Irish writers on Covid-19: ‘We’re all having a shockin’ dose of the wombles’

‘It’s unexpectedly romantic,’ says John Boyne. ’It shows us our true selves,’ says Patricia Scanlan

Kevin Barry. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty

Kevin Barry: ‘We’re all having the wombles’

I was sitting on a bench at the smokers’ section outside Madrid airport last week, just taking a break from the facemask but seriously thinking about going back on the fags, when two Spanish soldiers passed by and at gunpoint encouraged us all to maintain our social distancing.

I’d just gone into the terminal to get a cafe con leche from a vending machine, and I felt like I was first over the top at Flanders Fields. Wartime metaphors abound, unavoidably. On the way back with my coffee, I was thinking that the dude who filled the vending machine was probably riddled with the virus – not a worthy thought if you’re aspiring to be officer material.

Back in Co Sligo, a pal phoned to say she was having “a shockin’ dose of the wombles over corona”. She’s not alone.

We’re all having the wombles over corona. The mood changes at a whip-crack; the darkness comes in vicious waves. You’ll be rattling along, calm enough, thinking about Netflix and making soup, when all at once you’re blindsided by a stab of awareness, by an urgent reminder of the actual, such as the fact that they cannot bury their dead in Italy.


My daily routine: I wake from an uneasy sleep. I shuffle to the shed and try to write. I’m distracted by mystery symptoms. I read portents into birdsong and changes of the wind. I avoid as much as possible the internet, the amplifier of morbid obsessions. I have freak-outs, little panics, and then moments of hilarity. The spring sunshine is blissful, and I think a lot about death.

Now a lot of the above falls into the category of “business as usual”. At the best of times, the nerves do be at me, and if you ever see me mooching along the road looking a bit distracted, you can presume that I’m thinking about death.

It’s a topic I really put in the hours with, and so corona has in some ways not greatly altered the texture of my days. When we’re at home in Co Sligo, we don’t see people much, and self-isolation merely continues the usual mode. The Curlew mountains do not seem in any way perturbed, Lough Arrow remains serene, and the hills are the same old hills.

But the shadow deepens at the edges of the scene. I hope we come out of it all the wiser. I hope we realise, at least, that we have been living in a fable, a fable of progress, growth and equality, but it's a very poorly told one, a very flimsy construction. I hope the veils at last fall away.
Kevin Barry's latest novel is Night Boat to Tangier

Sineád Gleeson. Photograph: Tom Honan

Sinéad Gleeson: ‘When this is over, the world will not be same’

At the moment we are all afraid in our individual ways: for our elderly parents, the friend who had lung cancer and keeps getting pneumonia, for all the people who will get sick or die because others didn’t keep their distance. Once, a clot gurgled in my lung (the scar hurts when I’m run-down) and I will never forget the terror of gasping for breath.

These days, I am watching too much news and afraid for my children watching me watch too much news, but they are, like most kids, taking it on the chin. My daughter is making her own notebooks; my son is working on a project about his beloved Liverpool, and I think of Jürgen Kloop’s recent declaration that no one wants to hear from football managers right now, or I’m sure, writers.

Epidemiologists, nurses and respiratory specialists are pleading with us to listen; hospital cleaners, porters and everyone in retail are holding us all up. Italy has broken our collective hearts, we keep washing our hands, we missed our mothers on Mother’s Day.

I am a writer and self-employed, as is my husband. We’ve had so much work cancelled in the months ahead, but that doesn’t mean anything as long as we, and those we love, stay well.

I’ve written a lot about empathy, something that in the capitalist energy of work-consume-excel culture, has been elbowed aside. And yet, as the virus rolls in, so do waves of good deeds and compassion. Technology has pushed many of us away from tactility and real-life conversations. I’ve had more calls and video chats with friends and family in the past week, craving more than the tap-tap-tap of a text message.

When this is over, the world will not be same. We will rethink the way we work, educate, prioritise; how we spend our time and what’s important in life.

I hope we will never be this complacent, or take our health for granted, and that we keep a candle lit in the window as a reminder of all this passing darkness, and all the light ahead.
Sinead Gleeson's Constellations: Reflections From Life is out in paperback next week and is also published in the US by Mariner/HMH

John Boyne. Photograph: Dave Meehan

John Boyne: ‘It’s been unexpectedly romantic’

The most frustrating thing for me is that I started a new relationship a few months ago and, as he lives just outside London and I live in Dublin, we’re unable to see each other for now.

