Massed gatherings are who we are – losing them feels surreal

The touchstones of an Irish summer – sports events, gigs and festivals – have been zapped

There’ll be no Dublin Horse Show (above), no football or hurling championships, no refixed Champions Cup quarter-finals, no Electric Picnic, no Longitude, no Fleadh, no Rose of Tralee. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

It’s a sign of the grim times we’re in when the Government can announce a ban on massed gatherings stretching out for months ahead of us and it doesn’t really feel like a shock. Ordinarily, this would be jaw-dropping, world-shattering news. Instead, it’s probably no worse than what most sports followers suspected.

A summer of sport and gigs and festivals and everything else has been zapped before we’re even out of mid-April. Yet, given rising death tolls and the looming economic clouds, it feels like very small beer. That’s where we are with everything.

The swirl of news can make the days feel like being on Willy Wonka’s boat, hurtling through the Tunnel of Terror with a new nightmarish image flashing by at every turn. There’s no earthly way of knowing in which direction we are going. Certainly, not a speck of light is showing. The confirmation that the simple act of going to a big sporting event is unavailable to us until September at the earliest makes it all feel darker than ever.

At a stroke, the touchstones of the Irish summer have been written off. We already knew we wouldn’t be at the Euros or the Irish Open or the Dublin Horse Show. Now we know for sure that we won’t be at the football or hurling championships. There’ll be no day out at a refixed Champions Cup quarter-finals. We won’t go to the Curragh for the Derby. They’ve even shut down the Tidy Towns for a year.


Ambling along

Massed gatherings are who we are. Without them, we’re not a “we” at all. We are just ourselves, ambling along in lives of small connections. And though the small ones are obviously the most important ones, we can’t deny that it does the soul good to occasionally feel yourself in a maw of something bigger. Like a lot of things we never had to imagine before, losing that is surreal.

It doesn’t have to be sport, of course. Indeed, so resigned have we become to losing sport from our lives for a while that it feels from this vantage point like the ban is aimed more so at the summer of festivals around the country. There’ll be no Electric Picnic or Longitude or All Together Now and so on. No Fleadh. No Rose of Tralee.

These all sound like fripperies – and they are. But we should acknowledge their loss all the same. It’s only human to feel the sad, grim weight of the nightly numbers and to still find room for the sting of something like this. The summer will come and go but it won’t be like any summer that went before it. To just shrug that off as nothing would be dishonest.

We can mourn our dead and still feel justified in grieving for the loss of the stuff of life. The events you need a massed gathering for are generally the things that sustain us. They take us out of ourselves, give us licence to colour outside our usual lines. In a crowd you can make noise, you can roar, you can curse, you can dance, sing, cry and all the other bad good stuff, safe in the knowledge that everyone else is doing it too.

That’s gone now. We don’t know for how long. We don’t even really know what it means, either. Technically, it’s still presumably possible that you could put on a Pro-14 game in, say, late July and cap the numbers through the turnstiles at 4,000. Or to start running off the League of Ireland season. Or to crank the club championships into gear. But even if you do, how can you be sure those are things that people will want to be a part of?

A world away

Right now, that feels a world away. Until there’s a reliable method of telling who you are surrounded by at any one moment in time, people are surely going to be leery about going anywhere. There will be sport before the vaccine, we can presume that much at least. But whether we’ll stand in crowds watching it depends on the level of confidence society can provide in itself.

The gateway to that can only really be testing – either for the virus itself or for immunity. Unless you can test people quickly and efficiently and cordon them off appropriate to their results, it won’t really matter what limits the Government decides to put on the numbers who can attend big events. People just won’t go.

The beauty of a massed gathering is that it says something nobody would ever have imagined needed saying before now. It says we’re okay to be here together, all these people with nothing to fear from each other. Sport as we knew it won’t be back until we can say that again.

Or, more accurately, until we don’t need to say it.