St. Patrick’s Day: after a year in lockdown Ireland celebrates its national day stiff, sober(ish), and socially distanced

The sight of Professor Philip Nolan sat in front of a large bottle of hand sanitiser as he ruefully warned the nation’s assembled TV cameras that people were not to engage in customary St. Patrick’s Day behaviours such as “drinking,” or worse, “gathering” was enough to send me into a spiral of cognitive dissonance.

Then I remembered that Prof. Nolan could have a swig of sanitiser if he felt the need — as most good sanitisers like the ones used by Professors would certainly contain a lot of alcohol. Delicious. That was reassuring, both for Philip and for myself too as I hate to see anyone deprived. I can only assume the good professor is similarly pissed off that we have managed to mark our second St. Patrick’s Day in lockdown.

And it’s not even that I really care about missing out on St. Patrick’s Day; it’s no big deal really — although try telling that to the anti-lockdown patriot protestors… Although it is their right to protest, the snakey, not-so silent minority.

But even on a regular, non-pandemic March 17th, I wouldn’t be disgracing myself around the town, parading green-faced into a sea of fellow green-attired people all up to no-good glugging Guinnesses. I don’t even like Guinness!

Ireland sober is Ireland stiff

James Joyce

I do, however, enjoy St. Patrick’s Day because it represents the start of the long Summer evenings. My friends and I usually gather in a little group around St. Patrick’s Day to shed off our winter cobwebs and embrace the nicer weather we sometimes get, and, yes, sometimes we have a beverage or seven. Alas, not last year and not this year either. What harm.

The reason we are disappointed and fed up this St. Patrick’s Day is because some of the more significant things in our lives have been put on hold for the past year or more, and that sense of apathy and disquiet has had a cumulative effect, and on some more than others — as we’ve seen in action on the streets recently.

This year I will walk the dog (again) and send some emails (again) and try not to lose hope (again). It will feel like every other day in lockdown, except slightly greener on social media, that famous arbiter of normality.

In the gulf of time that has passed between this March 17th and last March 17th a lot has happened and nothing has happened. My career didn’t take off like I’d hoped as getting jobs is hard during a pandemic, would you believe, and I have moved back in with my parents in the countryside.

I’m looking back on a few notes I jotted down for a Patrick’s Day blog post I was too dispirited to make last year and the gulf between that and March 17th of two years ago is actually far greater. Apparently two years ago today, I was dancing and drinking and gathering with close contacts all over the shop. It was orgiastic by comparison to this year, no offence to the dog.

Talking of dogs, they were the only ones out last year when, avoiding then Taoiseach Varadkar’s first lockdown speech, I went out for a night time walk around Galway city. Shout out to the fluffy Pomeranian who cheered me briefly as I crossed the Wolfe Tone bridge. The rest of the city was deserted, holding its breath I now realise — or listening to Leo. Some silly string and shaving foam daubed all over Shop Street was the only evidence of the usual St. Patrick’s Day scoundrelry. One restaurant remained open; most others had shut in accordance with what were then only recommendations.

Mannequins standing in shop windows were for the most part my only company. Thankfully, these days our streets are more populated — with actual humans — and we have adapted to “the new normal.” (Hey, New Normal, if you’re reading this go home, you’re drunk and nobody likes you). I suppose for this year we might as well just soldier on, alone together until we can actually go back to the old normal, which, all things considered was pretty great — puke-filled streets not included. I’m quite sure we’ll be back in high spirits again soon. On last year’s lonely walk I spotted a man whistling ‘Wrap the Green Flag ‘Round Me Boys’ and a tourist couple gamely making the most of their predicament, both of them festooned with tri-colours down by Jury’s Inn under the beginnings of soft rain. I’m sure the likes of them are somewhere to be found this year too.

I’m not going to a distant world. I’m of Ireland, and I’ll stay in Ireland until I die.

Tom Cruise as Joseph Donnelly in ‘Far and Away’ (1992)

I doubt very much that Cruise’s character would have been content in a boring, romantically sterile, pandemic Ireland with its restrictions and 5k rules. Nary an ounce of craic in sight. Even NPHET are sickened. Nothing to be done really only stick a straw in the hand sanitiser and go to town…

5 Ways to prevent early-onset madness in lockdown

Here’s a few things I did to cope with lockdown over the past year…

Learn how to insult your loved ones in several languages

Some blog writers might recommend you be productive with your time spent in lockdown. They might say: “Get up at 8 am and do thirty minutes of Spanish on Duolingo every day because learning new skills is a great way to prepare yourself for the job market.”

