I rejoice when I meet people from Riga, Lagos or Aleppo in Leitrim
Michael Harding: The county has been rejuvenated by people from other societies coming here
We sit side by side in a crowded waiting room, and hope for nothing more than good health and happiness in this new Leitrim.
I’m a great man for attending the doctor’s surgery during the winter. At the slightest sign of a running nose I’m in the queue, looking for a prescription or a blood test. I’m on six tablets a day, and I wear leggings under my trousers on frosty mornings.
“How are you today?” a woman asked me recently, in the waiting room.
“The tablets is keeping me alive,” I declared. And she laughed. But the truth is that since I got the artery stented last year I have rarely been sick, and sometimes I can’t contain my joy for being alive.
The lady beside me dug her elbow into my ribs and said: 'I hope you’re not pregnant'
The waiting room was full and a beautiful child sat on her mother’s lap, speaking in a language I didn’t understand. And practically everyone in the room was on the phone, either whispering to their loved ones or gazing at images on Facebook and WhatsApp. Everyone except the lady beside me.
“Isn’t it strange,” she said, “how you’re nobody nowadays – unless you’re talking to yourself.”
I really hadn’t a clue what she was talking about.
“Well I seen a woman on the canal yesterday in a tracksuit,” she continued, “with her arms swinging like a boxer and a phone strapped to her chest and her talking into it at a mile a minute, sure that’s not natural.”
“Admittedly people look like they’re talking to themselves when they’re using phones in public,” I agreed.
The waiting room continued to fill up with women, some pregnant and many with babies, and the lady beside me dug her elbow into my ribs and said: “I hope you’re not pregnant.”
Which worried me so much I asked the receptionist if I had made a mistake about the date.
“No,” she said, “but we do the blood tests on the same day as the natal clinics.”
Babies all around me
There were babies all around me, and infants laughing and playing with their mothers’ phones and clinging to their mothers’ laps and even trying to pull their mothers’ noses off.
Nowadays, waiting rooms in rural Ireland are overcrowded, but at least it’s better than the old days when there wasn’t even such a thing as a waiting room.
And it’s encouraging to see classrooms full of children, in places like Leitrim, where some schools in the 1970s still relied on dry lavatories, and the only vegetables in rural towns were a few depressed onions and sad little carrots lying in dusty baskets outside shop doors. Even intellectual life in those days was as feeble as an old head of cabbage, controlled by clergymen who instructed librarians what they should and should not take off the shelves.
I rejoice when I meet people from Riga, Lagos or Aleppo on the streets, who enrich the cultural and economic life of places like Carrick-on-Shannon and Drumshanbo
I was watching a documentary recently on Channel 4 about a woman living through war in Syria. One scene was filmed in a hospital waiting room as it was being shelled with cluster bombs and chemicals. The film tracked the woman’s pregnancy and the birth of her baby girl, who stared into the camera as the bombs dropped, with no smile on her little face.
It was a moving testament of war, and afterwards I felt grateful that I lived in lovely Leitrim, no matter how crowded the waiting rooms are. Because Leitrim is relatively peaceful, and has become a multicultural success story.
It’s certainly more culturally diverse and tolerant than it was in the time of John McGahern’s father. And I rejoice when I meet people from Riga, Lagos or Aleppo on the streets, who enrich the cultural and economic life of places like Carrick-on-Shannon and Drumshanbo.
For decades, Leitrim was dying from the curse of emigration, but to a great extent the county has been rejuvenated by people from other societies coming here – whether that be Berlin, Cavan or Lagos.
So it’s no surprise that some doctors’ waiting rooms are full, with strangers who have beautiful eyes, and babies that speak languages I am not familiar with. And when I see young women talking on their phones to some father on the other side of the world, it’s not difficult to read their emotions.
Because even in a slightly crowded waiting room, we are all human. And if you hurt us, we will cry the same tears. Prick any finger and the needle will suck out the same human blood into the doctor’s little vial.
On the doctor’s desk our bloods sit in a single row, labelled with our names, while we sit side by side in a crowded waiting room, and hope for nothing more than good health and happiness in this new Leitrim.