Jeepers this wasn’t like Princes Street at all. But it was Princes Street.
Mid-morning on a June Saturday; smiling waiters darted between tables serving brunches and lunches and drinks and tapas, people sat in the sunshine with their poached eggs and their coffees and suddenly there was normality. There was a sense of slow happy energy. There was hope. People were smiling and leisurely, crossing their legs, sipping their coffees and chatting. Some had little dogs with them, on leads.
It was all virtually unrecognisable as the Cork city centre streetscape that we know and are familiar with; the lack of traffic and exhaust fumes and an absence of that grindingly familiar sense of grim side-street anonymity.
Princes Street is transformed. It is attractive. It is friendly. It welcomes you. And by the look of the happy diners, the tables loaded with food, and the scurrying waiters last Saturday morning, Princes Street is a very, very busy place.
I’m definitely with restaurateur Claire Nash on that one.
Princes Street looks great. It feels great. People love it – at least if the queues waiting for outdoor tables that morning was anything to go by. Cork is quite a foodie city so it’s beyond time that it started to treat itself like one. Even if we don’t have sunny weather all the time, the lingering fear of Covid and the indoor smoking ban means many people are happy to eat outdoors. So let’s replicate. Princes Street everywhere we can around the city centre.
The pandemic was exactly the shift we needed. Yes, it was awful. Yes, it was a nightmare at every level. For everyone, not matter who you were or what you did. Not just school-kids missing their teachers and their friends or older students locked out of second-level and college; not just the elderly forced to cocoon, some of whom became terrified to even go for a walk, or the young couples going out of their minds cooped up trying to work and mind young children at the same time. It was terrible for everyone.
But the pandemic has also accelerated the arrival of something good, something which could well spell the transformation and revitalisation of our historic city.
That Saturday we went shopping, then celebrated the return to something close to normality at a table outside Clancy’s Pub, enjoying a most delicious and beautifully presented brunch.
That grey, hopeless pandemic-driven feeling that everyone has their backs up against a wall just wasn’t there.
Even just walking down the street afterwards, listening to the convivial hum of conversation amongst people enjoying themselves lifted the heart. We could have been in Barcelona.
It’s down to both the sheer determination and foresight and vision of highly creative business-owners who have managed to make such a thorough success of outdoor dining and Cork City Council who supported and helped drive it.
There is a sense of optimism now. There are the beginnings of a very faint glimmer of hope that maybe the Delta Variant won’t block out the sun after all. Maybe we won’t be catapulted into the catastrophe of last January and February.
The word from the Economic and Social Research Institute – an organisation which is usually pretty po-faced and unyielding, not to say stern about such things, is that the Delta Variant will not, after all, derail the re-opening of the economy. This has come as a huge reassurance not just to the frazzled business sector, but to all of us.
And of course all of this optimism is based on the vaccine roll-out continuing effectively and efficiently.
The thinking is that although variants in Britain or Europe will hit Ireland – there’s not much of a chance of avoiding it, given the soaring rate of infection in the UK - we should be able to manage it.
However it’s beyond time we stopped looking to Boris & Co for guidance. They have mismanaged things and badly, from the start and the current crisis with the Delta strain, which has now decided to delay the full Covid re-opening by a month, is primarily down to the UK government’s delay in putting India on its red list for several weeks even after evidence of the serious risk posed by Delta had started to build.
Delta is now the dominant variant in England and spreading rapidly around the world posing a threat that is in direct proportion to the rate of Covid-19 vaccination rollouts in a state.
And yes, we know, the Irish government has been slow to react to obvious risks too, holding off on introducing mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers from India until early May. So the Dáil has nothing to crow about on that score either.
But can we dare hope?