From postmen to wedding photographers: Covid stories after a year no one will forget 

With hope on the horizon from the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, Maresa Fagan and Joyce Fegan talk to health care workers, frontline workers and a student about a year that no one will ever forget.
From postmen to wedding photographers: Covid stories after a year no one will forget 

Mercy Hospital nurse Emma Murphy, who works in the emergency department (ED), there are two crises at present — the third Covid wave that is beginning to subside and the non-Covid care crisis that is only beginning to break through. Photo: Denis Minihane.

It’s a year since health authorities confirmed the first case of Covid-19 in the Republic.
In the following 12 months, our worlds have been turned upside down.

More than 4,000 people — mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters — died from the infectious disease, and we’ve been bounced from lockdown to lockdown.

With hope on the horizon from the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, Maresa Fagan and Joyce Fegan talk to health care workers, frontline workers
and a student about a year that no one will ever forget.

THE WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER - “What we have now is the resurgence of the small wedding."

Twelve months ago, wedding photographer Katie Kavanagh had a full wedding diary.

By the time 2020 ended, she had photographed just nine weddings, navigating ever-changing numbers, tight restrictions and dealing with the dashed hopes of couples.

“This time last year I had a full wedding diary because weddings were going ahead. I have a full-time job in graphic design, so I do 12 to 20 weddings a year. I ended up with nine.

“I had a wedding booked in for March 18, it was a 300-person wedding. They were told the week before they couldn’t get married, that couple were really, really upset and just couldn’t talk about it.

“I’ve been doing this for 10 years, so when everything shut down I was trying to keep creative.

“About six weeks in I was going stir-crazy with no creative outlet, as I hadn’t done a wedding since New Years. Then I started the door-traits project — photographing my neighbours at their front door in Dublin 8. I just popped on the bike and started photographing people at their front door. “ 

Soon the word spread.

I went from knowing half my neighbours to now I can’t walk down the street without people shouting at me. 

"Then Donald Clarke from the Irish Times tweeted it and it went mad. I ended up raising €5,000 for cancer charity Purple House, and I photographed 200 doors in total.

“Then when things started to open back up and there were restrictions to follow people decided to just go ahead with their wedding. Some couples who wanted small weddings just went for it, others who are in no rush just postponed theirs altogether.

“People who are putting it off are in no rush, and they say they’ll just get on with their lives.

“Then there are people who want to have kids, and they are just going ahead with whatever the restrictions are allowing them to.” As a wedding photographer, the one thing Katie has seen that affects most couples is juggling the logistics.

“The groom has no suit, they can’t go and try on clothes, they can’t meet suppliers, they’re seeing venues on virtual tours and then booking off that.

Katie Kavanagh, photographer and graphic artist, on weddings: “The craic was still there". Photo: Moya Nolan

Katie Kavanagh, photographer and graphic artist, on weddings: “The craic was still there". Photo: Moya Nolan

“I did four weddings at Christmas, and 25 people were allowed then.

“The craic was still there, you had households at tables, it’s different but the couples have said they had a great time, they’ve no other reference.

"It’s a feeling more so than numbers or figures, I haven’t heard any guests say it’s not brilliant, the joy is still happening.

“What we have now is the resurgence of the small wedding, a wedding breakfast. There is none of this prep, it’s lovely, it’s intimate, and it’s totally different to what we’re used to.

“People would have thought you couldn’t have a small wedding, now attitudes are changing.”

Katie is @katiekavphoto on Instagram

THE BARISTA - "I can’t wait to go out with my wife for date night."

KEVIN Nugent owns Tribe Hospitality Group, which is made up of several coffee shops, including Ground and Co, around Galway City. This time last year he was just unveiling his new brand to his 92 staff, then six days later he laid everybody off.

In the last 12 months, parts of his business have flourished as takeaway coffee has become the nation’s “saving grace”.