I say b******s to that. Especially the getting up at 8 am bit. What kind of nutter gets up that early unless they’re being paid to? I’m currently unemployed – despite my best efforts to secure a job, any job – and I’m having a great time learning how to slag my family members off in an array of exotic tongues.

So, instead of relying on a needy green owl to teach me how to ask for directions to the train station in French, I’m learning skills I actually need for the kind of life I lead at the moment – i.e a life lived at home with my family, who occasionally get on my nerves.

I use the notoriously unreliable and inaccurate Google Translate because it’s all free, and there are no “daily reminders” – perfect for those of us with commitment issues who want to call their brother a smelly poo in German.

Teach your dog the safe cross-code

What do you mean your dog doesn’t know the safe cross-code? If you have a dog and you’re in lockdown, you’re most likely bored out of your skull at least one day a week… Go and walk your dog; you have no excuse not to. My dog’s legs are being worn to butts she’s being taken out so often these days – not that she minds the extra bonding time with her humans. And she’d certainly never let a bit of rain stop her. Since the winter set, in we’ve both gotten absolutely drenched together more times than I can count as we wander the quiet country roads near our house. Ruby empties her bowels, and I empty my head.

Neither of us particularly like the dog-lead – one of us resents having her freedom to sniff curtailed; the other prefers her arm in its socket, thank you very much. We both accept that leads are a necessary evil for roads with cars and dangerous bends, though. It took one of us, in particular, a very long time to get used to not acting like a complete thick whenever a car ambushes us. In my defence, Ruby doesn’t respect me or my authority very much, so if we do find ourselves crossing the road when it’s busy it becomes a power struggle in which the biggest bitch wins. But only just about.

After one too many near-brushes with doggy death by Skoda Octavia, I decided I needed to get a bit stricter, for both our sakes. We’ll start working on the safe cross code any of these weeks now.

Don’t be mindful™

Is there anything more boring than mindfulness? Somebody talking about mindfulness, perhaps. There’s an app you can download on your phone that tells you how to meditate. It’s called Headspace, and it sounds very stressful – what if I wasn’t good at mindfulness? Would I be able to handle the shame? I’d rather remain a head-case than find out I’m bad at something else.

Whenever we as a society go through a traumatising period, someone inevitably writes a smug newspaper column or blog post about mindfulness and how important it is “to be present in our suffering” – or some shite like that. Go and iron your yoga pants, you silly sausage.

Nine times out of ten, the rest of us are too busy getting on with it to be mindful of anything except what’s for dinner. (It’s beans on toast again because what’s the point?).

Purchase exercise equipment for ornamental purposes

At the start of Ireland’s second lockdown, which was six weeks ago at the time of writing, I got a sudden notion to start circuit training. I thought it would be a nice way to increase my woeful upper body strength as well as keep me occupied in the evenings.

I went on Amazon to look at exercise equipment, and then I bought what I thought I needed on an Irish website. I got two 4kg dumbbells and an ab-roller, which I tested out straight away. The ab roller was so easy to use I thought, ‘I must be doing something wrong here,’ so I haven’t used it since because I don’t trust it. It lies forlornly on my bedroom floor, and I keep meaning to have another go, but I’m afraid that if I do use it correctly, it will hurt ferociously. It’s just easier to think I don’t need it because my abs are already so obviously shredded. Not.

I’m having a bit more success with the dumbbells, but they are so heavy I can only use one at a time, like a kettle-ball. I tried to do an exercise called a bent-over row, and I nearly broke both my arms off. So, the dumbbells are lying on my bedroom floor also, and I take it in turns to use them so they don’t get jealous of each other. My advice to anyone thinking of taking up circuit training in lockdown is: don’t. And if you do buy exercise equipment, make sure it matches your curtains.

Treat lockdown like Lent

I’m pretty sure every religion has something like the Catholic tradition of Lent, a period during which people deny themselves of basic pleasures like biscuits to prove to their God that they are worthy of salvation.

Practicing Catholics observe Lent for six weeks every single year until they eventually die, and, one would hope, after all that self-denial, get their Heavenly reward.

Hopefully, we won’t have to do lockdown for six weeks every year – or twice a year – until we die, but it mightn’t do some of us more materialistic folk any harm to go without for a while. I’ve been treating lockdown like Lent – which I’d never do ordinarily – and it’s been working out fairly well for me. That might just be because as I write this, Ireland is about to open up most of its pubs, cafes, restaurants and shops. I’m aware that I sound smug to people in countries still dealing with restrictions and lockdown, but this last tip has genuinely helped me survive the past few weeks.