However, it’s been unexpectedly romantic to build what feels like a real connection through constant messages and calls; our affection and respect growing deeper every day for the effort we both have to put in. It’s like an old-fashioned courtship, one conducted through words and emotions rather than physicality. We’ve both expressed the belief that, when all this is over, we’ll be stronger for not having given up on each other, and if that turns out to be the case, then at least some good will have come from it.

On a more general level, it’s wonderful to see how social media has changed. The days of people arguing over the most trivial issues on Twitter seem to be at an end. Instead, people are using the platform to find ways to help each other and to reach out to their neighbours.

I feel it's brought out the very best in us as we try to find ways to use whatever talents we have to bring some positivity into the world. It turns out that, as a species, we care more about each other than we realised.
A Traveller at the Gates of Wisodwn by John Boyne will be published in July

Peter Murphy. Photograph: Caolan Barron

Peter Murphy: ‘The virus is an arsehole’

The virus is out there, and it has a mind of its own. The virus has its own agenda, its own biological imperative, its own ulterior motive. The virus is not benign. For some of us it’s lethal. The virus is an arsehole, but it’s part of nature, so we have to respect its existence.

Until a week or so ago, I thought I cared about the virus, but I didn’t, I had a sort of general opinion about it. I regarded it like a news report. I cared about it only in so much as it impacted upon my daily business.

Then flights got cancelled. Institutions shut down. Immovables became mutable. That’s when I got the fear. The fear is good, in limited doses. The fear is what gives you the shivers when you see a rat, a maggot, a carrier. The fear made me think about friends and relatives, the ones with compromised immune systems, the ones who are frail and susceptible to infection. It made me think about myself, and how my daughters would fare if I’m not around.

I experienced a bit of a Naked Lunch moment, when you see exactly what’s on your plate. I’d been compliant, but compliance was no longer enough. You have to take the virus personally. It’s not enough to think about this thing in the abstract. You have to assign it a face. A voice. An identity.

Whenever I’ve tried to quit smoking, or drinking too much, or eating junk, I’ve relied on Allen Carr’s tip of envisioning the source of the addiction as a worm. A disgusting, bloodsucking, parasitic, slimy leech of a thing. Give it a name. The name is important. Name it after the bully who made your life a misery in primary school. The teacher who humiliated you in front of your friends. The A&R man who threw your demo tape in the bin. Your no-good ex, your no-good ex’s solicitor.

Recognise that every craving is an emanation of the worm. Every twitch is the worm petitioning your attention. It thinks you’re weak. It holds you in contempt. It wants to live in your ear. It thinks it’s entitled to your breath.

The virus is the latest incarnation of that worm. It adopts the same tactics. It tries to tempt you out of the house. It tells you it’s okay to meet up with your friend, just for five minutes, in the park. It tells you that you have to buy some stuff, all you need to do is pop out to the shop, it won’t take a minute. It tells you everyone out there is exaggerating. It tells you those medics on the frontline are a bunch of drama queens.

It tells you nobody else is following the rules, they’re all out there having fun without you. Look at them. They’ve gone to the beach. They’re stuffing themselves with chips and ice cream.

That’s the worm talking.

The virus is out there.

Starve it of oxygen.

Shut it down.

It's personal.
Peter Murphy's latest novel is Shall We Gather at the River

Patricia Scanlan. Photograph: Leon Farrell/ Photocall Ireland

Patricia Scanlan: ‘People’s true colours are emerging’

Perversely, in what should be perfect circumstances for a writer – and there was a time when I would have given my eye-teeth for such an opportunity to immerse myself in my work – I’ve lost the urge to write.

I’m using this time to declutter and sort out my office, when I’m not out in the garden, pretending it’s all not happening. Being in nature is balm to my soul. Listening to the birds singing, watching the trees leafing up and the buds bursting out on the shrubs is my way of balancing this dark period we’re all living through.

Many years ago in a time of crises in my life, I read Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, and one thing resonated deeply. When something is happening to us we have a choice in how we react to it. We can plunge into misery, fear, hatred and fury, or we can take a step back and decide how much energy we are going to give to the situation/person/circumstance. I’ve learned not to give anything that brings me down free lodgings in my head.