“We had seven premises open in Galway and this time last year we had come up with a new brand name — Tribe Hospitality. On March 10, we unveiled it to our 92 staff, six days later we laid everybody off, it was fairly dramatic,” Kevin said.

“I threw myself into feeding frontline staff, I thought it would only be for a few weeks. Then when things reopened somewhat at the end of May, we did a takeaway brunch on Sunday. We had never done takeaway food before, it was a huge learning curve — how to box it up, what box is best. It was a big hit.

Kevin Nugent outside one of his premises, Ground & Co., in Salthill, Galway. Photo: Ray Ryan

Kevin Nugent outside one of his premises, Ground & Co., in Salthill, Galway. Photo: Ray Ryan

“We’ve had two instant hits, and I think they’ll be long-term hits. Knocknacarra, which pre-Covid had 24 seats, is now takeaway, and that shop has increased in sales since Covid. It’s keeping the show on the road for the whole company. It’s the community thing, the power of community even since last year — coffee shops are the new meeting point, especially if you’re working from home.”

The last year has been the roughest of his 10 years in business: “I don’t know how to describe it all. Obviously it was the unknown, it was scary, we were 10 years in business. We were never expecting to lay staff off, that was gut wrenching.

“The landlord stuff was stressful, but we overcame it. But when someone leaks something to the press, that’s really stressful. You have staff ringing or texting, asking when they are coming back to work. You’re left managing expectations, and not wanting to lead people along with false hope, you can see knock on effect for them.”

But amid the gloom, there have been positives.

“The grab-and-go takeaway culture and the outdoor living will stay. People have gotten used to throwing on an extra layer and going for a walk on the prom with their coffee.

“We have a whole new customer base because family life has changed with home-working. People are in their local community, as opposed to the city.

“It’s families getting out, and parents coming in for their two o’clock coffee after homeschooling — that’s their saving grace.

“The older generation was coming in for sit-down, now they’re still coming for coffee for takeaway.

“Personally, one good positive for me is spending more time with my family at home and my two-year-old daughter Dara. I’ve gotten to see her way more, that’s been the best thing to come out of it.

“But I’m looking forward to getting the staff back, we would genuinely miss a lot of the staff. And I can’t wait to go out with my wife for date night.”

THE POSTMASTER - "I feel I have two babies, my baby and my work."

OVER the past 12 months Yvonne Twohill has juggled a new baby with running a post office in Mayfield that has seen its mail service grow by 85%.

“The difference between this year and last year is the volume of mail coming through the office. I’m working in the post office for 15 years, there’s just never been this much mail.

“Pre-Covid the busy time is Christmas, now since Covid every day’s like Christmas. Pre-Covid we had two full mail bags a day, not even, maybe one full bag, and a registered-post bag. Now we’d have two registered bags and five full post bags and 40 boxes, with people sending and returning.

“We also get a lot of free posting to the nursing homes, a letter or package to nursing homes, there’s no charge.

“People send a box of chocolates or books and a lot of people have set up a pen pal that they didn’t know before.

“Last Easter was busy, it really started then when grandparents couldn’t see their grandchildren. There were a lot of baby presents too and as for Christmas. People just got into posting more, people did clear outs and sold things online and were posting them or they were sending things off to friends.

Yvonne Twohill, the postmaster at the Mayfield Post Office in Cork. Photo: Dan Linehan

Yvonne Twohill, the postmaster at the Mayfield Post Office in Cork. Photo: Dan Linehan

“It’s a way for people to connect. People are sending gifts not even for birthdays, people are being more thoughtful. But since last March it’s been like a blur, it’s been manic, there are only three of us working there, it’s non-stop. My husband is self-employed too, when I’d come home he’d go to work.

“The business is up in some parts and down in others. We do mobile phones, foreign exchange, passports, gift vouchers. Mobile phones are up 120% since before Covid. We sell Samsung and Doro - that’s a more basic phone, and it’s popular with older people, there is a panic alarm button on it.”

