Dancing at the ardfheiseanna
It is not yet ten o’clock on a freezing cold Saturday morning and I am sitting in the lobby of the Citywest Hotel feeling slightly overdressed. A couple of days ago, when I phoned the Fianna Fáil press office to sort out press credentials for this, the seventy-seventh ardfheis in the party’s history, I just about remembered to ask what time the gig was starting at. ‘We’ll be there from nine,’ said the man on the other end, and strictly speaking this was not untrue. Across the room there are some middle-aged couples catching up with one another and there’s a really old lady in a dull-grey winter coat and an incongruously stylish pair of silver heels who is stranded on a tiny island of unmopped floor. (‘Matt. Matt. Help me. The floor’s wet.’) There’s also an official-looking woman in her late thirties, I’d guess, wearing a black jacket and an olive-green dress, pacing up and down on her phone in fretful silence, as if somebody important has not woken up on time. But there is nothing, to my eye, that suggests I needed to get here quite so early, and so my plan is to sit around and read the papers until David, who I like to think of as ‘my photographer’, arrives. In the Irish Times, there are five articles in fond reminiscence of P.J. Mara, Fianna Fáil’s ‘legendary’ press officer during the party’s most glorious and corrupt years in government. Until yesterday, when he died, I had never heard of P.J. Mara. I really don’t know much about this game.
Because I am uncomfortable with silence and often at a loss for things to say, in almost every conversation I had between the start of December and the middle of January I made some mention of the fact that, with the general election coming up, I was going to be covering the national conferences of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party. Covering the ardfheiseanna was something to talk about and so I talked about it often – so often, in fact, my spiel quickly took on the turgid force of a recital. What surprised me, and what continued to surprise me the more predictable it became, was the uniformity of people’s response. People asked what I was going to wear. When eventually I looked beyond the insinuation that I was such a vain and frivolous hipster that I could not be expected to dress appropriately for an event of this kind, I wondered if what people were really asking, consciously or otherwise, was: What character are you planning to turn up as?
From the age of fifteen to eighteen, my sole ambition was to become a political columnist for a newspaper or magazine. For three years I kept a blog trying to figure where I stood on whatever issues happened to be in the news at the time: the War on Terror, abortion, gun control. Mostly US issues, really. I didn’t pay much attention to Irish politics because the ideological differences between the main players seemed too subtle for my young mind, but I figured that would sort itself out once I got to college. It never did. I skimmed Marx, Benjamin, Foucault and Žižek and I decided I was radically disaffected. I have actually never voted; and although I may do so this year, I’m not covering the ardfheiseanna because I feel in any way hopeful about the next election. It does not represent some tentative shift towards a renewed faith in the system; I will not be Tory by thirty. I just think it might be fun to step into the shoes, as it were, of the person I once wanted to become (hereinafter PIOWB). It’s now a little after ten o’clock on a Saturday morning and I am sitting in the lobby of the Citywest Hotel, clawing the unfamiliar pockets of a dark-grey worsted suit-jacket that I’ve worn approximately five times in five years; where, in an absurdly low inside pocket, I have just found my vibrating phone. ‘Got the camera set up and ready to go,’ David has texted. ‘Have to pick up a set of batteries for my flash. Shouldn’t be too long.’
Fianna Fáil has held power in the Republic for sixty-four of the past eighty-four years, but we encounter the party at a low ebb after the trouncing it took in the 2011 election. No commentator is giving it any realistic chance of leading the next government.
‘Wanna know what the driver said when I told him what I was going to?’ David asks as we shake hands just outside the hotel.
I nod my head, Go on.
‘Mother – of – suffering – Jesus!’
We’re not asked for ID when we go to collect our green Fianna Fáil-branded lanyards and media passes – small, rectangular pieces of cardboard, gold on white, where our names have been printed above that of this reputable publication. The media room is up two flights of stairs and filled with the kind of people that I guess PIOWB would have wanted for friends. They’re all facing the wall as they work, and when they speak there is a comfortable brokenness to the conversation suggestive of a professional and slightly clubbish intimacy. There are no free seats so we drop our bags and coats in the quietest corner of the room and, after sharing a look and possibly a grunt of disappointment at the spread of food laid on (fruit, packets of biscuits, instant coffee – not nearly as bountiful as we’d imagined), we quietly shuffle out.
‘That tie looks fucking ridiculous on you,’ David laughs. We are walking down the stairs now, following a man carrying a framed copy of the 1916 Proclamation under his arm. ‘By the way,’ he continues, ‘did you notice almost none of those hacks are wearing suits?’ I didn’t see, I say, though I’d seen it straight away. As we exit through the rotating door of the main building, en route to the adjacent building where the conference will be taking place, I tell him I can’t remember ever watching ardfheis coverage; that I have pretty much no idea what to expect. The latter is not entirely true. Before ringing their press office last week, I went on the Fianna Fáil website and, looking at pictures from the same event last year, I apprehended with a sigh that, if I was going to have anything to write about, I would probably have to talk to some people. ‘Our lanyards are the same colour as the ordinary members’,’ says David as we pass a police riot van and a huddled mass of gardaí. ‘Unless they look real close,’ he continues, ‘they’re gonna think we’re on their side.’
A man glances down at our lanyards and motions for us to enter. The room is filled with booths, maybe twenty of them. The Samaritans are here. The St Vincent de Paul and the Irish Refugee Council are here. The youth wing of Fianna Fáil is here and so is a company selling authentic Irish-made candles. A father and his nine-year-old son, who appear to be wearing matching suits, are standing in silence before a sizeable display of old Fianna Fáil election campaign posters: ‘the straight road is the shortest’ and ‘your kind of country’ and ‘a lot done. more to do.’ It is the last of these slogans, printed beneath a picture of former leader Bertie Ahern seeking re-election in 2002, that seems to me the most uncanny. After the revelations that he had received large, hard-to-explain payments from businessmen, Ahern became a figure from whom, as with Charles J. Haughey before him, the party wished to be seen to distance itself. There he is, though, the chancer. Come to think of it, there’s Haughey too. I’m in the middle of telling David about the return of the repressed when he interrupts me to suggest that we take a look behind the double doors marked ‘Main Hall’.
