"Driving into Dublin with maybe two or three passengers on a bus, entering an empty O'Connell Street, a city deserted of its usual hustle and bustle, has been beyond comprehension," says Fergus McDonnell, a Drogheda native who has worked with Bus Éireann for more than three years.
Work has changed dramatically for Fergus and his colleagues who have witnessed buses going from full capacity on an ordinary day to severely reduced capacity throughout these pandemic months. “It has been eerily strange,” he says as much of the nation has stuck to stay-at-home guidance and essential journeys only. A career and business based on vast movement has stayed the course as its services are important and necessary. Every driver is needed as every route is serviced. While recognising the impact the pandemic has had on its employees, Bus Éireann has dutifully taken their needs into consideration as they drive the frontline.
“I am very lucky to be working during these unprecedented times,” says Fergus who considers his situation throughout the pandemic to have been manageable because of the people he works with. A distinct level of understanding, care and respect from his colleagues who have expressed consideration and have been accommodating has shown what a supportive group resides at Bus Éireann.
With Fergus working shift work, his partner Nancy also working part-time as an essential worker, and their two schoolgoing children, Ephraim (12) and Aoife (10), needing education, support and care, “the expectation of difficulties with work life and family life balance was very high during lockdown. But they say surround yourself with the right people and things will go right for you,” Fergus enthuses. “In times of need, people tend to shine brightest, and my Lord have the people in my life shined.”
For most of us, the first lockdown came as a surprise, a shock but also a novelty. “The children were very happy to be off school at the beginning. It was like movie night every night for a week as no schoolwork had been sent yet. Walking in the local woods was all very well, until the reality of the pandemic kicked in. Work still went on, but this is when the care and balance came too. With both of us working, someone needed to be home for Ephraim and Aoife at all times, so shifts needed to be adjusted. My inspectors, Darren and Damien, where in charge of rostering staff. A lot of our drivers have partners working also so they set out rosters, making changes when necessary to suit all concerned. I can say with hand on heart that everyone was accommodated.”
Comparing rosters on a Friday morning became the norm for Fergus and Nancy who would work out schedules depending on lockdown measures, when they were due to work and who would be home with their children. Any adjustments were made with Fergus’s rota as the Drogheda depot accommodated their drivers as much as possible. And life was played out in extraordinary circumstances. “Everyone was abiding, staying home to stay safe. Wearing a mask was something only done by children at Halloween,” says Fergus, “Nancy works part time and I’m full time, so we were passing each other by at times. Upon entering the house, it would be no contact until clothes were changed, hands washed and sanitised. The days of been greeted at the door by the children with hugs and kisses were now over.”
Along with new routines, we faced school in ways we never envisaged. “I feel now that parents truly understand teachers being elevated to superstar status,” says Fergus. “We were home-schooling just our own two children. I cannot imagine what 20-something children would be like on a daily basis. To all teachers I salute you.”
In many of our houses during the first lockdown as we reached for something new and fun outside of the pandemic. we watched and read. Joe Wicks became our post-breakfast workout. "He was the start of home-schooling each morning," says Fergus, "chairs were pushed back, and the exercise guru came on with different costumes and made for some great workouts. Then came the schoolwork, and it was quite hard to get the children to focus. Going from just doing homework to a full day of schooling around the kitchen table was a big change. Our children have had to grow up a little quicker in the last year than we would have expected."
Leaning towards hope with vaccines, a relaxation of measures and a potential normality on course to greet us, Fergus and Nancy maintain an optimistic outlook now the children are back at school. “The joy of school has never been so good. Ephraim and Aoife both love the social aspect of school, never realising in the past what is like not to have friends around them on a daily basis. It’s great for their positivity and, as parents, myself and Nancy have always tried to have a positive attitude towards life. We’ve been lucky that nobody within our circle has been affected by Covid-19. My own parents, who are in their 80s, have cocooned from the outset. My mother is asthmatic, and visits have been a no from the beginning. Video calling is the new social interaction, but these three lockdowns have surprisingly brought our family closer. You get the opportunity to learn more about your children and try to bring the best out of their characters.”
We say children are resilient, that they will bounce back, but in many ways it is the people they are surrounded by who can support them through the stress, adversity and challenges of this intense period of their young lives. Now more than ever, our children have needed their peers, their coaches, their networks and for Ephraim and Aoife this meant the local GAA club, Brownies, school and security from their parents made possible by their supportive employers.
“The local GAA club, Glen Emmett’s, have put a great effort in over the last year,” Fergus says. “When restrictions were relaxed over the summer months, the coaches went to great lengths for the children’s safety. Training in small pods of four, sanitiser at entry and exit and during sessions. Water breaks and nothing but the upmost care for the children. Brownies started back in September and the same level of effort was applied by the leaders. These two sets of groups do all of this voluntarily. These are our children’s heroes, keeping smiles on faces throughout these unprecedented times.”