The Collectors: Irish political leaflets dating back to the historic Clare by-election won by Eamon De Valera in 1917

By Maurice Garvey

POLITICAL leaflets offer more than just a rag tag collage of zany haircuts and dubious claims – they also provide an interesting snapshot of a changing society.

Someone in a great position to make this observation is Rathfarnham resident Alan Kinsella, who has collected approximately 50,000 Irish political leaflets, the oldest dating back to 1917.

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Alan Kinsella with part of his 50,000 Irish political leaflets and posters collection

“It is amazing to see how times change, they (leaflets) are a societal archive of the issues,” said Kinsella.

“Housing was massive in this year’s election. In 2011 it was a different housing issue, people with houses had nothing and ghost estates. In 2002/07 it was all about house prices and in the early 1970s, there was a housing crisis.”

Kinsella (51) started his collection when he was 12 courtesy of a signed leaflet outside a polling station by Labour TD Barry Desmond in 1982.

He runs the website Irish Election Literature, which is massively popular during election/referendum times for media and political aficionados, and also hosts a podcast The Others, which looks at little vignettes in Irish history.

“These things go in cycles, there is all sorts of mad little stories,” he said.

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1982 General Election (left), 2007 General Election Shatter regained the seat he lost in

Another big change he has noticed in recent years, is political leaflets have become a lot more sanitized.

“It is a lot more centrally controlled now. I suppose 2007-11 was the last time you had variety. At the time with Fine Gael it was every man for themselves and they wanted to stand out. Alan Shatter and his Star Trek leaflet (2007).

Whereas is 2011, Fine Gael had their five-point plan. You also get consultancy firms, parties hire them because they have a good record.

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General Election 1981, Single European Act Referendum 1987, 1979 European Elections a leaflet from Fianna Fail candidates for Dublin – Sile De Valera was elected

“In previous times, up to the 90s, a leaflet would say, ‘this is Alan’, he is married with three kids, he went to school here, pictures of candidates with their families were par for the country.”

Kinsella is as much a historian as he is a collector, proud of one of his oldest leaflets – for Eamon De Valera from the historic 1917 East Clare by-election.

“That by-election changed the course of history. If he lost that, a lot of steam would have been lost out of the campaign. As well as that, it was a male only franchise.”

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2020 GE Colm O’Keeffe (Ind), Dublin South West

2002 was a year with a slogan to remember – Fianna Fail’s ‘A Lot Done, More to Do.’

“It was brilliant in it’s explaining. It was actually copied by parties in Germany and Belgium,” said Kinsella.

Other notables are the 1987 ‘Dessie Can Do it’ (PD’s Dessie O’Malley) but there is also the bizarre such as a communist Marxist party leaflet from the early 1970s and a candidate in the 2020 General Election Colm O’Keefe for Dublin South West with the communist and Vatican flags as his logo.

De Valera 1917 1

He cites the rise of desktop publishing as a big help for candidates to “develop their own material”, and is happy to see more ‘Independents’ not ‘Independants’ in recent years.

“I remember a by-election leaflet was spelled West Meth.”

Alan often hosts exhibitions of his collection at party and political events, but acknowledges a “far wider” interest.

Alan Kinsella 05 1

“I thought it was a niche hobby but there is a wider appeal, nostalgia, education and entertainment.”

The married father of two is due to get extra storage space in his back garden this week, to help cater for the volume, but his family are supportive.

“They don’t mind, it keeps me occupied. I started when I was 12 but blessed that I could hold onto it. It is a common thing to hear some collections get thrown into the recycling after someone passes.”

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1972 Referendum on joining the EEC, 1977 General Election: Noel Browne ran as an Independent ‘Anti Coalition Labour’ candidate in Dublin Artane. He polled 5,601 votes and was elected, Liam Kavanagh, February 1982

His collection shows no sign of slowing down either with people regularly sending him material because “they know it will be seen.”

“Somebody sent me posters the other day, protesting Regan’s visit (former US President), these are valuable to a certain audience.

“I can’t see myself stopping. With every collection, you are sort of a completist. You want something for every candidate or party. It might sound like a lot, but it is not. In the USA, a guy went bankrupt with his collection, especially with the pins alone. They have a huge amount of material there.”

Alan’s hobby has helped him to build a friendship with a fellow collector in Portugal, whom he has visited with his family.

“His collection is stored in over six houses, stuff from all over the world, he has a warehouse, it’s fantastic.”

Even Covid-19 is not safe from Alan’s clutches, as he managed to get his hands on some early health leaflets “before things got out of hand.”

“The Seanad election count was done without tallymen or representatives from candidates. You have an idea how the electoral process has changed.”

Is there one that got away?

I collect any old political material that people can send me, but I am looking for abortion referendum material, and I love the divorce referendum posters.”

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