Bear in mind, too, that Lent doesn’t mean you have to give up everything you enjoy; it can be an opportunity to take up new hobbies and adopt better habits too. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest. I’ve swapped my nightly Netflix binge, which was getting out of hand before lockdown, for reading. I’ve just finished reading a brilliant book called ‘Shantaram‘, which is set in 1980s Bombay. It’s as far from Ireland lockdown 2020 as possible and a welcome change from 1990s American sitcoms, too. It’s a hefty tome at over 900 pages, but it was so enthralling I found it wasn’t half long enough. Perhaps I’ll end up feeling the same way about lockdown…

The news is making us miserable, edgy and tired

Ireland is a nation of moaners and whingers. If complaining was an Olympic sport, we would win gold every time.

Perhaps it’s the weather, or perhaps it’s a by-product of the years of societal oppression and joy repression courtesy of the Catholic Church – either way, we love a good whine. We are so good at it, in fact, that our infamous black humour is well-renowned all over the world. In that sense, we have achieved the impossible, turning a negative into a positive.

Whereas the Americans are almost annoyingly positive all the time, we Irish don’t have great expectations of ourselves or anyone else, which makes us relatable and even a bit loveable, like Eeyore.

Our national talent for never looking on the bright side of life, to paraphrase Monty Python, has stood to us recently as we endured lockdown in its various stages and levels of severity.

You’re miserable, edgy and tired. You’re in the perfect mood for journalism.

Warren Ellis

The news on Sunday night that Chief Medical Officer, Tony Holohan, was recommending a national Level 5 lockdown – that’s the one where you can hardly skim a stone – fairly put the kibosh on it all. The nation was stunned; we weren’t expecting such a strict lockdown so soon. Somebody on Twitter – where else – said that if Holohan really cared about public health he wouldn’t have delivered such a recommendation on a Sunday night, a time when most are highly strung thinking about the week ahead and what horrors it might bring.

Speaking personally, I tend to do most of my worrying from 8pm on a Sunday to 2am on a Monday, so I agree with part of the Tweeter’s statement. (As my nearest and dearests can attest, I don’t restrict my complaining hours; complaining is a 24-7-365 gig.) I would not be so negative, however, as to allege Holohan doesn’t care about public health. It’s kind of his job, and he seems a very empathetic sort. So, his heart is in the right place even if his call for a move to Level 5 was far too abrupt.

With Holohan cracking the whip, and anxious to avoid another strict lockdown, I decided to submerge myself neck-deep to wallow in that cesspit of negativity, Twitter. I read all of the takes – most of them miserable, for misery loves company. I only emerged periodically to rehash some of the takes I agreed with aloud to my parents, who seemed to be taking the news like a pair of slowly sinking stoics on the Titanic long ago. “Sure if we do go into Level 5, we do,” seemed to be their attitude. I looked at the dog to see if she might start a one-man orchestra, but she snored away oblivious. Lockdown means more walkies for her.

Some people, like me, seemed very critical of NPHET; others were critical of the people criticising NPHET. For a lot of bleeding-heart liberals criticising NPHET seems to be akin to killing puppies or eating Walker’s crisps – things you don’t do in Middle Ireland. I wondered did Tony Holohan and the Robin to his Batman, Ronan Glynn, suffer from vertigo such was the height of the pedestals they were being put on by many. On Sunday, I wasn’t particularly interested in reading about how fantastic NPHET is; I was in the depths of despair at the thought of going into Level 5. I was also enraged that most people thought NPHET were right – why aren’t these people complaining more, I asked myself.

On Monday, when the government decided to half-listen to NPHET’s advice and bring us all into Level 3 – an acceptable compromise – even more people joined the moan-fest. Smooth operator Leo Varadkar spoke to Claire Byrne on RTE about the government’s reasons for half-listening to NPHET. He was convincing, to a point, talking about the need to balance all public health interests, not just coronavirus, but he made a hypocrite of himself when he declared to Claire that NPHET members would never have to suffer the consequences of losing jobs under Level 5 restrictions. He also spoke about poverty, despite the fact his government continuously side with property owners over cash-strapped renters. (Not to complain, or digress too much, but I have been unemployed during Leo’s tenure as Taoiseach, and getting social welfare was like getting blood from a stone. To add insult to injury, there was no complaints department at the dole office.)

