Sunday 20 January 2019

Slushy or not, a tribe stuck together when Snowmaggedon came calling

From looking out for neighbours to rediscovering the joys of the sliced pan, the Beast from the East brought out the best of being Irish, writes Brendan O'Connor

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Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

it brought us all together while it tore us apart. It reminded us that Ireland is a village. It reminded us too of all the great things about us. It reminded us we knock a bit of craic out of anything, while taking it deadly seriously too.

It reminded us too that when you strip away everything, all the conflicts and uncertainties of modern life and Brexit and Trump and whatnot, and we are just left to our own devices, with a simple mission, to get on with it and get through the day, that for all our divisions, we are a tribe, and we look after each other.

The extent to which the snow brought us together, and was also a great leveller was perhaps exemplified by a guy whom Ciaran Mullooly stopped in a van on the news on Thursday evening to ask him how the driving was. "Not good, Ciaran," the man said casually, without missing a beat, as if they were two neighbours who bumped into each other every day. As if there was nothing strange about being stopped by a TV reporter.

The great Snowmageddon of 2018 also reminded us that as sophisticated as we've become, and as cool and trendy as we all are about food now, when the chips are down, and you're hunkering down in your house for a few days, in Ireland, a sliced pan is your only man. Indeed, at one point, there was a very real suspicion that as society broke down into post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style chaos, Brennan's Bread could be adopted as the new currency, and Pat the Baker could rule the East from some kind of large bread-making facility on the Hill of Tara.

I found myself in the SuperValu near work on Wednesday holding a leg of lamb, half price. Shure you'd be mad not to buy it. I was on the phone to my wife who was dictating the shopping instructions from home. She was saying we had no potatoes or anything to have with it, but we could always make sandwiches with it for a few days. And then I had a moment of clarity. We had all, individually and collectively, gone slightly insane. I put down the leg of lamb and backed away.

This was my second trip to SuperValu that day. I had arrived into work early and got a phone call from home straight away to go down and get milk if they had any. Back at HQ, my wife was listening to the radio, and while we had been laughing at the food panic earlier, she had now decided we should get as much milk as possible. I got the last four litres of skimmed and hid it, tied up in a bag, in the fridge at work. I had to buy the expensive branded milk. There was none of the SuperValu milk left at that stage. Livid.

On the second trip, I resisted the leg of lamb but stocked up on whatever other essentials I could. Miraculously, there was a sliced pan left. It had linseeds and various other things in it, but I felt some compulsion to buy it anyway. Once you have bread and ham and cheese, I reasoned to myself, you can always live for a few days on toasted sandwiches while you wait for them to dig you out.

I also stocked up on that other staple - pesto. This is what a D4 liberal media food panic looks like. For example, while the rest of the country was stocking up on sliced pans, in D4 people were hunting for Tartine sourdough bread. Oh the humanity! No sourdough in south Dublin.

For the first day or two the country was largely making the best of the communal experience that was Snowmageddon. It even started with a typically Irish row about leaving the heating on. Where else would you get a major political row essentially about "Did you leave the immersion on?" The safety implications about having so much bread kept in heated-up houses were not explored, but there must have been a worry about the bread rising further in these oven-like conditions.

Having all been amateur lawyers for the last month as we watched that trial in Belfast, suddenly everyone became a meteorologist. We parroted to each other whatever we had last heard from Evelyn Cusack, who seemed increasingly tetchy with each appearance. Everyone wanted definite answers from her about exactly what was going to happen, as she wearily tried to convey the huge uncertainty of nature. So we explained to each other about this great battle between the Beast from the East and Storm Emma.

Every time it was mentioned for a few days, we were told that Storm Emma was named by the Portuguese. Why did our weather people feel the need to keep telling us it was named by the Portuguese? Were they saying: "We wouldn't have called it that. If it was up to us, it would be Aisling, or Brid. But that's the Portuguese for you. We will use their name for it, but under sufferance"?

