Terry Prone: The merits of inflexibility in plague times

On this day in solitary confinement, the texts start early, filled with kind memories of the day when, 46 years ago, the two of us knelt at pre-dieux on the altar of St Gabriel’s Church, Clontarf.
Terry Prone: The merits of inflexibility in plague times
Garda Noelle O'Dwyer, community garda, Ballinspittle, Co. Cork, on duty at a very quiet Garrylucas beach, Co. Cork, on Easter Saturday afternoon during the current Covid-19 restrictions. Picture Denis Minihane.

On day 22 in solitary confinement, the texts start early, filled with kind memories of the day when, 46 years ago, the two of us knelt at pre-dieux on the altar of St Gabriel’s Church, Clontarf, writes Terry Prone.

Day 22

The co-celebrants on the day were Gerry Reynolds, the Redemptorist who contributed greatly to the Peace Process, and Brian D’Arcy, the man who rivals the late Larry Gogan in his depth of knowledge about pop music. They were volunteers, the two of them, and brave as well. It took courage to offer, in those very different times, to preside at the wedding of Tom Savage, who had been a priest up to three years earlier, and a household-name priest at that.

Things went well until the homily, when someone opened a door near the altar, creating a wind that blew Gerry’s notes away. He had been nervous to start with, having been trained in homiletics by Tom. It’s always difficult to perform in front of your teacher, but with his homework gone, Gerry wandered into generic sermonising that had little to do with the day that was in it or the couple in front of him.

Tom, kneeling beside me, lowered his head into his hands and, illuminated by a ray of sunshine coming through a stained-glass window, looked like he was giving the celebrant rapt and saintly attention. In fact, he was whispering into his fingers. “Wind it up, Gerry,” he pleaded quietly. “For the love of Jasus, wind it up before you get to the blessing of the effing sheep.”

I figured the only option for God was to smite the bridegroom with a thunderbolt for swearing on the altar. The downside was that if the thunderbolt had loose steering, I would be collateral damage.

Thankfully, Gerry suddenly abandoned the sermon entirely and instead delivered a simple, heartfelt, generous wish that the two of us be happy. Which worked. For 43 years, it worked. Today’s the anniversary. Texts are welcome, but isolation is apposite.

Day 23

When you’ve forgotten to ring the Revenue Commissioners on the day instructed, you start with a good grovel. Which is what I did today, three days late.

The Revenue officer didn’t seem that interested. What was my name again? I gave it. Spell it? I spelled it, beginning to rejoice in the fact that if I didn’t spring immediately to her mind with day, date, and serial number, I might not be public enemy number one right now.

Oh yes, she said, coming back to me. You own a Martello tower, right? Right, I said.

She said I should be doing weekend tours for the public in the tower, which is true. They have this deal where if you open your tower to the public, they give you tax relief on work you have to do to keep it from falling apart. I opened my mouth to tell her that socially distancing a group of people climbing the 60 steps of a spiral staircase might be a bit difficult, but she was way ahead of me. It was grand, she told me.

I was not to offer tours until the Covid-19 situation radically improved, but she was happy to tell me they wouldn’t take back the tax relief for the duration. I thanked her politely. It didn’t seem appropriate to tell her that I am more focused on death than on taxes at the moment.

But things will improve, I tell myself. The sun will shine, the virus will wither, passers-by will see the little framed invitation on the gate post and buzz to be let in, and I will stand in my kitchen and begin the introduction: “The Martello towers of Britain and Ireland — all 78 of them — were built to withstand maritime invasion by Napoleon.”

And in the meantime, it’s good not to have provoked Revenue. If you’re going to kick a sleeping dog, you have to be sure it’s not a Rottweiler.

Day 24

RTÉ’s Today Show with Maura and Dáithí decided to take a risk and have me on their panel via Skype. They check everything hours before the show goes on the air, approving the background to the shot. I don’t tell them it’s been selected only because I’m trying to get as close to the broadband router as humanly possible.

Halfway through, I realise I have forgotten to put the cats out.

Inevitably, Dino decides this is his chance to be famous, leaping onto my lap, mid-item. I shove him off during a Maura question, then, as Dáithí talks, roll up a copy of the New Yorker and indicate to the cat that if he breaks social distancing limits, I’m going to clout him in the kisser live on air and deal with the ISPCA later.

He is mystified by this sudden hostility and stalks off, giving his sleeping sibling a swipe as he passes. He obviously takes a share-and-share-alike approach. If he’s going to suffer, she’s going to suffer too.

Day 25

My own sister gets somewhat shirty when I tell her this morning she’s like a Nazi. A specific Nazi whose name I can’t remember.

Good-looking, I tell her, and reformed later and died in the arms of his mistress in his 70s. Or maybe 80s. None of this assuages her irritation.

This bloke was Hitler’s architect and, after the Nuremberg Trials, was committed to Spandau Prison along with that complete headbanger, Rudolf Hess. The other guy, whose name I eventually remember was Albert Speer, set out, while incarcerated, to find meaning in everything he did, including his exercise period. He measured out the space, multiplied it, kept an account of each day’s walk during what he believed would be a life sentence, and by the time he was released, had walked around the world more than once, in distance terms.

My sister is tackling isolation the way Speer tackled solitary confinement. Every day, she rises and does 30 circuits of her back garden. I am impressed but she’s too cross over being likened to a Nazi to accept praise. Or express the smallest interest in the circumstances of Speer’s death.

Day 26

The mortality figures exceed 30 for the first time.

Day 27

A goodly chunk of the public has decided they’ve played along with restrictions long enough; the sun has come out and they’re going to bend a few rules, egged on, you should pardon the expression, by Easter. I understand that rule-bending instinct. A fortnight ago, I decided to get an ISDN line so radio interviews would have good sound quality. “Let me get this clear,” my son said, in steely tones of condemnation. “You’re in isolation and you’re planning to invite a complete stranger into your home? I wouldn’t.”

I sulked but went along with this — as I saw it — inflexibility. Of course, it’s that kind of inflexibility that saves the lives of instinctive rule-benders like me in plague times.

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