No sooner have we entered the Main Hall than the crowd is on its feet and clapping. I’m not suggesting that either one of us believes, even for just an instant, that it’s our entrance on the scene that they’re applauding, as if for Jerry Seinfeld or Cosmo Kramer. But the longer I spend in this room, whose sympathetic audience understands it must applaud but rarely seems to know when, the more unmoored its clapping sounds. So often do moments of unexpected ovation require the speaker to pause mid-sentence that it begins to sound like an out-of-sync audio track of canned applause.
On stage now is Jennifer Cuffe, the party’s youthful and (here I stress the adverb) comparatively edgy candidate for Wicklow. ‘Fianna Fáil has always been the party who supports those who are brave enough to have followed their dreams of creating a start-up,’ she meanders, as I search my pockets for a pen and, scribbling seriously – journalistically – note the rising terminals of a D4 lilt. ‘Fianna Fáil is the only party offering innovative proposals for people like me and my friends.’ I have no idea if this statement is true. Nor do I really care. But I do wonder who she’s talking to, exactly. Not to TV – it’s too early for that. Possibly the papers, but more likely social media. It’s certainly not this audience, in any case. Near the back there’s a row of five girls dolled up as if for their debs, while dotted around the room there are a few nervous-looking lads with heavily gelled hair. You can imagine the millennials at the Ógra Fianna Fáil booth wanting to hang out with her, but people like Jennifer Cuffe and her friends do not number many here. Standing against the wall to the side of the stage, I look out onto the congregation: a scattering of your eldest auntie’s mates amidst a sea of bald and balding men, a large minority of whom are wearing some variation on the cardigan-shirt-&-tie ensemble (which admittedly I quite like). Five feet from us, the man operating the jib camera, presumably for RTÉ, is visibly annoyed at David, who keeps trying to get a shot in which the man’s back and his monitor’s image of the stage sits to the right side of the frame, with the crowd to the left.
We hurtle here and there for a while, catching Micheál Martin’s muted arrival on site before eventually landing up at a long low table in the bar. It’s not yet two in the afternoon and the place is packed. Not everybody is drinking, but it’s probably fair to say that most of them are. I walk up and order two pints and by the time they’re ready, I can see that David is in conversation with a couple of old guys who’ve just sat down. Disclosure: David is no more a real photographer than I’m a real journalist. He is a friend who’s come along because he feels like shooting a few rolls of film on a Canon AE-1 that his father’s had for forty years. The camera gets a few strange looks from the professionals, those guys striding purposefully through the hotel with inconceivably large lenses protruding at all angles from their backs, but it looks modest and distinguished enough to make some of the older people here assume that David, an angelically handsome young man wearing a Fianna Fáil-branded lanyard the same colour as theirs, is working as some kind of in-house society photographer.
‘Do you have that notebook there, Kevin?’ he improvises as I return to the table. ‘These gentlemen need to write down an address for me to send them their photograph.’
The one on the right, let’s call him Peter, is drinking Jameson neat and looks like a more robust Henry Kissinger. He is a quiet man, though in a way that seems not so much guarded as shy. He is happy to listen to his friend – let’s call him Pat. There are no uncomfortable silences around Pat. Pat is a talker. Pat’s been talking since I sat down. He’s been talking about the drinking that used to get done out canvassing and about the drinking he used to do at the ardfheis. (Ballsbridge in ’79, he remembers, was a particularly heavy session.) More than anything, though, Pat’s been talking about Charles J. Haughey. And when Pat talks about Charles J. Haughey, his eyes go all misty beneath a rueful smile. ‘They’d be like sardines around him,’ Pat keeps saying, holding his hands together as if in prayer, though in fact just to demonstrate how people would swarm around Haughey as he walked to the stage. ‘He was a great man ah he was,’ he says. ‘The country’d be better off if he was still around. We haven’t better than Charlie.’ When I ask if they’ll be sticking around for Micheál Martin’s speech, Pat says no; they’ll probably head off at around four o’clock.
‘He seems like a perfectly nice man,’ he says, pausing, ‘but—’
Peter interrupts. ‘They’re all fucking schoolteachers now.’
There’s a small garden just in front of the hotel where David and I go every so often to get away from the crowds. We are sitting on a white bench underneath a large tree neither of us can name. A red-breasted robin is refusing to sit still for long enough to be photographed, and to make matters worse, David is having a crisis of conscience about our conversations in the bar this afternoon, the last of which was with two old ladies, one of whom told us her parents’ marriage had been arranged by Eamon de Valera. ‘They definitely didn’t know we were here as media,’ says David, the robin eluding him again. ‘I mean, for fuck’s sake, she wished us luck getting with a nice girl tonight. They were both nice people, more or less, and now you’re gonna make her look bad.’ And it’s true: they were both pretty sound. The one closest to me wasn’t much of a talker, but I caught a glint in her eye when she said, ‘You’d want to hear the things I got away with.’ And, really, I had a lot of sympathy for what the other woman, the talker, was saying about how the party had been much better before the money came into the country and the yuppies closed in. She wanted to show us a photo of her and Charlie Haughey together, but when she found her small bag of photos in her bag, all she had was one of her and her quiet friend posing for a photograph with the lead singer of the band that had played some ardfheis or another back in the early 1980s.
‘OK, fine,’ I tell David as the robin stops teasing him at last and just flies off. ‘I won’t mention the stuff she said about refugees.’
It’s just gone six and I’m queuing for the cash machine near the stairs, waiting to draw the last forty euro from my account. I’ve spent a lot more than I expected today. David took off about an hour ago to get to his nephew’s birthday, and since then I’ve been walking around the bar getting quietly smashed on my own. The cash machine only has fifties, so I order another whiskey on my card. There is a strong sexual undercurrent in certain parts of the room, as the fifty-odd decent-looking young people here check each other out. There’s a small boy who is doing the same lap as me, but in the opposite direction. He is wearing a dark-green baseball cap that says i’m backing bertie. We keep passing at the same spot. He seems like a kind of omen. The second half of the Aston Villa–Leicester City match comes on the television and I stand watching it with a few dads.
