Lockdown letters: ‘Life is all about making connections’

Letters on life under lockdown from Vicky Phelan, Joe Schmidt, Maeve Higgins, Irish Times journalists and others

To my niece and god-daughter, Lucy
You will be so mortified when you see Ant at it again, writing about you. We've had many names for each other over the years. Right now, I call you Niece, a knowing formality only possible because we are anything but formal with each other.

You call me Ant at the moment instead of Aunt, accompanied with the ant emoji in our texts, because it’s a joke. You’ve never actually called me Aunt. I’ve always just been Rosie. I already publicly mortified you last year when I dedicated my book of travel essays, Elsewhere, to you.

When you're not holed up in your house these days, you're at work, in Crumlin Children's Hospital. Children don't stop getting sick of other illnesses during a pandemic. You have seen and experienced things that I, more than twice your age, never have or will. When you were training, and living with me for a time, you came home more than once distraught by a dying baby you'd cuddled and tried to make comfortable in their last hours.

When my recent trip to Zimbabwe to see old friends was cut short by the need to leave before its borders closed, it was you who arrived – socially distanced – at my doorstep, offering to do my shopping. I hadn't been back in the country more than two hours, but you knew I was starting a fortnight's quarantine. That's love and thoughtfulness, and the kindness you have so much of.


There’s a new addition to our family since January, Baby Amelie. My great niece and your first niece (or nephew, for that matter). You too are an Ant now. When I snuggled Baby Amelie for the first time in the hospital, I remembered the abundant love and immediate familiarity I felt for you, when I first held you.

In that moment, I could so vividly imagine the happy times we would all have together in the future; Great Ant, and New Ant, with our Great Niece and Niece: those most excellent times we will have when we can see and hold each other once again. – Ant

Rosita Boland is an Irish Times journalist

Dear Sinead*,
We haven't seen each other in a long time. You live down home in Kilkenny. I live in Limerick. I was hoping I would get to catch up with you at the end of March, when I should have been home celebrating my mother's 65th birthday and Mother's Day with my family. Instead, because of coronavirus, we have all been self-isolating in our own homes and I don't know when, if ever, I will see you again.

You see, I have only recently learned that you have been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and the prognosis isn’t good. I called Mark*, your husband, to verify what I had heard. Unfortunately, the rumours were true. Mark told me that you have been given only a few months to live and that there is nothing the doctors can do. I couldn’t believe it. How could this be happening? I tried to comfort Mark and to placate him, as people placated me when I was given this very same news two years ago.

The difference between then and now, though, is that I was able to surround myself with family and friends to comfort me. I was able to cry on my friends’ shoulders. I was able to sit in silence with my family and friends and all that was required was a nod, or a squeeze of my hand to let me know that someone was there for me. None of your friends can visit and sit with you and spend precious time with you. None of Mark’s friends can take him out for a pint to get him out of the house and forget about what lies ahead even just for a little while.

You and Mark must deal with this awful situation separated from all of your family and friends, who can only drop dinners and shopping at the door and talk through windows at a distance because your immune system is compromised and you already have enough to deal with without having to worry about catching coronavirus.

And so, I must live with the guilt that in the past year, I have not been there for you as I should have been. I was busy with my book and with treatment, with my family and with helping other people, people I don’t know. I should have made more time for my friends. I must accept that you may die and I will never see you again. I may not even be able to attend your funeral. I have sent messages and cards to you and Mark to let you know how sorry I am for not being the friend I should have been and to offer support and comfort with words, since that is all I have to offer.

The only words that are important now are the words “I’m sorry” and “I hope that you can forgive me”.

Your friend,
Vicky Phelan is a cancer campaigner and author; *some names in her letter have been changed

My dear compatriots and friends of Italy, 
My life has been similar to that of a vagabond, and I am your ambassador in the beautiful and friendly country of Ireland. In this life that I decided to lead, I often spent Easter time – our sacred Easter time – far away from you and from our shores, our sky, and our beauties. The truth is I have never been far away from you, I have never forgotten you, I am yours and I want to be yours, to be always a part of you and recall you wherever I go.

I see you suffer now and I suffer with you. I see our old people dying now for staying with their grandchildren, our joyful attitude towards life and each other harshly punished and betrayed. This is terrible, without explanation, and makes us fall into an inner doubt that leaves us shaken.

