silver for Lamb Lollypop Chops. To top it off, the Rogha na Gaeltachta recognized Jerry as the best meat provider in Ireland.

“Tell me about the night,” I prod.

“It was like the Oscars, it was. Everyone dressed in their finest, so. We were in the cinema in town. All the big meat producers were there. People from Aldi and Lidl. They spend big money hoping to win awards so they can use them in their adverts, like. They didn’t look too happy when I was called to the stage three times,” he chuckled.

“And then there was an after party,” he continues. “All the bigshots were there. The woman from Aldi was dressed up like she was going down the red carpet. They were all asking me how I won.”

“’I know my farmers and I know my animals,’ I told them. ‘How many animals at a time do you send to the abattoir?’ I said to them.”

“’Five or six hundred, I suppose,’ they said, confused like.’”

“’And do you know when you send those five hundred in the front door that you’re getting the same five hundred out the back door?’”

“’We can’t know that,’ they said.”

“Now I was giving out to them, talking shite like,” Jerry says with a twinkle in his eye.

“I took my phone out of my pocket and set it on the table,” he tells me, setting his phone on the counter between us. “’Can any of ye pick up that phone and call the farmer who raised your lambs or cattle?’ I asked. ‘They all shook their heads. Embarrassed like.’”

“So I picked up the phone and called Seamus,” Jerry says. (This is Seamus Ó Ciobhán, one of Jerry’s best lamb suppliers from out on the end of the peninsula.) “’Seamus! We won!’ I told him.”

“The lads from Aldi and Lidl were speechless, like. ‘You know the farmer who raised that very lamb?’ they asked me.”

“’And the very field he grazed in,’ I say.”

Jerry stops to adjust his hat before going on with his story.

“Just then The Kerryman comes up to the table, wanting to take my picture for the paper.” (The Kerryman is our local paper, a weekly.) ‘You can only take a picture if you come to the shop on Monday so that Seamus and John can be in it. These awards are for all of us.’” (John works in the shop with Jerry.) “And so they did. That’s the picture over there on the wall,” says Jerry, pointing to the wall behind me.

I turn to look at the story from The Kerryman hanging on the wall, with a picture showing Jerry, John, and Seamus in the shop looking proudly at the awards on the table in front of them.

“Jerry,” I said, turning back to him, “I always tell people you are the finest butcher in all of Ireland and now I can prove it.”

“Haven’t I been at since I was this tall?” he says, moving his hand to knee level. “I have an eye,” he said, pointing to his eye, “and a hand,” holding his hand in front of me. “I know the best farmers and I pick their best animals.”

Just then Sara walked in. She had been at the fruit and veg shop next door, so Jerry took the opportunity to tell her the whole story once again.

“I’m on cloud nine, like,” he concluded.

“Jerry,” she said to him, “can we get three of those lollypop racks for Christmas? And maybe two of your t-bones, about two inches thick? Oh, and a nice beef tenderloin? Our granddaughters will be here for Christmas and they’re real carnivores.”

“Of course, you can indeed. Just let me get the book,” he says.

As he walked to the back of the shop to get his holiday special-order book, he was smiling and strolling like he was still on the red carpet.

“The finest butcher in all of Ireland,” I say to Sara. “Aren’t we lucky to have him?”