‘They’ve got to fall away soon,’ says one dad regarding Leicester’s unexpected title challenge. ‘They’ve got to.’ Leicester miss a few chances to go two–nil up and the game ends one–one.
‘See,’ says the man to no one in particular. ‘I knew it.’
The crowd in the bar begins to thin out as word spreads that the auditorium is about to reopen for the evening session. Again I make my way to the adjacent building, where there’s a long, five-wide queue of half-cut Fianna Fáilers at the door. Eventually the doors open and we all bustle in. I had been worried about not getting a seat, but the wall at the back of the Main Hall has been taken down and now the stage looks onto an arena with a capacity of over two thousand people. As I make my way to the temporary stand near the back, the two women whose views on refugees I promised David I would not mention call out my name and, when I spot them sitting about a hundred yards from the stage, they both wave warmly. I take a seat on the elevated stand at the back of the hall, which remains all but empty until, with minutes to go before the ceremony begins, the serious drinkers arrive from the bar. A long programme of speeches in honour of the Easter Rising is to precede Micheál Martin’s leader’s speech, but it has been a long day and at various points throughout this programme the man to my left, the man to my right and I all nod off to sleep. Of what are we three dreaming?
I am woken when the man to my left nudges me in the ribs. ‘You didn’t know his father, did you?’ he whispers in my ear.
‘Whose?’ I ask before noticing Seán Haughey on screen.
‘Haughey,’ he says, pointing to the tiny figure on the stage.
‘Uh, not personally. But I know who he was, of course.’
‘Ah well,’ he says, ‘the hand is there.’
‘The way it moves. He’s got his father in him, that’s for sure.’
There are only four or five people in the press room when I come through the door, a little breathless, and pour myself a coffee. My plan was to run straight back to the arena, but on the widescreen TV set up at the other end of the room, Micheál Martin has already begun his speech. He is a wiry kind of speaker, a man who, in the absence of any natural charisma, shakes his head and his hands convulsively, as if undergoing low-level electrocution, as he approaches the last sentence of every paragraph. There’s someone typing to the left of the screen who loudly caricatures the cheering of the rural rabble whenever Martin’s rhetoric reaches a certain pitch, but apart from him, no one has anything to say about the speech. Nobody’s really paying attention. I stand up and pour myself another coffee. ‘This is a republic,’ Martin bellows, his whole body convulsing in anticipation of his line on Fine Gael’s ostensible presumption that the election is already won. ‘We don’t do coronations!’ The man to the left of the screen starts into another loud eruption of ironic cheering, but the room is much too quiet for this to seem sane. The two guys to my right are murmuring about the filmmaker Adam Curtis; and in front of me a journalist I think I recognize from TV is flicking through the sports section of the Irish Independent.
‘Did Leinster beat Bath?’ he asks nobody in particular. The silence that follows feels so uncomfortable that I decide to answer.
‘No idea,’ I say.
‘Hm,’ he mutters, slowly turning the page. ‘I think they did.’
I am leaving the upstairs bathroom with a large glass of whiskey when I overhear one hotel porter whispering excitedly to another.
‘Did ye see him?’ he asks. ‘Did ye get to see him, did ye?’
‘I did,’ she says, turning around to check the door on the other side of the landing is closed; the party Big Shots, including the Taoiseach, seem to be hanging out in there. ‘He’s lovely.’
It’s a wet Saturday afternoon and for the last hour or so I’ve been sitting with David on a capacious blue couch, occasionally staring over at the table where, this time last week, we were manipulatively nodding our heads as two nice old men, lifetime Fianna Fáil members, strayed off the party line. Until they spoke of past Fianna Fáil ardfheiseanna, held in places other than Citywest, it did not seem strange to me that both parties had arranged to use the same venue this year. I presumed that Citywest must be the only hotel with a large enough arena. I presumed it must be the natural hotel of ardfheiseanna. Realizing, now, that this is not the case, it strikes me that these two parties, whose ideological differences are negligible, might have done more to distinguish themselves, if only to temper the speculation that, for the first time ever, they will end up going into coalition together. There are fewer flat caps and significantly more ties today, but the age profile is similar to Fianna Fáil’s. Nobody will talk to us. Our press passes, which David collected from a security guard in the glass booth outside Leinster House yesterday afternoon, hang down from hot-pink lanyards which, although Fine Gael-branded, are in very sharp contrast to the white lanyards worn by the party rank and file.
‘So,’ David says to the pinstriped man reclining on the couch across the table. ‘Have you been to many of these before?’
He cuts us both a look. ‘Yeah,’ he says; then turns away.
For the past five years, Fine Gael has been the comfortable majority partner in a stable coalition government that, to quote its own rhetoric, ‘held its nerve’, ‘stood its ground’, ‘rescued the country’, ‘brought us back from the brink’, and ‘achieved the impossible’. In its eighty-three-year history, the party has never been re-elected, but it looks likely to be returned this time, albeit with fewer seats. Its election slogan, ‘Let’s Keep the Recovery Going’, appears no fewer than forty-nine times, if we include minor variants, in the eight speeches that PIOWB was very excited to receive this morning under strict embargo. But the nature of this recovery, its basis not just in pliable statistical accounts but in lived reality, is seriously disputed. Whatever has been achieved, in any case, has been achieved through a series of austerity measures so extensive and severe that for the first time in my adult life, a popular Irish left is beginning to emerge – however fractured, disorganized, compromised or just-plain-unconvincing its principal voices may sometimes sound.
