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Does age matter? A look at Áras elections of the past

It’s the most crowded presidential election ever – but how do this year’s candidates compare to previous years in terms of age?

Mary Robinson was Ireland's youngest-ever president at the time, when she took office in 1990 aged 46.
Mary Robinson was Ireland's youngest-ever president at the time, when she took office in 1990 aged 46.
Image: Photocall Ireland

THIS YEAR’S PRESIDENTIAL election is the most crowded in Irish history – with an unprecedented seven candidates featuring on this year’s ballot paper.

One of the points attracting significant debate this year is the relative age of the field – the eldest candidate, Michael D Higgins, is aged 70, while three of the candidates are in their 60s and two more in their 50s.

While Irish citizens need to be 35 to get on the ballot paper in the first place, Seán Gallagher – the youngest candidate in the election, at 49 – is some 14 years older than the official threshold needed.

We’ve had a look at previous groupings of election candidates to see how the previous offerings compare in terms of their age – and whether there’s any possible correlation between a candidate’s age and their electoral performance.

Is this the oldest field ever?

It’s worth noting, from the outset, that because this presidential field is the largest there has ever been, comparisons with previous years aren’t really being done on a like-for-like manner.

In a smaller field, the age of one individual candidate can massively shift the average age – and in three of the seven contested elections so far, there have been only two candidates.

Noting that, it may come as a surprise, but of the seven contested elections, this year’s field ranks… precisely in the middle. This year’s election field is the fourth-oldest of the seven, with an average age of 60 years and 302 days (as of polling day, October 27).

The oldest field of candidates turned out in 1959, in the two-way contest between Éamon de Valera, 76, and Seán Mac Eoin, 65 – when the ‘average’ candidate was 71 years and 69 days old.

The youngest, by comparison, was in 1997 – when Mary McAleese triumphed in a five-sided campaign where the average candidate was 50 years, and 303 days, of age.

McAleese herself was 46 when she was elected – meaning that, oddly enough, she is younger than the average candidate in the running to succeed her… despite having served in office for a full 14 years.

Do older candidates do better than younger ones?

Defining how well a candidate performs in an Irish presidential election is a difficult task – again, because the number of candidates involved has varied so wildly.

For example, a candidate may think that they’ve done pretty well to win 49.5 per cent of the vote – but on one occasion (1966) that wasn’t enough to get a candidate elected: Tom O’Higgins lost to the incumbent Éamon de Valera (then aged 83) by some 10,000 votes.

So for the purposes of these elections, we’ve ranked candidates by their share of the vote, divided by the votes than the ‘average’ candidate would have secured.

So, for example, O’Higgins’ 49.5 per cent in 1966 is made to look a little less impressive than Brian Lenihan Sr’s 44.1 per cent in 1990 – because O’Higgins only had one opponent, while Lenihan had two.

Taking those into account, here are the candidates who performed best and worst in the various elections. We will leave it up to the reader to decide whether each did ‘well’ based on their age.

Does age matter? A look at Áras elections of the past
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  • 1959 - Sean MacEoin, aged 65 - 43.7%

  • 1997 - Dana, aged 46 - 13.8%

  • 1945 - Patrick McCartan, aged 67 - 19.59%

  • 1990 - Austin Currie, aged 51 - 19.5%

  • 1997 - Adi Roche, aged 42 - 6.9%

  • 1997 - Derek Nally, aged 60 - 4.69%

  • 1959 - Eamon de Valera, aged 76 - 56.3%

  • 1990 - Mary Robinson, aged 46 - 38.9%

  • 1990 - Brian Lenihan, aged 59 - 44.1%

  • 1997 - Mary Banotti, aged 58 - 29.3%

  • 1945 - Seán T O'Kelly, aged 62 - 49.5%

  • 1997 - Mary McAleese, aged 46 - 45.2%

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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