Cork family shares struggles during lockdown in new TV doc

A Cork family feature in a documentary tonight on TG4, about life during lockdown. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to mum Trish O’Neill about taking part in the project
Cork family shares struggles during lockdown in new TV doc

WOW FEATURE Trish O'Neill and husband Eoin.

“WARTS and all,” is how a Cork mum-of-three describes the way her family is portrayed in a documentary on TG4 tonight, Wednesday November 18.

Trish O’Neill, from Donoughmore, replied to a call-out from a production company that was making a documentary following the lives of ordinary Irish people in extraordinary times from April to September, 2020, as we lived through Ireland’s Covid-19 lockdown.

Trish thought it would be a good idea to document lockdown, an event that “we’ll be talking about for the rest of our lives”.

She says that lockdown was particularly hard for her eldest child, Conor, who is almost eight. He has autism and really missed not going to Scoil Aonghusa in Mallow.

“Conor couldn’t understand why school was taken away from him,” said Trish. “Over the lockdown period, we could see him regressing very quickly. The school was helping with home schooling (with classes delivered on Zoom) but Conor wasn’t capable of that. He has classic autism. He has an intellectual disability and his use of language is limited.”

Conor, however, learned to cough and sneeze into his elbow.

“We’re very proud of him.”

But he couldn’t grasp the concept of a virus.

“We tried to explain using visuals that school had to close. We showed him a picture of his school with a line running through it. He got quite upset. He would go to the window to see if his taxi was coming to transport him to school.

Conor O'Neill with his sibling, Aoibhinn.
Conor O'Neill with his sibling, Aoibhinn.

“Day by day, we could see his little face looking very down. He was bored. He’s the type of child that really enjoys intellectual stimulation. He loves work and loves structure. When that was taken away from him, he just wandered around the house, missing the school environment, his routine and his space.

“He was stuck at home with mommy and daddy who were working and his siblings (Aoibhínn, aged five, and three-year-old Ben) who were noisy.”

At times, Conor’s behaviour “was very challenging”.

“There were a lot of meltdowns. He can be quite aggressive, lashing out. But since he has gone back to school, that has thankfully stopped,” said Trish.

“Routine and structure is everything for Conor. The school is great, giving sensory breaks to Conor. He’s like a new child now. When he saw the school uniform coming out, it was like somebody flicked a switch. He went off to school and came back exhausted but happy.”

Conor’s major focus at home is his assistance dog from the Irish Guide Dogs. Called Quelda, this three year-old dog, “is a godsend to us, especially over lockdown,” said Trish.

“We were limited to where we could go for walks with her. But it was good for Conor to get out.”

Trish and her family are one of several families filmed for the hour-long documentary.

“I saw a bit of ourselves. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s not the Kardashians with make-up on. It’s very raw. Nobody is wearing make-up. I don’t know how it’s going to come across. I want it to be honest. I think a lot of parents — and parents of kids with autism — would like to see that they weren’t the only ones struggling.”

A programme manager for a multi-national, Trish started working from home during lockdown and is still based in her bedroom. Her husband, Eoin O’Neill, is a project manager, also working from home.

“We bought a desk for our bedroom. Eoin would get the bedroom for the morning shift and I’d knock at the door at 1pm and do the afternoon shift. Whoever wasn’t working would be responsible for the kids. We’d take a few hours off and then go back to work at 8pm. That’s the only way we could do it without killing each other!”

Eoin’s mother, who lives in Waterford, came to stay with family during lockdown.

“We asked her to come up to us to protect her from the virus. While she was here, she became quite ill and was diagnosed with heart failure. So we had to take care of her. It was full on.”

For Trish and Eoin, home-schooling their children and trying to work was a big ask.

“I’m hoping that other parents watching the documentary will see that we’re a family that did not do well at home schooling. We couldn’t manage it. I think parents put a lot of pressure on themselves. I know I felt very bad. But I’m not a teacher and I have to try and hold down my job.”

Trish says that Conor is a real Christmas child and they are looking forward to the weeks ahead.

“He loves Christmas. The other day, I went to the attic to get something. Conor doesn’t have many words but he can say: ‘Christmas tree, can you get it?’ When the Christmas tree is up and we’re watching The Late Late Toy Show, Conor will love that. So I’m looking forward to it.”

The documentary Saol Faoi Ghlas is on TG4 at 9.30pm tonight.

I’m hoping other parents watching the documentary will see that we’re a family that did not do well at home schooling. We couldn’t manage it. I think parents put a lot of pressure on themselves.

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