Passing Connolly Station on the top deck of the bus this afternoon, I looked down at an anti-austerity protest with a predictably heavy police presence. I saw some Anti-Austerity Alliance posters flying around and I saw a few old geezers waving well-worn Communist flags. But from the front seat on the top deck of the bus, the most visible political presence was Sinn Féin – which decided to hold its ardfheis after the election. Sitting there on the top of the bus I wondered if, for the sake of balance, I ought to spend a bit of time with the guys hemmed in down there; but I didn’t. The traffic lights changed, the bus swung right, and here I am now, watching a report from the demonstration on the TV above the bar where, with a naggin of whiskey in one pocket and a hot pink lanyard in the other, I’m waiting to order a cup of roasted peanuts and agreeing with the woman beside me that, yeah, they are exaggerating the turnout and that, yeah, half of them are just scumbags anyway.
Man City are drawing two–two with West Ham when a young Northern Irish guy with a Conor McGregor-style beard comes over looking for a place to charge his phone. John says he’s here as a photographer and sketch-artist and seems surprised when we tell him we’re press as well. I would have liked to believe there was more distinguishing us from Fine Gael than a media lanyard, but we decide to stick around with John anyway. The match ends and the three of us shuffle towards the main arena, where various party Big Shots are due to speak before Enda Kenny takes to the stage. John stops to chat with a group of people and we put our lanyards back on. It seems that John has connections – he introduces us to somebodies in the SDLP – and I tell David not to lose him while I run up to the media room, where I take another naggin of whiskey, three paper cups, and a bottle of 7Up for David, who won’t drink whiskey straight. I do a lap of the room, more comfortable on its soft blue carpet now that there’s nobody else here. But for a few bags that I know belong to journalists out on the floor, there’s nothing to suggest I’m in a media centre. Come Monday, it’ll go back to being a small conference room with a ceiling just high enough for the tallest member of any staff. I walk around the room, slugging away at the whiskey, pretending to study the nondescript urban photography framed on the walls. I’m troubled by the thought that I could not go even two days without letting PIOWB’s shoes come loose. Catching my reflection in the glass of the frame, I fix my hair and straighten my tie, and before I leave the room, I slip one of the bottle openers on the table into the breast pocket of my jacket.
I’m pacing up and down the endless rows of bucket seats in the enormous main arena. I have the phone to my ear but David isn’t answering. Until I eventually spot him waving at me from way up near the stage, I feel a little lost and looked-at. I don’t know how he’s done it, but John’s got us seats a lot closer to the stage than I think we’re supposed to be.
I sit down just in time to hear Brian Hayes, the party’s director of elections, introduced as a man who ‘never seems to age a day’. A forty-six-year-old with the tentatively spiked hair of a ten-year-old walks out on stage. He welcomes everyone to Dublin, his European Parliament constituency. This is understood as banter. I’m guessing I’m not the only person here who’s a little drunk at this point. When the laughter dies down, Hayes launches into a paean to the current government (‘in my view, the most successful coalition government ever’). He insists that Fine Gael is unafraid of ‘cowardly social media attacks’ and asserts that, whenever the Taoiseach sets the date, the party is ready for the election. With obvious relish, Hayes then starts into a routine about the party’s opponents. He describes Gerry Adams as ‘that great economic guru from West Belfast’. In government, he says, Adams would be answerable not to the Irish people, but to ‘the republican criminal underworld, with their boiler-suits and balaclavas’. The guys in the row behind us are cracking up at this, but it’s got nothing on the laugh that goes up when Hayes compares Adams’s political longevity to that of Robert Mugabe. That some thousand-plus grown adults are laughing so uncontrollably at this D-grade political comedy is a little unsettling, but these moments of hysteria make it a lot easier for me to pour three whiskeys unnoticed. Hayes has to pause for a full seven seconds before the Mugabe laughter begins to subside. The guys behind us are still breaking their shit as I pass David the glass bottle of 7Up and offer him the bottle opener that I stole for this exact moment.
‘Nah,’ he says smoothly, drawing a bright yellow lighter from his pocket towards the neck of the bottle. ‘I’ll just use this.’
There’s a booming sound like gunfire as the bottle cap flies up into the air and, with no ceiling to disturb its arc, lands who-knows-where. Opening a bottle with a lighter is not a trick I’ve ever been able to master, but I’ve seen it done often enough to know it’s not easy to generate the level of sound and velocity David has just achieved. Everyone within a fifteen-foot radius of us falls silent for a moment and the RTÉ cameraman, the guy who’d looked annoyed when David turned his camera on him last week, turns towards us sharply now. In his eyes, I see not annoyance or accusation, but fear. It feels like everyone is looking at us when, with his best butter-wouldn’t-melt look on his face, David raises the bottle to demonstrate that all he’s holding is a soft drink.
‘A desperate party such as Fianna Fáil will do desperate things,’ Brian Hayes says, referring to the possibility of a FF–SF coalition. The remark is greeted with approving calls of ‘hear, hear’ – a phrase I have not heard since I stopped attending debates in first year of college. I am starting to remember why I stopped wanting to be PIOWB. The swipes at Sinn Féin begin to let up and so you sense the speech is coming to an end. Hayes instructs this excitable crowd of delegates to be ‘united and disciplined and committed to the task ahead’, and as he states his belief that ‘just as we have stood by Ireland, Ireland will stand by us’, the arena rises to its feet and the man to David’s left points to the half-empty bottle of 7Up at his feet and whispers in his ear: ‘I think you hit the Hungarian ambassador back there.’
