Dublin’s night workers: ‘In 38 years, I’d never seen an owl in the city centre’

Post office workers, cleaners, grocers and gardaí marvel at changes Covid-19 has made in Dublin

It's midnight and Maurice Ebbs is walking me around An Post's Dublin Parcel Hub in Dublin 12 as staff busily transfer parcels from trucks in the docking bays to conveyor belts. A radio plays the Stereo MCs singing "gonna get myself connected" which feels very apt.

Here are some of the identifiable things we see being processed here: lawnmowers, weights, garden hoses, an electric scooter, a sledge hammer, rowing boat oars, barbecue grills, Adidas runners, gardening equipment, a box of beer, some musical equipment from Germany, a huge packet of toilet rolls.

Anything you can think of that someone might want, says Ebbs, they’ve found a way of ordering online during this pandemic. “And anything you see coming off a truck now will be delivered by morning.”

Each item glides around the conveyor belt, its barcode scanned to ensure it then flies down a location-specific chute and into a large wheeled container below. Ebbs picks up a package and scans it to demonstrate how it works. “It’s a great piece of kit,” he says as we watch.

This new high-tech hub was opened in December and was planned in response to a huge increase in online shopping in recent years. Today, the big screen overlooking the facility tells me that 98,314 parcels have already been processed. These are unprecedented numbers, Ebbs says, and they couldn’t manage without a system like this. “The biggest figure we did at Christmas was 770,000 parcels. We’ve beaten that six weeks in a row now. Last week it was up to 910,000.”

When Ebbs began working for An Post 34 years ago as a junior postman his main job was delivering telegrams to be read at weddings and funerals, he says. He was put in charge of "this little parcel project" around five years ago after a couple of decades in management. He's been to see a similar operation in Copenhagen that deals with even more parcels than this one.

Other things have changed because of Covid-19. The two shifts working here no longer overlap and this building is now hived off from the others to help employees keep apart from each other. Ebbs’s office has been turned into a canteen to keep lunching workers sufficiently distanced from each other.

We pass a tray of items where the addresses are labelled incorrectly. Sometimes, says Ebbs, this is due to “vanity addressing”. He laughs when I ask what that means. He explains that that’s when someone decides incorrectly that their house is actually located in a posher postal zone. Before we leave, we clamber up some metal steps overlooking the conveyer belts and workers below. “It’s the bee’s knees.”

‘We’re in survival mode’

Caryna Camerino has recently started baking again in her Camerino Bakery on Capel Street with her three-month-old son Nico in her arms and her 18-year-old step-daughter Sally at her side. It's a business that started in her kitchen in the last recession and has grown to include a cafe in Merrion Square and wholesale bakery in Terenure.

When the lockdown started she had to close all three locations and has only recently started supplying wholesale customers again and fulfilling orders for celebration cakes. “We’re in survival mode . . . I can’t afford to pay any salaries so in order for the business to survive, we all have to pitch in and keep it going, me, Sally and Nico .”

Does Nico help? She laughs. “He helps in a way. He keeps us going at a nice steady pace ensuring we have frequent breaks.”

Camerino is Canadian and arrived in Ireland 17 years ago intending to stay just two days. By the time of the last recession she was working in the HR department of an Irish engineering firm that was working on a huge construction project. "I was the one making people redundant and I hated it but I was being sponsored [for a visa] . . . After a really s**ty day of firing people I would come home and bake."

She took her cakes to markets and eventually developed it into a bigger business. “As a young single person . . . the risk of starting a new business didn’t feel scary at all. This feels completely different. I have these commercial leases [and] the responsibility of 26 employees depending on you for their livelihood and a brand new baby.”

Right now she’s figuring out the challenges of social distancing so that she can get her employees back to work. Until she can do that, she’s fulfilling orders under the supervision of Nico. “We’re working around the baby’s schedule,” she says. “The business environment is one thing, but baking is meditative and peaceful, particularly when you’re making something to help people celebrate.”

