John Arnold: Blank pages in my diary tell a stark story of a strange year

In his weekly column, John Arnold reflects on a very strange year
John Arnold: Blank pages in my diary tell a stark story of a strange year

A HARD ROAD FOR MANY: Nobody had a clue how difficult 2020 would be at the start of the year.

I WAS looking through my 2020 diary this week. We always have a large diary near the phone, each page covers three days. It never leaves the wooden shelf near the phone.

People think I have a great memory, but the opposite is the case — if I didn’t write down the time, date and venue of some forthcoming event chances are I’d forget all about it.

Looking at the pages for January and February and early March, it was like any other year. In the first 69 days of the year I had 12 meeting. Our GAA club had 20 matches, but with cows calving and things busy on the farm, I just got to six games.

From a dramatic point of view, the early year was hectic. Our local hall was one of the venues for the Blackwater Valley Fit Up Festival and over five weeks we saw eight fantastic shows, including Jon Kenny, Pat Kinevane and Seamus O’Rourke.

That series of plays wasn’t long finished when the West Waterford Drama Festival opened in Upper Ballyduff. We were on the road nightly.

This has been a drama Mecca for us for years, with plays ‘on the Circuit’, trying to make the All Ireland Finals in Athlone, aiming to win at different festivals.

We won an East Cork and a County Final of Novelty Act in the GAA Scór competition. We were preparing for a Munster Final in Templemore when everything stopped — suddenly.

From far away in America, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made the stunning announcement that we were in lockdown — though the word was not used.

So, from the 16th day of March, my diary is blank, completely empty until July. No St Patrick’s Day, no Easter, no Mass on Sunday, and all because of this thing, this unknown, new and contagious Covid-19.

Initially, it was thought that in a month, maybe two at the outset, everything would be back to normal. Alas and alack, here we are now going into the New Year of 2021 and though a vaccine — several of them — have been produced, the cursed virus is still with us.

They say every cloud has a silver lining and certainly the glorious, balmy weather we got from March onwards was just stunning. Everyone had to stay at home but it was just glorious to be out and about — the country went walkabout in shirtsleeves.

For us, the lockdown had unexpected consequences. In April, a great woman, who was born in West Cork a few weeks after Michael Collins was shot down at Beal na blath, died in her 98th year.

Catherine O’Connor, or Kitty, was reared in Blackrock Road in Bantry — she told me that, as a child, when she was going to bed each night she blessed herself in front of two pictures — of the Pope and Michael Collins.

Work brought her to East Cork where she married Jimmy Meade. They were my parents-in-law.

Confined to a nursing home for about a year, it was tough in March and early April when even her family were unable to visit because of the Covid restrictions. Her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren loved visiting her and she was about them all, but the virus stopped all that socialising.

Having just 12 at her funeral Mass was so, so sad. The only compensation for the family was the tribute paid by neighbours and friends. From Fermoy to Rathcormac and on to Bartlemy, the roads were lined with people bidding a fond farewell.

Similarly, on her last journey through Bartlemy, on to her home in Desert and hence to Castlelyons, it was the same, with gatherings at every crossroads. Strange and different yet very moving.

We found April, May and June so quiet with no callers to the house, so different to the normal way in the country after a bereavement.

May always heralded a big day in our parish every year — the local Point to Point Race meeting. The racecourse was quiet this May as were the Gaelic pitches across the countryside.

By May, we truly realised the seriousness of the Covid virus when it was declared a pandemic — in other words, it was worldwide problem. All the while, buffoons like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump laughed, tweeted and generally made little of medical opinion and advice.

Normally for me, the month of May would be hectic in the run up to our annual pilgrimage to Lourdes. We’d have fundraisers, meetings and get-togethers to make all the arrangements for our invalids’ travelling —all cancelled this year.

On Thursday, June 4, we should have been returning to Cork Airport from France. I remember that evening thinking that, come late November or early December, this Covid thing would be well gone and at least I could travel to Lourdes then for a few quiet, reflective days — what do they say about the best laid plans of mice and men?

Streaming became the new normal for hurling and football games when the matches returned, but ‘behind closed doors’, July. It was surreal at big championship fixtures with only 40 or 50 where normally there could be 500. At least the games went ahead but finals with no spectators were just devoid of the very essence of what the GAA is all about.

Still, the games brightened our summer and the GAA autumn Championships were a revelation. I shall never forget seeing Antrim and Limerick hurlers win major cups in December in Croke Park and then going to the dressing rooms, leaving the Joe McDonagh and Liam McCarthy trophies on the podium in the Hogan Stand. I was lucky to have got there in this strangest of years.

The coronavirus cannot be seen or smelt or felt yet it can spread rapidly. By late November our daily rate of infection was nearly down to 100 cases per day. In a matter of a few weeks it had shot up again. Truly it’s the hidden enemy.

In fairness, the Irish people responded well to the regulations but as virus fatigue set in the guard was dropped.

I really missed meeting people, entertaining groups and singing! From early on, singing was seen as a possible means of spreading the virus as droplets can be expelled by the human vocals.

That’s why I was alone, all alone, high up on the Cusack Stand on Hurling Final day when I sang The Green Glens of Antrim!

Despite all the sadness, sickness and deaths, this been the worst of times and the best of times. In times of trouble the great nature of Irish people shone out like a beacon.

All over the country, groups, individuals and clubs rallied to the call when help was needed. I never witnessed such generosity of spirit, of giving, of listening and of just being there for people.

During the year, I wrote more than ever, I found it a sort of release for pent up feelings. Normally a day or week wouldn’t pass without meeting friends, neighbours, relations or even strangers. Conversations would ebb and flow and views be exchanged. None of that was possible in 2020 so writing helped me to cope with lack of human contact.

Will things ever get back to what we used call ‘normal’? Doubtful, I’d say, because this virus caught the world completely off guard and who’s to say when the vaccine comes and Covid-19 goes will some other sinister virus appear? We just don’t know.

Perhaps the lesson of 2020 is to take life a little slower. 

Is wealth and its accumulation the be all and end all of life? A profound question indeed, but as we face 2021 we must ponder on what’s really important.

There’s no point of course in being maudlin or pessimistic, we must have hope in our hearts. Tonight, all over the world in homes and small gatherings, the question will be asked — indeed sung: “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot… And Never Brought To Mind?”

The answer is Never, we must always remember those dearest and nearest to us. The faces of family members gone before us are smiling down on us and joining that age-old chorus.

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,

and never thought upon;

The flames of Love extinguished,

and fully past and gone:

Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,

that loving Breast of thine;

That thou canst never once reflect

On old long syne.

I’ve written a lot this past year and made people laugh and cry and maybe angry sometimes too.

Now, as the year ends, all I can do is thank all the Echo readers and wish you one and all a very Happy New Year, and may 2021 be a bright and healthy time for all of us. God bless you all.

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