From March onwards, it was the strangest of times to be out and about reporting. Work took me all over the country both during and between lockdowns. Journalists were on the list of essential workers, so even though it was okay for me to cross county boundaries, it still felt a bit illicit.
Garda checkpoints and signs urging everyone to Stay Home meant that it was usually just me and supermarket lorries on the motorways. That felt so odd; almost dystopian.
By the time the summer came, hotels had opened to non-essential workers again, and people were free to travel within the country. For work, I was all over Clare, and in Killarney, and Bundoran, and Derry. I drove along the Antrim coast for a few days, stopping in Portrush and Ballycastle, I was in Connemara twice and in rural Mayo.
This summer was different in so many ways to any of the others. There were no non-domestic tourists. Coach parks were empty at the Cliffs of Moher and at the Giant’s Causeway. The shops selling Aran jumpers in Killarney were shut. The souvenir shops were deserted. I saw a lot of picnics everywhere, even on days that were not sunny.
Hotels in scenic places were booked out, while those in the cities, especially Dublin, were more or less empty
There were no rental cars on the roads. No different accents on the streets, and not a single American one. It was, as a friend of mine pointed out, like an Ireland from the 1950s, where the only people on summer holidays here were ourselves; as in the era before cheap flights to sun destinations across mainland Europe.
Hotels in scenic places were booked out, while those in the cities, especially Dublin, were more or less empty. Anyone fortunate enough to have a holiday house holed up in one. Many of those available for rent fetched vast sums. Usually, there are handwritten signs posted up in the noticeboards of rural shops, or in post office windows, telling of houses to rent. This year, none.
I met people from Dublin in Clare, who had never been there before. I was privately astonished to discover during my travels how many people admitted to me they had not previously ever been to Donegal, Mayo, or Sligo, or wherever I was at that time.
Sometimes they talked like they were discovering Outer Mongolia, instead of a county a few hours’ drive away from their homes. Geographically, Ireland is such a small country, yet it was so clear to me this summer that the urban/rural divide of our population is a very real scenario.
Bundoran was full. I got pretty much the last hotel bed in a town full of hotels where it’s never been hard to find a bed before. Usually, when out on the road, I never book restaurants ahead of time; I am always a walk-in. Like many others, I had to change my preference for spontaneity in several new ways this summer.
With bars shut, people emptied out of town early and went home, or back to their holiday rentals
Everyone was booking in advance for their precious one-hour-45 minutes restaurant slot, especially when pubs that did not serve food remained closed. Kitchens that usually took last orders at 8pm or 8.30pm were taking them up to 11pm, desperate to both make up some lost trade, and to accommodate the many people who were trying to eat a meal they had not cooked themselves.
The atmosphere was different everywhere. Staff in restaurants were stressed and jumpy. The noise volume from diners was way down. Places were stone dead at night. With bars shut, people emptied out of town early and went home, or back to their holiday rentals. Leaving a restaurant at 9pm felt as late as midnight, so deserted and quiet were the streets at a time of year they are usually buzzing, with the long summer evening light.
Like everything else in this unprecedented year, so much about the summer just felt wrong.