‘I’ve never seen anything like this’

Sean-Michael Larkin, an inspector on the night shift for Dublin City Council, has never seen the city so empty in more than three decades cleaning the city. We're standing in the middle of an empty Dame Street at 11pm on a Wednesday night. "I've worked the water protests, the queen's visit, the pope's visit . . . I was in cleaning up after the Love Ulster riots as soon as the police were done." He sighs. "But I've never seen anything like this. It's been like Christmas Day every day since March."

There’s less litter so he and his crews have spread their remit to help out colleagues in the suburbs. “80 per cent of our bins would be full and now it’s more like 40 per cent . . . The nature of the litter hasn’t changed, there’s just less of it . . . Anything you don’t need becomes litter.”

His father also worked in street cleaning and he recalls him coming home with injuries from wrangling with rubbish. Nowadays, they’re highly trained and have protective clothing, good cleaning facilities and strong health and safety regulations. Nonetheless, Larkin was pricked by a hidden syringe once and had to spend several worrying months waiting for test results. “We never know what we’re going to end up touching.”

In more normal times, he says, they operate amid throngs of people. “Now, after 12, we’re lucky if we see 40 people. It’s us, the guards and the homeless . . . We have a good rapport with the homeless lads. We’d know them and they’d know us.”

Instead of seeing people, he's seeing wildlife. "The seagulls are gone because the fast food restaurants are closed . . . and because the seagulls are gone, the foxes have come back in. Normally you would see them in the outer edges of the city centre – Merrion Square or Stephen's Green where they live but I was standing by the Central Bank last week and one walked straight by me as if it was my dog. And I saw an owl on a ledge on Stephen's Green shopping centre. In 38 years, I'd never seen an owl in the city centre. Brilliant."

Working on these empty streets is eerie, he says. “Normally you have some interaction. Some query. ‘Where’s Dame Street?’ ‘Where can I get a taxi?’ We’re the unofficial tourist guides in Dublin . . . We know where you can find a pub open at 3am or what clubs you might get into . . . You get guys all dressed up in their good suits and then you’ll see some fella in a banana suit.”

Generally, he says, people don’t notice them. “We’re the invisible frontline worker. No one sees us.”

‘You get the odd excuse. The odd chancer’

Garda Chloe Rochfort (24) is listening patiently to a homeless woman who is leaning into her Garda car. She is saying something difficult to understand about her "sister". Rochfort promises to check on her shortly. "It's not really her sister," she explains to me. "She's her friend. She just calls her, 'her sister'." Rochfort knows a lot of the homeless people around town and part of her job involves checking that they're okay. "We make sure they have food and are keeping warm."

Rochfort and her 29-year-old colleague Darren Reynolds (he laughs when I characterise him as a "veteran") operate out of Pearse Street Garda station and patrol the Dublin 2 area which Rochfort calls "the B" (It's the "bravo district").

They're currently on the 7pm to 7am shift and they would, in more normal times, be kept busy with the throngs of people visiting pubs and restaurants. "There'd be a lot of public order [offences]," says Reynolds.

Now, says Rochfort, there’s no one about. “You normally wouldn’t be able to see the path for people.”

So they spend a lot of time looking after premises, says Reynolds, “making sure they’re locked and secure. And we run Covid check points as well just to make sure that people are maintaining social distance.”

“I think the public are very good,” says Rochfort. “A lot would ring the station and ask advice from us.”

“Of course, you get the odd excuse,” says Reynolds.

“The odd chancer,” says Rochfort.

“Like, ‘I’m going to the beach,’” says Reynolds and laughs. “That’s not exactly essential travel. But we understand it’s a difficult time as well and nobody is used to what’s going on.”

“We’re kept busy,” says Rochfort. “There are a lot of welfare checks. If there’s an elderly person living on their own a neighbour might want us to check in and make sure they’re okay. We deliver prescriptions for a lot of chemists for elderly people who can’t get out.”