As an Italian amongst the Irish, I look to you this Easter time with this in my mind. But this is not despair, this is instead a sorrow that opens my heart and soul to hope.

The hope to see soon your sky, your shores, your beauties and you, my brothers, strong again, full of your beautiful, lively, "being yourselves", being Italians ... "I figli dei figli di Michelangelo".

I love you and I am always your faithful ambassador in the old and beloved Hibernia,

Un abbraccio
Paolo Serpi
HE Mr Paolo Serpi, is the Ambassador of Italy in Ireland

Dear Abby,
We were enjoying dinner this evening and were wondering how you're getting on, down in your Kiwi corner of the world? It's great to have the family chat and the pictures and messages that we share, but I thought I'd drop you an old-fashioned letter.

I see that you had sunshine and 17 degrees today so at least that keeps your day bright, although I’m sure you’d rather get to the beach or ride the horses along the water line. How’re the others in the flat, hopefully you’re not all under each other’s feet and feeling too cramped?

Hopefully the spread of the virus can be quelled sooner rather than later

We’ve managed to spread out here, with Tim having commandeered the office. He’s working standard office hours, so he’s tucked away for the majority of the day, immersed in the world of accounting. Ella has online lectures and the occasional quiz and assignment, working toward her final year of radiography. As you know, she has volunteered to help in the health service but has not been called upon as yet, so we will see how that goes. The healthcare workers have certainly been doing an incredible job in dire circumstances.

Your mum and I are trying to keep Luke motivated and focused on homework. He’s just completed a book review and did some English work today, even though it’s the first day of the holidays for him. The last two weeks have been pretty good, so hopefully it remains that way.

I'm not sure if you've spoken to your cousin, Lucy, since she flew back from Dublin, but it was a relief for her to get back. She was well set up with her car left next to the airport and she drove directly to Taupo, where the house was stocked for her just-completed 14 days of self-isolation.

Anyway, despite the disconcerting circumstances, we’ve enjoyed the slower pace over the last few weeks and the time spent together. It’s been good to video chat and to know that you’re okay. Hopefully the spread of the virus can be quelled sooner rather than later to stop the angst and loss that people have already suffered.

Take care and love from all of us,
Joe Schmidt is a former Ireland rugby coach

Well, Mammy,
I hope this postcard finds you well and you can read my tiny writing. Isn't it mighty that I didn't have to put a stamp on it? (I know you're probably reading this Pat Curran. Pass on my regards to your colleagues at An Post but can you also mention the price of stamps?)

Anyway Mammy, I know we have our weekend Facetimes lined up but it’s always nice to get a bit of post isn’t it? And it will be a nice little keepsake from this time of madness. I hope the cocooning is going well and that you wiped down those Roosters I left at the back door.

I saw Tessie Daly (she's 70 if she's a day, no?) in Lidl and she roared across the onions at me that she got a WhatsApp about the virus living on your carrots for three weeks so give everything a good wash. Speaking of Tessie Daly, I met her son Conor when I was out for my Big Walk and I nearly had to get into a bush to get the two metres away from him, the big clod. I'll have to start going for my walks after nine when everyone is in watching the news.

Me and Majella are determined to keep the book club going so we're using that video yoke Zoom and getting all the girls to join in. Sinead Cloghessy was on the second bottle of wine before we'd even started so it was just like normal book club, I suppose (Pat, if you're still reading don't tell Tessie or Sinead what I've said about them, good man).

Majella was saying Daddy would love all the drama and excitement and she’s right, isn’t she? He was a mighty man for freezing milk. I hope you’re not too lonely up there on your own without him and with any luck it will all be over soon. And do you know, I’m half thinking of going back to do nursing. Daddy always said I had the face and the temperament for it.

Give the postcard a good wipe while you’re at it,

Love Aisling
The first three books in the bestselling Aisling series by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen are currently available from a range of online retailers and in ebook format.

To the people I meet at work,
Write a letter, she said. To someone you can't see because of the lockdown, she said. And yeah, I could have picked family or friends or any of the usual crew but the problem is, I'm seeing more of them now than I ever have. Far too much, in fact. Zoom has a lot to answer for.

So I thought about who I’m missing. I was as surprised as anyone to realise it was you people. I won’t use names here, obviously, because one day this will end and I will have to see each of you again and eventually we’ll catch each other’s eye and we’ll both remember the soppy love letter in the magazine that time and one of us will have to die and it’s not going to be me.

