The first time I saw Joe Whelan on stage, he was in drag. And the act was loud, just a tiny bit risqué , and very funny.
So this, I thought, is the man whose son is courting my daughter.
But it was OK. A lot better than OK, in fact. With some of his friends, Joe was taking part in Carnew’s entry to the Tops of the Town competition, Even though the sketch they had written called for them to be dressed up as women, despite spectacularly knobbly knees, Joe was game for it.
You wouldn’t think when you met him that he aspired to a life on the stage. He was a perfect example of a solid Irish country man, quiet but funny. I never met his wife Eileen, because she had died some years before we met Joe, but it was clear from him that he missed her still.
He lived for his family, his town, the GAA, and his horses. He trained and raced horses, and up to the day he died there were always a couple stabled behind his house just outside Carnew.
Until Covid stopped racing, he never missed a local point to point — indeed he would travel far and wide to see his horses race or his beloved Carnew play football. It wasn’t the most successful brand in the country, but it was the most fiercely partisan.
Joe died last week, very early in the morning. A kind nurse sat at his bedside with him as he slipped away, and said a decade of the rosary. It was his heart that gave out in the end — surprising that, because he had a mighty heart.
No matter what hour of the day he died, no matter how much notice there had been, it would not have been possible for Joe to be surrounded by his loved ones. He missed that, I’m sure, and they — his daughters, only son, grandchildren, and great grandchildren — are heartbroken. Heartbroken that he’s gone, and heartbroken that they couldn’t say goodbye the way they’d have wanted to.
Joe was a Carnew man, known the length and breadth of the town. Carnew is as much a tribe as it is a town. Joe would have loved a grand big funeral, and his town would have loved to give him one — they’re like that in Joe’s town. The wake, the Mass, the graveside — tears for sure, but mountains of sandwiches and lashing of tea, and perhaps a little glass or two of good whiskey. They do great funerals down there.
They’re doing their best of course, but the big funeral isn’t possible either. Joe left quietly, peacefully, and without suffering. And he’ll be remembered fondly for ever by those who knew him and loved him. He lived to a great age — another year or so and he’d have been 90 — and left a decent mark behind.
We couldn’t go down to the funeral either, because we’re not supposed to leave Dublin. It’s another consequence of the pandemic. Thankfully, neither Joe’s life nor his necessary healthcare was touched by the virus. But his passing, and the celebration you’d have liked to participate in for a life well lived, was affected in all sorts of ways.
We need to think about consequences more — especially when we get fed up with the messaging and the restrictions.
Right now, right this minute, there are 82 people in hospital with the virus, 17 people are in intensive care. That means they’re in serious trouble — fighting hard to recover, and surrounded by the best trained medical teams we have. Each patient in intensive care needs round-the-clock support from a huge group of people, all of them at the top of their professional skills.
Yet some of those patients, tragically, won’t make it. We’ll see their deaths recorded in the statistics eventually. Not their names or stories. Just another one of the numbers.
What we mightn’t realise is that if, sadly, some of the people now in hospital die, they’ll die alone. There will be no family, no loved ones, no time to say a peaceful goodbye. No matter how afraid they might be, there’ll be no one they know holding their hands. It’s another consequence.
And what we also might realise is that those numbers — the number of people in hospital, the number in intensive care — are now beginning to increase again, and pretty rapidly. The number of really sick people needing ICU care has doubled in the last week.
That’s a life-changing crisis for each man or woman or child involved. It’s not a crisis for the health system — yet. But if it doubles again next week and the week after that, there will be 50 people fighting for their lives by the end of this month. And unless the trend is reversed, the entire system will be in deep trouble by the end of October.
And the more people there are in hospitals in desperate need of treatment and support for the virus, the less room there will be for anything else. As it is, basic social-distancing requirements are slowing down access to all sorts of necessary health care.
That’s yet another consequence. And the cruellest thing of all is that these are all consequences of accidents. The easiest way — actually the only way — to get this virus is by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s always an accident. But that doesn’t make the consequences any less severe.
You’d wonder sometimes, given what we know about the consequences of the disease, why we all spend our time instead giving out about the messages, or the shifts in policy that are happening.
One of the most common expressions I hear on radio, for example, is “they’re changing the goalposts”.
Who’s they, I keep wondering.
Because the truth of the matter is there is no “they” that owns a set of goalposts. We own the goalposts, nobody else. Every time we go into a shop without a mask, every time we forget to keep our distance — and we all know how hard it can be — we shake the goalposts. If enough of us do it, we uproot the goalposts, and plant them somewhere else.
Here’s one thing I know about my generation. If our kids or grandkids are in trouble, we’ll go to the ends of the earth for them. There’s nothing we wouldn’t do to keep them safe. Washing our hands, keeping our distance to protect our kids — that’s a doddle.
I don’t believe it’s too much to ask the next generation to do the same for us.
It might be a pain, but none of us, I reckon, would ever be easy with the thought that someone we love has died alone and frightened because we were careless. And certainly not because we cared more about the goalposts than the consequences.