Uproar ensued because if there’s something Ireland loves as much as complaining, it’s a good fight. Over-caffeinated political correspondents typed feverish tweets claiming that the government was now at odds with NPHET, and there was no going back. They ignored, however, the fact that Varadkar said he has a very good working relationship with Holohan et. al. They just disagreed on the need to go into Level 5. I don’t know if it’s a hangover from silly season or what but manufacturing “a big split” between the government and a health advisory board in the middle of a pandemic is not a very nice thing for the Irish media to do. Especially as it isn’t true. Of course, everyone lapped it up, and soon it was as if Varadkar had literally stabbed Holohan in the back.

The whole thing turned into a soap opera with everyone shouting at each other while the pol corrs clapped their hands with glee. Normally I like pol corrs, but I think some of them desperately need a night off to attend the Abbey en masse when theatres re-open because they’ve forgotten what real theatre is supposed to be like. The public isn’t much better.

We need to stop complaining for once in our lives and take some personal responsibility for ourselves in our own situations. Cocoon if you need to. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Adhere to guidelines issued by epidemiologists (remember NPHET are not epidemiologists) as best you can. (Actually, this is more or less what Holohan said in a recent statement.)

Finally, a mention must go to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly’s response to a pol corr asking who would be responsible for further coronavirus deaths going forward. In a moment of pure, beautiful smart-arsery, Donnelly said, simply: “The virus is responsible.”

With public representatives like that is it any wonder we are the way we are?

Seeing the glass as half empty is more positive than seeing it as half full. Through such a lens the only choice is to pour more. That is righteous pessimism

Criss Jami, Killosophy
Watching the news in 2020 with a face on you like an otter eating a watermelon

What happened to ‘we are all in this together?’

It must be wonderful to be perfect.

It must be wonderful to be so sanctimonious in your selfless, yet somehow simultaneously self-satisfied state of self-isolation. Well done, you. I refer, of course, to all the finger-pointers, curtain-twitchers, and craic-less covidiots out there who are making this prolonged pandemic period so fucking unbearable. To paraphrase Joe Biden: Just shut up! Take a day off, please.

For the past few weeks now, I’ve been despairing of the public mood around the virus, which is here to stay whether we like it or not. (I fucking hate it; I do not doubt that you do too). But do you know what makes the whole sorry situation worse? It’s having to listen to people who think they are better than the rest of us droning on and on about how ‘selfish’ and ‘reckless’ we are being.

Since when did living become a crime? That is, after all, what those young people were doing congregated on Spanish Arch in Galway the last night. I live in Galway, and I was a student in NUI Galway, and nights out drinking have always been par for the course in most young Irish people’s experience.

Yes, some of them were pissing in people’s gardens – and that is disgustingly inconsiderate – but a minority of students have always been liberal with the contents of their bladders. This dates back to the ’70s and ’80s too. I know because there’s usually an article on it in the local paper. Oh, I shouldn’t say it, but perhaps the annual sprinkling of university urine is a sort of leveller for those lucky enough to own their own property in prime locations like the Claddagh and Newcastle?

If the pen is mightier than the sword, god love the young wans at Spanish Arch the other day. This is a compliment to the poet.

The Students’ Unions are generally fairly quick to call fellow students out on bad behaviour, and this year’s NUIG Student Union did so very nicely, while also pointing out the fact that NUIG officials were partly to blame for this in the first place, seeing as they told students to move down to Galway to pay for campus accommodation. It doesn’t take a cynic to wonder if this wasn’t all just a plan that badly backfired on the college, and now they have the audacity to think about giving these kids’ addresses to the gardaí. UCC has been talking about expulsion, like a child throwing its toys out of the pram. I thought people who run colleges were supposed to be clever? Teenagers are too young and powerless to be the scapegoats of an anxious nation; surely the presidents of our colleges realise that.

Did they think that students tentatively starting in-person (now online, now in-person) lectures in September would just move to campus en masse and stay there self-isolating like little monks and nuns? That was never going to happen. I am 26, and I find it hard enough when I can’t socialise properly. The temptation is there to say ‘fuck the lot of them’ and get plastered – especially when you’re young n’ sweet and, er, legal to drink at eighteen.

But here’s the thing; by ‘them,’ I realise I am referring to the frontline workers – the nurses, doctors, shopkeepers, emergency services, journalists, etc. I am also referring to people who have lost loved ones through coronavirus, or who are worried about losing them. That is not my intention, nor is it the intention of the youths drinking down at Spanish Arch the other night.

I think that it can be easy for people who are at a ‘fixed’ point in their lives – maybe they have children, or they have a partner and a good job they can still do in semi-lockdown – to point the finger of blame at “young people”. It’s easy to blame us for the virus spreading. It’s easy to see us as heartless hedonists who only think of quenching our vodka-thirst and having the craic, but that is not the case.

