The Minister for Housing is Darragh O’Brien. He is a member of the Fianna Fail party. Its coalition partner Fine Gael previously held this ministry. Since 2011 Fine Gael has been in power. The two parties formed a coalition after last year’s election (although a de-facto coalition existed from 2016 to 2020). The housing crisis has exploded over the past decade since Fine Gael took office. O’Brien’s predecessor was named Eoghan Murphy – a man whose picture appears next to the word ‘failure’ in my personal dictionary (https://midnightmurphy.com/2019/07/03/eoghan-murphy-a-chocolate-fireguard ) . He was an elected representative for the Dublin Bay South constituency, which is the wealthiest in the land. Fine Gael clearly has its finger on the pulse of the nation when it appointed a rich boy whose granddad Russell Murphy was a swindler accountant who fleeced his clients for hundreds of thousands, to solve the housing emergency. After the 2020 election Eoghan Murphy was relieved of ministerial duties. Some months later he decided that politics was not for him. He resigned his seat. Prompting a by-election for a parliamentary seat in the leafiest of suburbs.
Some important facts about housing in Ireland are relevant here. The cost of purchasing a house in Ireland is out of reach of people on an average wage. In Dublin, the situation is even worse. Unless you are earning a minimum of 70,000eur a year as a single person you can forget about owning your own home. This is deliberate government policy – supply has been reduced to a trickle, while prices soar to help banks and institutional investors. Meanwhile vulture funds buy up entire housing estates and apartment blocks to rent at extortionate rates to tenants. Tenants who because they are spending 50% of their available income on rent are unable to save to try to buy a property. These renters aren’t burdened with tenancy rights of any substance. Every now and then a scandal erupts, and the government pretends to act. The housing crisis continues and purchasing or renting a property in Ireland remains a national disgrace.
As the housing crisis will be front and centre of the coming by-election to replace Eoghan Murphy, I thought I’d look at some the candidates for this seat.
Each year over the Christmas and New Year period, the Abbey (Ireland’s national theatre) stages a show with an extended run. These productions tend to be crowd-pleasers which suits the time of year, and also act as slightly more adult counterparts to the insanity of the panto season. For the past three years I have attended – ‘Drama at Inish’ last year; ‘Come from away’ in 2018; and ‘Let the right one in’ in 2017. All were wonderful.
My phone beeped to notify me that a new pair of jeans were ready collect in Dunnes’ Stores on Henry Street. I had ordered them online four days previously to prepare myself for winter. The time was 2pm. Having spent the morning drinking tea, and exchanging scurrilous and libellous gossip with a friend in London I needed to take an excursion to get some exercise. I decided to walk through Sean McDermott Street in the north inner city on my way to the shop. I wanted to see the Mother and Baby Home on that street.
Sometime on Tuesday night, I woke up coughing. I was not initially worried. Even though it has been three years since I quit smoking, each year since – as the winter draws in – I get a brief case of the remnants of a smoker’s cough. Nothing like the hollow, hacking sound that cough mixture couldn’t reach, back in the smoky days – but a faint, irritating condition nonetheless. When after two hours of coughing it hadn’t ceased, I started to worry.
Dublin has just entered the second week of level 3 Covid-19 restrictions, to tackle the surge in infection rates in the city. Level 3 means a tightening of the restrictions from Level 2 – where the rest of the country (aside from Donegal) now sits. Level 3 means that art galleries and museums are closed; as are theatres. House parties are limited to six people from outside your home – but all have to be from the same household. Bars and restaurants – whether they serve food or not are closed – unless they have an outdoor seating area, in which case they can could cater to a maximum of fifteen people.
‘Well that’s restrictive,’ I thought to myself. On Thursdays I received a message from a friend asking if I’d be willing to take a chance on having a sociable beverage on Saturday evening (along with the compulsory €9 meal – in Ireland bars that serve food were allowed to open, whereas bars that didn’t were not – Covid respects cuisine you see, and it stops moving when a substantial meal is being consumed – or something.)
I agreed. Three weeks under a renewed semi-lockdown as the days get shorter, and a distinct chill arrives in the air sounded unutterably grim. Particularly (as I have repeatedly said) for those of us living alone in an apartment without a garden. ‘We’re all in this together’ rings hollow when the four walls start closing in on you.
With a steely resolve I went online – I wasn’t taking any chances. With such limited opportunity for revelry I decided to make a booking to make sure we got a seat.
The new restrictions to tackle the spread of coronavirus were released last night. As predicted they are an incoherent mess.