But yes, murder threats apart, I miss you people, the rolling swirl of the four or five dozen different faces I come into contact with when I’m at work. Be it in the office or on the road or in a press box at a game, we might only stand and talk for three minutes once a fortnight. But Christ, I miss those three minutes.

Better to dream of some sunny day, when we can pass each other, grunt a hello, over-laugh at a feeble attempt at a wisecrack and then not see each other for a week

Working from home is no hardship. But I’d give a lot for an idle half-chat about the golf or the racing or the football a couple of times a day. Or to ask if the book you’ve got your nose in is any good. Or to walk in on a couple of you very obviously gossiping about a couple of others of you and to slag it out of you before they walk in.

I miss the did-you-sees and wait-till-you-hears, the what-an-arseholes and the ah-poor-craythurs. I miss the sneering at a match, the splatter-painting of shit-talk that makes up the press box, the micro-insults and imagined slights. I miss the mind-yourselves and the safe-homes and the going-for-ones.

Of course, I could get in touch with you all individually and tell you this in person. But, y’know, let’s not overdo it either. Better to dream of some sunny day, when we can pass each other in the corridor, grunt a hello, over-laugh at a feeble attempt at a wisecrack and then not see each other for a week. Bliss.

Be well,
Malachy Clerkin is an Irish Times journalist

Hey Kyle
Hope you are well. The countdown is well and truly on, and the dream team will soon be back together. I know that all our plans for the summer are out the window because of coronavirus, but I am still looking forward to doing absolutely nothing with you. Sooner rather than later we will be back into our routine of pancakes, pizza and playing Super Mario on the Switch.

Hopefully when the world is right again and everybody is safe and healthy we will be back in the car and off on our little adventures. First up on the list is Funtasia, so we can race down those slides and splash in the water. I can’t wait for it!

I know its very hard for us to be away from each other son but I want you to know that you are the strongest little boy I know and I promise I will make up for lost time when I’m home.

Things are going well over here and we are really looking forward to coming home. The weather is getting great here too so it’s nice not to be running around in the rain.

I’m training for a half marathon and I am hoping to beat my last time before I come home. Looking forward to seeing all the new faces arriving here that will replace us at the end of our trip. When they arrive it will mean our trip is near its end.

Well son, I have to go now. I love you so much and see you soon,

Corporal Nicole Whelan is serving with Reconnaissance Company, 115th Irish-Polish Battalion, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon

Jojo, my friend, my soul sista,
Pal, these are tough times for the best of us, but for many of us, they are the times we fear the most: silence. A silence filled with too much time to think about all the reasons why we aren't good enough. With way too much space in our heads to flirt with the idea of "just one drink". If the opposite of addiction is connection, then what do we do if where we seek that connection is interrupted. What does recovery from addiction look like right now?

There are times in our lives you wanted out of this world, while the rest of us asked you to stay. Hold on just one more day became one day at a time, and you stepped into recovery like the warrior you are. No longer here for us, but for yourself and all that was always beautiful and human about you.

Life is all about making connections; between humans, science, medicine and the meaning of life and so on. Your entire life you have been developing connections, with your family, friends and the young people you work with, but for the past two years, you have been establishing the most valuable connection of them all. That connection is with yourself, and it doesn’t just go away in the absence of your therapeutic spaces. The connection, which I know we both agree is the opposite of addiction, now exists within you, everywhere you go. The connection is you.

You will be stronger than ever before, in the knowledge that your responses to recovery have become habitual regardless of the obstacles you face

The philosopher Edward Thorndike has a theory called "Connectionism". Part of his theory is the law of effect – responses to a situation which are followed by a rewarding state of affairs will be strengthened and become habitual responses to that situation.

Jo, you are one of the most emotionally intelligent people I know. Your ability for introspection and your capacity for growth are two of my favourite things about you. I know that when we come out the other side of this, we will discuss the law of effect and all that you learned about yourself in how you responded to this situation. You will be stronger than ever before, in the knowledge that your responses to recovery have become habitual regardless of the obstacles you face. Now is the ultimate opportunity for you to show yourself that your recovery is real.

Remember, it was you that you got you here. You did that, and you exist everywhere you go.

