One of the abiding characteristics of our current state of pandemic-induced lockdown is fear.
People are afraid. Afraid to go out. Afraid to shop. Afraid they may be asymptomatic. Afraid to hug loved ones.
Social media exacerbates these fears. Misinformation, passive aggressive threats to reject the quarantine, conspiracy theories and narcissistic world leaders vaunting untried remedies all concoct into a panicky cocktail of uncertainty and despair.
Even casual conversations with neighbours (at a social distance of course) start with banter about missing the pub, or sport but usually end up in hushed tones of speculation and rumour. Second, third and fourth hand anecdotes suddenly take on scientific levels of relevance and fact. And all the while, even those who are supposed to be in the know might well be making it up as they go along.
And that is even before we get to worrying about the fallout from all of this as we inch our way back to some sort of normality.
Now I understand that a lot of people who are scared have every right to feel that way and their reactions to all this are perfectly understandable and valid.
But to me a lot of those reactions are nothing more than group hysteria.
Why? Because all of this feels familiar to me. I have experienced a long summer of uncertainty, fear and dread in my life. And I am sorry to say this, but the last time was way scarier. 2020 doesn’t even hold a candle to 1981 in my native North of Ireland.
The IRA Hunger Strikes and the effect they had on an entire province make Covid-19 look like a walk in the park (two metres apart).
Fear ruled the heads and the hearts of all the people in Ulster that Spring/Summer. As ten Volunteers starved themselves slowly to death to protest prison treatment and conditions, the tick of the clock rang loudly in everyone’s ears. Thatcher’s almost gleeful vow to defeat these men making this sacrifice for their principles only pushed my homeland closer to a civil war.
I was 14. Going to school was an ordeal. Not because I hated school (although I wasn’t mad on it to be honest) but because my journey there took me through some hardcore Loyalist areas and the school itself was a catholic establishment in a very protestant area. Pupils were told not to walk or cycle home. We had to take the official school buses or be collected by parents. There were hushed rumours that if a hunger striker were to die, school may close for a time.
Later in the summer holidays we were forbidden to leave our own local areas, as the danger of being in the centre of Belfast if and when a hunger striker might die was just too much of risk to take. The situation was volatile, chock full of endless possibilities and very few of them any good news.
Protestant militias were organising, preparing to secure their housing estates from any attacks by Republicans if a hunger striker was to die in the H Blocks. Parents were constantly having hushed conversations. Ones that were full of tension and what if’s, how to’s and god forbid’s. The kids knew things must be bad because when they caught snatches of those chats, the resulting scraps of information left young imaginations all too much scope to fill in the blanks. I recall my own parents discussing sending me to family friends in the South of Ireland should a civil war break out.
And then, like now, there was the waiting. Bobby Sands started his hunger strike in March 1981. As we approached the start of May, he was still alive. The final days of April were a miasma of tension, fear and psychological torture for all sides of the community.
Local papers had a day count on their covers, relentlessly ticking upward, a front page refrain to our seemingly steady march to civil unrest. My own memory of that time is the feeling of living in an atmosphere that was as tight as a drum, and only getting tighter. It was akin to floating in a sea of petrol, everyone watching for the simple spark that could ignite our hell.
On the 5th May 1981, Bobby Sands died. I have written about how the news travelled on my blogs before. The morning after the dreadful development had been confirmed, I remember feeling as though an entire city was holding its collective breath. The news that summer just continued to grow worse and worse. In the end, ten men starved themselves to death in the H Blocks. All of them convinced they were doing so to improve the conditions they and their compatriots were being held under.
In that time, I witnessed riots, countless funerals, saw a man I knew shot dead by a British soldier a few feet away from me and many more moments of chaos and destruction. There were bread shortages, public transport halted, summer days out to the seaside a thing of the past, threats of power outages and a pervasive feeling of being on the brink of an all-out war.
How did the northern half of the island of Ireland not slide inexorably into a conflict that would have been extraordinarily bloody? I am not sure, if I’m telling the truth. But I do have a theory.
Ireland, North and South, has always been a maternalistic society. We even refer to ‘Mother Ireland’ in our culture. Men may have run much of day to day life, but they knew that at home, it was the Mother who ruled the roost. And I can only think that it was the mothers who gave their loudest counsel most vociferously in those troubled times. They were the ones shushing talk of war. They were the ones pushing for conciliation and pragmatism. The idea that wisdom in Ireland was imparted while you sat at your mother’s knee is not an empty one.
So, forgive me if I am not in a full-blown panic about lockdown. Indulge my blasé attitude to the current conditions. I’ve lived through worse, in a time where I could only envisage one terrible, blood-soaked outcome…and somehow, I live now to recount the tales.
Stay well, stay home and make sure the beer is cold. This time, too, shall pass.