THERE is a room in Cork actress, Sinead O’Riordan’s home that is full of coloured cotton fabric. It’s for making face masks to protect against coronavirus.
The Friars Walk-reared Sinead was inspired to start producing masks on a voluntary basis when she read an article about a nurse who expressed her terror of bringing coronavirus home after her hospital shift. The nurse was drawing attention to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) available.
“I reached out to the nurse and asked her if she’d accept homemade masks that are not hospital grade but are a lot better than nothing,” says Sinead.
“She said she’d happily take them for coming home. I realised there must be a lot of people like her.”
Sinead and a friend, graphic designer, Sinead McGuinness, set up East Coast Mask Makers, a non-profit organisation.
Despite the name, East Coast Mask Makers caters for the whole country, providing free non-surgical cotton masks. There are more than 300 members on Facebook.
“They’re not all sewing. Some of them are people reaching out to us, wanting masks. There’s about 30 of us making the masks, including ten people from Cork. It has nearly become a full time job for me at this stage.
“Sinead McGuinness recruited a lot of people and after I had been on Dermot and Dave on Today FM, it sort of exploded.
“We have people in their homes sewing the masks (using sewing machines) for care-givers and nursing homes. Over 1,000 masks have been made so far. We get the volunteers to send the masks to us because we have to have quality control. We make sure they’re washed and steam-pressed.”
Before embarking on the project, Sinead did some research.
“You have to use 100% cotton for these masks. They can trap up to 65% of droplets while medical grade masks trap over 80%.
“The design we’re using is a pleated one with a little pocket at the back that allows you to insert your own filter, either a tissue folded over four times or kitchen towel. The droplets go into the tissue.”
While Sinead had a lot of her own fabric (having studied fashion design), much of it is being donated. She set up a GoFundMe page to raise money, enabling more masks to be made and delivered around the country.
“It has given people a real sense of purpose. They’re delighted to make the masks as they’re giving something back. It’s all voluntary. Also, it gives you a glimpse of the reality of how selfless people are in their jobs. As an actress, I hadn’t a clue what people do in hospitals. The care-givers are amazing. I was speaking to a nursing care person who one day wore a nappy on her face as she had no mask.”
Sinead has had a varied career. Her background is in electrical engineering which she studied at CIT. “I worked for years in Silicon Valley in California, testing software. When I moved back to Ireland, I commuted from Dublin to Belfast working for a Belfast company, Then I studied fashion design at night for five years at the Grafton Academy in Dublin.”
Mother-of-two Sinead says she was always interested in acting having attended the Mercier School of Speech and Drama in Cork where she qualified as a drama teacher. She “dabbled” in acting while in California.
“I had always wanted to study acting but the money wasn’t there when I was younger so I went down the engineering route. But I really wanted to go to acting school in London and act. I love acting so much that I knew a decision was going to be made whereby I’d give up my career and go down the acting route.
“After I got married, I had more stability. So I did some courses in drama and set up my own production company, Orion Productions. It’s for theatre and film, leaning more towards film in the last few years.
“I collaborated with my business partner, Maurice O’Carroll. We made a feature film, Dead Along The Way (which opened Indie Cork in 2016). We have another film in the pipeline but all that had to be stopped. We were in pre-production before our whole world came to a halt with coronavirus. But we’ll get back to it.”
Sinead, based in Wicklow, describes herself as having “a maths head but also a creative head. I’ve gone both ways. I’m most content when I’m being creative.”
The acting world is precarious.
“It’s feast or famine. That’s why I set up my own production company so I could have more control and produce my own work.”
Now sewing feverishly, Sinead is using her free time in a socially useful way. “The amount of messages we’re getting back from people is both heart-warming and heart-breaking,” she says.
“People are so happy we can provide these masks. We’d like if the medical grade masks were kept for those who really need them. Others can use our masks. Our volunteers are churning out between 30 and 50 masks a day. It is truly amazing and inspiring. Not everyone has sewing skills but people just really want to help in some manner, be it to source fabric or be runners on the ground, delivering and picking up fabric.
“Others want to donate fabric or a few euro. The whole movement has given people at home a sense of worth. People now have a way to help and are more than delighted to pull out their sewing machines and get cracking.”
To get involved or order masks, an app can be downloaded. www.eastcoastmaskmakers.app.
To donate, visit www.gofundme.com/f/east-coast-mask-makers.