Coping with COVID-19 in Ireland

By Larry Donnelly
Special to

Wicklow, Ireland- These are extremely strange and scary days for everyone.  If any of us had been told at the start of 2020 that we would be socially distancing, cocooning or self-isolating a few months later, we surely would have scoffed.  But as the terrible maxim goes, we are where we are.

Here in Ireland, we have been bolstered by strong medical and political leadership since the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic became clear.  In particular, An Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar – a medical doctor who is spending one half day per week taking calls from anxious patients – the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, and the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, have been the proverbial steady hands in this extraordinary period.

It is also worth mentioning the superb work being done around the clock to keep the public informed by our media.  The national broadcast news organs have excelled in their communication of a fluid situation.  Likewise, printed newspapers and online news services, at national, regional and local levels, have demonstrated that they are absolutely vital in a free society.  One hopes that those now relying upon them in Ireland and elsewhere will continue to support good journalism when this horrendous scourge – please God – relents.

Just as their counterparts in the United States, frontline workers – running the gamut from men and women in public safety and healthcare to those stocking supermarket shelves and cooking meals – are performing their important tasks with good-natured alacrity.  It may be trite to say it, but they deserve a raise.

On the other hand, people on this island are struck more than ever by the temperament of President Donald Trump.  Irish Twitter every night lights up with disbelieving sentiments from keen followers of American politics about the conduct of his press briefings.

And writing in their wake in The Irish Times, Irish Senator Michael McDowell, a former Attorney General and Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) who nobody would mistake for a leftist, cuts to the quick: “There are many other words to describe the worst person elected to the US presidency.  America needs to become great again, but that process can start only when the majority of US voters realise their country is led by a moral and emotional monster.”

McDowell’s brutal assessment is shared by the overwhelming majority of the Irish citizenry.  Anecdotally, I have been stopped on my frequent walks by numerous friends, neighbours and acquaintances who vent their displeasure with the commander-in-chief of a country they have such an affinity with.  Still, no one knows what the political fallout from the coronavirus will be ultimately.

But at this juncture, it is difficult to see it working out well for President Trump.  His poll numbers have fallen in several key states.  And the defences offered by my Trump-supporting friends back in Boston on our Saturday Zoom chats and group texts are increasingly tough to fathom.

As off the wall as I find some of their perspectives, one of the best aspects of the world we now inhabit has been connecting far more often with the guys and girls I grew up with.  I have lived in Ireland for nearly two decades and have my own family and solid network of close friends here, yet there is nothing like the kinship you enjoy with the people who’ve known you forever.  The same fables and insults, regardless of how often they are repeated, never get stale.  Tremendous comfort is had in the banter about our character-shaping experiences and upbringing in our beloved home neighbourhood of East Milton.

On the down side, I worry deeply about my 85 year old father, who is in a nursing home in Quincy.  Regrettably but necessarily, he cannot have visitors.  My brother and his family are limited to waving at him in the window from outside the building.  We think of Dad constantly, write to him regularly and hope he derives some solace from our messages.

I am reaching back across the Atlantic in other ways, too.  I’ve been carefully scanning the newspapers online and various websites thoroughly to see how Massachusetts, a decent comparator to Ireland in terms of size and population, is dealing with the crisis and reading wonderful human interest pieces about so many individuals who are rising to the occasion in this hour of need.

I’ve returned to listening to the online stream of Irish music weekends on WROL AM 950, a staple of my and many of my contemporaries’ childhoods.  Ads on the station for St. Agatha School, which I and most of my friends attended and where my nephew now goes, make me homesick.  I also get a kick out of the spirited commentary and hard Boston accent of DJ Johnny “The Rooster” Costello.

3,000 miles away in my new home, my family and I have been together under one roof for an unprecedented length.  My son, Larry Óg, is 7 and a keen sportsman.  While Wicklow Golf Club, where we ordinarily spend as much time as is humanly possible, is closed, we have been working on our games.  Additionally, we play a lot of soccer, Gaelic football and hurling on the street.

Coronavirus forced my stepson, Seán, who is preparing for his online college exams, to celebrate his 21st birthday at home.  Although he took it in typically good-natured fashion, I suspect he would have preferred pints with his pals in Dublin to a few cans and a takeout in the company of his parents and younger brother.

Jokes about husbands and wives tearing each other’s hair out abound.  I am happy to report that matters have not gotten that bad here, notwithstanding my wife’s entirely understandable frustration with me.  In all seriousness, our short strolls and longer than usual conversations about everything under the sun have helped us remember why we took the plunge almost 11 years ago.

I have been working remotely.  Eileen has continued to commute to RTÉ’s (Ireland’s state broadcaster) Dublin campus, where she is a news anchor.  And watching her bring the latest stories both of despair and of hope to the country with her trademark professionalism makes me immensely proud.

If anything, Covid-19, even as it frightens me badly, has made me realise all that I have and how lucky I am.  I don’t think I am alone.  This is a good thing.  I pray often for a new day when all of this awfulness is behind us.  It can’t come soon enough.

Larry Donnelly, who grew up in East Milton, is an attorney who has lived and worked in Ireland since 2001.  He is a lecturer and director of clinical legal education in the School of Law at the National University of Ireland, Galway and a regular media contributor on politics, current affairs and law in Ireland and the US.  Follow him on Twitter at @LarryPDonnelly.