American politics seem simple, compared with this lesson in party politics I got on a back road in West Cork in the 1970’s. Finding voters in graveyards, and "approaching the milker at 5 am, when his loneliness will open his heart to you"
By Tom Cahill
Watching the American political scene from my home in Texas, I’m sometimes reminded of my brief (thankfully) involvement in politics back in Ireland, where I grew up. A ride I took down a narrow, corkscrewing road in West Cork one night in the 1970’s gave me an insider’s lesson in Irish political science. It was a more colorful era, before Ireland joined in the European socialist outlook that now tends to drive both the major parties there.
My traveling companion was a very astute political operative. In Ireland, astuteness in political matters was considered one of the mystical arts. He came directly from the prime minister’s office in Dublin. I have no idea if he was paid or not, but he never seemed short of cash. In just a few hours of tutoring, I was to learn from this acknowledged master how to approach voters in the area, and get out the vote for our Fianna Fail party. I generally leaned toward Fianna Fail. The prospect of being paid for a little canvassing made me a good deal more interested in joining the political process.
"Now," says he "this is the time to lay out the map of the district." I gave him a lost look. “Not the geographical map, you amadawn, the voting map." Oh yeah, that's clear, I thought.
"The Lord between us and small farms" he groused, using a pet phrase reserved for mentally challenged assistants (a common saying in the political vernacular in rural Ireland. Taken from on old prayer “The lord between us and all harm," it was used to describe the large farm owners’ desire to get rid of the small farm owners). "Can't you see the lights in the houses scattered around the hills across the way?" Well, yes, I could. "Start from the left" he said indicating one house after another in the darkness. "That's a Fine Gael house (the other party), don't bother asking for the vote there. The same with house three, four, and seven. Remember that tomorrow morning. Walk into their farmyards starting at 5 am, when the loneliness of the milker will open his heart to you. Now, let’s go all the way around the hill."
The boss's bus He knew the political affiliations of every household in the valley and the surrounding hills, going back for generations. His grasp of local politics was extraordinary. He knew what was possible and what was not and could be relied upon to get the count right for "the Boss." A tried and true tactic was to hire buses to bring the elderly – the elderly in our party at least - to the polls on voting day if the weather was inclement. We could pretty well depend on inclement weather in Ireland. Maybe he would pick up a few of the competition’s less-attached voters and persuade them who to vote for on the way. The trick was knowing who might be open to persuasion in a comfortable bus.
Pick Your Army He stopped for a Woodbine. I lit a Carrolls No 1. Looking quizzically at me, because the smoke from his cigarette was getting in his eyes, he said "Ye have no understanding. What ye have to know is that this is a cruel world in every way, and only dirty politics can keep it anyway clean." Oh, OK. My quizzical look betrayed my doubts. "Let me
give you a history lesson you were never taught in school" he said. "That tall and very solid house over there is a British pensioner's house and his five acres. Now, is that British pensioner British? He is as Irish as you and me. But he served in the British Army in France in World War 1, while the British Army was over here shooting Pearse and Connolly and all our heroes. Now, we won't ask him for a vote. Nor will the other side. He may vote as he sees fit. Nobody will claim him. Nobody will condemn him. He fed an elderly mother with the "King's shilling" or they would have starved."
He paused for a deep drag from his Woodbine. “Now my party, Fianna Fail, came out of the Civil war the losers, but they had won the hearts of the people for their nobility of purpose by never accepting a British plan that left Ireland divided. Fine Gael came out the actual winners, but with the North of Ireland as their burden to the new Irish Republic. And your man over there fought with British soldiers whose commanders enforced the border - the great scar across our island. He lives in peace because he keeps his mouth shut for he knows there are hard feelings around here. He gets his pension from the British government. His next door neighbor gets his pension from the Irish government for killing British soldiers and the man further down gets no pension at all, though he killed more British troops than anyone else fighting for Irish freedom around here. He just took the wrong side in the Civil War, and the Irish memory is long."
He moved on to the more subtle points of the political science lesson. "Now, Ireland is a stable democracy but only barely, you see. These Civil War passions run deep, and the only way to make the Republic of Ireland permanently stable is to make sure Fianna Fail wins." "Now," says he "do ye understand?" "No" says I, resting assured that no one else would either. His disdain for the "youth of today" was written on his face, as he grabbed for another cigarette. "Yer turning me into a double Woodbine man," he said, “a chain smoker with a cravin’ for a 20 pack rather than a 5 or 10 pack. Look, Fianna Fail is the old IRA politically, and that draws the Irish emotion to the surface. People vote emotionally. Fine Gael are the pragmatic ones who settled for 26 out of 32 counties. It was a very smart move on their part, and for our little republic too, God forgive me for saying it. But Fine Gael cannot muster the necessary emotion to hold a coalition together with Labor, so you will have instability all the time, which a tiny country like ourselves at this early stage of our development can ill afford."
It was growing late. “Fianna Fail" he concluded, “is the way to go, and I will see to it that it gets done in my area at least. Now get out the flashlamp and let’s go over the St Mary's graveyard, where a number of voters are known to reside." In most graveyards, many generations with the same first and last names could be found. A gravestone name would “blend" on the voter rolls to poll inspectors, who would be expecting lots of people with the same name in their area anyway. Only in a disputed election would the records get more than a cursory examination. Partisans would vote once for themselves, and then return later to “vote for the dead."
I lit my Carroll's Number 1 and he his Woodbine, as we nonchalantly betook ourselves to said graveyard, where corruption would save Ireland, because life is not simple.
Tom Cahill grew up in Kilkenny, and now resides in Texas.