It’s interesting watching how people are responding to Covid-19. For some, it’s all they can talk/read/ hear about. For others, they are denying that it’s happening at all. Denying that it could happen to them or their loved ones, and behaving utterly irresponsibly.

For most of us though, we’re doing the best we can. Taking the advice we’re given, helping others to the best of our abilities. Great kindness and goodness is coming to the fore, and this is what will stay with us when we remember these days.

People’s true colours are emerging, and those that have not stepped up to the plate will be remembered. Those greedy, amoral, individuals Donald Trump, Dominic Cummings and Wetherspoon boss, Tim Martin, spring immediately to mind – let’s name and shame – who have behaved appallingly during this crisis, and who have treated their citizens and employees badly, will have no hiding place.

The majority of us, for the most part, are reclaiming our humanity. This and the immense gratitude and respect for all frontline heroes and heroines will be Covid-19's legacy.
Patricia Scanlan's latest novel is The Liberation of Brigid Dunne

Sheila O’Flanagan. Photograph: Eric Luke

Sheila O’Flanagan: ‘We have changed’

Stories have always been my refuge but I’m finding it hard to inhabit them right now. I teeter between my imaginary world and the real one, between calm and panic, between the balm of writing and the terror of frantic Twitter scrolling. I have the attention span of a goldfish.

I take socially-distanced walks but I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts. Instead, I listen to podcasts. I’m mainlining Desert Island Discs as I step aside from other walkers, not making up stories about them as I usually would, but retreating to the castaway’s imagined isolation while I maintain my own.

I limit myself to the six o’clock news and the late night reviews because I don’t have the space in my head for too much sadness and anxiety; but when I see reports of people in Madrid and Italy singing from their balconies I feel uplifted. When I saw a clip of Irish people playing bingo from theirs, I laughed.

Irish people are not always good about following government guidelines, yet the majority of us are compliant. We are keeping our distance, staying at home, doing what we have been asked to do for the sake of others. We support our health workers, our shop assistants, our delivery drivers and even our politicians. We don't nod and wink at those who are breaking the rules. We are offended by them. We are disgusted by their selfishness. We have changed.
Sheila O'Flanagan's latest novel is The Women Who Ran Away, out in May

John Banville. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

John Banville: ‘Don’t write. Bake’

Blaise Pascal contended that all of humankind’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. If he is right, then the coming few months may prove curative. The eerie hush that has fallen on the world, and that will deepen as the crisis deepens, is to the writer as water is to the fish. This is our element.

And now, suddenly, millions of others are down here in the soundless depths along with us. Have we any advice to offer the temporary newcomers?

Habit is a great deadener, says Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. He intended it as a consolation. Doing the same thing day after day, while cabined, cribbed and confined, can induce a nirvana-like state in which many of the wants and wishes that in normal times torment us – getting and spending, and the rest of it – are seen for what they are, the goads of the individual minor devil who is assigned to each of us at the moment of our birth. In truth, mere pinpricks.

There is a life beyond life. Now’s your chance to live it.

Here are two recommendations, one negative, one positive.

Don’t get started on that book you always meant to write. Books that are any good are written out of irresistible compulsion, not the want of a pastime. You may indeed have a book in you, but as Will Self wisely remarked, you are not the one who should write it. Leave it to those poor drudges, the professionals, who, as Flaubert’s mother said of her son, have thrown their lives away on a mania for sentences.

Instead, learn to bake bread. Baking calms the spirit, fills the house with delightful vapours, and nourishes your loved ones. Give yourself this day, and in the many days of sequestration to come, your daily loaf.
John Banville's latest novel, writing as BW Black, is The Secret Guests

Caoilinn Hughes: ‘This will train us to work together’

The world and my experience of living in it has been increasingly abnormal for some time now (not weeks or months but years), as I live with an environmental scientist.

The world inside the house has been intense and surreal. The world outside has been a dangerous symptom checklist of depraved neoliberalism having won; of corporate interests, oil interests and billionaires getting drunk and violent on the last dregs of civilisation’s nectar; of nature taking one hell of a hit (surely the last, before it rids itself of us?); of human hubris in the form of untaxed fumes, waste, sirloin steaks, cheap steaks, weekend transatlantic trips, profit-centric healthcare, executive bonuses, poor treatment of cyclists and pedestrians, renters, employees and minorities; the belief in ongoing surplus, which is to say the belief in a perpetual motion machine; but the worst symptom of all has been the unbelievable challenge experts have when making people understand the scale of the problem.

