John Arnold: What I missed most... hugging, Mass, matches and Lourdes

As restrictions start to ease, John Arnold tells us what he's missed most during the Covid-19 pandemic
John Arnold: What I missed most... hugging, Mass, matches and Lourdes

TJ Reid of Kilkenny battling Mark Coleman of Cork in the 2019 All-Ireland hurling quarter-final at Croke Park. Picture: Sportsfile

IN Frank Sinatra’s most famous song the words were;

And now the end is near

And so I face the final curtain…

Well, these days are a bit like that but it’s not that we are facing the final curtain with any sense of foreboding. No, it’s as if the final curtain of Covid lockdown is to be lifted in these coming days and hopefully a bright and healthy future beckons.

Isn’t it amazing how events come together at certain times and a virtual rainbow of hope and opportunity appear on the horizon?

In January of this year Brexit was the only show in town. Then came an inconclusive General Election and then the pandemic. We had never heard of the coronavirus or it’s ‘new’ name, Covid.

Looking back now on March, April and May, I am minded to say that it was a triumvirate of months the like of which we never saw before. As our economy and economies all over the world shut down and hundreds, then thousands succumbed to the virus all across the globe we had a heat-wave! The soaring temperatures in late spring and early summer were stunning. It was as if some Divine power or presence or entity deemed that as we were going through unprecedented turmoil and upset the least we could have was fine weather.

God knows things were awful, but imagine how much worse it would have been if it had all happened in the darkening days of October or November?

Strange isn’t it, that now, when we are emerging from months of cocooning, physical distancing and virtual social isolation the weather has turned against us?

Is it a sort of reminder that whilst the worst is over we’re not fully out of the woods yet? With the prospect of a new Government this weekend, why are the heavens crying as if in disdain or disapproval? Questions, questions but hopefully the answers will soon emerge.

As we face into, what will hopefully be, a brave new world what am I looking forward most of all or what have I missed most since March? I don’t have to ‘look into my soul’ or ponder long and deep to make up my mind. In no particular order my ‘miss most’ and ‘to do’ list will include hugging, Mass, matches and Lourdes.

Most of us Irish people are tactile and expressive and I’ve really lamented the ban on handshaking- now mind I fully understand the rationale behind it times of a ‘new’ virus that so many knew so little about.

It’s not just the absence of hugging grandchildren I miss but hugging everyone. The French, when they know each other well, have the little kissaroo on each cheek as a form of greeting but I never warmed to it. The firm and strong handshake is a mighty all purpose sign. It can be ‘hello, how are you’, ‘great to see you’ or ‘I am sincerely sorry for your loss’ or ‘well done’.

The hug then is an extension of that initial greeting. To wrap your arms around someone in a non sexual or sensuous fashion is a powerful greeting and statement. In gladness and sadness it is equally effective. We are coming out of the cocooning era but a real warm hug says everything between two people and ne’er a word needs to be spoken. We are a touchy, feely race and hopefully it’s a trait that covid won’t condemn to the ever-increasing list of ‘don’t dos’.

I do miss Mass in a major way. It’s not just out of a sense of religious fervour or zeal or wish to celebrate my faith publicly. Yerra no,’tis much more basic than that. Religion brings a sense of common goals and beliefs that are part of a learned heritage and tradition. Of course one can pray without going to church or Mass or service. A prayer said before the High Altar of a Cathedral has no more power of intercession than a prayer uttered whilst one is working in the fields. Oft times it’s easier to get closer to God in a quiet and lonesome place - hence places like Poor Clare convents and monasteries like Mount Melleray.

Mass is different though as there is something affirmative and pleasing about being part of ‘Church’ in the real meaning of the word - not the building but the people therein that share common hopes, fears and aspirations.

I noticed during the last few months that the ‘streaming’ of Masses was a new experience for me and was great as ‘a substitute’ but not the real thing.

I suppose also in rural areas the coming together as a community on a Sunday is important. We can lament smaller attendances and yearn for days of yore but better to light even a tiny candle than simply to curse the darkness.

A summer without matches is unthinkable. For nigh on fifty years the GAA has been a huge part of my life. I just love Gaelic games and hurling in particular. ‘Racy of the soil’ was how Archbishop Thomas Croke described our native games back in the 1880’s when the fledgling sports association took it’s first tentative steps.

Take all the soccer, rugby, tennis, croquet, golf, boxing and athletics you can think of and offer me the very best those sports have to offer or a chance to see an under 10 hurling game - it’s a no-brainer, the hurling anytime.

I was recently in contact with PJ. Cunningham who’s putting together a book on GAA ‘yarns’ - funny stories pertaining to the GAA, it’s players and people. I gave him thirty and more to follow! Strangely while I adore hurling and it’s 115 different skills what I have really missed since March is the after match stuff. No, it’s not the post mortems and the ‘what ifs’ and the referees blatant favouritism but the chat and banter. It might be in Thurles or Dungourney, Mayfield or Croke Park, Ennis or Lisgoold or my own ‘field of drams’, Pairc na Bride in Rathcormac but when the game is well over just talking to those in no hurry away is special.

The GAA ‘grassroots’ is a much used term but it exemplifies the generations who nurture and encourage the skills of our own games - not for money, contracts nor any reward other than the love of something as Irish as our 32 counties. Many’s the evening I left a GAA pitch at ten o clock though the match started at eight! Talking hurling to those who love it is intoxicating indeed and I gladly plead guilty to numerous over indulgences!

Lourdes, ah Lourdes in the month of June - how I missed it this year. It should have been my 14th consecutive pilgrimage to Lourdes as a helper. Each year since 2008 I mark it in the Diary in January and count down the days ‘til departure. Readers will know how time and time again I’ve tried to describe what Lourdes ‘is all about’ and I feel no matter what grasp of the English language I possess it’s totally inadequate. Magnetic is one word I’ve not used but it does perhaps explain why so many like me are drawn back repeatedly.

Many think Lourdes is all about cures and miracles and while these undoubtedly happen there the experience is much more. We all know the expression ‘far from the madding crowd’ it conjures images of a person in splendid isolation in the middle of an oasis of calm. Amazingly though Lourdes has massive crowds- throngs and multitudes and pain and suffering, one can still be beautifully overcome by a sense of peace and calm around the Grotto. It’s as if everyone is in their own ‘spiritual and private bubble’ and all others and everything else just fades away into insignificance.

To go to Lourdes as a helper is not tough work - yes it’s tiring and taxing but lads what an honour and privilege it is to serve others in some small way.

Last Monday morning I stood in the rain by a roadside in East Cork as a funeral procession passed. I was there in silence to honour a beautiful lady who, despite heath problems, travelled regularly to Lourdes. I really missed going this year.

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