Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Clockwise from top left: Gerry O’Donoghue, Cliona Kelliher, Evelyn O’Sullivan, and Roy Thompson.

A year into the coronavirus, Brian Byrne asked some people to look back on what it has meant for them.

A YEAR of lockdowns has sharpened his sense of community for Gerry O’Donoghue, a retired school principal with many links to Kilcullen. He says that ‘missing community’ has underpinned his growing sense that he ‘belongs’ to somewhere. “I’m missing my tribe, if you like,” he says. “The people you hang around with, the people you have banter with, the people you can have serious conversations with. And I think this time, the fact that contemporaries are dying, I feel it very keenly.”
He says he misses Kilcullen, and the people, and it’s getting to him. “I love my own company, I love solitude, but it’s a two-sided coin, you have to have the company of people. You need to be able to retreat when you’re on your own, but at least you normally have options, and those options are gone now.”
For Roy Thompson, a regional manager with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and a well-loved singer and songwriter, there’s a concern that lockdowns isolation has impacted on social skills for people who are somewhat challenged in that area. “For those, and I’m a bit that way myself, who have to continually push to keep themselves out there, they are losing those skills because they don’t have the opportunity to practice them. Going for a pint, meeting people, all that community bonding and stuff is not available.”
Speech and drama teacher Evelyn O’Sullivan had to shift her work online for most of the last year, and she really misses the direct working with the children she teaches. But at least she is interacting ‘with her tribe’ via Zoom. “I finished a class online recently and I thanked them all for coming, because I get energy from them,” she says. “At the moment it’s doing creativity in a different way, but it is still creativity and I still get a buzz from it. But what’s really missing is that after the class, you’re not having the opportunity to bump into people, to say ‘how are you?’. Even with my friends, we’re zooming, but after we’re finished talking, where do you go? Coming back to the kids, I love meeting them even online, and I’m blessed to have that, because I’m afraid of what I would be if I didn’t have them.”
Cliona Kelliher works with Dublin City Council, and like so many others she has spent the last year working at remote in her home in Kilcullen. She misses the social aspect of her normal workplace, though she says that between lockdowns the situation has given her the opportunity to meet more people from Kilcullen, which ‘was a plus’. “I really enjoyed that, because normally I’d be in Dublin sitting at my desk. I’m an introvert, and so I’m quite happy on my own, but I really didn’t appreciate how much I needed that energy from people at work. I’m doing courses now, and working all the time, but it’s all on Zoom and a bit strange.”
How that working from home has affected attitude to home is another feature of the year-long ‘strange normal’. It isn’t always good, as Roy Thompson points out. “Normally I’m out in front of the public a lot, and when I drive home I park the car and my back is to the day world, and that’s the way I like it. But managing all my work from home has changed things. For instance, my study is where my guitars and music stuff are, and when I started this home working I operated from there. But then I found I didn’t want to go back after dinner to do some music. The work had invaded my ‘safe place’, my creative space. So now I do my work from the dining room, because it would suck the life out of my music room. It’s a very strange dynamic.”
It’s not all negative. Evelyn O’Sullivan notes that because her life has changed, it has encouraged her to do things that she would have been putting off before. “For instance, I’m now doing yoga, which has not been me before because I work in the evenings.”
A year of lockdowns has narrowed activities for many into an observably more ‘creature of habit’ groove, one more restricted than may have previously been the case. The same daily walking circuits, constrained by distance regulations. Going straight to the laptop in the morning without the transition of travelling to work. Increased TV movie watching because there’s no other option at night. Cliona Kelliher nods at that. “We’ve probably all got into some bad habits, which were fine at the start because we all thought it was temporary. But now we’re beginning to feel it.”
That expectation of temporary has also affected Gerry O’Donoghue. “In my case, I keep expecting this to be over, so I’ve developed no pattern at all. Every day is very different, but not necessarily in a good way. I find myself spending a lot of time on social media, which I normally hate. It’s almost like waiting for Christmas, is it ever going to come? You just have to develop a strategy to make the day productive and worthwhile, but I haven’t reached that stage yet, even after a year. So I envy those who have developed habits, I wish I was so organised.”
There’s no doubt that, when this is over, the experience will have changed most people. For Roy Thompson, whose Department has seen people ‘piling into’ the outdoor sites and nature reserves that they manage, some change may be positive. “We’ve seen visitor numbers reach a stage we didn’t expect for maybe another 20 years, and if even a quarter of those keep doing it after this is over — and I believe they will — then it’s going to be a good thing.”
However, he’s concerned at something he has seen through the last year, across all cohorts of society — a lack of resilience. “It’s not a criticism, and it has surprised me even within myself, how difficult we are collectively finding this. Perhaps we had become accustomed to a particular way of life, a relatively easy or soft way of life, and this thing has confronted us and it has challenged our ability to cope, and it think it will be some time before we see what the effect of it will be.”
Evelyn O’Sullivan, whose children are now at the young adults stage, says she expects not to see much of them when things normalise. “I think as soon as airports open and there are places where they can go, they’ll be gone. And good luck to them and may they visit every place they want to see, and grab the opportunity with both hands. I think what we have learned now is not to put things off. If you want to go on that holiday, do it. This has taught me not to delay. Make that phone call, send that email, mind the nice things in life. Whatever career ambitions you have, go for it, for instance. I think the attitude that, ‘ah, let’s see what will happen’ in life, that will be gone.”
Cliona Kelliher is looking forward to the ‘little things’. “Going out for a cup of coffee with a friend. Or, I love going out places and taking photographs, and with the five kilometres thing I’ve just run out of places to do that.” The negative changes she fears are ‘huge mental health issues’, especially for young people. “All the normal rites of passage, the Leaving Cert, the transitions, all that was taken away from them and I feel so sorry for them.”
Evelyn O’Sullivan agrees, noting that at her age ‘life is settled and we know where we are’. But for young people, the difficulties have been particular. “I know people say, ‘sure it’s only a year’, but when you’re seventeen, eighteen, that’s huge.”
Adults have life experience that has helped them to get through, even ‘muddle through’ the situation, Roy Thompson says in agreement. “But young people don’t have that, they’ve got nothing to measure it against, nothing to draw on. And let’s face it, we’re no fecking use to them. Our guidance is not what they need, they had great plans, they were on the cusp of things that were pulled away from them and we can’t offer them an alternative.”
Even now, as we approach the anniversary of the first lockdown, alternatives are still elusively beyond the horizon. For everyone.

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