Not half an hour has passed since the end of Enda Kenny’s speech and already I’ve forgotten everything about it except the underlying threat that, if he wasn’t re-elected, ‘the recovery you have worked for, suffered for, and made so much personal sacrifice for’ would be at risk. We’re on the pavilion drinking with John and four or five guys from Young Fine Gael who recognized him as a sketch artist from Tumblr. Our lanyards are still on when John starts to sketch one or two of them, but the lads come out with all sorts of shit anyway and then keep asking for it to be off the record. I have no idea how ‘off the record’ works, so I’ll just give you the keywords of our discussion and leave it there: ‘Enda Kenny’; ‘conservatism of old Fine Gael members’; ‘ketamine’. Another thing they mention is that, at around three o’clock today, right about the time I was eavesdropping on hotel staff, the main arena was temporarily evacuated after an item believed to be an empty plastic shotgun cartridge was found behind the stage. I go to the bathroom to take a piss and refill my glass of whiskey. In the mirror above the sink, I fix my hair, straighten my tie and shake my head in amused disbelief, thinking about the bottle of 7Up in the fresh light of this news about the afternoon’s security alert, when a man with thick white hair and an ultramarine golf jumper asks what I thought of the speech. His hands are pressed into the wall, high above the urinal over which his pissing dick hangs freely. He opens out his upper body, turning his head ninety degrees to look at me. This posture is absurd, like that of a corner boy about to be frisked, or a traitor to be shot by firing squad. In the bowl his piss is gurgling. I am staring into his eyes with unusual intensity, so as not to steal the dickward glance I know I’ll end up taking if my gaze becomes unfixed. I tell him that I thought the speech was bloody brilliant, but those eyes suggest he disagrees. I don’t know about that, he says. I’ve got four sons, you know? I nod my head, hold his gaze. Two went to Australia. I’m a pensioner but I’m still paying off my mortgage. I’m a Fine Gael man, he says, wiggling his dick, but it’s not right, you know?
I’ve been so focused on staring into this man’s eyes that I can’t think of anything to say. ‘I lived in Spain for a while,’ I tell him finally.
David and I are leaning against the upstairs banister, looking down at the mass of party members who, in what I suppose is an ardfheis tradition, have gathered at the foot of the stairs to be photographed by an actual in-house photographer. The ratio of men to women is about 5:1. Just under half of the men are bald; and all but one of them are wearing suits. David asks if I think I’ll include any of the stuff the Young Fine Gaelers were talking about. I shrug. He points out that, unlike the old people that talked at Fianna Fáil, there’s a good chance those guys will see it.
‘Like, they’re following you on Twitter now.’
‘Yeah, I suppose,’ I say. Both of us are silent for a while. Twice I try to count the number of people standing down below, but the men all look so similar it’s hard to keep track of who you have and haven’t counted. I get seventy-one the first time and eight-two the second. I’m looking hard into their faces, trying to imagine what it is that these seventy-one or eighty-two people get, emotionally or materially, out of being members of Fine Gael. I look back across the landing, towards another large function room where, through its open double doors, I see the lights turned down real low.
‘Are we sticking around for the Irish Rat Pack?’ I ask.
David looks to the door and smirks slightly. ‘Fuck it, why not,’ he says. ‘Let’s get another drink anyway. See how it goes.’
It’s hard to tell in this light, but the room seems fairly crowded when we rock up at the Ardfheis Social. Nobody’s on the dance floor, but there are about forty large, round, cloth-covered tables in the dark, and most of them seem pretty full. We ask a couple sitting on their own if they’d mind if we sat down. The man nods, but in a way that says, OK, sure, as long you don’t start trying to talk to us. I’ve been looking forward to the Irish Rat Pack ever since the Fine Gael press office sent me the schedule earlier in the week. As soon as I walk in, I am confident that the four-piece wedding band on stage is not going to let us down. The lead singer is a meaty guy and he’s giving it everything, one golden oldie after another; but these are reserved, conservative people and the dance floor is a sad palette of undisturbed disco lights. David and I have been buying drinks in rounds, but finishing them unevenly, so that there’s often a spare pint on the table. When I catch the woman next to us steal a dirty look at it – in judgement or in lust, I can’t say – I ask David if he wants to dance.
It is just after eleven o’clock and we’re the only two people on the dance floor at the seventy-eighth Fine Gael ardfheis. The Irish Rat Pack are about halfway into ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and I am distinctly conscious of the maybe three hundred Fine Gaelers watching on under cover of darkness just behind me. Our lanyards are off, but it feels like we’re not fooling anyone. The band starts into Tom Jones’s ‘Delilah’ and now we’re dancing pretty slowly. In my mind I’m picturing the scene in Pulp Fiction were John Travolta and Uma Thurman take over an empty dance floor and look unspeakably cool doing so, but I guess that in reality the similarities are few. We keep dancing – or half-dancing, half-falling – through one song, two songs, three songs, by Jerry Lee Lewis, Ritchie Valens and Status Quo: the kind of songs you’ve half-heard so many times that you presume you know the words until, finding that you don’t, you make them up, confident that the chorus will be along any minute now to end the string of uncertain syllables streaming from your mouth. A song I’ve never heard starts and we sit down. The couple beside us have switched tables. Now that we’ve vacated it, the dance floor has filled up with a bunch of older couples who know all sorts of steps and twists and moves. One of the young guys we were talking to earlier comes over. The Irish Rat Pack are really coming into their own, I can hear, but I stay talking to this guy for a while. I ask him if there are any TDs in the room.
‘None that I see,’ he says. ‘Shitload of councillors though.’
A song by the Monkees begins and David flicks his eyes over to the band and once again we’re on the dance floor, bopping away with a mass of Fine Gaelers, singing along to ‘I’m a Believer’, trying to guess who’s a councillor. The man in the blue golf jumper whose dick I tried so hard not to look at is dancing with his wife. David takes her hand and as he spins her around, I go to take the man’s hand, but he makes a would-ye-go-’way-out-of-that kind of face and, still bopping along, takes cover behind another old man. At David’s request, I presume, the singer lowers the mic towards him and the pair of them sing the rest of the song together. I walk up to the bar and order another two pints and as I’m waiting for them to settle, I hear the unmistakeable opening of ‘Is This the Way to Amarillo’. More people push onto the dance floor and, as Fine Gaelers come together to form a conga line, I feel a wave of euphoria rush over me, only slightly undercut by the fear that I won’t remember any of this. So much is going on. I sit back down and now John’s at our table. I’d forgotten about John.
‘Is this what you guys do,’ he says, ‘just hustling people?’
