It was a different Dublin. Most likely it was a different Ireland altogether, but I couldn’t say for sure; I couldn’t go far from home.
On a Saturday evening, just before eight o’clock, I glided across the city by car. It was the longest and furthest I had driven in three months, from Raheny to Rathmines, via Ballybough, Smithfield, The Liberties, Dolphin’s Barn, all in the hope of avoiding any Garda checkpoints. “It’s very important that I collect my bicycle Guard. I need it to work from home.” “Get your arse back home,” they’d say.
Every road and street on the journey was busy. But, just busy. In the way nature is busy, but doesn’t get in your way: the insects climb, fly, build, the trees grow and swish, the wind cajoles and the clouds make their way importantly to their next point of business, too busy to stop and talk. In all that motion, there is absolute serenity. And for the first time in Dublin’s history – or perhaps the history of my memory – humanity had achieved serenity.
Ballybough looked like it does when Ireland has lost a soccer match in the World Cup – all the people, nothing to celebrate. But there was no sport, only the mild threat of disease and death, and yet an air of contentment and joviality stretched from the Tolka to the Royal Canal as people ambled, queued for take-away, or sat in sun chairs outside the front porch. A nameless festival never to be repeated, but remembered often.
Equally, the Grand Canal stretched its beautiful limbs under the warm embers of a late-May’s evening, with small groups of people calmly al fescoing amidst the bullrushes and recently cut grass with blankets, baskets and flutes. From Dolphin’s Barn to Rathmines the banks were busy, but just busy. I had never seen an evening so busy, and yet so relaxed. There were people, but they were here. Not going there. Not rushing for the eight p.m. reservation, not getting a taxi to make it in time, not living for the expectation and passing the reality. They were all here, to enjoy the moment, as it could only be enjoyed. But dare we ask now, as it should be enjoyed?
That is only a fantasy. It was a passing glimpse into a transient world that found happiness where it could. As like all the greatest of romantic notions, they are based in times and places that do not last: a sense of desire heightened by the dread of losing it.
The following evening I glided again along North Dublin Bay’s coast on my bike. The still waters about Bull Island’s wooden bridge nodded gently in agreement with the coalescent hum of May’s last day, when the Irish Summer prepares to welcome Official Summer, and people pottered about a pedestrianised island taking pictures of a cirrus-capped sunset that gently stroked the brow of the Dublin mountains farewell. Along the promenade all the way to Fairview, the same spirit of enjoying nothing to do and all the time to do it could be read on the bodies of the small groups of people adorning their blankets. By the time I returned up the Howth Road, I observed so few cars that I only took note of the buses. The air was so still, so sweet, and so clean, I’m sure I smelled the dinner of every house I passed.
Our actions were based on avoiding death and suffering in greater numbers. So many have died. Some have died in the cruelest of circumstances. Those that have survived have endured pain and suffering that many will not comprehend. Away from sickness comes worry, about work, about money. We are being forewarned of economic scenarios that will no doubt be used to justify the tightening of belts and screws for decades. There will still be greed, uncertainty, fear, sickness, even death. We must ask ourselves, how do we meet it? Will we always be graced with picnic weather? What happens when the lack of economic and physical freedom threaten us once again in the depths of Winter, at Christmas time? Who will tell the children that Santa Claus’ magic can’t overcome the need for social distancing in the workshop, and toy stocks are low, or empty. What does turkey taste like over Zoom? We will picnic on our couches, instead. I can only hope, that perhaps even in the dead of Winter, over the faint glow of an electric heater and a TV special, we may still find the same serenity.