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Ruffling feathers


Achill's Saoirse McHugh, the Green Party candidate for Midlands-North-West, campaigning in Springfield, Westport with Colm Cafferkey.
Pics: Conor McKeown

Edwin McGreal

The Green Party cavalcade rolls into Westport on a warm Tuesday afternoon.
Well, when we say cavalcade, it’s really just their candidate for the Midlands Northwest constituency Saoirse McHugh and her partner-in-crime Colm Cafferkey in their Green Party sponsored electric car.
Oh, and before we forget, Laura, who is trapped in a box in the boot. Don’t fear though, there’s nothing untoward here. Laura is a hen who Saoirse is trying to nurse back to health after life as a battery hen.
We don’t think there will be too many candidates who will break up their canvassing to check on a poorly hen and let her out for some exercise.
In more ways than one though, Saoirse McHugh is not your typical candidate.
The 28-year-old from Dooagh on the western edge of Achill Island is the youngest European candidate in the country and is in at the deep end.
In many ways she fell into politics by chance; in others it is of little surprise. With a background in sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty, she has always been extremely exercised about the future of this planet. She told this reporter last year, long before Europe came knocking, that she could not sleep at night with worry about the future.
Educated, articulate and with a passion that borders on zeal, McHugh ticks a lot of the boxes for politics but unticks a few others. Her age brings with it a naivety and a lack of political savvy but that need not be a weakness. When asked about rival candidate Peter Casey, she demurs the chance to kick to touch and instead goes on the attack.
And when she is asked a question in general, she addresses it thoughtfully and honestly, even if her answer may not always be to her advantage.
Her thoughts on the stresses of the campaign are unlikely to be echoed in public by too many of her rivals, though in private they might agree.
“My heart is broke! I was just saying to Colm that 80 percent of my day is either spent being worried or anxious or nervous or tired,” she tells The Mayo News.
“I’ll never again feel busy, it has totally rewritten what busy means to me. We’ve done a few weeks now where, most nights, if we’re home, we’re back at midnight and we’re gone again at 8am, back at 1am and gone at 7am again. Colm is driving and I’m sitting in the front seat, trying to reply to emails, trying not to get car sick!”

Pink shoes and baring her teeth
She admits, colourfully, to not feeling at all like a politician.
“I don’t feel like one in my heart. We were at a hustings and I was asked questions and I was the only one who said ‘I don’t know’, ‘I’m not really sure about that’ or ‘I haven’t made my mind up about that’. Listening to people talking around me I was like ‘dammit, yeah, that’s what a politician says’.
“I don’t particularly like how they speak or how they are but I definitely don’t feel like one. There’s photos of me with pink leopard print and pink shoes and five suits either side of me! And I’m the only one who shows my teeth! That’s another thing, politicians have mastered this smile where you don’t open your mouth,” she laughs, mimicking this smile.  
With the Green Party very weak at grassroots compared to traditional parties, it is often just McHugh and Cafferkey on their own, sometimes with the help of family and, in some urban areas, with the help of local party members. They reckon they’ve already covered close to 40,000 miles in a grueling campaign.
But one thing McHugh has enjoyed is the platform her candidature has given her.
“Definitely one of the positives is you were banging on the doors of different organisations for years and no one was getting back to you whereas now they are and you are more able to try to align different organisations on the one page,” observes Cafferkey who as well as being McHugh’s partner is her de-facto campaign manager.
She concurs; ‘the platform is a huge thing’. She knows taking a seat is a long shot but ‘growing the Green vote’ and ‘raising awareness’ about environmental issues are her two main targets.

Knocking on doors
As we walk through Springfield at Westport Quay, McHugh and Cafferkey split up, going door to door. It’s 4pm and not every house is occupied so if Cafferkey, the well-known Achill footballer, gets an answer he calls McHugh over.
She has had doors closed in her face by some pro-lifers, once she says she is from the Green Party, who supported repealing the eighth amendment.
But at Springfield, the welcomes are all positive. Many are shocked that a candidate for such a big area can find time to go door to door.
McHugh estimates there are 400,000 homes in the sprawling 13 county constituency. She was reminded of just how big it was when she was at the Quay in Dundalk last month, the most easterly point in Midlands North West and a long, long way from Dooagh, the most westerly village in the constituency. She is not going to get to every door but tries to canvass what she can.
“I’ll vote for you because you’re starting out, fair play to you,” one woman assures McHugh.
One local shares her thoughts on Peter Casey.
“I wouldn’t give him a number 100 (preference). He’s a mutton head, that fella,” says the local man with the type of straight shooting that Casey has been praised for.
In Westport town afterwards a street canvass brings different challenges. People are in more of a rush but the reception from those who find time to stop is warm.
The canvass over, Saoirse McHugh returns to the car to check-in on Laura who may not make it to May 25. McHugh probably won’t make it into the European Parliament but she won’t be chickening out of the battle.