‘Not at all,’ I say. I’m not entirely sure what he means. ‘We’re only having a dance.’ I tell him to stay with David while I go get our stuff from the media room. It’s very late and I’m worried they’re going to lock it up soon. There’s nothing left on any of its tables or chairs. The journalists have all gone home. PIOWB would most likely have gone home as well. I lay my notebook open on the table and as I try to remember all the songs the Irish Rat Pack have played so far tonight, I wish I wasn’t wearing this shirt, these slacks, these leather shoes. There’s a man singing in one of the bathroom cubicles and there’s a large bottle of Bulmers standing in the sink. David is walking to the dance floor when I come through the door again. It’s the last song of the night, he says. The last song of the Irish Rat Pack, anyway.
Start spreading the news
I’m leaving today
A few men stay at their tables, their arms folded, their faces drawn up into smiles that can’t disguise their impatience. Anyone else who was still sitting down has now risen to their feet and is marching to the dance floor, where at nobody’s behest they are linking arms, grabbing shoulders, perhaps chancing a hand around a waist. When we attempt to get involved, there is a moment of very slight resistance before we finally squeeze between two middle-aged men. It is three o’clock in the morning and we are swaying on the dance floor of the Fine Gael ardfheis, part of a large, unsteady circle of perhaps a hundred people. Some drag the circle in on itself while others drag it out. Seen from above, we would look less like a circle than the cell membrane of an unstable, shape-shifting amoeba. It feels like the circle could collapse at any minute, but until it does, everyone on the dance floor at the Fine ardfheis, myself and David included, is singing at the top of their lungs.
I want to wake up
In a city that doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap
Someone loses their balance and the circle fractures. There are two circles now, and inside one of them, no longer part of the cell membrane but the actual nucleus of the circle, David and I are singing. David will not be accompanying me to the Labour Party conference in Mullingar next week. He is going to visit his girlfriend in New York. The Irish Rat Pack ring in the last verse and David, I, and the man with the blue jumper whose dick I tried so hard not to look at point our faces to the ceiling and bellow New York, Newwwww Yorrrk. The music is fading now as the lead singer of the Irish Rat Pack expresses his sincere hope for a Fine Gael election victory. Everyone who is still standing is chanting Five more years! Five more years!, none louder than me and David. Both of my arms are going up and down in the air when I spot John hovering at the edge of the dance floor. His eyes are misted over, but I see him looking from us to the crowd, from the crowd to us, from us to the crowd once again; and I guess it is impossible to tell which is which.
It’s nine o’clock in the morning on the coldest Saturday of the month and I am sitting on my own in the back room of Busáras reading a novel in which the author, Tao Lin, uses the expression ‘shit-eating grin’ eight times in the first couple of pages. I’m twenty minutes early to meet Oisín, another close friend with a camera who, in David’s absence, will accompany me to the Labour Party National Conference in Mullingar today. It is not an event that I’m particularly looking forward to, to be honest. After serving a full term as the minority partner in a right-leaning coalition government, Labour is expected to take a hammering in the election. I’m anticipating a more subdued atmosphere in the hotel bar.
‘I’m thinking about dividing the whole thing into fragments and then mixing the chronology of the whole thing up,’ I tell Oisín, a moment after I spot him walking aimlessly around the bus station. ‘That way, I’ll be able to end the whole thing on the Fine Gael dance floor.’ We are standing at the ticket machine now, unable to decide if a one-day return (€18) will allow us to board the 2.38 a.m. bus that we’re planning to get home, or if the more expensive standard return (€23.50) will be required. ‘It could be difficult to write it that way, though, given the deadline,’ I continue, my palms facing out in a show of defeat towards the ticket machine. ‘We should probably just ask at the ticket office, shouldn’t we?’
‘Sure,’ says Oisín, ‘I think that’s it over there. It could be good for the piece to end on a kind of sombre note, though, don’t you think?’
‘Yeah, I suppose,’ I say. ‘Hang on.’ I turn my attention to the man sitting behind the glass screen of the ticket office. ‘Hi, excuse me, ahm, we have a question. If we buy the one-day return ticket to Mullingar, do you know if we can still get the 2.38 a.m. home tomorrow morning?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Of course you can.’
‘OK, great,’ I say. ‘We’ll take two one-day returns.’
He presses some buttons, pushes two tickets under the glass.
‘That’ll be €23.50 each, lads,’ he says.
‘Oh right,’ I say, rooting around for more money. ‘€23.50.’
‘That’s it, lads,’ he says. ‘€23.50.’
I turn to Oisín, throw my eyes to heaven, and smile: ‘I’m probably just pissed off we have to go to Mullingar.’
The seats we’ve taken near the back of the bus have been pushed back into a reclining position and, despite our considerable effort, that is where they remain. Six guys in their late twenties are sitting across the aisle from us. They are passing each other sections of the Irish Times and mumbling slightly too quietly for me to hear. Five of them are dressed like versions of the same trendy professor (check shirt, fitted tweed jacket, tortoiseshell spectacles); and the sixth appears to know them, only not so well as to participate in their mumbling, much. His hair is shoulder-length and neatly bowl-like. Though he has a section of the paper like the rest of them, it remains folded on his lap for the most part while he looks out the window – in an effort, I suspect, to justify the wraparound shades he is wearing in what is technically an interior. With the possible exception of the time I took the bus to the Trinity Ball, it has never been so obvious to me where a fellow passenger is headed. These boys are all clearly conference-bound, and when Oisín asks me if I’ve heard the response of Pat Casey, a Fianna Fáil councillor in Glendalough, when asked why people aren’t answering their doors to him, two of them glance over and now our destination is obvious as well.
The two of us are reclining at a luxurious 55-degree angle when Oisín turns to face me. ‘Rural crime,’ he says, slowly, really savouring it.
‘Hang on, what?’ I’ve forgotten what he’s talking about.
‘People won’t answer their doors to Pat Casey because they’re so afraid of the rural crime spread under this Fine Gael–Labour government.’
We are passing through Maynooth. Being a pig-ignorant and insular Dublin type, I have never been to Maynooth before, much less to Mullingar; and if I weren’t so sure that the boys to our right are also, to a man, pig-ignorant insular Dublin types, I suppose I’d be worried of causing some offence when I turn to Oisín and ask why in the name of God the Labour Party, a party so stubbornly urbane as to reject the Irish term ardfheis, decided to host their National Conference in the midlands?
