Mum Madeline says leadership was obvious from childhood

March 10th, 2023 7:05 AM

By Jackie Keogh

Holly Cairns casting her vote in her former primary school, Lisheen NS, in the 2020 general election. (Photo: Andy Gibson)

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MADELINE McKeever says her daughter Holly Cairns has always been a leader. She can date it back to childhood.

Madeline recalls seeing Holly arrive at the playschool’s Teddy Bears’ picnic and seeing all the other children get up and run after her.

It’s not a sentimental point of view. Madeline said Holly was the same in secondary school. She’d be the one to step forward, to organise an event, and the transport.

‘It was a natural thing,’ said Madeline. ‘Everyone wanted to spend time with Holly. She was never egotistical about it. She was fearless, I suppose, about doing things that other children wouldn’t consider.’

After attending Schull Community School, Holly studied complementary therapy in Waterford. Then, she worked with children with disabilities in Malta.

When she came home, she farmed alongside her mother, before completing a masters degree in horticulture.

Holly’s entry into politics began when she canvassed for David Norris as part of his presidential campaign, but she became a high-profile campaigner in West Cork as part of the successful Repeal the Eighth amendment of the constitution.

Speaking to The Southern Star after Holly announced she would be seeking election as the leader of the Social Democrats, Madeline said she is ‘bursting with pride.’

She described her daughter as being a good listener. ‘She has very little ego and she’s very intuitive about things,’ she said.

As a mother, Madeline believes Holly works ‘too hard’ but is happy to see her take some rest on a Sunday and go on restorative walks with her beloved dog Hei-Hei.

Erin Bottomley, who has been friends ‘forever’ with Holly, both having attended Lisheen National School together, said Holly has always been tenacious.

‘She’s very determined,’ said Erin, ‘and very hard working, she always has been, from the time we were kids in Lisheen, and all throughout her childhood, she has always worked very hard to get where she wants to go.’ 

‘When she sets her mind to something, she achieves it,’ said Erin, who is delighted to have Holly as godmother to her daughter Eilidh.

Catriona O’Driscoll, former principal of Lisheen National School, describes Holly as ‘intelligent, vivacious, kind.’

She’s very considerate and very insightful of other people, she said. ‘These are characteristics you’d like to see in the leader of a political party,’ said Catriona.

How the Star reported the results of the last general election in Cork South West, in February 2020. (Photo: Andy Gibson)


‘Holly has a wonderful understanding of people. She accepts people where they are at. Lisheen was a very special school and acceptance is something the children always seemed to have. Maybe it came from their community of Aughadown.’

Even as a child, with her two front teeth missing, in junior infants, Catriona said Holly had these characteristics. ‘They came from her community and her parents, Madeline McKeever and Clem Cairns. She was raised with good values. She is a wonderful young lady and a great ambassador for West Cork.’

Meanwhile, solicitor Conor Murphy, who helped to study the votes at the dramatic recount, recalled Holly’s first steps in party politics five years ago, when three friends in West Cork – Holly, Pamela Weaver and Clare O’Reilly – took action after they felt that there was no politician there to represent them.

‘They didn’t just complain on social media,’ he said. ‘They fought for change. They set up a branch of the Social Democrats, fought a local election, stepped up to a general election within months, with Richard Scriven added to the team, mobilised a small army of supporters, and within a year discovered that 10,000 people in West Cork also wanted real change.’

‘Holly,’ he added, ‘has shown that progressive, transparent and compassionate politics is the future.’

Meanwhile, just three county councillors spoke to congratulate their former colleague on being appointed leader of the Social Democrats at Monday’s meeting.

Cllr Paul Hayes (Ind) said it was a ‘huge coup’ for her as she becomes the youngest party leader in the country and he wished her well. 

Cllr Karen Coakley (Ind) concurred with what Cllr Hayes had said and congratulated Deputy Cairns and wished her every success in her new role.

Cllr Ross O’Connell (SD), who was co-opted into Deputy Cairn’s council seat following her election as a TD in 2020, also congratulated his party colleague in becoming leader of their party.

‘I’m sure she will make an absolute fine leader of our party,’ said Cllr O’Connell.

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