There’s an 85% increase in the mail side of business too.

But the increase in the volume of mail has had it’s downside.

“People are very cross about things, and they do take it out on us, they can be quite rude, they take us for granted. It’s the way people are gone with the whole thing, they’re frustrated and they take it out on us, we’re frontline, they’re always going to take it out on us, but we’re humans with feelings too.

“I’ve been talking to another business owner and they said it too. I have felt appreciated by 20% of the people, but I signed up to be a postmaster and dealing with the public is part of that.

Postmaster Yvonne Twohill. “I do appreciate every customer coming through the door." Photo: Dan Linehan

Postmaster Yvonne Twohill. “I do appreciate every customer coming through the door." Photo: Dan Linehan

“Then we have elderly people who are coming in for a chat and you’re the only person they talk to all week. I had another lady, who has three kids and her husband works away. She said to me: ‘Thanks you’re the first adult I’ve spoken to in three weeks.’”

But the hard work has come at a personal cost.

“I get the mom guilt too. I do feel I’m missing out on loads, my plan was to work part-time then all this happened. I feel I have two babies, my baby and my work. You feel obligated to be there when it’s your own business, I have three girls working for me and they’re great, but at the end of the day it’s my responsibility.

“I do appreciate every customer coming through the door, it could have been a lot different, I’m on the outside of the city, Mayfield, and we gained because people had to stay local.

“Before, they would have worked in town and have gone to the GPO. I have a lot more passing trade, the 5km rule has benefitted us, it’s saved people going into the city. I am getting to know a lot more locals, then they keep coming back, that’s a bonus of Covid.”

THE DELIVERY DRIVER - “People are extremely grateful at the door and very kind."

William O'Callaghan has had a front row seat to our shopping habits these past 12 months, as a delivery driver for DPD Ireland. While it's been mostly clothes and home improvements parcels we're ordering, most people are just happy to see a real human face over the course of their day.

“It was fairly daunting at the start of the pandemic. Customers who we knew for a long time were very nervous, but in fairness to the lads above, they put in guidelines for contactless deliveries, so there was no handing over of a scanner. 

"The customers then felt at ease, and I felt at ease too. Because at the start, even if you went in someone's gate, they'd want you to stay out. And I know 99% of my customers.

While work has always been busy, figures have almost tripled on all routes. And the ability to get people their parcels has been very satisfying.

Delivery driver with DPD Ireland, William O'Callaghan, on his route in Mitchelstown, Co Cork. Photo: Dan Linehan

Delivery driver with DPD Ireland, William O'Callaghan, on his route in Mitchelstown, Co Cork. Photo: Dan Linehan

“People are extremely grateful at the door and very kind. I was inundated with Christmas cards, I've been with the company nine years and it was overwhelming this year. Even during the pandemic, they could give you vouchers for coffee, the acts of kindness were overwhelming.

“The stand out moments were when you could actually deliver the parcels, when you could see people's faces.

“I have delivered bags of kindle for the fire, inflatable swimming pools and the satisfaction you'd get hearing: 'That'll keep the kids quiet for another week'. Not once did I regret working on the frontline.

“I remember the first one, in March, April and May and the weather was so good, people could do nothing else only do up their houses and gardens. I was delivering a lot of gardening stuff, an awful lot of clothes - tracksuits mostly, because people could only go for walks.” Given the volume of business, William was dreading Christmas.

“Christmas was actually fine, it's always our peak, and you're always geared up - you know you're going to be under pressure never mind in a pandemic. We were dreading it this year, the way these two guys organised it, Gary Murphy and Ken Duffy, in Little Island, it went off without a hitch, and it was the busiest Christmas we ever had.

“January was still busy, a lot of people were just glad to see someone that month. A lot of people are working from home, they're delighted to see a face at the door, they might tell you the same story and you say: 'oh yeah', as if you didn't hear it before.

“The loneliest people I saw were people who had to work from home, but 99.9% of them were in good spirits.

