ENNISTYMON on a wet Monday in January.
Cold and damp, the scene is rather grim and the town is Martin Conway’s base but it is here that Joseph Woulfe will try and gain a few number one votes today. He says he has been trying to promote his campaign since last year, and once the election was called he started calling to people’s homes and businesses.
A part-time farmer who chaired Beef Plan in Clare, he also works as a barber and says the interaction involved in that job is standing to him now, and he enjoys meeting voters. “I find it very easy, I’ve no problem in the world doing it, I’d do it all year around. I’m used to meeting people, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years, meeting people, talking to people and communicating with them. You build up that trust and that connection.”
Some candidates, veterans of politics, campaign at great speed, getting seen by as many people as possible and making sure to say hello to them, even if they don’t allocate time to say much more. Woulfe’s style is very different, very leisurely, with him happy to spend several minutes to discuss policy and current affairs with anyone who wants to do so.
He calls to a phone shop where the occupants have broken English, and spends a few minutes talking to them about how one might go about getting a vote in this country. How much of what is said is lost through misunderstanding is unclear, but they have been engaged with.
Having been canvassing for a while he has a fair idea which premises are unoccupied, as they have cobwebs around the door jambs and the letterboxes don’t open very easily.
The daily effort typically starts around 8.30am in the morning, meeting with parents dropping their children to school. It goes on until around 8pm in the evening, but if you go on after that you could antagonise the very people you’re trying to court. “If you were in a town you would finish at 8pm, but after the 8pm mark the kids are going to bed and you’re only disturbing them. You could actually have an angry person coming to you, ‘I’m just after putting the kids to sleep and you’re after ringing the doorbell’. People have their own lives and a lot of people are commuting long distances.”
While he is enjoying the campaign, he knows the time of year isn’t particularly conducive to it. “I only wish that the election was on in April, you’d have more time for it. This winter canvassing is not nice, it’s cold, it’s bitter and it’s dark at half five. Your time to get to rural areas is very limited.”
In a local bookshop a woman questions him on a range of issues, and he replies with his views on sustainable global farming, cruelty to animals and how it can be policed as well as how one might create a level playing field on commercial rates for businesses. He visits another premises where the business owner speaks to him at length about taxation and housing. Another woman says her vote is going to anyone who can get her family a house, after six months of being unable to get a place of their own.
It’s at moments like these that the public can put issues on the map for General Election candidates and it is likely that candidates who have been in Government for the last nine years won’t be spared on the doorsteps this week.
Woulfe feels that there are a good number of voters who want to get something different. “They’re looking for a change, they voted for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael for a long time, they’ve seen both of them in Government together and now they just want a change really.”
It is striking that several people in Ennistymon say they have already met Woulfe family members who were canvassing, and in a local bar one man is quite positive about voting for a fellow farmer.
“You’d help us out then and we’ll help you out. I’m a farmer myself, only a small one though.” Woulfe replies saying he has just 40 acres, and it pleases the farmer further. “We have the same thing so, you might do something for us.”
The farmer exhorts a few others at the bar to give him a preference as well. On his canvas goes, more voters met, concerns voiced, family members and connections traced, opinions given.
Soon it will come to a conclusion and four people will be sent to Dublin, presumably more in touch with the voters that they represent than when the campaign started.
Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.