House parties are to be limited to no more than six people from outside your household (and these six cannot come from more than three separate households). Meanwhile minimum wage workers in meat processing plants, are allowed to go to work in factories where the recent outbreaks have originated. These workers predominantly work in cramped conditions, living in crowded homes, with up to ten strangers bed-sharing. Schools are re-opening in a few weeks and social distancing guidelines are to be observed. Many children travel to school on public transport. Travel on public transport is to be avoided however according to new guidelines. People over the age of 70 years old are encouraged to stay indoors. However the outbreaks are predominantly among those aged under 45. The leader Fine Gael – Leo Varadkar – didn’t bother turning up at the press conference with the other two equally useless coalition party leaders Micheal Martin and Sleepy Eamon Ryan. Micheal sounded stern like a schoolteacher scolding the nation. As the news was bad, and Varadkar is a PR obsessed snake-oil salesman, he wanted to distance himself from it. It’s almost as if he thinks he is not a part of government, therefore equally responsible for the shambles of the new guidelines.
My bags are unpacked but I am ready to go. This evening I will be taking a train out of Dublin for the first time since January (apologies to Wicklow but Bray or Greystones while technically outside Dublin seem culturally part of the Pale). I will be going to Limerick for a week long sojourn. I am not taking holidays, my laptop is accompanying me so I can pretend to be high powered and executive all week, while not officially surrendering days of leave.
The six months I have spent in Dublin is the longest protracted period of time I have ever spent in one place without any time away – no cheeky little weekend jaunts to Amsterdam or down home. It’s been relatively painless. I have been fortunate to live in a spacious (for one) city centre apartment. Since day one of the restrictions being imposed, I made the decision that my self-isolation would not mean that I would reject all human contact. Meeting people for socially distant walks was always my modus operandus. I bit my lip when people would place social media posts castigating people for meeting with friends. I don’t engage with emotive no-win social media arguments ever though as life is too short. I didn’t reply. Mentally however I’d notice that those people berating those of us who bent the rules (marginally) tended not to live alone and/or had access to an outdoor garden – a far more spacious and companionable set up than living alone in a fourth floor flat with a balcony the size of a shoebox. I bit my lip and continued to meet my fellow solo travellers for walks while observing all advice on social distancing, hand hygiene etc.
There have been some highlights to the lockdown. Lidl is a supermarket I have gotten to know intimately. If your diet suddenly changes to three home cooked meals every day for months on end, then the absurdly over-priced IFSC shops needed the heave-ho. Instead I embraced the German budget superstore and broadened my cooking repertoire.
I am also now the possessor of a large freezer machine packed with enough food for a month. Heretofore said appliance stood empty in the corner for years on end. Thanks to the pandemic I have discovered than Marks and Spencer’s yellow-sticker deals can all be frozen. As a result I have a menu of posh food at my fingertips . I call it Protestant food- not for sectarian reasons of course, more to do with how British it all seems – scallop bakes, honey glazed salmon, chili flavoured spatchcock chicken, tuna fillets and the like. It’s a far cry from the boiled bacon and cabbage and turnips and boiled spuds on which I was raised.
Working from home surprisingly was a bonus in the context of being busy for forty hours each week. It leant an air of normalcy and continuity to life. The oldies station RTE Gold playing in the background, I sat at my desk looking out at the Luke Kelly statue and carried on my work routine as normally as possible. The calls with colleagues about work issues were often the only human voices I interacted with from Monday to Friday (I’d meet friends at the weekend). Obviously I didn’t let on to them. I wouldn’t be the type to overshare my life with workmates. I’ll never tell them they were my only contact – they’d look at me with pity from their suburban nirvana, and then judge me harshly when they hear that I was meeting friends for walks through out lockdown.
Mentally the lockdown was tolerable. Having lived abroad and alone for many years it wasn’t a novel experience going for extended periods of time without seeing family. The circumstances were unique in this instance of course, but my years in Amsterdam stood me in good stead.
The horror of what was going on in terms of deaths and infections from Covid-19 was something I tried to avoid. I used to watch the 9 o’clock news each night and try to leave it at that.
Occasionally I’d get a case of the panics. What if I catch this? Who will bring me food if I have to self-isolate? What if I die from it alone in my flat and my body is not discovered for months? What if I need to go on a ventilator in hospital? No-one will be able to visit? I’m Type 1 diabetic – that means I’m high risk if I catch this right? I’m going to get this?
The darkest day was the day I saw the Army ship setting up a Covid clinic on the river Liffey near my house in the early days of the lockdown. It felt apocalyptic and terrifying – the Army busy while the normally busy street was devoid of all other traffic. Seeing Sinead O’Connor singing ‘Light up’ in honour of the frontline workers that same night, chilled me to the bone. We’re all doomed, I thought to myself. This is the end. And then I saw the social media posts shrieking condemnation towards those of us who were still meeting people outside of their own house. If I catch this, then I’ll have no-one to blame but myself?