“Before the pandemic, I was just delivering parcels to houses, that was it, now I feel that bit more important. Even to be considered a frontline worker, I was delighted, I felt appreciated. I find sometimes things like this happen, it does bring out the best in people - that togetherness."

THE PRIEST - "I am 30 years a priest, but this last year has been so different on so many levels."

FR PAT Fogarty has a parish of 20,000 people to minister to. This time last year he had a busy diary and a packed church of weddings, christenings, funerals, communions, and confirmations.

Come March 2020, he suddenly found himself in the eerie position of celebrating Mass in an empty church and managing the grief of families who were only allowed 10 people at their loved one’s funeral. However, his faith is stronger as a result.

“I am 30 years a priest, but this last year has been so different on so many levels. There was so much I took for granted, it’s called me to a different way of ministry, saying Mass to an empty church.

“But I’m not too fussy about people coming in. Jesus spent a lot of time out in the community and kindness and practical help goes a long way. I have a deeper relationship with Christ now than I did 12 months ago.

Fr Pat Fogarty, PP at the Church of Our Lady and John in Carrigaline. Photo: Eddie O’Hare

Fr Pat Fogarty, PP at the Church of Our Lady and John in Carrigaline. Photo: Eddie O’Hare

“Early on, I made a decision in the morning to sit down and to think or meditate. I said to myself ‘I’m going to think of one thing to be grateful for’, rather than turning in on myself. Someone once told me — it’s impossible to be unhappy and grateful at same time. And that’s true.” The first lockdown was a massive shock to the system, admits Fr Pat.

“The sad part, the most difficult part, was that first Sunday, saying Mass to an empty church, it was just me, it was an eerie experience but then I learned that a couple of hundred people tuned in on radio. We were united in our solidarity, and our faith, I could sense the connection, but you felt the absence of people.

“But the saddest part is funerals and illness, with the restrictions imposed. With 25 it wasn’t too bad, with 10 it’s terrible, it’s so sad for people.

“In recent times I’ve had quite a lot of Covid funerals, so their loved ones couldn’t see them when they died or they saw them on the screen, then they’re seeing them like that in the church.

Fr Pat Fogarty: “I believe we will get through this together and we need hope in our hearts to do that." Photo: Eddie O'Hare

Fr Pat Fogarty: “I believe we will get through this together and we need hope in our hearts to do that." Photo: Eddie O'Hare

“Towards the end of January I did 10 funerals in two weeks, that was emotionally draining, I do invest a lot of myself in it. I ring one or two friends and we can talk. Through walking and reflecting, I’m in a good enough place aside from the darkness.” Fr Pat said the virus has reminded us that we’re very fragile and vulnerable as human beings.

“Now we are with something we can’t control, with no deadline as such. All we can do is to listen to others, not to respond but to understand.

“Jesus didn’t come to take suffering away, but to help us through it. When Jesus was on his way to Calvary to be crucified, Mary is with him, and she says nothing, but just her presence helped. Just listening helps people.

“I believe we will get through this together and we need hope in our hearts to do that.

“It helps to be in contact with some power beyond us, so that spirit is in our heart, to give us hope and strength, whatever that is or whoever that is. We are spiritual beings, and we can get hope from that.”

THE SUPERMARKET WORKER - “I look forward to spending time with family and friends that I haven’t seen in a long time."

MARIE O’Connell, as the store manager of Lidl in Midleton, Co Cork, has been on the frontline since day one of the pandemic.

What she has witnessed most, is not the panic-buying of toilet paper (though there was that) but the growth of community spirit and the
appreciation of the public for her and her colleagues’ work.

“Working in the early stages of the pandemic, when the first lockdown started, was very surreal. We noticed the store was gradually getting busier and we were keeping an eye on the news so we knew what was coming and tried to prepare ourselves for it the best we could.

