Island of céad míle deora

WE have been in lockdown for more than a month now and I am beginning to look like Gerry Adams because I’m unable to visit Karina my charming Latvian hairdresser. Police on either side of the border have the power to impose heavy fines or a six month jail term on those who wilfully ignore restrictions which allow only key businesses to open and essential travel.

The two jurisdictions have agreed to coordinate their plans much better, especially when the threat begins to recede and life as we remember it can resume. It is clear this is going to be a long and slow process which may require regular testing of the entire population and a fast and vigorous response plan to stamp out any new outbreak before it can sweep the island again. The health crisis has exposed the flaws of partition and northern power sharing like never before, though it is no time for political point-scoring or tribal drum beats. The Coronavirus reminds us we share a homeplace for it is a plague on all our houses. Liam Glynn, professor of general practice at the University of Limerick, puts it plainly: “Anything other than an all-Ireland approach is bananas.”

It is fitting that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar should quote Ulsterman Seamus Heaney. But for many families life will not be the same again after this dreadful Wintering Out. Loved ones have gone to the grave without the opportunity to say goodbye. Mourners have been denied the chance to pay their respects. The rituals surrounding death in Ireland have been suspended: the wake house; the offer of a ‘lift’ of the coffin; the graveside handshake; tea and buns in the church hall and the ‘sorry for your troubles.’ Instead the deference and support of family, friends and community must be offered remotely using cold technology and without the comfort of a human touch. Today’s statistics (April 25) reveal the death toll on this island to be at least 1,292.  Behind the frightening statistics are hundreds of moving personal tragedies both here and elsewhere.

I was deeply saddened by the loss of historian Jonathan Bardon. He was born in Dublin but made Belfast his home. His Belfast: An Illustrated History is a must-read for the city’s tour guides and his Narrow Sea reveals who put the gun in Irish politics. He tells us the ancient Irish annals disclose how an O’Donnell from Donegal shot and killed an O’Rourke in Leitrim in 1487. Ireland has lost many of her exiled children and friends. Among them are Alice Kennedy from Laois who did much for the London-Irish; Englishman Tim Robinson who wrote beautifully about the west of Ireland and American songwriter John Prine who married Fiona from Donegal. This land of welcomes has become the island of céad míle deora, one hundred thousand tears.

We have, however, fared better than other places and progress has been made in the tracing, treatment and study of the virus which kills some, yet leaves others unscathed. Ireland has a world leading pharmaceuticals industry and is playing its part in the search for a permanent solution to this tragedy. Almac in Dundalk, the legacy of Tyrone’s Allen McClay, is involved in 11 major projects including the search for a vaccine. Randox in Antrim, a global leader in diagnostics, manufactures a reliable testing kit. Experts at our universities are involved in every aspect of Covid-19 research. There have been many outstanding individual contributions too. Dr Michael Ryan, from Tubbercurry in Sligo, is chief executive of the World Health Organisation’s Health Emergencies Programme and is tasked with the job of containing, tracing and treating the virus at an international level. Catherine McElnay, from Bushmills in Antrim, is New Zealand’s director of public health and responsible for the ‘bubble approach’ which saw her adopted nation of five million, lose fewer than 20 citizens. Declan Kelly, from Tipperary, was executive producer of the One World: Together at Home concert that brought together The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift and raised more than £100 million for the World Health Organisation and vaccine research.

But the greatest contribution is made daily by thousands of people in the health and social care sectors who continue to risk their lives to treat the sick and the dying. Each Thursday night we have rightly applauded their efforts but we owe them a debt that can never be repaid. We are also deeply in debt to the thousands of people who continue to go to work to ensure essential services continue without interruption, including supplies of food and medicines in our local shops. We must also thank the neighbours, friends and even strangers who helped out in time of need. The crisis reached a low point for me on Good Friday. We cut through the broadband cable while gardening and simultaneously my old Apple iPhone SE died of exhaustion. I was cut off from the world. The team of engineers from Virgin had my broadband restored within three days at no charge. With the help of my tech-savvy daughters I was able to order a new and more advanced iPhone from O2 and learn new skills of Face-timing and Zooming. With a little help from staff, I’ve even mastered using the Smartshop App at Sainsbury’s.

There have been other unexpected bonuses. The house, garden and car have never looked more cared for. I’ve had time to watch more excellent Scandinavian drama on television. I’ve worn out my fingers playing Bluegrass mandolin and improved my DADGAD guitar techniques. I’ve read Johnny Rogan’s epic biography of Van Morrison; George Best’s candid autobiography and more of Ciaran Carson’s wonderfully rich and subtle storytelling. I share his love of language but I’m no haruspex when it comes to forecasting the fortunes of nations and men.

I would however remind Leo Varadkar, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill of Seamus Heaney’s firm belief that there is a farther shore, reachable from here.

© Maurice Neill 2020