Letter from Ireland: Advocate’s Jamie Morris on being overseas in shadow of pandemic

By Jamie Morris

Irish literary giant, James Joyce. Photo: Jamie Morris.

You know the situation is dire when the Irish government shuts down the country’s 7,000 pubs just days before St. Patrick’s Day.

When my wife, Glenda, and I arrived in Dublin on March 3 there were two confirmed cases of COVID-19, both of them Irish citizens returned from Italy. As of today (March 17) the number stands at 223 confirmed and two deaths.

Jamie Morris, writer-at-large.

During our 11 days in Dublin there was a feeling of life going on much as usual and COVID-19 as something happening mostly elsewhere, to others – with storm-clouds on the horizon.  The trams and commuter trains, the streets of Dublin, were packed. The performance we attended at the Abbey Theatre was to a sold-out audience and the Dublin Film Festival showing was well-attended. Popular tourist destinations such as the Guinness Storehouse tour and Kilmainham Gaol were fully booked.

In restaurants we were seated cheek-by-jowl with others. (At one upscale eatery Glenda was appalled that nobody bothered to wash hands before dining).

Very suddenly the virus was upon the country and the protective mask some wag attached to the James Joyce statue’s face seemed less funny.

Measures here, as everywhere, have been ramped up. The day we boarded the train from Dublin schools were officially closed, along with creches (nursery schools), and cultural institutions. Restaurants have been added to the list. There are recommendations that indoor mass gatherings of 100 and outdoor gatherings of 500 or more be cancelled.

On the weekend we ventured into Galway from our Airbnb in Salthill (a strip that runs parallel to the shore a few hundred meters from the coastal trail). Arran sweater shops, bookstores, drugstores, shops selling tourist gear and knickknacks were open and the streets were busy. We felt we were running a slalom course trying to maintain our distance from those oncoming and overtaking (mostly tourists rather than native Galwegians on the weekend).

We were still booked for a Galway craft beer tour but cancelled, explaining that in light of the COVID-19 warnings it seemed imprudent for two 60-somethings to hang out in a pub. The organizer of the tour –who turned out to be a Canadian expat engineer from Kitchener — was understanding and sympathetic and provided recommendations for craft brews available at the nearby store and for a source of smoked salmon and mackerel.

The next day closure of all pubs was announced and by then we’d decided to return to Canada early, on the first available direct flight out of Dublin (which will be this Thursday).

Storm clouds on the horizon. Photo: Jamie Morris.

Recommendations for Ireland now are to shelter at home and venture out only when necessary, for groceries and other necessities. One grocery store chain has announced special hours for seniors and other vulnerable individuals to shop; the store nearest us has at its entrance gloves, hand-sanitizers and instructions about maintaining distance from other customers.

When we returned to the city centre this morning the streets were close to empty and only a few shops still open.

Our last few days are being spent reading (thanks, Kawartha Lakes Library, for digital resources that can be accessed from anywhere in the world), watching Netflix and going for long walks.  Which sounds idyllic and is, but in the background is always COVID-19 and anxiety about the thousands of surfaces touched and thousands of human encounters in Dublin.

On Thursday it’ll be a bus to Dublin airport, screening, and a return, to be followed by two weeks of self-isolation. (Friends have offered to lay in provisions for us).

The country we’ll be leaving will be facing enormous challenges. The closures so far have resulted in 140,000 off work. This morning came estimates from the head of one group that 340,000 workers in the retail sector will be out of work by the end of the week. When testing procedures were in place yesterday the booking system was overwhelmed within hours. Projections are the COVID-19 numbers of infected people here might reach 15,000.

But during our short stay in Ireland we’ve learned there’ve been struggles in the past and that taking care of one another is part of the Irish make-up. Just outside our window is a park named for Celia Griffin, a six-year old child who was subject of an inquest in 1947, during the famine. She’d been taken in, but too late, as the plaque explains: “the poor creature…was so exhausted as not to be able to use the food supplied to her.”

We’ve also seen that strength and resilience are also in the Irish character. Seeing swimmers braving both the Irish Sea and the Atlantic in March told us all we needed to know.

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