But despite the tragedies unfolding in these months (as they have been unfolding in countries too numerous to name), a climate scientist pacing from one end of the apartment to the other is more hopeful and far less alone as he sees neighbours across the street doing the same.

This pandemic has woken many people up to things we have been unwilling or unable to acknowledge: that inequality cannot be gated away from any one person or any one country.

The biggest issue we face as a species is not a national issue; it’s global. The climate crisis is a pandemic far greater than Covid-19, but Covid-19 is training us to deal with a pandemic. We watched as it took down the Olympics. We have been warned.

This crisis will train us to work together, instead of against one another. Just watch Cuban doctors arriving in Italy. Just watch Chinese scientists return tirelessly to their research, and to make it open source, to share it with the countries that labelled this (or even thought of it as) the “Chinese virus”.

It seems like heeding experts is a pretty big lesson from Covid-19 – so don’t listen to me! Thankfully, the experts are out there.

While we don’t have a cure or a vaccine for the climate crisis, we have something very close. A long list of systemic and societal changes that – up until two months ago – seemed devastatingly unlikely. The cognitive shift and the change required (not to mention the geopolitical collaboration and compliance) seemed, at least to me, intractable, idealist. Let’s say I was wrong?

The Wild Laughter, Caoilinn Hughes's second novel, will be published on June 25th

John Connell: ‘Our worries can be deafening’

The other evening I went for a run alone along a country road in north Co Longford, for a beautiful sunset had erupted on the skyline. It made me think that the great creator spirit had come to show us that there is still beauty amid all the worry.

The world is changed but we must keep beauty in our minds. There is a joy to be found in the new silences, though our worries can be deafening. Time has changed but it can be remade anew. We can be remade anew. It was a beannacht from the heartlands of this nation.

We each of us now live our lives separate, but there will be a time when we come together again, a joyous time. Our traditional cottage in the countryside has become a bolthole in a nation that has become a multitude of mini republics but we shall become one nation again.

This time of quiet teaches us in new ways, and perhaps in that teaching we may find new ways of being when the great wheels of civilisation begin again. Perhaps we shall understand ourselves in different ways and this land that has made us.

Now is the time of distance but there can be healing in that too.
John Connell is the author of The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Family Farm

Arnold Fanning: ‘I long to return to normal’

Anxiety greets me every morning, and lingers, unwelcome, throughout the day, every day, during this, the pandemic that affects us all.

Acutely aware now of taking care of my mental health, I am overly conscious that I am living with, and in, a state of near-constant fear. As I am not in an at-risk group, I try not to be afraid for myself, although no-one is immune from Covid-19, so it is expected to feel some fear in that regard.

Rather, I feel fear for my loved ones and those around me and those who are numbered among the vulnerable, those I know and those in society who are elderly, or have immune system issues or other compromises to their health that would make contracting this disease deadly.

Guarding my mental health means pushing against the information overload of constant rolling news, media, social media, and means switching off the screens early every evening, it means making an effort to stay informed without becoming overwhelmed by it all.

Guarding my mental health means going out for socially-distanced walks when possible, by the river that flows through the small town I live in, or to the forest on its margins. It means consciously, and verbally, giving thanks to all I am grateful for at this time of difficulty; for my health, for my job which I am able to do remotely, for my home, my marriage, my friends, and family; for the simple things, like being able to derive joy from cooking, reading, and listening to music.

Meanwhile, creativity, my ability to create something new in writing, is virtually impossible at this time of crisis. Instead, I write in a journal every day, about what is happening in my mind, in my life, and in the outside, altered world of ours.

At this time, one of learning new terms and new ways of living – social distancing, cocooning, flattening the curve, delay and contain, lockdown – I long like at no other time for life to return to normal, to be as it was before; but feel an awful, and growing, sense of dread that life will not return to as it was before: because too much will have been lost.
Arnold Thomas Fanning is the author of Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery and is Arts Council Writer in Residence, NUI Galway 2020.

Compiled by Martin Doyle

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