BY MARY McCARTHY
‘THE fools, the fools, the fools!’ are the words on a mural of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa on the wall of O’Leary jewellers beside the Bridge in Skibbereen.
He was the Irish Fenian leader and founder of the Phoenix and Literary Society, as well as a trader in this shop between 1853 and 1859. What would he have to say about these strange times?
I could imagine him telling us to ‘fly the flag,’ but what would he think about ‘fight the virus’? He would have been familiar with the suffering and heartbreak of the Great Famine, and known souls who didn’t make it.
Silence echoes in the Famine plot in the Abbey Cemetery today on the Schull road, a monument to the memory of that devastation. Could he have imagined the darkness that has descended on us over a century later would not be because of blight, but a virus?
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented times. Many have got sick because of getting infected by the coronavirus. Some have needed ventilation in hospital, while others have passed away without the rituals of a funeral. It has stopped us in our tracks.
Lockdown, cocooning and social isolation are the new norms. This contagion is deadly, and its infection can only be prevented by social distancing, staying at home, washing our hands and using the correct cough etiquette.
As I sat on a bench on the Bridge on a Thursday afternoon in mid-April, I never dreamt I’d see the day the streets of Skibbereen would be empty. I cast my eyes around to all the premises closed for business, except for the pharmacy opposite me. My thoughts are interrupted by a lone Garda passing by on the beat heading towards Bridge St. A Roman noblewoman once said that ‘young men may die, but old men must die.’ I’m in my forties, and never thought about my own mortality until now. I was always under the impression that I might live to old age like my parents. Hearing the statistics of those in Ireland and worldwide who have passed away is frightening. Being young brings no immunity from this disease.
Since the 19th century, we have made great progress. However, are we the fools who think we are invincible? Why do we work so hard at making money? Why are we so busy not to take rest and ‘pause in life’s pleasures?’ And now our normal routines are on hold, our economy is being affected, and we shouldn’t start thinking like a Pollyanna.
As I look at the image of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in his bowler hat and Dixie bow tie, I know he would be relieved that we have doctors, nurses and frontline staff saving lives. No doubt he’d be aware we’d have our uncertainties; those who have concerns about having lost their jobs, and even those who now work from home. However, he would be glad that we are taking the time to talk to one another and reflect.
My guess is some things will be different in the future because of this pandemic, but we are resilient and stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. The suffering might break us, but like nature, a new flowering will emerge.
John Henry Newman said that ‘to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.
• Mary McCarthy, a native of Skibbereen, holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Limerick, and graduated with a First Class Honours degree in January 2020.