The next day I got up, told myself to pull myself together and made a fruit smoothie. Then I went for a walk around Dublin – a city I‘d wager that I now know as well as if I’d lived here all my life. My travels around the city were comprehensive, thorough and well researched. While I am not a fan of the Loving’ Dublin website, I can now proudly boast that I have done twenty one out of the twenty three walks that they recommend. Along with some other routes I discovered on my own. The 2 kilometre restriction wasn’t too burdensome when you live in the city centre. So much to discover. When it was extended to 5km it felt like a travel party.
My train for Limerick departs at 17.30 this evening. I initially booked it about two months ago when July 20th was announced as the date that non-essential travel was permitted anywhere in Ireland. Sometime later that date was advanced by three weeks. I kept my original booking. This evening I am getting on a train with my face-mask in place. I am very much looking forward to it. Once I get to Limerick Junction I will be on the home stretch.
It appears that life is returning to a version of normal. For this I am profoundly grateful. The drudgery of the past eleven weeks in lockdown, in a flat on my own, hasn’t been too oppressive however. I have been diligent about going for a brisk walk around my neighbourhood almost every day – within the approved travel zones of 2 kilometres, and later 5 kilometres from my gracious abode.
Since day one I have bent the rules slightly, by meeting friends whose 2 kilometre zone intersects my zone. We have taken socially responsible walks, maintaining a physical distance of two metres from each other. This was disallowed, but maintaining the spirit of the restrictions seemed sufficient to me. People living alone were being asked to sacrifice more than people in shared accommodation – whether that be with partner, family, friends or flatmates. Human contact – however frustrating it can be – is preferable to none. Being a person who was recommended to self-isolate because of the diabetes played on my mind. The idea of staying indoors for three months never seemed a viable option. Seeing nobody face to face wasn’t a consideration. As a high risk person, my decision to venture out, while adhering strictly to the lockdown rules for outdoors was at my own risk. It was a calculated gamble, but I was careful. Without a garden or any secluded outdoor space to myself I would have been driven demented had I locked myself indoors for the duration.
With a devil-may-care-Texas-playboy attitude, mixed with a hyper-paranoia about physical distancing, I set sail and explored my wonderful neighbourhood. Dublin as a city – and particularly the Northside – is now a much more connected place for me. I know which streets intersect with others; where neighbourhoods overlap; short cuts to various destinations. And I have taken pictures.
As we head to a further easing of restrictions in the next week or so, you can already see the city activity resuming. There are more people on the streets. Traffic – although still sparse compared to normal times – is increasing. More cafes, and restaurants are opening – takeaway only of course. This is splendid – although my affection for the Cloud Café on North Strand Road and Il Fornaio Italian in the IFSC restaurant is now unassailable – the two venues that hardily remained open throughout the lockdown, providing my weekly posh coffee and takeaway pizza respectively.
The highlight of my lockdown in terms of places, has to be the Blessington Street Basin. It’s an old reservoir that has been transformed into a nature reserve. It is an absolute diamond of a space, hidden away from too many eyes. I stumbled across it about two months ago. Since then I have been back about ten times – such is the peace and beauty of the place.
An interesting discovery is the realisation that those metal electricity boxes throughout the city have been enhanced by artists, with some lovely paintings adorning them.
These streets that almost felt like they were mine alone, are being crowded again. This is a good thing.
I have had a fairly limited but consistent coterie of companions on my walks – particularly for my Sunday strolls. Sometimes circumstance (and travel restrictions) throws people together. And it can be a wonderful thing.
It is apparent that over the last week an adjusted version of normal life is resuming. It may be linked to the glorious weather I guess. Physical distancing may continue (maybe not judging by the gangs of teenagers on the banks of the Royal Canal each evening). Covid is still lurking like an unflushable turd in the toilet bowl of course. So long as people exercise a degree of common sense, caution and human decency and hygiene, then we’ll all be grand.
Dublin – as Soul II Soul might say – is back to life, back to reality, back to the here and now again. For that I am thankful.
As the lockdown continues, I have developed a routine for my weekdays. The fact that I am doing a full week’s work from home necessitates this. I have to be ready, alert and active by 9am each day, and remain focused until 5pm every evening. As I have nothing else to talk about at the moment, it seemed like a good time to record this wash, rinse, repeat cycle, for posterity. Continue reading Day 25 The Coronavirus Diaries – my daily routine→
In a different world, a long, long time ago I used to go to the theatre on a regular basis. I had a highly developed skill for sniffing out early bird tickets, deep discounts and freebies for shows. I look back on that distant time with nostalgia and vague melancholy. I am being sarcastic of course. That was only three weeks ago. However it’s like another time zone from a planet far, far away. Continue reading Day 19: Theatrical reminiscences – ‘Dirtbirds’→