by Dr. Sinéad Murphy
Christmas 2021. Just off the ferry and out of the Port of Larne, after two years of Covid exile.
Overhanging the wide expanse of state-of-the-art motorway to Belfast was one of those gigantic electronic billboards for giving urgent messages to motorists. And it was indeed lit up with a message, written in huge points of light. Warning of congestion ahead, perhaps? Of a motorway accident? Of horses on the road? Of any other contingency relevant to the traveller at seventy miles an hour? Not so: “IN THIS TOGETHER WASH YOUR HANDS,” it advised.
Wash your hands? Now?? I cannot recall ever reading a message so utterly inappropriate for motorway traffic, promoting a kind of suicide-by-safety.
The message was repeated often on the approach to Belfast and on the route through the city. One sign deviated by encouraging the wearing of face coverings. Otherwise, the capital city of Northern Ireland appeared to have funnelled its fantasy of Covid containment so enthusiastically through hand washing that it could not resist recommending the ritual to those whose hands were at that moment the only thing keeping them from certain death.
Covid gave one thing back to a world that it stripped of interest and joy. It gave Covid regional flavour – local custom. During almost two years of more-or-less-lockdown, with shops and restaurants closed and social life suspended, few of the usual cultural markers were discernible. But Covid made up for that or tried to – you really knew you were in Belfast when you were being asked to WASH YOUR HANDS at the wheel.
Good detail for a ‘Postcard from Ireland’, I thought.
But things have changed in the few weeks since Christmas. Covid restrictions in Ireland are lifted – or sort of lifted – as they are sort of lifted in England, Wales, Scotland and elsewhere.
Time to retire the postcard from Covidworlds? Or time, instead, to update it? Less on-the-ground description of the particular combination of Covid irrationalities in play in another jurisdiction; more in-the-rear-view reflection on the particular ethos that made those irrationalities tolerable to their populations.
Never again is a powerful resolution with heavy historical connotations. Nonetheless, it is easily said. It will be more easily honoured if, in the midst of inevitable feelings of respite (however temporary), we determine to detail, not only the varying selections from the Covid a la carte that different governments imposed, but also the varying styles with which different peoples accepted those selections and impositions.
What conditions are like on the ground is a fascinating topic in the throes of conflict, but only the question of what popular spirit made those conditions possible suffices for reflection afterwards and for the resolution of never again to have any chance of prevailing.
IN THIS TOGETHER WASH YOUR HANDS evaporated on the other side of Belfast and nothing replaced it. The road crossed into the Republic, at which point it was tolled at several points. Few drivers were on it, but few ever are. On it went southwards to Cork, flanked by service stations that were as empty as the highway they serviced.
And nothing much else to report. Nothing new at any rate. We were only four travellers staying only 12 days and meeting only extended family and friends, that is true, but from our limited and partial vantage point it really did seem that the Covid Irish were as they had always been.
Two years of the most turmoil the world had ever known, and the Republic somehow unchanged.
There were masks, yes. Oh my, were there masks. On the day before Christmas Eve, I sat in the car for a full hour-and-a-half just outside the entrance to Dunnes Stores supermarket, waiting while my sister queued outside to get in and then queued inside to get out again. I may have seen as many as 500 people as I waited, queueing outside to get in and then inside to get out again. How many went without a mask? Aside from very young children, not one. The Irish mask like no one else on earth – with the possible exception of the residents of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
But staring so long at such total compliance produced a kind of optical illusion. Though there was not a single face on show, I began to imagine that there was or to forget that there was not. I began to see faces. The horror of Covid masking somehow retreated. How could this be?
Nobody in the Christmas queue for Dunnes Stores was ‘distancing’ in any noticeable or orderly way. Indeed, to conduct their many and lively conversations it was necessary for them rather to lean towards one another so as to understand and be understood. The Irish had not reneged upon their infamous propensity to chat, despite the masks. They doggedly went at it nonetheless, tracing common friends and family, establishing shared interests and opinions, remarking on the scene. It must have been hard work, gagged as they were. But they did it.
And that turns out to have been the defining ethos of Covid Ireland as far as I could make out. Massive concessions made to the Covid regime – masks worn, jabs taken, passes shown – while proceeding regardless in a pre-Covid vein. Muffled, of course; constrained, naturally; restricted, for sure: but somehow just the same.
There was a curfew through the whole of the Irish Christmas – pubs and restaurants were ordered to close at 8pm. And so they did dutifully close. And their patrons dutifully complied… then made arrangements to go out earlier and drink faster. “Eight before eight,” was the Christmas mantra, and passing a local pub at 6pm on New Year’s Eve, the crowd and the atmosphere seemed all in place, only squashed somehow – contracted.
If Ireland, like everywhere else, fell victim to the dreaded ‘new normal,’ the old normal nestled rather cosily within its tight parameters.
The Christmas weather was typically Irish: a relentless sequence of ‘soft’ days – warm, overcast, with mist so heavy that it is always erring on the side of rain. Driving on one such day, I had the thought that the sky was so close to the ground and so murky, and the ground so grey like the sky and so dank, that you had better trust to the instruments of your car to be assured that you were the right way up, as pilots must rely on the dials of their plane when flying through the darkness or in fog. You might be upside-down and not know it were it not being signalled otherwise.
And that was general effect of Covid Ireland. If there was not the odd sign about “keeping your distance” and if there was not the odd face to remind you that everyone else was masked, you would hardly know whether this was a Covidworld or not.
A good thing? To an extent, perhaps. There is something spirited about sinking eight pints before 8pm and shouting small talk at strangers through layers of synthetic fabric. But there is something dispiriting about it too.
Is it better to still ply your human ways even in an inhuman world or to demand a human world in which to ply your human ways? The Irish, it appeared to me, kept up their famed friendliness in the most unfriendly of environs. But landed there from the outside, if you didn’t trust your instruments, you really would not know which way was up.
When their walls closed in, as walls everywhere did, the Irish seem merely to have rearranged the furniture and then made themselves at home again, rescaling their native spirit to the new extent of their freedom. It was a kind of resistance, maybe – an indomitability. But given that it sat so easily with such total acquiescence, it was also a capitulation of the most complete kind.
Never again. Never again must a people be so mercilessly hemmed in and make do so well with their new horizon. Never again must they be bounded (and gagged) in a Covid nutshell and yet count themselves still kings of infinite space.
Dr. Sinead Murphy is Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.