(More of a gin girl, me.)

Human beings are social animals, and we need to socialise to survive and thrive. During lockdown, nobody was thriving, and it’s a similar state of affairs at the moment as we find ourselves dealing with a limbo-like series of restrictions, many of which don’t make sense.

Let us live, Éamon. Also, congrats on missing the point.

Sometimes I look at the likes of the politicians and the NPHET members and the rest of the self-isolation preachers, and I think they have it easy with their big jobs and their marriages and their nice houses and their children. I feel as though my life has come to a standstill. My mother correctly pointed out to my brother, (20), and I that we are lucky we are not fighting a war. Lots of us are comfortable and safe, living off our parents while we wait for this spell to be over. We love our parents and grandparents and we want them to be safe.

I might add here that youth is a state of mind; I’ve seen plenty of people of “cocooning age” rail against their new-found victim status. I applaud them, and I hope they remain unscathed. The people just getting on with life are the reason I wash my hands and wear a mask when it comes down to it. I don’t have any more patience or sympathy for the finger-pointers – no matter what age they are. In fact, sometimes I think I could be tempted into giving some of them a good lick. Just to spite them. (I swear to god it has nothing to do with my not being able to date at the minute.)

There is a sadness about the whole thing as well as rage and frustration, for me. This pandemic is dividing all of us into self-interested (if not self-isolating) groups. The employed versus the unemployed, the protocol followers versus the anti-mask nutjobs, the young versus the elderly, the sick versus the rude of health, the publicans versus the schoolchildren, the meat-plant workers versus the tourists…

What happened to us? We are not all in this together anymore. That much is clear. Perhaps we never were. Not everyone’s interests can be accounted for, and some are bound to lose out. Society is cracking before our eyes.

In a sense, we are all victims of this virus. But we are fast becoming victims of lockdown, too.

As for the rowdy students? Galway being Galway, the rain is never far away. Sure, we don’t even have to pray for it!

Declan Varley has written many editorials on student life in Galway so he knows what he’s talking about


Golfgate: they can’t swing this one

Golf is a mug’s game. Just ask Dara Calleary. His tenure as Minister for Agriculture was going fine for a few weeks until he agreed to go to an Oireachtas Golf Society event in Clifden the day after the government announced new measures prohibiting large gatherings.


Now, as we know, Calleary wasn’t the only government representative present flouting the rules – but his head was the largest to roll. Unlike his disgraced predecessor, Barry Cowen, Calleary resigned straight away. It was a case of jump, or be pushed. At this rate, Micheál Martin is going through more Ministers than Stalin. (At one point, Stalin also led a triumvirate government, but I think the comparison ends there. Martin doesn’t enjoy purging his Ministers.) It’s all terribly embarrassing for this ‘new’ government, but to be honest, nobody cares about their feelings anymore.

Public sympathy is thin on the ground for this crowd of, well, eejits, who didn’t pause to think about the consequences when they packed their polo-shirts into their overnight bags for a golf party in a hotel.


The blithe insistence of Calleary and other experienced politicians like Phil Hogan and Jerry Buttimer on flouting their own government’s rules shows an appalling lack of judgement. Did they not know they would be caught in the act? It’s difficult to look dignified in a bright pink Ralph Lauren shirt panting as you swing a golf club in the air hoping for the best. I am not sure whether the 81 people attending the event are guilty of arrogance or ignorance – or both. They might as well have written “there’s one rule for ye and another rule for us” on the new social distancing safety measures. What’s next, a cough in the face?


I know that these politicians are on holiday, but they have to obey the rules and be responsible citizens just like everyone else does. The virus doesn’t know the difference between people who eat in McDonald’s, wear tracksuits, and shop in Lidl and people who eat oysters at golf dinners and have large salaries. Your bank balance, your education, and your accent don’t really matter when you’re exposed to tiny molecules of a virus that can be very dangerous for many. Like most people, the men and women who attended the Golf Society event probably weren’t in the at-risk category and if they contracted the virus they would make a good recovery. We are annoyed about the hypocrisy. This is not about being a kill-joy – I’m delighted the pubs, cafes, and restaurants have begun to open again because I missed them sorely. It is about holding people in positions of power to account.