“We were doing our best to keep the shelves stocked and reassure people that we weren’t closing and would remain here to meet their shopping needs in a bid to reduce the panic buying as best we could. I still don’t understand the panic-buying of toilet paper.”

Lockdowns brought stresses and challenges in work and personally like home-schooling, childcare with Marie doing her best to keep families safe and protected.

I am most proud of my work family and the way we all pulled together to come out the other side of it. I noticed an increase in community spirit and people helping their neighbours and the elderly by doing their shopping for them.

“It has been an honour to witness first-hand the community spirit grow stronger and stronger. Midleton had a strong community spirit before the pandemic but to see it grow has been inspiring. I am proud to be a part of the community and do my part in keeping the community fed and safe.

“I am grateful for my family’s support in my work. I am proud of every member of my team in Midleton and the resilience they have shown as well as our growth as a team.” She said the appreciation shown by customers has been overwhelming at times.

“We received cards and letters of thanks and appreciation along with verbal gratitude. Some customers thanked us for turning up to work everyday, which was lovely but not turning up for work was never even a consideration. I can speak for all of us when I say it meant a lot to us to see the appreciation and for someone to take the time to write cards, letters and to thank us in store was over-whelming. 

Marie O’Connell: Some customers thanked us for turning up to work everyday, which was lovely. Photo: Larry Cummins

Marie O’Connell: Some customers thanked us for turning up to work everyday, which was lovely. Photo: Larry Cummins

"So I would like to say thank you to our customers for taking the time to do that and to also say thank you for respecting us and for doing their part in keeping everyone safe.

“Knowing that we may be the only contact some customers may have on that day is rewarding and it costs nothing to be nice and give them that time.”

And the future?

“I look forward to spending time with family and friends that I haven’t seen in a long time without being worried about the virus. I look forward to my sons being care-free again and not worrying about the virus every day.”

The ED nurse - "It feels like we are disposable and dispensable."

FRONTLINE staff at hospital emergency departments are already seeing very sick non-Covid patients coming through the doors and are bracing themselves for a fourth wave of patients.

For Mercy Hospital nurse Emma Murphy, who works in the emergency department (ED), there are two crises at present — the third Covid wave that is beginning to subside and the non-Covid care crisis that is only beginning to break through.

While the first Covid-19 wave brought significant challenges, staff adapted to the rapidly evolving situation and are now better prepared to manage subsequent waves.

The third wave, however, took its toll when hospitals in Cork and beyond were almost overwhelmed by the “relentless” number of Covid patients being admitted.

The month of January was “horrendous” for Emma and her colleagues, who fear that the worst may not be over. “We had very sick patients coming in after very sick patient. It was relentless. The pressure has eased a lot since then.

“We’re not seeing as many sick Covid patients but we are beginning to see sicker patients with other ailments, non-Covid patients who were obviously afraid to come into the department during the peak but are presenting now,” she added.

Emma Murphy, clinical nurse manager of the emergency department at Mercy University Hospital, Cork. Photo: Denis Minihane

Emma Murphy, clinical nurse manager of the emergency department at Mercy University Hospital, Cork. Photo: Denis Minihane

The fourth wave, she said, could be a wave of Covid or non-Covid patients.

“There is the Covid crisis and then there are all of these people who are left in limbo, waiting on procedures that haven’t been done and they are going to get sicker or be in more pain”.

While infection rates are falling, Emma said the more people break the rules the longer the country will remain in lockdown.

Patients had been admitted to hospital after contracting the virus at house parties, funerals, and Christmas gatherings, she said: “Opening up at Christmas time really affected us. Had we not opened up as much as we had at Christmas, we wouldn’t have faced the third wave to the degree that we did.

“People need to play by the rules. We’re dealing with people who are coming in after having house parties at the weekend. We’re saying to people if you just play by the rules we’ll all be out of this a lot faster,” Emma said, adding that the rules were in place to protect everybody.

Emma Murphy believes the fourth wave could be a wave of Covid or non-Covid patients. Photo: Denis Minihane.

