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Pandemic resetting what we mean when we say 'greatness'

Vincent Hogan


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Silverware: Dublin footballers with nursing staff from St Gabriel’s Ward  during the  All-Ireland Senior Football Champions’ visit to Temple Street Children’s Hospital in Dublin in 2017. Photo: Sportsfile

Silverware: Dublin footballers with nursing staff from St Gabriel’s Ward during the All-Ireland Senior Football Champions’ visit to Temple Street Children’s Hospital in Dublin in 2017. Photo: Sportsfile

Silverware: Dublin footballers with nursing staff from St Gabriel’s Ward during the All-Ireland Senior Football Champions’ visit to Temple Street Children’s Hospital in Dublin in 2017. Photo: Sportsfile

In an early scene from 'After Life', Ricky Gervais's grief-stricken character Tony sits on a graveyard bench beside the significantly older widow Anne. His suicidal darkness following the death of his wife from breast cancer is at odds with her wise, phlegmatic acceptance of loss many years after the passing of her husband. It has taken time, but Tony is beginning to listen more than just vent anger now.

He's looking for answers, essentially, to the meaning of life when Anne says something so jarring in its philosophical simplicity it leaves a catch in your throat.

"Good people do things for other people," she tells him. "That's it. The end!"

The emotional intelligence of Gervais's writing is a revelatory energy rolling through 'After Life', specifically the sensitive exploration of grief and its often disparate symptoms.

But that single, profoundly simple observation "Good people do things for other people" has seldom resonated more powerfully than it does today; a world in which our concept of heroism has needed to be so starkly reset.

For over 60 years, the Irish Independent has honoured the country's most inspiring sportsmen and women with our Sportstar of the Week awards.

When sport returns, those awards will too. But national inspiration right now comes on a daily basis from previously faceless people, from a place that we all know today as the "frontline".

Hence today's launch of our 'Frontline Star of the Week' award, a reader-driven scheme to honour these everyday heroes.

Sport is probably the most important of unimportant things stalled just now, weekends feeling rattlingly empty against the silence of pad-locked stadiums and a sports media just dialling back into nostalgia. Denied the giddiness and fever of a new-born GAA championship, May itself is oddly out of kilter.

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Golf, tennis, motor-racing, all those traditional, competing narratives are frozen too. The Premier League should be over, but isn't. The Olympics and Euro 2020 have been put back a year.

In the sudden amplification of what matters and what doesn't, sport has been reduced in scale to light entertainment. A rolling soap-opera where filming is suspended.

One of the sweetest traditions we have is the practice of a Monday morning visit to Crumlin Children's Hospital by the newly crowned All-Ireland hurling and football champions.

Often, the players are slightly the worse for wear, the necessarily ascetic shape to their lives as elite athletes having just taken a heavy shelling after months of monk-like discipline. But respect for the tradition invariably muffles any hum of liquor in their heads.

Nothing seems less fair than a child wrestling with serious ill-health and, accordingly, there's an enduring beauty to those familiar Monday images of the Sam Maguire and Liam MacCarthy cups being ferried about on ward-rounds.

It's always struck me that staff invariably look every bit as pleased as the children are to have a Henry Shefflin, Seamus Callanan, Bernard Brogan or Colm Cooper in their midst, however briefly. Maybe it's escapism in a sense. The opportunity to move outside an environment of habitual anxiety and wretchedly routine heartbreak.

The pictures taken are captioned for Tuesday morning's newspapers as heroes being civic-minded. And we cherish those men. They come from another world, you see, one of physical blessing and often inordinate psychological strength. A world that most of us, historically, envy.

When a Niall Quinn or a Donnacha O'Callaghan donates the entire proceeds from their testimonials to charity, they soar even higher in our estimations. When the broad GAA community picks up a young Laois family in its arms and helps raise the €2m needed for life-saving treatment on their young child, that beneficence ennobles even the smallest of kindnesses entailed.

We like to believe that we are intrinsically good and, by and large, our sports men and women reflect the fact. But running through the silence of these days now is a compulsion to reset certain assumptions too. Maybe people pinning 'thank you' notes to their bins captures that recalibration at its starkest. Simple, humdrum acts become elevated in meaning when carried out in defiance of a virus that is killing people.

The very term 'essential worker' is new to the national lexicon. Suddenly drivers, shop keepers, store-workers, postmen and women are met with recognition unimaginable to them just two months ago. The grace under pressure of our doctors, nurses and assorted healthcare workers draws heartfelt applause.

Likewise, the care-home employees, many still fighting on a front made profoundly challenging by what feels like the one, glaring, administrative misstep in our handling of this crisis.

Pandemics overwhelm the best health systems. Yet ours, realigned by necessity into single-tier configuration, is coping through the selflessness of those operating the frontline.

So summer's heroes will be different this year and sport - trapped as it is, in the still, priestly air of suspension - will come back into our lives slowly, even almost guiltily for a time.

Soon enough, maybe we will again be back measuring the world in glory and silverware and greatness communicated to vast, pre-occupied masses, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder.

And all these ardent, little homilies to ordinary men and women will slowly fall quiet.

But for now, running through the broader silence, are the very best of people, doing things for others.

And, as Anne declares to Tony on that graveyard bench, nothing can ever be more meaningful than that.

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