Michael Clifford: We will get over this mountain peak

One evening during the week, en route to walk the dog, I encountered a knot of sullen youths near the park.

Michael Clifford: We will get over this mountain peak

One evening during the week, en route to walk the dog, I encountered a knot of sullen youths near the park.

There were five of them standing on the street in what looked like a conspiratorial huddle. On other occasions, if paying them any attention at all, I might have wondered what they were up to, whether they were planning mischief as sullen youths habitually will.

For older people — older than me at any rate — this knot of youths may have presented a distant or imagined threat in some form or other.

The only thought I harboured on happening across them during the week was what the hell were they at?

What did they mean by actually congregating, ignoring the guidelines on social distancing?

Did they not know that the virus is circling, looming, spreading, killing?

Did they not realise the threat to public health they were presenting just by coming together?

Later in the week, I was due to go Cork with work. I arranged to meet my mother, not in the family home but in a public park for a walk.

We thought it best to meet that way, out in the open, where the virus might find it more difficult to attack.

There are some who understandably would opine that going for a walk with your mother is a reckless exercise today.

As it turned out the virus kept me away from Cork, so mother and son didn’t have to engage in what would have been a very strange meeting.

Life is changing. We are living under a cloud that has appeared over the horizon from nowhere.

The threat is existential.

A virus, beyond the reach of science at the moment, beyond the power of military or financial might, is attacking.

The certainties which underpin modern life as we know it tremble under its advance.

Those who are most vulnerable in society, with the exception of children, are most exposed. The elderly and anybody with an underlying health issue is experiencing a heightened fear.

For many, their homes have become bomb shelters, a place to hide away from an enemy that is all pervasive and deadly.

This is a reality, but it is also the case that the country will eventually get over it.

There will be death and bereavement and there is already the pain that collapsed economic circumstances inflict. But there will be life on the other side.

The taoiseach, in a speech that history will record favourably, assured us that as a nation and a wider world we will prevail.

Of course, he is correct and with any luck we will come out of this stronger and with values properly realigned.

What is really notable about the current crisis is the shock that has accompanied its arrival.

In the west, we all thought that we were past any existential threat to our way of life.

The general, if unspoken, consensus was that bad things may happen somewhere over there in the developing world, or even in the East, but we have managed to consign such uncertainty to history.

There have been upheavals in recent decades, none more so than the economic collapse and subsequent recession that hit in 2008. Many suffered hardship, but life went on. The disruption was on a personal rather than societal basis.

This is different.

For instance, sporting and cultural gatherings and events continued through those dark times.

Life carried on.

The fear, now pervasive, might ring a few bells with those who were around at the height of the Cold War. That was a time of uncertainty.

At various flashpoints, there was a belief that the world as it was known was about to end with a bang.

A letter to the editor of the Irish Examiner during the week illustrates the threat that was presented by the Cold War.

Kevin Devitte wrote: “I grew up in Las Vegas and spent the early 60s as a young kid living in fear of the missiles that were supplied by Russia that were only 90 miles from the US.

“During the Cuban missile crisis instead of looking at buying a new family car, our family was looking at buying an underground bomb shelter.

There was fear that the end was near.

Mr Devitte does go on to illustrate that even in the bleakest of times there was a place for light relief.

“My mom and dad decided not to buy a bomb shelter but instead bought a trampoline. My mom thought if the world was going to end we might as well have fun.”

(Think of all the moms and dads today, cooped up with hyperactive children, bouncing off the walls when they finally put down their screens. Oh for a trampoline in a time of coronavirus).

Go back further to the Second World War and the belief that Hitler was about to subjugate everybody. That was a time of fear, of rationing, of accepting that severe disruption had to be endured in the pursuit of better times ahead.

Go to the developing world even today, and the constant threat that millions live under, of poverty, war, the next depraved headbanger determined to rule with an iron fist.

Those who live there know what it is like for uncertainty to hang around like a persistent black cloud.

We have grown unaccustomed to that threat. Now it is here and its impact deepened by the sense of shock that life as we know it can be swiped away with such ease.

In his speech last Tuesday, Leo Varadkar noted that it was a St Patrick’s Day like no other. I know what he means.

For years, there were resolutions in my home that one day we would all tog out and head for the clear, fresh air of the Dublin mountains. Repeatedly, life got in the way.

Watching kids football, watching adult football, watching everybody else shopping, watching the clock, doing jobs around the house. (Well, procrastinating about doing jobs around the house).

There never was any time.

On Tuesday, a St Patrick’s Day like no other and with nothing else to distract, we made it to the promised mountain.

The day was cranky with showers and the breeze sharp.

The climb was steep in places and my thighs began to creak before arriving at the summit. But the air was never as fresh, the scenery never as arresting, the realisation of being alive and well never as thrilling.

This will pass and, hopefully, on the other side, there will be a general re-alignment of values, where, in particular, our relatively gilded way of life will never be taken for granted again.


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