Tullamore is a bustling, sociable place known for its historic buildings and thriving nightlife.
A year into the global pandemic and the Co Offaly town’s main square and streets are quiet. The Bridge Centre, a destination for shopping and socialising, is deserted. Parking is easy to come by. The few people about who talk to The Irish Times are frightened, confused and worn out.
For over a fortnight the midlands county, and particularly Tullamore, has had the highest incidence of Covid-19 in the State. The 14-day incidence rate for the county, to Wednesday, was 450 per 100,000 people – far ahead of the next highest of 260 per 100,000 in Donegal.
In the Tullamore electoral area the rate was 754.5 cases per 100,000.
Bernie Delaney, who lives in the Cloncollig estate on the edge of town, "can't understand" why numbers are so high. "Everywhere you go, people are talking about it." Asked what may be driving cases, she mentions "overcrowding in supermarkets" and "people coming in on trains from Dublin, who live in Dublin but have family here. It's not necessary".
She lives with her two adult daughters and is feeling “very isolated” and “depressed the longer it all goes on”.
She gave up work four years ago to care for her older daughter (28) who has multiple sclerosis. Her younger daughter (25) is very anxious about the virus. “I have to try and convince her to come out, to go to the shop with me. She is terrified of Covid. My older girl hasn’t left the house since last March.
“So we hardly leave the house or let anyone in. We only get our bit of shopping in and then go in [to town] to pay our bills. It is a down and out struggle for me and the two girls,” she says.
Referencing the localised lockdown last August, imposed on counties Laois, Kildare and Offaly due to high rates of the virus, she says people "took it personally…It kind of made us feel like we weren't doing what we were supposed to be doing, weren't abiding by the rules. But then you'd see all the flights coming in, and the people arriving here from Dublin. It really gets to me when I see some people not abiding by the rules and my girls suffering".
Nearby, Rose Hogan (43) shares a three-bedroom council house with three adult children and a granddaughter. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in October 2019. A hysterectomy planned for last month has been postponed due to the pandemic with no new date in sight.
“Everything comes to your mind; has the cancer travelled? I am really worried. I have no idea what’s happening and the longer this Covid goes on the more I am thinking, ‘Is it going to be bad news when I get in to see my doctor?’. I am taking bad panic attacks at night. I can’t sleep. I just cry for hours.
“I don’t understand why it’s so high in Offaly. I am going out of my head thinking of it.” She says the pandemic has “taken everything away”. She misses her mother who she hardly sees. “You can’t go anywhere. Life is: do my shopping on Wednesday and then it’s just the house.”
There are frequent arguments in the overcrowded home. “I hear a lot of people losing trust in the Government because of the way that they are doing it. They put us in lockdown and then they have a golf tournament over the summer. That’s just a slap in the face.
“Some days I’d rather not be here. I go to bed at night and pray I won’t wake up. That’s the way it has gone. It’s really playing with my head. My kids, they are what keep me going.”
Asked what they think is driving cases numbers, people in the town speculate. “People are wondering alright. There are house parties and then there’s the [Traveller] halting sites. They’re overcrowded,” says a builder outside Flynn’s bakery.
A father collecting his son at St Joseph’s national school in Arden View says: “You can see yourself there’s more traffic around. Myself, I think the houses are the problem. I don’t think the schools are the problem.” A mother, asked if schools should stay closed after the Easter holidays which began on Friday, says: “I don’t want to break the child’s routine because he’s just getting back into it. We’ll just have to see what happens with the numbers over Easter. It is really worrying.”
A spokesman for the Health Service Executive said outbreaks in the town were “occurring in a wide range of settings including workplaces, creches, factories, families and within vulnerable communities. No one setting, incident or outbreak is driving the numbers. All of these events are contributing to the rate of illness, although some more than others.”
A large outbreak at one creche in Tullamore, in which eight staff and 15 children tested positive last weekend, caused "huge anxiety" among other childcare providers in the town, says Regina Bushell, founder and manager of Grovelands childcare. It has six centres across the midlands all of which have remained Covid-free since reopening after the first lockdown last June.
“That has been down to a lot of hard work,” says Bushell. “My heart absolutely went out to the owner of that creche. I was in touch with her to offer her support.
“Among my own staff, I have 25 in Tullamore, there was huge anxiety. We have been open nine months without Covid, which is fantastic, but I am almost afraid to say it because one day, one case and it would be another story.”
She hopes her Tullamore staff will get tested at the HSE’s walk-in testing centre in the town – one of five nationally and the only one outside Dublin – which opened on Thursday. “It would give such peace of mind.”
Another business owner, Fergie Quinn, whose pub, Fergie's, on Market Square closed on March 13th, 2020 describes the local surge in cases as "mind-boggling . . .Obviously there is a problem somewhere but I can't see where it is. The town is quiet. I presume Paddy's day last week caused problems."
He welcomes the walk-in test centre which will remain open until next Thursday, but worries if it detects many cases, thereby adding to the local numbers, Offaly could be “left behind” in any relaxation of restrictions next week. “We were hit before with a regional lockdown. We need a roadmap of where we are going. If the Government could just tell us what level of vaccination is needed to get hospitality open again, whether that’s 70 per cent of the population or 80 or 90 per cent. Just give us something to work towards.”
Echoing him, a local councillor, Ken Smollen (Independent), says people are "not only terrified and depressed, they are confused. They don't know where the end is. They need information. Information is hope.
“They would feel better if they knew why cases are so high, if they knew what had to happen for an end to be in sight. There is a lack of direction, a lack of leadership.”
As well as his work as a councillor, the former garda delivers food parcels to hundreds of households in poverty across the midlands every week. "This morning I visited 17 families and I have another 20 tonight, around Tullamore, Kilcormac, Birr, Banagher and down to Borrisokane.
“Covid is really impacting on people. They are staying indoors, losing track of days, forgetting important events. The mental health impact is absolutely desperate . . .I am exceptionally worried we are going to lose people, and I can pinpoint the people I’m most worried about.”
A spokesman said Offaly County Council had met “and continues to liaise with the HSE in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic and will continue to assist the HSE in whatever way it can during the current period”.
The HSE midlands spokesman said public health medics were supporting childcare managers, school principals and families; working with the Traveller community and communicating with local media on developments.
About 300 Covid tests were conducted at the walk-in testing centre on its first day of operation.
- Pieta House, 1800 247 247, text HELP to 51444.
- Samaritans, 116 123, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Suicide Or Survive, 1890 577 577, email@example.com.
- Aware, 1800 80 48 48, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Childline, 1800 666 666, text 5101.
- HSE Drugs and Alcohol helpline, 1800 459 459, email@example.com.
- Traveller Counselling Service, (01) 868 5761, 086 308 1476, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- HSE Crisis Text Service, Text 5080