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BABEL, BOLTED BOOZERS AND THE LOCKDOWN DOLDRUM BLUES

A Coronavirus Diary, first published in THE BLUE NIB

Spring passes and one remembers one’s innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers one’s exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.

Yoko Ono

We are deep into the season of the Winter Doldrums. The sky is gray and ominous. The weather is cold, wet and blustery. As I write, a light rain pitter-patters against my front window and the trees in the garden look skeletal. The clock has been moved back an hour and darkness, it seems, is falling earlier day by day.

At this time of year, people in the Northern Hemisphere can be vulnerable to Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD), a depressive condition thought to be induced by a paucity of natural light. Symptoms can include tiredness, low energy levels and an increased appetite for foods high in carbohydrates. My Winter Doldrums normally manifest themselves in a gentle dolefulness that lasts through most of November and dissipates in early December, when we start gearing up for Yuletide and the good will that the holidays traditionally induce.

This year, on top of SAD, we’re coping with the Coronavirus and its attendant restrictions. We’re a fortnight into Lockdown 2. It’s a weight to carry.

Hallowe’en has just passed and a damp squib it was. The empty streets, bereft of the customary troops of costumed children trick-or-treating the night away, spoke volumes about the fix in which we find ourselves. Now our thoughts turn to Christmas and the fervent wish that we’ll be less fettered for that customarily festive season.

Melancholy were the sounds on a winter’s night, wrote Virgina Woolf in her novel Jacob’s Room. We all now know whereof she spoke. Meanwhile, we persevere.

And some of us write. Before the virus came amongst us, writing was a vocation, maybe to be railed against on occasion. Now it’s therapy.

A few days ago, my wife and I took a bracing walk around the pier in Howth Village, located about 15 kilometres from the centre of Dublin City on the peninsula of Howth Head. We recalled other times when the ritual after such an outing would be to adjourn to the Top House Bar or the Abbey Tavern to cosy up to a roaring fire with a pint - and maybe a whiskey chaser to warm up the extremities. A hearty fire and a pint of stout can do wonders to ameliorate the Doldrums.

Alas, the Top House and the Abbey Tavern, like all the pubs in Ireland, were dark and empty and their doors were closed and shuttered. No joy to be had in there.

Who’d have ever thought that Ireland would be without her pubs for months on end?

Howth is a place that’s steeped in history, legend and culture.

In 1914, Molly Childers, with her husband Erskine and their friend and comrade Mary Spring Rice, evaded the British authorities and sailed their yacht, The Asgard, into Howth Harbour to land a shipment of guns and ammunition for the Irish Volunteers; this consignment would arm the volunteers for the Easter Rising in 1916.

The poet William Butler Yeats once resided in Balscadden House on the side of the hill, overlooking the bay. James Joyce dallied with the love of his life, Nora Barnacle, in the long grass on Howth Head and immortalised the moment in his writing. Barney McKenna, the legendary banjo player of The Dubliners, lived in the town and hosted many a session in the local hostelries. The great Irish rocker, Philip Lynott of Thin Lizzy fame, bought a hotel (aptly called The Asgard) and made his home there until his tragic death in January 1986 at the age of 37.

The peninsula features as backdrop for many paintings by the artist William Orpen.

Howth is special to me. In the early half of the last century, my grandfather, who lived with his family in the city centre, leased a piece of land halfway up the hill and built a hut on it. This, in the days before budget airlines and cheap foreign travel, was to be their holiday home. I recall spending a week there as a child with my Auntie Máire in the late 1950s.

Some years later, in my Bacchanalian twenties, I happily mis-spent much of my youth in the local pubs and clubs and, when I got lucky, I entertained the occasional young woman in the then disintegrating hut.

Nowadays, Howth can be a place of contemplation. A place to ramble and consider a tempting idea; to figure out a flaw, or a corner to be turned, in a work in progress.

In my younger years it was a quiet fishing village ensconced in an environment of immense natural beauty. Nowadays it’s a highlight on the list of Dublin’s tourism attractions, prized for its rich history, scenic glory, awe-inspiring cliff walks and fine restaurants and pubs.

A year ago, when we walked there, we’d be surrounded by visitors from all over the world and the exotic Babel of diverse languages would be music to our ears. Now the tourists are no more and the walkways are populated by Dublin folk taking their daily dose of exercise within the requisite five kilometres distance from their homes, all striding purposefully up and down the peninsula, faces set in stolid determination that COVID-19 will not defeat them.

The Babel has been hushed.

Dubliners, a tribe renowned for their quick easy wit and loquaciousness, are quieter nowadays. Less voluble. The virus taking its toll.

But our spirit is true. We look towards the season of good will and we heed the words from Percy Shelley in Ode to the West Wind:

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

We persevere.

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