Róisín Ingle: It's only been two months. It feels like 200 years

A night in a friend’s garden shows us what we’ve lost and found in the pandemic

The day the earth stood still: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Washington. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The day the earth stood still: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Washington. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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How has it only been two months? Just over eight weeks since Leo Varadkar finished off the most disquieting press conference of his political career with three little words that landed on our heads as though from the script of a dodgy disaster movie: “We will prevail.”

Only two months since a virus from Wuhan set us all off on a strange, troubling, unfamiliar course where minutes crawled by like hours, the news was never good and the cases clocked up, while day by endless day we counted up our sick and our dead.

That day – two months or two decades ago, it’s hard to tell – I stood in the newsroom of The Irish Times, looking up at a television trying to make sense of the words coming out of Varadkar’s mouth.

In a small studio off the newsroom, my colleague Kathy Sheridan was doing an interview with three new TDs for The Women’s Podcast. The episode was planned as an exploration of how they were finding life in Leinster House and about government formation. But it became about coronavirus, about washing your hands, about locking yourself down. When they left the office, the three women did so as the last guests that would visit the studio, but we didn’t know that then.

I enjoyed that snack, but not as much as I would have if someone had told me it was the last Grogan’s toastie I’d be having for 200 years

Kathy and I walked out of the office together into a new Ireland where life appeared to still be happening in the usual old ways, Leo Varadkar’s words from Washington yet to fully sink in.

We decided to go for a drink and pointed ourselves in the direction of Grogan’s. We found seats outside. It was only the afternoon but I ordered a Jack Daniels and we both had toasted sandwiches. I enjoyed that iconic Dublin snack, but not as much as I would have if someone had told me it was the last Grogan’s toastie I’d be having for 200 years.

As we sat there, we got talking to a younger woman, on a break from her job behind the bar. “They will have to close the pubs on Monday,” she said. “Otherwise the whole of Temple Bar will be one mass, infectious gathering.”

Drive-by coughing

“Close the pubs on the bank holiday before St Patrick’s Day?” I remember thinking. No harm to the young woman, but it was a bit extreme. Then a man driving slowly past the pub stuck his head out of the window and coughed loudly in our direction. He laughed then, his idea of a totally topical joke. The pubs closing idea suddenly seemed sensible. We finished our drinks, said our goodbyes.

The pubs did close. The restaurants closed. Our doors closed. The hospitals and the frontline workers scrambled for protective gear, braced for impact. We communicated over hedges, through windows, by video links with the people we love. Leo Varadkar talked to us in Heaney quotes and doctors told us the numbers and we couldn’t sleep and our dreams were mad and we stocked our pandemic pantries and we stayed in except for when we went out, on State-sanctioned walks once a day, dodging each other on footpaths.

That was then, two centuries ago. And this is now.

A friend invites me over for a barbecue in her garden, a small gathering. A gathering, imagine. An invitation to talk to people face to face, to break bread and burnt sausages together. I cycle over in the sunshine, smiling at all the socially distanced foursomes sitting on indoor chairs that have been dragged out into front gardens.

Music dances into the air from sitting rooms and speakers. A solid 1950s playlist takes over one garden – Buddy Holly warbling True Love Ways. From another house, Irish songs are the order of this idyllic day. Luke Kelly singing The Auld Triangle near the banks of the Royal Canal. People are talking. Laughing. Becoming reacquainted at a social distance. It feels new, the memory of something being unlocked as we ease out of lockdown.

Flowing conversation

I knock on my friend’s side door and sit in the back garden in yellow light with wine and traditionally cremated Irish fare and small dogs scampering around, conversation flowing in a way that can’t be captured on Zoom.

We talk about what the experience has taught us, about fecundity, about fear

One woman is telling dating app war stories – oh, the Tinder tales she can tell, even through a pandemic. We talk about what the experience has taught us, about fecundity, about fear. We talk about pandemic transgressions and grief and friendship.When we’ve talked enough we play a silly game called Tolkien or Anti-depressants?, where you try to figure out if a word represents a character from the writer’s imagination or a mood-lifting medicine.

We talk more as twilight comes, and then darkness arrives and we sit looking up at the clear night sky, blankets on shoulders, at the plough. “What is the stars?” someone says. It feels so simple sitting there. And yet so special. A sense of something regained, a thing never to be taken for granted again.

I look up at the stars reflecting on all that we’ve lost during these long days and nights of lockdown. And something else: I think of what we’ve found.

roisin@irishtimes.com