There is life beyond the Pale: on the Healy-Raes and the rural-urban divide

Rural Ireland doesn't exist. Except for all of the people who live there, that is. But they don't count - or, more specifically, they don't feature in the national media as anything other than twee peasants with funny voices or gombeen politicians. 'Parish-pump politics' has become an insult but, writes Nyder O'Leary, when you live with the sure and certain knowledge that nobody except your local politician could give two hoots about your locality or your community, the incentive to vote for someone who does is anything but incomprehensible. And, as he writes: 'Pointing and laughing actively makes the subjects of the joke stronger, enabling them to cast themselves as outsiders pitched against Dublin elites.'

Life in Ireland, for those outside the Pale – or certainly outside major cities – is lived out against an entirely different backdrop than life lived inside it. Many of the people in Dublin who make our laws don’t understand just how different life in rural Ireland is compared to life outside of it, just as the urban-based Irish media don’t seem to grasp how rural Ireland works. Newspapers often pontificate on the Urban-Rural Divide, usually with spectacular levels of uninformed wrongness. While coming up with spurious differences, they miss the big one; people living outside urban centres are irradiated with a low-level knowledge that – in pretty much every way - Ireland’s policy-making institutions don’t understand the reality of their life, and they almost certainly don’t care.

When people criticise ‘parish-pump politics’ it’s often done in a way that essentially blames the electorate. Even the term used is derogatory; when the Indo reports on polls, it pointedly doesn’t refer to ‘hard-working locally-focused TDs’. How dare these silly short-sighted people, these self-absorbed bogmen, dare to vote for a Lowry or a Healy-Rae? And how dare these Healy-Rae characters focus on their own communities at the expense of the bigger picture? (Local politicians in Dublin, on the other hand, are never dismissed in the same way. Tony Gregory was never described as a parish-pump politician. Because he lived in a proper place, without parish pumps, where people don’t do silly made-up jobs like ‘farming’.)

But if it’s true that swathes of non-urban people don’t care about the bigger picture, that’s because they’ve never been given any indication that an improvement in the bigger picture will have any effect on their lives. Why should it? Many Irish villages continued to be in decline right through the economic boom. There have been many achingly conscientious articles in newspapers about the horrendous sight of emigration returning to Irish shores. None of these people acknowledge, even for a moment, that parents in rural areas grow up with the near-certain knowledge that most of their children will end up leaving their home. Flight from the land has been a fact of life for decades, and it’s not like the Irish Times bothered wringing its hands about that.

In those circumstances, if you care about your community, you’ll vote for someone who might be able to provide local jobs and infrastructure. You really won’t be too bothered about the odd financial impropriety, particularly if it benefits local people and keeps that money within your community. The thousands who voted for Michael Healy-Rae are not all fools who think he should be running the country. The overwhelming majority are, almost certainly, intelligent and sober individuals who don’t like a lot of what he does, but looked at what they get from central government and decided Healy-Rae was still their best bet. Hey, he might rant incoherently on the television about drink-driving laws and the decline of the local pub in his stupid hat… but that’s still better than the alternative, which is to vote for someone who doesn’t even acknowledge it as an issue at all.

To be clear, I don’t like Michael Healy-Rae. I don’t like him because he’s a fake, and he’s nothing like the people he claims to represent. I don’t like the way he peppers his speech with references to ordinary decent people, but seems to make most of his decisions to benefit the wealthy. I don’t like the way he constantly talks about the state of the roads, while benefiting from public contracts in his alternative job as an engineering contractor. I don’t like his shocking attitude to planning, which includes attempted rezonings, ignoring advice from planners and pushing through development in unsuitable areas, and the defence of the indefensible on his friends’ behalf… all while perpetuating the idea that rural Ireland is in decline because of how hard it is to get planning permission. Like a mini-version of Sarah Palin, Healy-Rae isn’t awful because he’s a stupid, unsophisticated hick. He’s awful because he isn’t.

But google the man, and you’ll find him (and his father) treated as a comedic grotesques by newspapers, there to bring a bit of colour to Dáil sketches with some hilariously idiosyncratic boasts. In the blogosphere, or the endless festival of joy that is, Healy-Rae is a fucking embarrassment who should be despised for being thick, and talking in a stupid accent, and complaining about made-up problems that don’t happen in proper places. I was on Twitter when Healy-Rae Jr and Sr were interviewed during the election count; there were a flood of comments about him mangling the English language, revelling in his new form of grammar, and revealing to foreign onlookers an embarrassing side of Ireland that would preferably not exist. In fact, what both men said was entirely cogent, and understandable by anyone who doesn’t automatically equate a Kerry accent with idiocy.

To sum up: Healy-Rae should be disparaged. What doesn’t help, though, is treating him – and people like him – as grotesques who can’t string a sentence together, who’ve been elected by people that are essentially idiots, and saying this is the problem with Irish politics. If you treat huge forgotten sectors of Irish society as red-faced imbeciles who don’t give a damn about superimportant national politics, if you make no attempt to even acknowledge that their concerns exist and that they live somewhere rather than nowhere, well fine. Just don’t be surprised when they keep on electing the only person who at least pretends to understand their context, because their communities are abandoned and underdeveloped and the victims of an endless, passive discrimination. Pointing and laughing actively makes the subjects of the joke stronger, enabling them to cast themselves as outsiders pitched against Dublin elites. And more importantly, it’s smug, it’s ignorant, and it’s pathetic. 


This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared on

Image top via Tom Raftery on Flickr.