RYLE DWYER: For the first time since 1926, FF could lose the keys to the Kingdom

THERE is considerable interest around the personalities in Kerry in the forthcoming election. Will John O’Donoghue get re-elected, will Michael Healy-Rae succeed his father, and will another Spring swap places with a McEllistrim?

There has been a kind of tradition of family seats in Kerry. Fred Crowley represented Fianna Fáil in the Dáil from 1927 until his death in 1945, when he was replaced by his wife Honor (nee Boland), who represented Kerry South until her death in 1966. She was the daughter of John Pius Boland, who had represented South Kerry in the British Parliament from 1900 to 1918. Of course, he was most famous as Ireland’s first Olympic champion. He won the men’s singles and was part of the winning men’s doubles team in tennis at the first modern Olympics at Athens in 1896.

John O’Leary of Fianna Fáil won the seat in a 1966 by-election and held it for over 30 years, before he stepped down in 1997. Fianna Fáil then nominated his son Brian, much to the fury of Jack Healy-Rae, who apparently saw the nomination as his right, having worked for the party over the decades. In frustration, he bolted Fianna Fáil and ran as an independent, taking the seat and holding it ever since.

After over a dozen years, he has decided to retire, and he is trying to pass the seat on to his son, Michael, who is more popularly known as “Dolly,” because he is widely seen as a clone of the father. Can this seat be re-established as a part of a dynasty to be handed on between family members after Jackie Healy-Rae prevented an O’Leary sequence?

Kerry had been a single seven-seat Dáil constituency until the county was divided in 1937. Kerry South was initially one of the most predictable constituencies in the country — two Fianna Fáil and one Fine Gael. It was so predicable that nobody challenged the three sitting deputies in 1938. Jack “the fiddler” Flynn of Fianna Fáil had topped the 1937 poll in Kerry South, but he was forced off the Fianna Fáil ticket in 1943, apparently at the insistence of Éamon de Valera. Nevertheless Fianna Fáil still won the seat and retained it in 1944 without him.

After Fionán Lynch of Fine Gael stepped down to become a circuit court judge in 1946, Fianna Fáil won the ensuing by-election and thus held all three seats in the constituency. Since then, however, party has suffered a distinct reversal in fortunes due to internal wranglings.

“The Fiddler” Flynn came roaring back into politics in 1948 and regained his old seat as an independent. The electorate had obviously forgiven him for his indiscretion, which involved getting a young woman “into trouble.” As they say in Kerry, “Sure, it could happen to a bishop!”

Flynn retained his seat as an independent in 1951 and ended up with the balance of power. He helped to elect de Valera as Taoiseach and was then invited back into the Fianna Fáil fold, and retained the seat for the party in 1954.

Fianna Fáil had five seats in Kerry throughout the 1930s, but this was reduced to four in 1943 when Dan Spring made a break through for the Labour Party in Kerry North, and he held that seat the next 37 years. Tom McEllistrim, sr, had an even longer run in Kerry North. First elected in 1923, he was re-elected at every general election until he stood down in 1969, when his son Tom, jr, replaced him.

Although McEllistrim, sr, had the distinction of proposing Jack Lynch for Taoiseach in 1966, his son was one of the “Gang of Four” that orchestrated the election of Charles Haughey as Taoiseach in 1979.

McEllistrim was promptly appointed Minister of State in charge of the Board of Works and notoriously admitted in an interview with Geraldine Kennedy that he “knew damn all about the Board of Works.”

In 1981 Dan Spring stepped down and was replaced by his son, Dick, who was then appointed a Minister of State in Garret FitzGerald’s first government. During this short administration, Dick was in a serious car accident and had to be brought into the Dáil on a stretcher for a vital vote on one occasion, because Haughey would not allow Fianna Fáil to pair with him. Some felt this poisoned their relationship thereafter.

Fine Gael went without a seat in Kerry North from 1977 until Jimmy Deenihan headed the poll in 1987. Dick Spring, who was leader of the Labour Party at the time, won the last seat that year by a mere four votes from Tom McEllistrim, jr, thus ending the uninterrupted sixty-four years of representation by the two McEllistrims. Spring, in turn, lost the seat in 2002 in a contest that saw the election of Tom McEllistrim, III, who retained the seat in the next two general elections.

In addition to the fluctuations of family fortunes and the presence of colourful independents, one of the more striking electoral features in Kerry has been the steady decline of Fianna Fáil — from holding five seats throughout the 1930s to just two seats since 1997.

The party was hoping for at least three seats in both 2002 and 2007. John O’Donoghue was dropped from the cabinet for not really trying to bring in his running mate Tom Fleming in 2007. O’Donoghue was elected Cheann Comhairle instead, but was forced out of that office over the expenses scandal.

Fleming is now running as an independent, and he is favoured to take a seat, because the Castleisland area, which is adjacent to his stronghold in Scartaglin, is included in Kerry South this time. For O’Donoghue — a noted horse racing enthusiast — the odds being offered by Bookmaker Paddy Power must be disconcerting. Power has four other candidates, including Marie Maloney of the Labour Party, at much shorter odds to take the three seats. O’Donoghue is being quoted at 2 to 1 against, while the other four are all odds on.

Kerry North is more difficult to predict, because it includes West Limerick for the first time. This was a Fianna Fáil stronghold under Gerard Collins, but it is unclear whether his old vote will transfer to McEllistrim, III. Even if it does, will it compensate for the transfer to Kerry South of McEllistrim’s previous stronghold in the Castleisland area? The early betting money was obviously against Tom the Third, who was quoted at 6 to 4 against, while Arthur J Spring — a grandson of Dan Spring and a nephew of Dick — was heavily favoured to take a seat at the prohibitive odds of 14 to 1 on.

The Labour Party, which is currently without a seat in the county, is hoping to win two seats, while Fine Gael appears virtually assured of two seats. Jimmy Deenihan and Tom Sheahan are expected to be re-elected and the party has unprecedented hopes for more, with Brendan Griffin reportedly doing well on the Dingle Peninsula.

The tide appears to be going out for Fianna Fáil. For the first time since the party was founded in 1926, it is only trying to win two seats in Kerry, and even that’s against the odds.

The once unthinkable could happen — Kerry could become a Fianna Fáil freezone.



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