Election Fever

Up the Poll: Great Irish Election Stories by Shane Coleman, recounts Irish elections back to 1917. By Ursula Halligan 


One thing's for sure: the Irish love their general elections. The lust for power by some candidates guarantees not only great moments of controversy but also plenty of laughs and lots of entertainment for the public.


Given that cock-fighting, hare coursing and badger baiting are all either illegal or socially unacceptable these days, the general election is the last surviving blood sport that people can enjoy and guilt-free. Just look at the most recent election in May when newspaper circulation soared and more than a million people tuned in to watch the televised leaders debate between Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny. Shane Coleman in his latest book Up The Poll: Great Election Stories taps into this national appetite with a collection of quirky stories drawn from elections dating back to 1917.

The most hilarious story in the book has to be the Battle for Tang Church during the 1987 General Election when Mary O'Rourke and Albert Reynolds staged their own version of an OK Corral showdown.  At the time the two were running in the same constituency of Longford-Westmeath. The four-seater was divided equally between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but in 1987 the pressure was on because Fianna Fail was hoping to steal a third seat from their rivals. Delivering all three seats would require tight vote management and so the party's three candidates were told to keep their campaigns strictly to their own patches.

All was going fine until Albert Reynolds breached the agreement when he brought his campaign into a part of the constituency that was Mary O'Rourke's territory. The showdown happened one Sunday morning outside Tang Church in Westmeath. Years later speaking about the stand-off, Coleman quotes O'Rourke saying: “I arrived at the church with my truck, my guys and my microphone. Then Albert arrived with his truck, his guys and his microphone and it became a question of what would happen. We knew the priest was nearing completion in the church because we had a scout going inside to keep us informed. We did not know what would happen or whether we were going to drown out one another…”  In the end O'Rourke and Reynolds stepped back from the brink and agreed to stage a united front by addressing the church crowd from the same truck.

But if you thought that story was dramatic, read the chapter in Colman's book about the gunslingers' showdown in the 1922 General Election.

At the time the country was on the verge of civil war pro and anti-treaty Sinn Féin factions were determined to fight the election unopposed and non- Sinn Féin candidates faced serious intimidation. Dan Morrissey, a Labour party candidate in Tipperary who was ordered not to run by the IRA, went ahead anyway and handed in his nomination papers. Afterwards, as he walked towards the square in Thurles, a gang of Republicans rounded on him. Ernie O'Malley, an IRA hero, took out a revolver, put it to Morrissey's head and told him to go back inside and withdraw his nomination. Morrisey refused and as he did so Dan Breen, another IRA hero stepped forward, pointed his gun at O'Malley's head and told him he would shoot him if he shot Morrissey. O'Malley put his gun down and the threat of serious violence passed.

Political anoraks will relish this book because it pulls together all the best comical, farcical and dramatic moments that Irish democracy has produced to date.

Ursula Halligan is TV3's Political Editor and presenter of ‘The Political Party'.