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Watching the U.S. Election While Irish

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LONDON — As the polls closed on Election Day in America, my family group chat thrummed with anticipation. Maps were shared. Probabilities mocked. We argued over exit polls, safe seats and swing votes, breaking off occasionally to ask what, precisely, the Electoral College was.

This was not the usual way of things. We’re Irish. My family — my 10 siblings, their partners, my cousin and my father — are spread among Ireland, England and Germany, and we ordinarily use WhatsApp to share photos of grandchildren. But, in a shift familiar to many families around the world, we spent one week in November as an improbably fast-paced American electoral information hub.

Following American politics used to mean keeping up with the big-ticket items: announcements of war, confessions of extramarital affairs, the wearing of tan suits. But Donald Trump changed that.

Trying to ignore the Trump administration is a bit like trying to ignore a small fire on your person. “Did you see Donald’s gone on a Covid drive?” my father asked, as President Trump’s motorcade whisked him to greet his supporters outside Walter Reed hospital in October. “Why doesn’t he go door-to-door, while he’s at it?”

Disgust with Mr. Trump has driven most of Joe Biden’s support in our family, more than the latter’s oft-stated fondness for his ancestral roots. We would have seen the election the same way were it Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren vs. Mr. Trump: as the final, nerve-shredding boss battle. We just didn’t expect that it would last four days and feel roughly as long as the four years that preceded it.

As the count entered its second day, my father feigned indifference. He said he found CNN, with its flashy graphics and fast-talking anchors, not to his taste. He watched his local bulletins, with presenters who act like bank managers who’ve won a competition to present the news.

But he couldn’t stay away. “Your man with the map is very good,” he was saying by Thursday night. He was initially incapable of remembering the names of the anchors and so referred to them by the names of television presenters they vaguely resembled: Anderson Cooper became Paul O’Grady, an English television presenter who hosts “For the Love of Dogs”; John King was reborn as Roy Walker, a quiz show host from Belfast.

Soon, however, my father was more intimately acquainted with the anchors of CNN than he is with his 11 children. He related their key points and compared their styles, and referred to counties like DeKalb and Allegheny in the commonplace way he usually reserves for the townlands of rural Donegal.

By Friday, grandchildren had been forgotten entirely, the finger paintings of our WhatsApp group were replaced with district maps. And our tentative stabs at comprehension soon grew into the solid pronouncements of seasoned wonks.

“Pennsylvania is flying now,” said my sister Dearbhaile. And Nevada, my brother Conall said, looked a certainty, even when one factored military votes into the usual Democrat advantage with mail-in ballots.

We puzzled over the gains Trump had made among Hispanic voters, which we, shockingly, had not foreseen. “Maybe,” said my brother Dara, in the sole moment of self-examination any of us managed the whole week, “it’s more difficult for us to grasp because we come from a place where identity politics is all there is.”

With our newly refined understanding of American politics, we began to look between and beyond the numbers, taking cues from more subtle variations. “John King is back on shift!” gasped my sister Caoimhe on Friday. “It must be close.”

On Saturday afternoon our time, Wolf Blitzer crossed the spaceship floor of CNN’s studio to announce Mr. Biden as victor. The game, or this part of it, was over. We greeted the news like it was an acquittal for a crime we had not committed, gasped at the commentary for another hour or so, and promptly switched off CNN for the first time in four, long days.

The images we shared afterward were from an Irish news program that ended its election coverage with elegiac footage of Mr. Biden’s win, overlaid with audio from one of his most prominent campaign videos, in which he recites “The Cure at Troy” by Seamus Heaney. Distances collapsed as the man we’d just watched win the presidency 3,000 miles away spoke the words of a poet born half an hour from our family home.

Then time resumed its gentle gallop. Pages peeled from the calendar once more. My father’s dog died. I turned 35. The grandchildren resumed their position at the summit of our group chat’s interest. A week on, our CNN obsession seems like a relic of the ancient past. Chancing on the network on a channel hop evokes only the melancholy stab of a fondly remembered, but increasingly distant, summer romance. We hope our wider attentions to Washington will soon follow that diving arc.

We’ll always have the week we spent in thrall to the beating, flashing heart of American news, and the catharsis of its eventual end.

Not that the Biden win had surprised all of us by that stage. My father had called Maricopa County days before.

Séamas O’Reilly (@shockproofbeats) writes for The Irish Times and The Observer and is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Did You Hear Mammy Died?”

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