That EU Commissioner Phil Hogan had the audacity to blame the hotel at which the event was being held for not enforcing the measures just tells you how out of touch these people are.

https://twitter.com/PhilHoganEU/status/1296748599934685184

I wonder how many of the attendees had health insurance, and I wonder how many of the people working at the hotel have health insurance. Blaming low-paid hospitality workers for one’s own lapse in judgement is cowardly and morally reprehensible. When Phil Hogan made that statement, did he think of the workers? (Nah, he thought of his own neck on the block.) Many have been out of work due to the pandemic and are only returning now. They’re having to work twice as hard to make up for lost time and lost money; they are being taxed to the hilt for years to come because of the money we all lost during lockdown. We all have to make sacrifices – as NPHET keeps saying – and politicians are no different.

Coronavirus: to mask or not to mask?

To wear a mask, or not to wear a mask, that is the question…

I don’t know why I’m paraphrasing Hamlet here, when we all know that Denmark’s infamous dithering prince would most likely have upped and died of coronavirus had he dawdled that long – five acts of an entire play – to decide between wearing a mask or not. (Medicine wasn’t so advanced back in Shakespeare’s day).

Lucky for Hamlet, and Shakespeare fans, the dilemma faced by the Dane was more interesting and complicated than the present mask debate. All Hamlet had to do was decide whether he should kill his usurping uncle or not. (I studied the play for Leaving Cert, and I remember thinking that if Hamlet wasn’t such a damn pussy about claiming his birthright then the play could have been a lot shorter. Just a little editorial note for Mr. Shakespeare there, since “brevity is the soul of wit.”)

Whether or not one wears a mask has become the latest ‘question’ to split the ideologues. The libertarians aren’t pushed and the liberals are pushy. It’s enough to make one become a hermit – which is actually what is recommended to stop the spread of this dreaded virus. It’s an option which I consider more and more each time I hear someone attempt to politicise wearing a mask.

No matter what side of the mask ‘question’ you are on, I think everyone should take a step back and remember what this is all about. And it’s about wearing a mask. That’s all. Very simple.

Just do it Hamlet: wearing a mask is easy

Scientists recommend that we should wear face masks to curb the spread of coronavirus. I’m no Einstein, but this seems reasonable to me, so I wear a mask on my face every time I go into a shop or a crowded place. I didn’t always – mainly because it took me a while to get a mask, but now that I have one, I wear it, and I will continue to. Also, my godmother made me a cool one, so that helps with any aesthetic reservations I’d have.

But how you look is kind of beside the point; if you’re wearing a mask, you’re preventing the spread of a killer virus. That’s a sensible thing to do, and sensible isn’t always sexy. (Take it from me; I always took care to submit my Hamlet Leaving Cert English essays on time). As the doctors and nurses working on the frontline say: how stupid do you think you’d look hooked up to a ventilator?

Even if you don’t listen to scientists – and as a humanities graduate, I get it, scientists are smug a-holes sometimes with their big STEM salaries and their high falutin’ molecular splittin’… Ignore the scientists if you must, but for decency’s sake, listen to the nurses and doctors who see people dying every day in our overwhelmed health system. Would it kill you to wear a mask?

Costa del Penneys, hun

I’ve forgotten what phase of lifting coronavirus restrictions we are meant to be in – is it two or three? – but I know that shops and businesses have begun to open again. There are more people out and about and the town is almost back to its old self, which is heartening to see.

The only indication that we haven’t fully emerged from the corona-Matrix is the abundance of mask-wearing folk queueing carefully, if slightly impatiently, outside shop premises. That and the amount of hand sanitiser stations businesses have hastily erected to comply with the government’s orders. If capitalism is to survive corona it must be a capitalism that is caring and compliant – and clean. Squeaky clean.

Penneys (aka Primark) kept everyone waiting for its reopening, which happened late last week – once again I don’t know the exact date because all the days are bleeding into one at the moment.

It might have been a Friday. Whenever it was it was a momentous occasion and one that will certainly go down in Irish consumer affairs history. For those who don’t know Penneys, it is a shopping institution for Irish people – young and old. It’s cheap and does nice clothes, shoes, home decor-type stuff, and cosmetics. And we love it. Penneys is dependable, affordable, and, for many people, including myself, it allows us to access high street fashion on a low budget.

Forget your Chanels, your Guccis, your Dolce & Gabbanas; Penneys can always be relied upon to stock cheap rip-offs of the trends we lust after on the catwalks. It has democratised fashion in a sense by making it so easily accessible, and we didn’t realise we had a good thing going until it closed all its branches when coronavirus came calling.

Now that the popular franchise has reopened all its stores people are flocking to them in, perhaps unsafe, numbers. With that in mind, the Irish Times despatched consumer affairs correspondent, Conor Pope, to vox pop those brave first few hundred Penneys customers.

His vox pops which were done outside one of the franchise’s many Dublin shops formed an article that was an amusing portrayal of Irish consumers. Most of the people Pope spoke to were women, and, unsurprisingly, they were all hardcore Penneys fans.

