“It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will prevail”.
As Ireland emerges from lockdown, the words of former Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney, who is buried in St Finbarr’s Cemetery, ring true.
The people of Ballyphehane and Togher, Cork and Ireland have endured much over the past 18 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
When the Covid-19 virus first began to make headlines and eventually arrived on Irish shores, few could have predicted its impact on everyday life. Family and friends could no longer see each other in person, businesses were forced to close, and more than 5,000 people across Ireland lost their lives as a result of the virus.
The adversity was met by those in Ballyphehane and Togher with resilience, strength, and an enduring sense of community spirit, according to those on the ground in the area.
“Communities in Togher, Ballyphehane, and Greenmount really rallied together during the Covid-19 lockdowns, particularly during the early onset of the restrictions last year,” said Independent city councillor Mick Finn.
“Strong support networks that have been built up in these areas over the years were already in place, which provided solid foundations on which to build responses to the emerging issues.
“The Ballyphehane/Togher Community Development Project (BTCDP), local sports clubs, local councillors, family centres, youth services, organisations like the Lantern Project, and especially the local schools really stepped up to the mark to ensure that the most vulnerable were looked after.
“Whether it was collecting groceries or prescriptions, providing food or just checking in, it really was something to witness and be proud of.”
Siobhán O’Dowd, project coordinator of Ballyphehane/Togher CDP, admitted that the onset of the pandemic did cause a shock in the area, but that the community quickly rallied.
“Like everywhere else, there was a lot of anxiety about it,” she said.
“Older people in particular were very worried because they were being advised, very strictly and sternly at times, to cocoon at all times.
“We also see a lot of young families who have additional challenges, so every age group was just trying to manage, trying to adapt to the new normal, and keep themselves and their families safe.”
Siobhán explained that with everyday activities or tasks now prohibited or difficult to complete while cocooning, Ballyphehane/Togher CDP and the community rallied to help those in need.
“Things like food shopping, pension collection, and more became a lot more complicated,” she said. “The area response team for Togher/Ballyphehane, City Council, ourselves, and volunteers from a number of groups including Ballyphehane Women’s GAA helped out with that.
“Community gardaí also played a huge role, and post offices were brilliant as well.
“There’s a great sense of community up here and people really bought into that — we’re used to working together, so we came together. We organised food delivery from trusted volunteers, pension collections, day-to-day needs such as plumbing or electrical work that cropped up.”
Ballyphehane Togher CDP also teamed up with Cork Healthy Cities to provide activity packs for families with young children in the area who were unable to attend school or see friends during lockdown. The CDP also received funding from the Education and Training Board for digital equipment to ensure people could keep in touch with family and friends, or complete online education programmes. They also organised activity packs for older people in the community.
“We found that supporting and keeping people connected with each other and their families were the milestones in enabling and helping them to get through Covid in a less stressful and more optimistic way,” said CDP project administrator Gráinne O’Connell.
“What I have seen myself is that people, both young and the older population, were so resilient and strong in coping with the pandemic and that staying connected, whether it be by phone, Zoom, or WhatsApp, helped them get through.
“Also a lot of people took to walking, enjoying getting back to nature, gardening, did crafts, online Zoom cafes where they reminisced over old times in the past and, for those who couldn’t grasp the technology, just a simple connecting phone call weekly seemed to do the trick.”
Fergal O’Connor of Togher Tidy Towns praised the community for coming together to support the elderly and vulnerable with grocery and medicine deliveries.
“Togher Boys and Girls primary schools sent food care packages every Wednesday,” he said. “Togher Meals on Wheels and Tidy Towns were among services recognised by the lord mayor for their work.
“A student named Maeve from Lehenaghmore made face masks and sold them within the community, donating all profits to Dogs for the Disabled in Togher.
“Togher hosted rugby and cycling on the green for children, along with soccer on the green in conjunction with Cork City Council and FAI, and Corcadorca Theatre Company had a very successful event in Togher,” added Fergal, praising the “great community spirit” in the area.
Johnny O’Connor of Kearys Car Store in Togher Industrial Estate echoed Fergal’s praise for the community spirit in the locality.
“The community really rallied together,” he said. “Speaking even just from a Togher perspective, because we’re smack bang in the middle of Togher Industrial Estate here, we saw a huge resilience from the community.
“From a business perspective, we didn’t actually see any slowdown in car sales because people weren’t spending the money abroad and they were keen to upgrade either their house or their car.
“The business community here also really rallied together. We’ve been hugely supported by the people of Togher, Cork City and county, and even further afield.”
With Government restrictions easing, Ballyphehane and Togher, along with the rest of Ireland, is enjoying the reopening and hopes are high that the area will not have to enter lockdown again.
“There’s a general feeling of relief and excitement at things hopefully getting back to normal,” said Fergal.
Johnny added that the atmosphere in recent weeks has been “fantastic”.
“We’ve had walk-ins come into the store and it’s great to see people once again,” he said. “While we can’t shake their hands just yet, it is great to be able to see people face-to-face.
“There’s hope now that we’ve seen the final lockdown and that things are getting back to normal.”
“People being vaccinated has allowed for a gentle approach of people feeling that there is light at the end of the tunnel at last,” explained Grainne. “With groups and programmes like the walking group, men’s shed project, tidy towns, slowly re-establishing the air of hope moving forward has become very evident when engaging and meeting people out in the community.”
Cllr Finn explained that there is hope and optimism in the community for the easing of restrictions and the possible return to normality.
He added that there is some trepidation particularly amongst the older population which he described as an understandable consequence following a difficult 18 month period.
Cllr Finn said ongoing state and local supports will be required to support the elderly and vulnerable as Ireland emerges from lockdown.
“As some sense of returning to normality is on the horizon, many people, particularly the older members of these communities, are still somewhat hesitant to re-engage with services and their usual activities, including going to church and there is still a bit of work to be done to accompany them on that journey,” he said.
“This will change as more and more of our normal activities open up but it is only then that the fallout from Covid-19 will become apparent which will require ongoing state and local interventions.
“I do know that many people had difficulties in engaging with the likes of banks, state services such as social welfare, HSE and more due to ridiculously bureaucratic practices and the fact that you cannot get to talk to people on the phone anymore,” he added.
“IT systems and supports are all well and good in practice but if people cannot access or use technology, they are useless and this can cause a disconnect for many. Covid restrictions cannot be the excuse to move away from face to face services when things open up properly.
“Hopefully as clubs and organisations across all sectors – sports, arts, health and wellbeing supports – open up and start welcoming people back again, this will fuel a sense of confidence among our communities and perhaps the things we took for granted previously – going to events, concerts, gatherings - we will value more.”
Siobhán agreed that, while there is hope surrounding the reopening of society in Ballyphehane/Togher and further afield, there is also a little trepidation.
“People are trying to manage it safely,” she said. “At the CDP, we’ve set up garden furniture in what was the car park and we had our first in-person board meeting in over a year recently, so things are progressing slowly and safely.”
Siobhán highlighted that the people of Ballyphehane, Togher and Cork should be proud of themselves and their communities.
“It’s something that we’re telling people, that 18 months or so on, they should be proud of themselves, their resilience and their community as well as their peers and local services.”