Emma Murphy believes the fourth wave could be a wave of Covid or non-Covid patients. Photo: Denis Minihane.

Burnout was evident among staff on the frontline, she said, adding that at least five nursing colleagues had handed in their notice in recent weeks.

The Government too has done little to value staff, she said, noting it was “an absolute joke” that a pay freeze was sought in recent public service pay agreement talks. In the end, nurses agreed to a 1% pay increase this year and next year.

“I don’t think they value us. It feels like we are disposable and dispensable and, if nothing else, the last year should have shown that we aren’t,” she added.

Looking to the future, Emma is hoping for a return to some form of normality by next year, although she cautions that we are unlikely to lose our masks any time soon.

“I’d like to think that we’ll have some level of normality, that I could meet friends for a cup of coffee and that the children are back in school. I think mask wearing is going to be part of our lives forever more,” she said.

THE BUS DRIVER - “I don’t have a fear myself, being a frontline worker, it’s an honour."

EILISH Hurley’s family has owned a private bus company since 1973, however, the pandemic forced their doors to close.

So in May 2020, Eilish joined Bus Éireann to drive other frontline workers to their place of employment. Since then, the main thing she has witnessed is huge compassion and appreciation from the public.

“I joined Bus Éireann in May 2020, but I have been affiliated with Bus Éireann myself as a driver for over 20 years and as a family since 1973. We had our own private family business, Ovens Coaches, but due to Covid the private bus hire sector has been decimated throughout the country.

“As we are frontline workers, Bus Éireann has gone above and beyond the call of duty, providing us with the tools and information to keep us all safe thus keeping the show rolling.

“I work with a great team of people who have been giving it their all since this started.” But the change has been a bit surreal for Eilish.

“Going from driving a bus full of passengers in rush hour and everyone enjoying themselves to just taking the essential workers, the amount of passengers is quartered, in each bus you have the Covid-19 signs, because you have to manage social distancing.

Eilish Hurley, a driver with Bus Éireann in Cork, looks forward to the day when she has a full bus again. Photo: Denis Minihane

Eilish Hurley, a driver with Bus Éireann in Cork, looks forward to the day when she has a full bus again. Photo: Denis Minihane

“Seating capacity changes according to which level we are in, at a given time, so this leads to how many we can take, it either goes up or down due to this.

“You can’t take everybody, you might have to pass a stop, that’s the hard part. Last February if you had a double decker you’d take 80 passengers. It’s strange driving around with a half-full bus.”

But does she worry about her own health?

“I don’t have a fear myself, being a frontline worker, it’s an honour, we are all giving it our all. I know there is the health and safety risk, but we are taking essential workers to work.

“I feel safe, even though there is a pandemic because of the measures Bus Éireann have gone to by providing us with a safe environment to work in both for us as drivers and for our customers.

“Some people don’t believe in the virus, and for others, they take it very seriously, like the elderly. For me to smile at them, that can make their day.”

Eilish Hurley: "This young man just said to me one day: ‘There is a bar of chocolate for you’. He made my day." Photo: Denis Minihane.

Eilish Hurley: "This young man just said to me one day: ‘There is a bar of chocolate for you’. He made my day." Photo: Denis Minihane.

But the vast majority of customers couldn’t be nicer, admits Eilish.

“You’ll get the bar of chocolate handed to you, a Kit-Kat, or a Wispa. This young man just said to me one day: ‘There is a bar of chocolate for you’. He made my day, it’s harder driving with less capacity, it’s only something small, but it means a lot.

“But I’m looking forward to the day we have a full bus again. I’m looking forward to the mums and dads and the kids in their buggies going to the St Patrick’s Day parade or the match. There used to be singsongs on the bus and I would join in on them.

“Life is short enough without having to worry about this pandemic, it will be great to get back to normality when it’s over.

“I can’t wait to see the day when we finally say goodbye to this virus and these face coverings. It will be brilliant.”

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