When Michael Collins topped the poll in the 2014 local elections and was elected on the first count, he was hoisted onto the shoulders of his supporters and bellowed: ‘West Cork! West Cork! West Cork!”
It’s fair to say that the Independent councillor and first-time Dáil candidate has a grá for his home place. His desire to become a TD is anchored on one main point. “I want to be a Healy-Rae for West Cork,” he says. “It’s parochial, but they have delivered.”
Yesterday, he stood between the cash tills, pot plants, and Valentine’s bouquets in Fields SuperValu in Skibbereen and canvassed.
“This is as good as any street,” he said, and it was easy to see why.
Many people sought him out for handshakes, and those that didn’t were met with his hand extended in greeting and a pile of election literature. Those he didn’t get were met with a follow-up at the rear entrance where two more supporters stood sentry.
Collins, from Schull, may have been a poll-topper — and one now “regularly” in contact with the Healy-Raes — but he believes that he faces “a hell of an uphill battle” in Cork South West. He believes two seats in the three-seater are up for grabs, with only Fine Gael’s Jim Daly seen as a sure thing.
Yet for an Independent candidate, his network is considerable. He has family connections in Bandon, Kilbrittain, and Bantry, and over the weekend might have as many as 25 teams — 50 people — working different areas.
Many people in Skibbereen know him and those that don’t seem to know of him. “I was told to vote for you,” said one elderly lady. “My son said so.”
To which Collins replied: “Well God bless your son, whoever he is.”
A long-time community activist before he polled an impressive 3,409 votes in 2014, Collins’ outlook is unashamedly local and mostly rural. He wants broadband access for all of West Cork but stresses the concerns facing farmers and fishermen, home helps, the closure of Bantry Hospital’s overnight emergency department capability, the loss of post offices and Garda stations, the state of the roads, and potholes.
“In 99.9% [of house visits] it’s local, local, local,” he says. “They feel rejected and as if they haven’t had a voice.”
Collins says he is “not blind” to national issues but believes many of them can be dealt with locally. As a “realist”, he would seek to maintain independence in Dáil Éireann but has already met with Shane Ross’s Independent Alliance and Renua. He is not in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment. And as soon as any Dáil business is done in a given week, he will be straight back to West Cork.
One early introduction to the national stage was last year when he ended up splashed across news pages for writing a letter to a judge regarding a convicted sex offender. He stresses it was a “letter of explanation” rather than one of clemency, that he regrets it, and would not do it again.
“My opponents are going to try every strategy in the book to bring me down,” he says.
At times, the people — many of them elderly, doing the big shop after collecting the pension — are drawn to him like metal filings to a magnet.
“How’s your brother?” he asks one man. “How are they in Baltimore?” he asks another.
One woman, Mary O’Driscoll from Coolnaclehy outside the town, said after walking away with her trolley: “I told him I was going to vote for him.”
What does she like about him? “He has his feet on the ground, as the saying goes. He makes sensible statements, no waffle.”
At one point, a supporter of sitting Fine Gael TD Noel Harrington appeared in the same spot in Fields, staking out the space as his man was due in the area. For one glorious second it looked like the two Dáil candidates might go elbow-to-elbow, but it didn’t come to pass. Harrington did not materialise before Collins departed, first for Ballydehob and then Clonakilty.
“Let him stand there if he wants and the people decide,” Collins laughed. “It’s a free country.”
He admits that were he to make it to Leinster House, he would need to bone up on some issues, but that his time spent back in West Cork would come first, referring to his clinics and the dismissive view of TDs that “as soon as you’re elected you’re gone for four or five years”.
Not for him, says Collins. Even wrenching him away for a cup of tea and an interview is difficult.
“But I’m needed here too,” he protests, half joking.
In two weeks, we’ll know for sure.