No phone, no internet... but Cork Councillor Noel was a vote machine and man of people

Councillor Noel Collins, who passed away this week was a legend of the newspaper letter pages, says John Dolan
No phone, no internet... but Cork Councillor Noel was a vote machine and man of people

Councillor Noel Collins.

WE live in an age of mass communication, and politicians are in the thick of it.

Donald Trump had 88 million Twitter followers before he was booted from the platform. Here in Ireland, Sinn Féin has clocked up 19 million views on YouTube.

It’s a great way for politicians to sell their message without being grilled by pesky journalists - although you’d need a strong stomach to view some of the comments underneath these slogans, pledges, and sales pitches.

Take away a smartphone from a TD or councillor today, and it’s like you’re taking away one of their limbs.

So, when the death of Cork councillor Noel Collins was announced this week, it really felt like we were bidding farewell to the last of an extinct breed.

Noel was a vote-winning machine in his home town of Midleton. He was first elected in the summer of 1967 and, by the time he died aged 86, he was the longest-serving politician in the country, and dubbed ‘the Father of Cork County Council’.

In one election, he received so many votes that it took six more counts before the person in second place was elected!

The remarkable thing about Noel was that he never had a phone, never used a computer, and he eschewed social media in all its forms.

How did he remain so popular and keep getting elected without any of the social media and smartphone gimmicks that were available to his opponents?

He did it by being always on call, he did it by sheer hard work, and he did it by caring deeply about his constituents and their issues.

Old fashioned, stuff, you know?

As the Letters Editor of The Echo, I was a regular recipient of Noel’s favoured - indeed, sole - form of communication.

He was an unceasing, life-long letter-writer, battering out missives on a range of local and national issues on his trusty old Brother manual typewriter, purchased in 1967 - the year he was first elected to Midleton Town Council; he was elected to Cork County Council seven years later.

This was how he let off steam, how he pressurised governments and organisations, and how he let his constituents know what he was doing and thinking. 

He said he could easily fire off 40 letters a week to various organisations.

As the years went by, and the internet spread into every area of public and private life, Noel’s letters were an increasingly charming and quaint way for a politician to do their business, but he wasn’t for turning.

In 2004, he said: “I have no real interest in modern technology. I can do all my work with my old typewriter and pen. It works for me, so why change it?”

However, he admitted: “ I’m having difficulty finding ribbons and parts for my typewriter.”

In 2009, the local authority offered all its councillors the use of a fancy free laptop to conduct their business. Noel declined, explaining unapologetically: I bang out everything on my typewriter. I use carbon paper for press releases, or sending out letters, though I’m finding it increasingly hard to get carbon paper these days.

“I am too old to change. I will keep on going as long as the people of East Cork want me to.”

Noel never had a car and always used public transport - a fact that only brought him closer to the voters, helping him better understand their needs and wants.

Noel wrote to the Echo - and the Examiner and other papers - about every topic under the sun from the start of his political career.

You’ll find his signature on a letter in the Echo on May 30, 1967, where he showed he was ahead of his time by referring to the problem of drink-driving.

“The present laws in relation to it are not effective,” he wrote. “Yet, I have heard where a man was convicted of being drunk because it was found in the course of examination that he failed to master the spelling of the word ‘constitution’. Could it be true?

“I’m habitually sober, in case you think otherwise.” Noel signed off the letter “constitutionally yours”!

A few months later, he showed he cared about new technology by writing to the Echo about the misfiring telephone service.

Always entertaining, he wrote: “Many years ago, in London music hall, a comedian asked: ‘What are the three quickest ways of spreading the news?’ And supplying the answer himself, replied: ‘Telephone, telegram, tell a woman’. We do not know just how effective the two latter methods are, but we can emphatically state that, as far as this country is concerned, the telephone as an instrument for spreading news rapidly is a complete dead loss.

“Recently, I tried to get a call to Dublin. On each occasion, I was told there would be a delay of 30 minutes. Having tried unsuccessfully until 11pm, I reluctantly gave up and resorted to pen and paper.

“Why they keep connecting up new subscribers when they cannot cope with the demands of existing ones is a complete puzzle to me.

“Public coin box subscribers of the Republic do not demand a ‘hot’ line, but they do expect at least a lukewarm one and not a dead cold line, the only type they have experienced for a long time now.” He signed off, “Yours in waiting”.

Noel stood up for Midleton’s interests in the letters pages.

In November, 1968, he came under fire for criticising a plan regarding the taking over of a premises in the town by a wholesaler from Cork city for retail business.

“The question of a wholesaler setting up in the retail trade did call for protest,” he wrote. 

“In the interests of the traders of Midleton, I made my protest which I feel I was quite justified in doing. After all, what happened in other places we don’t wish to see happening in Midleton.

A few weeks later, he was railing against a lack of bus shelters in the town, and his badgering led to CIE agreeing to provide one.

His frequent, well-penned letters caused Noel to be a legend of the newspaper letter pages. In 2017, when councillors and staff saluted him for his 50 years in local government, councillor Des O’Grady said he felt he had known Noel long before he had met him due to his constant correspondence in the pages of the local press.

Noel put his oratory and pens-manship down to honing his debating skills in London’s famous Hyde Park Corner. His time in that city sparked a deep commitment for social justice and helping those who had fallen on hard times.

He said: “I was once considered a radical, but like Midleton whiskey I have matured with years.”

Noel never married, and once said: “I have never had time for a wife. I don’t think any woman would be able to keep up with my hectic schedule.”

My favourite story about him came about in 2020, when scam fraudsters sent emails purporting to be from various councillors, including Noel. The recipients knew immediately they were fake!

Poignantly, he said in 2014 he would be helping people in need “until the day I die”. That day came on Tuesday.

Rest in pease, Noel, you did the State - and newspapers - a helluva big service.

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