IT’S not only the cakes and buns, breads and scones that are delicious in Devour. It is a multi-coloured oasis of baby blues, vibrant pinks, soft psychedelic cushions and aromatic coffees. It could easily be a hipster hideaway down a narrow city street anywhere in Europe but, instead, it is there on Ballinrobe’s Church Lane: the perfect place to catch up with that whirlwind of a former Rose of Tralee, Maria Walsh.
No need for caffeine fixes for this European Parliament election candidate for the Midlands North West constituency, green tea is her tipple as The Mayo News becomes breathless hearing about her schedule for the day. Her big bus and small entourage has just rolled in from Longford after an interview with Shannonside Radio.
The gaggle of women at a nearby table had already agreed about ‘how nice she is’ and ‘how great it would be if she got elected’. Former councillor, Michael Burke – a candidate in the local elections – had told them minutes beforehand that she was to arrive soon. And that she did: all smiles and hugs and chats. Her GPS is her timekeeper and true to her text confirming she was running five minutes late, she landed outside Yvonne Murphy Higgins’s café and bakery right on the button.
“I slept in Shrule last night and went to Shannonside for the Joe Finnegan Show this morning. Each candidate gets 15 minutes and we talked about rural broadband strategies and the future of farming for the next generation and CAP. You are given time for a pitch then and I talked about one of my most passionate priorities, mental health issues,” Walsh tells The Mayo News, amid waves, smiles and hugs.
Of course, Ballinrobe is a familiar stomping ground for the Shrule native. She once worked in the Valk’ and played sport on the town’s pitches, as well as attending New Year’s Eve parties over the years.
“I remember coming through Ballinrobe when I first decided to run [for the elections], and I said that if there was one town I can do something for in the next five years … it needs to be the epicentre for the vast rural hinterland. Life needs to be put back into its streets with residential accommodation replacing the businesses that have closed,” she says. We have made our way out of the café and have called in to Siobhán Costello’s Hair Design.
Michael Burke is beaming: “There’s a great vibe around her, a fell-good factor. What I’m hearing is good.”
We are moving next door to Optometrist, Ciara McHugh’s shop.
“I went to school with her, although she is a bit older,” Walsh says, laughing.
Despite its ongoing challenges, there is a palpable community spirit everywhere you go in Ballinrobe.
“We have all the amenities and resources but we really need a hotel for the proper development of the town,” Ciara McHugh says.
Meanwhile, Thomas Conroy from Hollymount has come in and is enjoying the craic.
“Oh! I’ll give her a stroke,” he says, promising a first preference. “ Well you don’t need your eyes tested to see this beautiful girl.”
Down main street in Ken Murphy’s Menswear the vibe is still full of craic and very positive.
“She’s a good gamble and has all the chances in the world,” says Ken, before regaling the gathering with a few yarns. (They are off-the-record.)
The need for a hotel in Ballinrobe is discussed again.
Well, as Walsh muses the races are on that night but it would be to Cong and Claremorris that the many visitors would have to go for accommodation.
Despite the fact that she needs to be in Swinford within an hour for a 5k colour run with local secondary school pupils who are celebrating ‘The Big Hello’ for their Wellbeing Week, she is very relaxed and – courtesy of her Rose Of Tralee experience – continues down the street in her killer heels as if she is walking on air.
By the time we catch up with her, she is in the middle of a conversation with pharmacist, Des Treacy about the level of bureaucracy being imposed on chemists these days.
“Our workload is gone bananas in terms of silly bureaucracy,” Treacy says, as he stands to one side of a busy counter. “We had to invest in a special machine to test drugs in case they were counterfeit and there hasn’t even been one incident. We are doing 40 percent more work for 40 percent less of a return.”
Treacy’s is an independently run family chemist and has served the town of Ballinrobe, as well as its hinterland from Hollymout to Shrule, since 1961, Maria Walsh explains.
It’s almost time to get on the road, change into the running gear for the Swinford run.
“We’ve just to go to Galway city then for an hour to a National Women’s Council hustings … it’s important I go to it. And then it’s back here for the races tonight,” Maria Walsh says.
The Mayo News can only assume her wardrobe change for the races has already been decided upon and is hanging perfectly ironed in the back of her big election van.