“Some of the lads doing the community policing would do the shopping as well for the elderly who can’t get out,” says Reynolds.

Other things have changed too. Their shifts have altered to facilitate social distancing and all gardaí are kept working with the same partner.

“God love him,” says Rochfort.

Reynolds, who is from Blanchardstown, has diplomas in criminology and policing and there are a lot of gardaí in his family. Rochfort, who grew up on the Navan Road, studied HR in college but has wanted to be a garda since she was a child. "My primary school teachers still say, 'I can't believe you actually became a garda' because I used to talk about it then."

Do they watch police shows on TV? “I used to love The Bill,” says Rochfort. “And I love Red Rock.”

Isn’t that full of misbehaving police folk? She laughs. “I know. I shouldn’t watch it.”

‘We still have craic’

For 26 years Philip Jones has made his way into the old Victorian vegetable market at St Mary's Lane at 4.30 every morning where he operates his Garden of Eden herb business. His family have grown vegetables in Rush since before 1880 (that's just the first record of them, he says) but his father diversified into herbs in the 1970s. "It was a risky thing to do because people weren't cooking like now."

Nowadays, he says, they have 30 employees and "the largest glass house in the Ireland" out in Duleek but it's a tricky time now for the food business. "The first few weeks were a nightmare because the food service businesses fell away . . . But a lot of small fruit and veg sellers were a lifeline to older people and people cocooning, delivering to them. The smaller operator will know the way the customer likes his tomatoes . . . It's like a personal shopper . . . We went from being a more wholesale operator to a more retail business."

Does he mind getting up so early? “It’s my 26th year doing it. Anyone getting up at that time in the morning is a grafter . . . There’s a great community around the market, a fabulous comradeship . . . So many people leave and come back because they miss their pals. They see each other more than their families . . . There isn’t the same jizz around the place at the moment. But we’re not mopey about it. We still have craic.”

‘You’d wonder what these people did before?’

Maurice Lawlor of H Lawlor & Co fruit and veg (the H was his grandfather, Harry) has been working at the St Mary's Lane market for 45 years and can date his family business back to 1885. Though he knows some providers who have suffered recently due to their reliance on the restaurant trade, he has personally experienced a big increase in demand. "For the first time kids and parents are sitting down for square meals together."

Are there any products that are particularly popular? “Apples,” he says. “For apple tarts. And rhubarb . . . When the lockdown started the demand for potatoes was huge. People were going back to the basics of cooking. You’d wonder what these people did before? Did they ever cook a roast on a Sunday?”

Does getting here for 4.30am bother him at all? “Not at all. You get used to it. What’s great about this time of year, is that the birds are singing and there’s not a sound of a human being. Then the dawn comes and you get the dawn chorus. Where else in the world would you want be at that time?” He pauses and laughs. “As long as it’s not raining.”

‘The early morning is lovely’

Cara Lloyd started the Corner Bakery in Terenure in 2005. She had been a teacher before that but she wanted a change. "Ten years in a disadvantaged school is tough," she says.

She trained extensively as a baker, but after filling her window with top-end desserts she discovered that the people gathering around her window were much more entranced by a wonky, colourful, sprinkle-covered cake created by her seven-year-old. She laughs. “He called it a cakelicious.”

Running a business, she says, turned out to be more stressful than teaching. In the teeth of the last recession she opened a second and a third shop and then had to close them. In this crisis, she has managed to keep open by splitting her staff into two separate groups that don’t overlap for social distancing purposes. She currently starts work at around five in the morning. “I like to be there before everyone else . . . I make soda bread first thing and that’s a doddle so it’s good reflection time. Then it’s coffee and sausage rolls and scones. The early morning is lovely.”

She’s missing some of her older customers but in general she’s found things busier than usual. “We had a lovely card come into the shop the other day from our littlest customer “to the croissant ladies”. And there’s a particular demand for bread. Even though they’re all baking at home they come for ours as well.”

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