To Pope’s dismay, most had been queueing outside the shop since the small hours that morning. (The article is available on the Irish Times website – you’ll have to go through the paywall – but, fear not, you’ll be charged less than the cost of a pair of socks from Penneys to read it, and others.)

I got the sense – and I could be wrong – that Pope isn’t a hardcore Penneys fan. If one could measure such a thing as love for Penneys, I’d say Pope might be a 2 or a 3. He’s ambivalent. The people he interviewed would be all 10s or 11s. I’m a five; I like the place and I buy most of my clothes and other “bits” from it but would I drag myself out of bed at 5am in the middle of a pandemic to queue for it to open? Not a chance.

From the looks of things, most people agree that anyone who did queue the first day was a bit bonkers. By “the looks of things,” I mean Twitter, of course, which is where I read all the takes on Penneys reopening.

The computer-bound commentariat was saying all manner of things about the crazy queuers, most of which revealed its own craziness. Some people were getting mad about the classist tone to some of the comments; others were castigating the shoppers for their “selfishness” and lack of adherence to social distancing rules. Most people were simply taking the piss.

It’s easy to take the piss out of the Penneys huns, but where will these piss-takers be when its the weekend before they’re finally allowed to return en masse to their offices? Why, in Penneys, of course. They’ll be eyeing up the shirts; they’ll be stocking up on hosiery, and they’ll have that dazed look on their face – a look that says I don’t remember the last time I felt so ordinary.

Perhaps then it might dawn on them that they have been taking Penneys for granted all these years pre-corona. For some, Penneys is just a useful one-stop-shop kind of place to pick up socks and jocks, but for others, it is an enjoyable place to spend time in. They wander around looking and rifling through crowded rails for a bargain or they make a beeline for that black t-shirt that they need for work, perhaps stopping to pick up some extra bits on the way to the checkout where an automated voice calls “Cashier number four,” and so on, ad nauseam until the queue is gone.

I suppose our enduring love of – and reliance on – Penneys is a laughing matter to some. You might call them classist snobs, or, perhaps, Dad. I certainly smiled more than once at the jokes being made at the expense of all the people queueing outside Penneys shops around the country last week, but some took the jibes too far.

We are all looking forward to different once-familiar experiences on emerging from lockdown, and, to a lot of people, Penneys is one of these experiences. So, yeah, Penneys is a franchise that relies on cheap labour from poorer parts of the world to supply stock to us greedy consumers but it is not the only franchise that does this – and one can hardly place the blame for this on the shoulders of the several thousand queuers last Friday (or whenever it was).

They were just ordinary people excited to be excited about something normal for the first time in the months since the pandemic changed their lives. Who would begrudge anyone the chance, now a privilege, of picking up “a few bits” in town now we’re doing better? Nobody’s going anywhere else this Summer, after all.

See youse in Costa del Penneys – the panacea for what ails us.

Going Viral: The difference a century makes

So far, 2020 is terrifying. 

Amid the near-constant talk of coronavirus since the year marking a new decade began, it is perhaps a small comfort to know that our ancestors endured another pandemic in 1918-1919 – and in much more difficult circumstances.  

In May 1918, shortly after the end of World War One, the ‘Spanish Flu’ hit Ireland and devastated us. By then it was already devastating other countries; to say nobody was prepared is an understatement – many of these countries were only beginning to recover from a major war.  

Ireland, while neutral during the war, was perhaps even less prepared for such a public emergency. We were a backward country still trying desperately to be fully rid of British rule – albeit with little success. Our location in the middle of the Atlantic – right beside the UK – left us vulnerable and isolated away from our European friends on the continent.  

Unsurprisingly, the 1918 pandemic killed over 20,000 people in Ireland alone. Worldwide, the figure was closer to 100 million.  

One of my grandfathers was born in 1919. He died just after the new millennium in 2000 aged 81, having lived through what was arguably Ireland’s greatest period of transformation.  

He was a toddler when the Irish Civil War began; a young man during World War Two; a middle-aged man with a large family to support when Ireland finally began to modernise during the 50s and 60s; and an old man by the time the tech boom arrived here in the 1990s.  

His wife – my grandmother – lives in a nursing home not far from the house they spent their lives in. She is in a high-risk category for coronavirus; residents of nursing homes and over-70s account for something like 90% of all coronavirus-related deaths in Ireland.  

‘Nanny’ – for that is her name to me and all her many other grandchildren – has had no visitors for weeks on end now.  