‘To save money on the cost of the hotel,’ he laughs.
‘Maybe,’ I say, silent for a moment as I try to think, ‘to shore up the rural vote in the only constituencies they’re expected to win?’
‘Possibly,’ he says, ‘to discourage protestors from coming.’
‘Well, yeah, I mean, obviously,’ I say with a shit-eating grin on my face, still reclined at a rakish fifty-five degrees. Though the Labour Party is the minority partner in the current coalition, tit’s been the object of the majority of popular discontent about cuts imposed. At their last National Conference – in Killarney, another strategically remote location – hundreds came out to demonstrate against the water charges implemented by the coalition; and when the bus drives past the Mullingar Park Hotel, a small group of protesters can be seen way off on the other side of the road. The bus drives about two hundred metres past the hotel. The air is still bitter, but the sun is out, fully justifying wraparound shades. We cross the road and try to ascertain where we’ll need to wait for the 2.38 a.m. bus. It would be an absolute disaster if we were to miss it: the next one is not until after seven, and neither of us has enough cash to stay.
Around the hotel entrance the air is thick with suspicion. A few metres beyond the entrance, the road is closed, temporarily fenced off, manned by ten or so gardaí, who are standing at arm’s length from a similarly sized private security team. We approach the hotel in step. One of the security guards asks to see our Labour membership cards and I tell him we’re here as press.
‘Who are you with?’ he asks.
‘The Dublin Review,’ I reply, showing him my passport. ‘I’m Kevin Breathnach and this is Oisín Murphy.’
‘The Dublin Review? No, sorry. That’s not on the list.’
Because the confirmation email was slightly ambiguous, I have been quietly worrying Oisín isn’t on the list; but I didn’t expect that I’d be challenged too. ‘It definitely is.’
‘No, it’s not. I’ve read the list.’
‘I know we’re on the list,’ I say. ‘We’ve come from Dublin.’
‘Leave it, lads. You’re not getting in.’
‘Niamh sent me a reminder to bring ID yesterday.’
‘OK, look,’ he says, with no sign of a change of mind on his face, ‘I’ll let you check at the registration tent. But I’m radioing ahead right now, and if there’s any trouble you’re coming straight back out.’
The registration tent is a fair walk through the car park. We are not even halfway there before another security guard, presumably the other end of the gate’s radio, begins to tail us openly, but without a word. ‘Bet you’re sorry you didn’t wear a suit today,’ Oisín laughs as we pass into a tent where four or five young women are sitting behind a long desk. We present our passports and I look on, more nervously I think than Oisín, until one of them spots our names.
In the Mullingar Park Hotel, the ceiling is higher and the lobby is wider than at Citywest, but in the absence of a central staircase – of any lobby staircase at all, in fact – a certain old-style grandeur is lost. Four long tables face away from the entrance, one of them selling Labour Party rosettes at gender-equalized prices – cheaper for women than men, in proportion to the median pay gap – and another selling raffle tickets at the same price for all. As far as booths go, this is basically it.
We walk towards the corridors that lead to the left wing of the hotel. I ask one of two members of staff on guard if the press room is this way.
‘Yes,’ he says nicely, pointing to the door of the men’s room.
‘No, no,’ I smile. (I did sort of mumble.) ‘The press room.’
‘Sorry!’ he says, red-faced, pointing to the right wing of the hotel. ‘If you go over to my colleagues over there, they’ll be able to show you.’
The four of us laugh jovially. On the other side of the lobby, we are asked to hold out our lanyards so that our media passes can be scanned. Not only are the lanyards a different colour from those issued to the delegates, a photograph taken in the registration tent has been uploaded onto our pass to ensure that nobody manages to get in wearing a lanyard that was not meant for them. I don’t know who or what they’re expecting to turn up in Mullingar, but the impression I get is that removing our lanyards to help us fit in will not go down so well today.
We shuffle up one corridor, swing a right and walk down another until we come to the media room, a much larger space than the one in Citywest, but with the same number of chairs, i.e. one for everyone except us. Immediately I clock a few familiar faces and I can see that they clock me. ‘Who are you?’ I can see them thinking. Maybe I’m projecting, but I feel less comfortable in their presence. We throw our coats and bags onto the underside of an upturned table in a disused corner of the room, trying to look purposeful as we leave.
Though it’s impossible to gain access to the corridor leading onto the Main Hall without passing through security, our lanyards are raised, our passes scanned, our image once again scrutinized before we are allowed to enter a room in which eight people are sitting on a stage, their chairs all set at different angles and elevations, so that it makes me think of the set of an afternoon television show, though on reflection I can’t remember any particular afternoon television show actually looking like this. Whenever anyone comes to the end of what is clearly a pre-prepared recital, the host encourages those in the audience – and perhaps people watching on the internet – to make use of the ‘Twitter Wall’ with the hashtag #LP16. Hard to judge to what degree this timeline, projected on the wall behind the stage, is being vetted. Every single tweet that comes up is by a man named David Whelan. (‘Beware the populists,’ he warns, ‘they offer everything and deliver nothing! @labour #LP16.’) The room is much too small – for fear that a large room could end up seeming empty, you sense – and from the darkness of the crowded wings, with a large pillar in front of us, we have to choose which half of the stage we want to look at and position ourselves accordingly. The RTÉ cameraman, who played such important cameo roles for me at the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael ardfheiseanna, is at work on the jib across the room. Sitting in an aisle seat about eight rows from the front is the party leader and Tánaiste, Joan Burton. She’s smiling a lot, looking very attentive. Does she notice that to the right of the stage a man is flicking through a ream of paper, clearly panicked?
Seconds later, this man is called to speak.
‘So, let’s talk about vulnerable people,’ says the host, pointing to him. ‘John, you’ve got your fair share of them in Roscommon.’