Love you.
Lynn Ruane is an activist and member of Seanad Éireann

Dear Katie,
Thanks for the Zoom chat the other night. It felt good to drink wine, laugh, catch up and admire the face mask you made yourself from a scrap of polka-dot material. You're right. Wearing a mask is not only corona-savvy, it's a blow to the patriarchy because when you wear it, nobody can say "cheer up" or "give us a smile".

You’re a pretty cool little sister in fairness – creative, strong and smart – even if I don’t say it very often.

We’re very different but we also have loads in common so it makes me sad that we haven’t had a better relationship over the years. I’ve noticed this has been changing recently and I’m glad.

This poxy pandemic seems to be bringing some people closer together.

I wanted to write this Lockdown Letter partly to admit that over the years I’ve been jealous of the fact that our mother lives in your house. Your three gorgeous children have access to their Nanny on tap, and you have 24-hour access to both her cooking and her company. It’s inter-generational nirvana or at least that’s how I see it, especially when I am in green-eyed monster mode.

In reality, you and Killian giving mother a secure, safe and happy place to live indefinitely is a serious commitment that not everybody would be able for.

I'm so proud you are keeping this surreal and challenging show on the road

It’s never been more of a commitment than now.

When Leo Varadkar announced the "cocooning" of older people, you immediately decided that the five of you would not leave the house so that our 80-year-old mum would stay as safe as possible.

I can only imagine how tough that has been with three small children. And it’s not over yet.

I am so grateful to you, Katie. And so proud you are keeping this surreal and challenging show on the road so your seven older siblings don’t have to worry about our amazing mother at this scary time.

You are the very best of us.

Thank you.

Róisín x
Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times journalist

Dear Sir/Madam,
A quick note to say thank you for doing one of the hardest jobs in the US, a job most Americans simply will not do, that is, picking and packing fruit and vegetables. I'm sorry we have not met, I live in New York city and work as a writer. My job involves a lot of sitting and thinking in a comfortable room. From what I understand, your job involves racing around, squatting, bending, crouching and lifting heavy things. I'd pass out in a second!

I'm glad that the future of the country is being shaped by your hard work

You most likely do not need me to do what I do, but I definitely need you to do what you’re doing. In the middle of this terrible pandemic, you’re an essential worker, making sure nutritious food is available to the rest of the country. This is despite the degrading conditions the US government has created for you. I know that without legal status here you are in danger of deportation and even though you pay tax, you have no right to any State benefits. That’s really grotesque and I’m angry about it.

So, please accept this note of appreciation. I’ve met some of your kids, and they are incredible. I’m glad that the future of the country is being shaped by your hard work and your patience with people who do not know what an honour it is that you live here. I promise to do what I can to elevate your voices and remember your efforts.

Sending love,
Maeve Higgins is a writer, comedian and actor

To my customers,
A restaurant needs people. Without them, the kitchen is silent and ghostly. The rattle and hum of every day life is non-existent, as if its heart has been ripped out. Since temporarily closing our restaurant, the Tannery, we've had lovely messages on the answerphone and by email, and good wishes often follow the cancellations.

“Keep the flag flying Flynn,” a long-standing supporter says to me as we social distanced in the supermarket. The meeting is fleeting but heartening. I know they will be back as soon as they can with their family.

The restaurant is where people meet, laugh and love. We are part of the community and have embedded ourselves in it with every working day. The energy generated in a restaurant can be infectious and addictive. Service can be tense, it has to be right, people expect it. But that’s ok. It’s important to us that people leave contented and happy .

These days I get requests for photographs. Elderly ladies have taken a shine to me. I’m flattered but maybe they just want to meet Daithí. If a younger woman approaches, it’s often accompanied by “My mother loves you”.

When this madness ends, we will return to doing what we do best, with a sense of duty, love and care

I get the odd "Hey, Fishy Fishy," and I tell them I'm the other fella, through gritted teeth. Martin Shanahan, my co-presenter on those TV shows, would like that. I stress that he's the much older man and they usually laugh, shuffle and drift away.

From the moment I started working in restaurants, I’ve loved them, and I’ve loved ours the most. A good restaurant should generate loyalty. Customers who started out being brought in by their parents are now bringing their own children, such is the circle of life.

There is nothing that reflects time slipping away more than when this happens. I often become quietly nostalgic as I’m introduced to our newest visitors.

When this madness ends, we will return to doing what we do best, with a sense of duty, love and care.

See you soon I hope,
Paul Flynn is a chef, food writer and television presenter