Innocence and experience: RTÉ journalist publishes a diary from the first lockdown

Carole Coleman’s book recalls the bewildering confusion of the spring of 2020

News from Under a Coat Stand
Author: Carole Coleman
ISBN-13: 978-1-914225-71-0
Publisher: Orla Kelly Publishing
Guideline Price: €15

Diaries are often a more reliable witness to history than any retrospective analysis of events, capturing as they do the immediacy of people’s feelings. Samual Pepys’s Plague Diaries and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year are two essential accounts of the Great Plague of London of 1665-66, which killed a quarter of the city’s population.

Diary writing has become a lost art in a world of instant communication, social media and myriad other distractions, but the RTÉ journalist Carole Coleman, the presenter of the This Week programme, has kept hers since she was a child.

“I have drawers full of diaries. Some are full, others sparsely filled in. Most years I buy a hard-backed diary and leave it by the bed,” she says. “Whether something goes into it or not depends on how tired I am at night. But a flick through an old diary will remind me what I was working on, what stage our two girls” – she and her husband, Larry, have two daughters, Irena and Lana – “were at, or the hilarious things they came out with. One day I will stack them all up and binge read through my life.”

Coleman has now published her diaries from the bewildering period between March and June 2020, the first 100 days during the first lockdown when the world turned upside down and inside out

She has now published her diaries from the bewildering period between March and June 2020, the first 100 days during the first lockdown when the world turned upside down and inside out.

Though not comparable in death or misery with the plagues of yesteryear, the Covid-19 pandemic has been the most extraordinary event of this century and the most significant since the second World War. The unthinkable was demanded of the public. Other people – everyone else, in fact – became the enemy. What most people thought was a two-week phenomenon stretched out to two months and is now heading for two years.

Coleman was once RTÉ’s Washington correspondent and covered 9/11, but it was the first time as a journalist she felt part of the story as we were all part of the story. “In early 2020 who would have imagined they could not squeeze the hand of a family member or whisper a prayer in a dying patient’s ear?” Coleman writes in her introduction. Who indeed? The title of the book, News from Under a Coat Stand, reflects the location from where she broadcast This Week every Sunday lunchtime.

We were all innocent of what was ahead of us in February and March 2020. "Did you read the article on fomites?" her medical-doctor husband, Dr Larry Schott, asked her as news came through of a mystery virus from Wuhan. "What-ites?" she responded.

In early March she asked a reporter in San Francisco who was covering Covid-19 in the United States, "Can you explain social distancing?" There was no talk of masks or ventilation either in the early stages.

On Friday, April 9th, 2020 she responds to the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, announcing that lockdowns may be needed for the next 18 months. "For the next month 18 months, 18 MONTHS. That would take us all the way to October 2021. How did we go from 2 weeks of restricted activities just last month to now 18 months? Good question for Sunday programme."

Anxious zoom calls, the 2km zone and Normal People are all things from the first lockdown that we can scarcely remember now – or do not care to remember given all that has happened since

Four days later she suddenly recalls that they were meant to be going on holidays that day. "In the old world we were supposed to be visiting Switzerland. Might as well say it out loud, 2020 is cancelled."

Anxious zoom calls, the 2km zone and Normal People are all in the book and are all things from the first lockdown that we can scarcely remember now – or do not care to remember given all that has happened since.

There's also a renewed appreciation of nature and of her home town (mine too: Carrick-on-Shannon, in Co Leitrim). "The beech trees in the front garden are sprouting tiny green leaves. Dandelions and daisies have appeared in droves. What a welcome and heartwarming sight. So I thought I knew Carrick like the back of my hand but the whole new architectural and human ecosystem had lately sprung up behind the buildings that now front on to Main Street and Bridge Street."

Coleman says she intended to keep the diary for her family so future generations might know what it was like to live through the Covid-19 pandemic. She decided to publish it herself after consulting other people. The book is illustrated by Irena.

The diary ends on June 12th, 2020, just as Ireland is beginning to emerge from the first lockdown. She had to stop somewhere and says chronicling the other lockdowns will be up to other diarists to do. After all, once you have seen one lockdown, you have quite possibly seen them all.

News from Under a Coat Stand by Carole Coleman is published by Orla Kelly Publishing price €15. It is available at mulveys.ie

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times

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