He turns out to be a man called John Kelly, a Senator from Roscommon. ‘Yes, we do,’ he responds, using himself and his wife as an example of how difficult it is for working families to pay the bills.
We wander into various rooms and take a look around the bar. Sun slants in over Mullingar and through the windows, and twinkles, almost musically, on the glasses of white wine on the tables and the bar. Men are mumbling as quietly as the young guys on the bus, eating €9 sandwiches and wraps from a slightly unconvincing deli in the corner.
‘Is there anything else happening?’ asks Oisín.
‘Doesn’t look like it, does it?’
‘Wanna go get food in Mullingar?’
It takes us twenty-five minutes to get into town. There is wind and rain and sunshine. There is an Imperial Tobacco factory, which is still operational, and a large Chrysler dealership, which is not. It looks like it closed down before either of us was born. In fact, it looks haunted, the kind of place you’d find dead bodies hidden.
In town, we find a small café serving all-day breakfast. Then we walk in to an off-licence and ask for two naggins of Jameson each.
‘Well, lads, it’d be much cheaper to get the full bottle.’
We look at one another for a moment.
‘Um, we’re trying to be discreet,’ I tell him.
On the walk back, Oisín confesses that he finds the heightened security at the conference exciting. ‘Mullingar’s in a basin,’ he says. ‘It feels like something could happen.’
If this were any other year, apparently, the ardfheiseanna, or the national party conferences, or whatever you want to call them, would represent an opportunity for the people who run the parties to listen to what their supporters think about policy, party direction, and so forth. Given that we are so close to an election, which everybody expects to be called when the Dáil sits on Monday, the policies of each party have been prepared long ago. After hearing somebody on the Irish Times politics podcast say that these ardfheiseanna were essentially meaningless in terms of policy plans, at Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael I steered clear of the small policy workshops; but since there is literally nothing else to do in the Mullingar Park Hotel except sit around in its lifeless bar, at about two o’clock we find ourselves wedged into another too-small room to hear Brendan Howlin, Alan Kelly and Derek Nolan deliver seemingly ad hoc addresses under the heading ‘Standing Up for Working People: Economic Stability and Taxation’.
‘I left my first ministerial briefing ashen-faced,’ Howlin says, standing behind a desk, flanked on either side by his co-speakers. Behind him is a slide of a PowerPoint presentation in which the state finances for 2015 are presented next to those of 2011. ‘Our task, simply put, was to save the country.’ People are still looking for seats as Howlin explains the concept of ‘fiscal space’. In Oisín’s ear, I whisper that it was a mistake to sit down. Not only is it more difficult this way to pay attention to the audience members (who, as I’ve learned, are the meat, matter and ambrosia of a piece like this); from this position, it will be hard, if not impossible, to leave what already promises to be a very dreary seminar indeed. When Howlin refers to the national deficit inherited by the coalition as ‘Zimbabwesque’, I scribble something about the line’s peculiar resonance with Brian Hayes’s Mugabe gag. Howlin is only getting into gear, drawing on the same repertoire of insults regarding the economic idiocy of everyone to the left of Labour when, having noticed an error in a slide, he interrupts his own point momentarily.
‘Those M[illion]s,’ he says, ‘should actually be B[illion]s.’
When I was at university, somebody I knew who was active in Labour Youth encouraged me to get involved on the basis that Eamon Gilmore – leader of the party until his resignation in 2014, following a disastrous performance in the local elections – was a cultured individual who occasionally referenced the work of Gore Vidal. At no point did I feel tempted to come along for that reason, but I thought it was pretty cool all the same. Well, it’s about twenty past three on a Saturday afternoon, seven or eight years hence, and I am slouched against the wall in a crowded room in Mullingar listening to an address by the Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, supposedly heir apparent to the Labour leadership, and I am struggling to think of a moment in my adult life when a reference to Gore Vidal has seemed more unlikely. In the last hour, I have heard Alan Kelly invoke his wife (a teacher), his two children (both of them very young), and his love of Manchester United. I have heard him say ‘if you believe in everything, you believe in nothing’ on three separate occasions, and each time he says it I grow less convinced that he understands what it means. In the region of five times I have heard Alan Kelly say of Labour that ‘we have a great a story to tell’. (Later I will hear him struggle to read the words ‘once upon a time’.) I have heard him talk about the family dinner table, and children’s shoes, and ‘the area between the two Liffeys’. And quite naturally I have heard Alan Kelly tear into anyone to his left: ‘populist rhetoric out there’, ‘utopian in nature and impossible’, ‘promise you the moon and the stars’, ‘incredible, impossible, unbelievable’. I have heard what Alan Kelly has to say about ‘them on the left’. He says, ‘It’s absolute garbage.’
So little happens in the three hours that we spend sitting at a two-person table in a raised section near the corner of the bar, waiting for the conference to reconvene, that I’m reduced to counting how many of the hotel’s luscious ten-ounce Homemade Beef Burgers are ordered and eaten by prominent members of the party. The count reaches eight before we notice that a queue has formed in the lobby. Lanyards are being raised, passes being scanned. The media room is to be evacuated for sniffer dogs to do their work. At the back of the main hall, a partition has been removed to make room for an audience of approximately five hundred people. Joan Burton enters the stage to the ambient dream-pop of ‘Pure Shores’ by All Saints and starts into a somnambulant address about ‘profound journeys’ that is so poorly structured, so thematically misconceived, that when Burton promises ‘a job for everyone who wants one’, I wonder if it wasn’t on this basis alone that her speechwriter was employed. When the speech ends, we shuffle back towards the bar, where there’s a group of men who, by accident or design, look like former party leader Pat Rabbitte; and there is another contingent of men wearing eccentric facial hair and panama hats. In the raised section near the corner, half a dozen delegates in their mid twenties are nursing very quiet pints. But there is nothing, to my eye, that suggests we need to stay as late as 2.38 a.m. It feels like something isn’t going to happen.
It is half past nine on a Saturday night and we are standing before the old Chrysler dealership, waiting for the last p.m. bus out of Mullingar.
To read the rest of Dublin Review 62, you may purchase the issue here.