The sun sets behind Dublin’s River Liffey on a summer evening in June. Photo: Julia Mahony
The sun sets behind Dublin’s River Liffey on a summer evening in June. Photo: Julia Mahony

Covid-19June 14, 2020

A crow’s nest view of Dublin and the Covid-19 crisis

The sun sets behind Dublin’s River Liffey on a summer evening in June. Photo: Julia Mahony
The sun sets behind Dublin’s River Liffey on a summer evening in June. Photo: Julia Mahony

Covid-19 led to a shift for a New Zealand family into the heart of the Irish capital. Julia Mahony on her new view of the city.

I was in the kitchen at the convent of the Sisters of Charity in Dublin, when Ireland’s taoiseach (prime minister) announced on the radio that schools would close due to Covid-19. It was just over three months ago, on March 12.

At the convent day centre for the elderly, I and other volunteers were preparing to serve the hot lunch. The elderly folk who came to eat, socialise and play bingo, were next door at mass. Staff and volunteers stood in wide-eyed silence, as the taoiseach set out Ireland’s early plan for slowing the spread.

Someone made a shopping list. Would anyone like “bits”, she asked. “Long grain rice and some pudding rice,” a rice-lover replied. The day centre closed the following week.

I stayed home with my New Zealand family for six weeks. Safe as houses. But the expensive southside suburb we had picked, within walking distance of the children’s school, grew too quiet. When our lease expired in late April, the city centre beckoned.

The Auld Dubliner pub in Temple Bar is boarded up during the pandemic lockdown. Pints of Guinness are like gold, with a couple of pubs delivering to private addresses. Photo: Julia Mahony

In spring, Dublin is usually heaving with tourists. It’s “American Season” and apartments are rented by the week, for a premium. With no tourists allowed, we found a quirky place that would normally have been beyond our reach, for a cut-price rent.

The Lafayette Building, built in the 1890s from beige Portland stone, faces the centre of O’Connell Bridge. On the ground floor is the Irish Wax Museum, with its Father Ted room. An Irish Blood Transfusion Service donor clinic occupies the second floor. I call it the Blood and Wax Building.

We’re on top, with a view over the River Liffey and down the barrel of O’Connell St. There’s a turret, which became my children’s school room. From up here, we see Dublin’s bare bones.

The 19th-century Lafayette Building overlooks Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge. Tenants include a wax museum, a blood donation centre and a New Zealand family of four. Photo: Julia Mahony

It’s magnificent. And the best thing we could have done, because before we return to New Zealand, we’ll have lived two very different lives in Dublin.

Any perceptive visitor to Dublin will know of its homelessness, addiction and drug gang problems. With no tourists filling the spaces, Dubliners in the grip of these things, mainly young people, are in starkly plain view. Sitting on the bridge with an asking cup, or gathered on the river boardwalk, white plastic bags hanging from hips. A tight social bubble, asking passers-by for cigarettes and coins.

My husband buys young David, crouched outside the Londis convenience store, a cappuccino with five sugars. Would he like something to eat? No thank you.

My 12-year-old watches drug dealers fighting below her window. A duffle bag is tossed into the street and a man dives after it, close to the wheels of a bus. Does my daughter know what is happening? I think she does, yet that doesn’t upset me. She’s almost a teenager and this is real.

This way of life, under the Blood and Wax Building, outside Carroll’s souvenir shop, is as Dublin as its pubs.

We work from home and when it’s time to exercise, we have the streets to ourselves. We walk and we walk. Past medieval buildings, Georgian houses, bits of ancient city wall, to the hidden Iveagh Gardens and to the docklands, where old inner-city neighbourhoods are mirrored in the steel and glass headquarters of technology giants.

Mid-May brings change and movement. Dublin’s builders return and massive cranes that stood as still as the Spire monument on O’Connell St, are cranking again.

Some young homeless people gain access to the Blood and Wax Building at night. Inner-city hostels, bound by Covid-19 health and safety restrictions, have become less accessible for them. David still sits outside the shop. Stay-at-Home is impossible for many.

A view from the Blood & Wax building down Dublin’s O’Connell St, taken at 2pm on a Wednesday in spring, during Ireland’s pandemic lockdown. Photo: Julia Mahony

I steel myself and phone the convent. As feared, a few of the elderly people I met there – who were so thrilled to tell stories of old Dublin to a New Zealander – won’t be returning. I’ll remember what they told me.

New Zealand is mentioned often in Ireland. I ask if we can post things home and the man at An Post replies: “No, because your prime minister’s playing a blinder.” Ireland raced ahead of the UK to lockdown but left its border open to international arrivals. A general election in February – a historic three-party race – has seen coalition talks twisted into tight knots and no new administration. But the caretaker government is steering Ireland through Covid-19 and we feel safe enough to stay.

Summer arrives and Ireland’s death toll is more than 1,690.

My eldest daughter and I walk to the supermarket. We pass the landmark General Post Office, or GPO, focal point of the bloody Easter Rising in 1916. A few people are gathering there for a protest. When we return, they are 5,000, marching in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

We return to our crow’s nest, as crowds swarm both sides of the statue of Irish liberator Daniel O’Connell. I take photographs from the turret which are later printed in a national newspaper.

The Black Lives Matter protest in Dublin attracted admiration and condemnation for breaches of distancing requirements. Photo: Julia Mahony

Empty streets in March felt surreal – now a crowd in June is strange. It’s spine-tingling and we watch with awe and concern. Minutes pass and the thousands are gone, headed for the American Embassy.

Later, the clopping sound of horseshoes drifts up from the bridge. We see a funeral cortege moving along the bus lane. The coffin is in a carriage drawn by two black horses, raven plumes on their bridles.

“Who is it?” my daughter asks. An Irish flag moves slowly above the GPO.

Keep going!