My aunties bought her a very basic mobile phone so they could call her and talk to her remotely. Nanny is almost 90, and while she is as smart and sharp as she was when she was younger, she will never be one of these ‘tech’ people.  

The internet came too late for my grandparents; they didn’t and they don’t understand it. Nor do they wish to. “Everyone has one of them phone-ens,” Nanny often says if she catches one of us furtively checking it in her company. Although she has been forced to admit our phones are useful when we Google the time her favourite programme is on TV.  

Her children all have smartphones; my Dad is in his early 60s and would not be without his. He uses it for work emails, Facebook, and WhatsApp. He’s a demon for funny videos, which he watches on full volume without earphones.  

I have had a smartphone since the age of about 15, but the age parents are willing to give children internet access is getting younger and younger.  

Most parents of small children will probably think nothing of their little ones playing on i-Pads or playing other console games to keep them quiet during the lockdown.  

It is remarkable the difference a generation makes. 

Compare the present lockdown to the response of Irish people over one-hundred years ago. Not many people knew about viruses in 1918; hygiene standards were poor and medics didn’t have any of the resources we have today.  

It is a testament to our ancestors and their strength and forbearance that they managed to survive the 1918 pandemic and have children that continue to live through this pandemic. Their children will survive it, too, if we treat our elderly with the respect they deserve.  

Summer is ruined but at least we’re living through history

The one way of making people hang together is to give ’em a spell of the plague.”

Albert Camus – ‘The Plague’

Before coronavirus changed everything, my friend and I had made tentative plans to go inter-railing around Europe for the Summer. We had agreed on a route; Prague to Krakow to Budapest – and we had agreed on all the locations and sites we absolutely had to visit in each city.  

I remember the evening we spent planning it in our favourite French-style café, which we were both regulars at pre-corona.  

How lucky I am that the only things I mourn in this lockdown are my holiday that never was and sitting in my café drinking strong coffee and listening to other people’s conversations.  

The streets are quieter these days and everybody keeps their distance, because nobody knows when this will end – or if it will.  

As doctors, nurses, politicians, emergency responders, police, supermarket workers – ie. the select few the government has decided are “essential workers” – try and keep going, the vast majority of people are grateful enough, and smart enough, to do our part and stay the fuck inside.  

My housemates fled back to their parents and I, too, returned home after a few days of going slowly mad by myself in my rented house in Galway city.  

It’s better at home; I walk the dog in the countryside, I do housework and I don’t clean my room. Every day at 9pm I watch the news with my parents.  

One day I was talking to my Mother, telling her about my aborted holiday plans. “I suppose I’ll go next year,” I said, because I not optimistic or stupid enough to believe I’ll be leaving Ireland any time soon.  

Mum shrugged her shoulders and said “You are living through history.” 

She was right. She’s always right – I am living through history. We all are. 

The people who lived through the 1918 pandemic started popping up in our family’s discussions about coronavirus. We can read about the 1918 pandemic online; we can read as much or as little as we please.  

History never looks like history when you are living through it.”

John W. Gardner

We might be living through history, but with the internet and all the other technology available to us, we have the benefit of hindsight. There is a lot of grumbling about technology and how it is destroying us and making us less sociable, but I think that even its doubters have begun to come around to the idea that in times like these our screens can act as windows to a world we cannot move freely in any more.  

It is a small mercy, too, that even though we are on lockdown and we cannot see friends and family or go to work, we have this incredible resource at our disposal to record our experiences.  

In a hundred years’ time, let the record show what we did and how we lived – and survived – this pandemic.  

There’s the sourdough bread baking crack of dawn risers doing yoga in their front rooms. There’s the cereal for dinner at 1am Netflix bingeing head shavers. There are the Leaving Cert students waiting for an answer on when their exams will be. There are people in nursing homes who can’t see their families. There are bored children driving their addled parents up the walls. And there are heartbroken people who can’t grieve properly for their loved ones dying from this virus. 

None of us know when this will all be over; all we can do is wait and hope and do what they tell us.  

By “they” I mean the people we find ourselves reliant on to keep us safe. From the security guard in your local supermarket who enforces social distancing, to the nurses run off their feet in hospitals all over the world, we must respect and appreciate the sacrifices they are making for us.  

Many frontline workers have already paid with their lives, and yet there are some incredible dumbasses out there who shout abuse and spit at these men and women who are only doing their best in a bad situation. And believe me, their best is good enough. I hope they don’t let the bastards get them down.  

History won’t look on the bastards too kindly.  

As for the rest of us? We’ll have a pint and an ice-cream when it’s all over..