"I always say you can't look forward and watch your back at the same time, particularly if you are an independent. I don't have a team of PR people watching out for me" Marian Harkin

THE STATUE of Our Lady of Clonfert in east Galway was hidden in a tree for safety during penal times. A farmer cutting down the tree many years later reputedly cut off one of the arms causing the statue to bleed and a local legend was born.

The bizarre anecdote about the one-armed statue brings hundreds of people from across the midlands and the west every May to pilgrimage at the isolated rural church.

Another anecdote, that the locals are happy to share, brought independent MEP Marian Harkin to canvass at the gate of the church last Wednesday.

More than 30,000 tonnes of human waste or sludge from a sewage facility in Galway city was dumped on farmland around Eyrecourt over a period of more than three years. A group of concerned locals under the name East Galway Anti-Sewage Sludge Group contacted all the MEPs in the constituency in 2007 and Marian Harkin was the only one to help them out.

Harkin took members of the group to Brussels and she explained: "It was a case of getting the European Commission to put pressure on the Irish authorities to enforce the law that was already there."

The 'sludge' issue in Eyrecourt is just one of numerous local issues that Harkin has helped solve as an MEP. Now it is payback time as various voluntary and community groups, including senior citizens' and anti-dump groups, queue up to canvass for Harkin in their area.

At the church gates, Paddy Larkin and Ann Fenton introduced Harkin to the hordes of people going to the 'May Devotions'. "This is Marian Harkin, our local MEP. We have no Galway MEP anymore so you should vote for Marian."

Harkin gets a great reception from everyone, from the bus full of devoted ladies who have travelled from Taughmaconnell, Co Roscommon, to a local man who said, "You are the woman that looked after the sludge for us. I will most definitely vote for you."

Harkin, is a symbol of the mantra that 'all politics is local', and is the 4/9 second favourite behind Fine Gael's Jim Higgins at 8/11 to retain her seat. Without the backing of a party machine, the widow for the last 13 years and mother of two grown-up sons drives herself around in a car adorned with campaign stickers and depends on locals in a given area to complement the work of the political machine she has built up in her home patch in Sligo.

"I don't have a second candidate running that will automatically transfer 40% to 50% of their votes to me, whereas Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have second candidates. So I will need to get transfers from across the board to keep my seat."

She has been criticised by Libertas leader Declan Ganley in recent weeks but she refuses to get into tit-for-tat retaliation.

"I always say you can't look forward and watch your back at the same time, particularly if you are an independent. I don't have a team of PR people watching out for me. I just rely on people like this group to help me and to be honest, money can't buy support like I got here in Eyrecourt this evening."

Elsewhere in the constituency, which reputedly covers the largest landmass of any constituency across the EU, Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher had his first canvass in Kinnegad at the eastern edge of the North West on Thursday afternoon.

Only in the election race a few days, his team was up all night on Wednesday getting campaign leaflets printed. His election posters did not appear on lampposts until Friday.

Longford and Westmeath were in the old Leinster, or East constituency, until this election, and there is a lot of confusion about their new status. Fianna Fáil is in disarray at the moment and the appearance a few days ago of hundreds of posters for Liam Aylward across Westmeath, which is no longer in Aylward's bailiwick, stands testament to that.

The confusion is not confined to Fianna Fáil as a lady in Bagnall's supermarket in Kinnegad asked Gallagher: "Are you in this area? Can I vote for you?"

Gallagher, who was previously an MEP from 1994 to 2002, is optimistic that he can win back his seat even though he is on an unbalanced party ticket with Leitrim candidate Paschal Mooney.

"This is my 13th election and it is the first time my name will be at the top of the ballot paper," he said. TD Mary O'Rourke, who accompanied him on the canvass, said the candidate at the top of the ballot paper has a better chance in the race and recalled how it used to work in the favour of Henry Abbot in the Longford-Westmeath constituency in 1987.

Local councillor Jim Burke greeted Gallagher with a fond memory of happier times in 2002 after Bertie Ahern had won his second general election. "The last time I met you was at Daniel O'Donnell's wedding," he said.

In Mullingar, O'Rourke seemed to be worried that Gallagher was getting homesick when she pulled a packet of Donegal Catch fish out of a freezer in Buckley's supermarket and got 'the Cope' to pose for a photo with it.

Gallagher was confident after his first few hours of a gruelling three-week trail. "I am encouraged by the recognition factor. Everybody knows the name and some might know the face and they are very impressed with the Donegal accent. I am as enthusiastic today as when I first stood for the council in 1979 and I am as fit as I was then."

The jeeps on the Donegal man's campaign trail blasted out Mundy's 'Galway Girl' and The Saw Doctors' 'N17' in an attempt to make him more palatable to the electorate in the county that had local man Seán Ó Neachtain representing them until recently.

When introducing himself to a lady in Mullingar, he said, "I'm Pat the Cope," and she jokingly replied, "You are not the Pope!" The most famous religious leader in the world would find it hard to win a seat for the party if Friday's opinion poll is anything to go by. But after his tour of the 11 counties, 'the Cope' should do enough to win a seat in North West.

Latest Odds

1/14 Jim Higgins (FG)

1/3 Marian Harkin (Ind)

2/5 Pat Gallagher (FF)

6/4 Pádraig MacLochlainn (SF)

2/1 Declan Ganley (Libertas)

5/1 Joe O'Reilly (FG)

6/1 Paschal Mooney (FF)

40/1 Susan O' Keefe (Lab)

100/1 Michael McNamara (Ind)