By Thursday we all have our favourite voices of disaster. Sean O'Neill, from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, is some class of American, and has that kind of reassuring American way of spelling things out calmly but without pulling punches. He sounds like a guy you would see on the American channels when they are having a disaster. And he talks about growing up with these kinds of events in Boston, so we sense he knows what he's on about.

But Sean Hogan, of the National Emergency Co-ordination Group, gradually works his way into the nation's affections. While Eoghan Murphy, our Tony Blair, looks and sounds increasingly smooth as he zips around for media opportunities between Disaster HQ and homeless shelters, Sean Hogan, with his thick, fogged-up glasses and his collar and tie slightly skewways, seems like the real deal, a guy you can trust. Not a showman. Just a public servant doing his best.

One slight criticism of the National Emergency Co-ordination Group would be that while it is doubtless working all hours, it does not seem to be made up of people who get up early in the morning. While we are all getting up at 6.30 with Morning Ireland to see what the day holds, we find some days we are still operating off yesterday's advice from the NECG, which does not seem to officially meet until ten or half past. You would have thought next time it should aim to get up early and make a call on the day ahead and tell us before it's time to leave the house, or not leave the house.

Eoghan Murphy's tie is slightly askew at times, but you feel it is artfully so, deliberately moved slightly off centre, the perfect angle of skew perhaps determined by someone in the Strategic Communications Unit.

Another unlikely star is Fergal Dennehy, Deputy Lord Mayor of Cork, who turns up on Thursday evening on Prime Time to talk about Cork. There is something extraordinarily genuine looking about Dennehy. His face and manner are even more sincere than Michael McGrath, and he has the saddest eyes you've ever seen. He looks as if he might cry at any moment. You would buy a used car from this man.

And then there is Michael Harding, detailing his trip home from Warsaw that involved England and Shannon and planes and trains, and his lady wife to take him the final bit home. Where else would this be a major item on the evening news? We even got an update on the Nine news. On the Six One news he seemed to have just spotted his lady wife coming for him. At nine we were reassured that he had made it home and was already working on a chapter of his new book.

Bizarrely, in the middle of all this, so-called fugitive solicitor Michael Lynn came home too, on the last flight into Dublin, and they managed to find a court open to deny him bail. But somehow Lynn was only background noise, in a kind of 'And finally...' item that saw all the other background news, like Brexit, lumped together. For a day or two we didn't have to worry about complex things like that. We were in a very simple, comforting survival mode, where all that mattered was what was going to happen next with the weather.

By Thursday night things were getting increasingly alarming. A metre of snow was forecast for south Dublin, a spot normally immune to weather disasters, a place that had a relatively beautiful day when the country was being lashed by Storm Ophelia. Dublin people had been prepared to be casual about Emma (named by the Portuguese) too but when they woke to a fair amount of snow on Wednesday they had manners put on them. They are not immune.

Equally it brought out the best in us as well. Elderly neighbours were being looked in on to such an extent that some of them must have longed to pretend not to be home to the various concerned neighbours and well-wishers, except that might have led to the calling of the emergency services. And people seemed to rediscover their neighbours and their neighbourhoods too as they all frolicked in the snow together.

Though it did expose a hidden divide in Ireland. Suddenly it was very obvious who goes skiing with their children and who doesn't. While most of us were lucky if the kids had wellies, some kids around Dublin and other select enclaves were out in full state-of-the-art snowgear, their parents presumably delighted to get a bit of use out of it apart from the week in Val d'Isere.

We were conscious too that history was being made here, that we and our kids would always remember the time Christmas came in March (I even dug out a leftover tin of chocolate Kimberleys for some visitors on Thursday). But by Friday even the kids seemed to have had enough. When they announced on Friday that we could leave our houses after all, it was as if they had announced the summer had come, even though there was still a red weather alert in place for much of the country.

But that Friday-morning complacency didn't last long. For one thing, the snow didn't let up. And it became clear that while the blizzards were no longer a worry, there were huge amounts of snow being dumped everywhere and there were serious problems around the country.

But people had been told they could go out, so by God they were going out. A walk around Sandymount on Friday night was like something from Cormac McCarthy's The Road, with people trudging determinedly, no idea where they were going, or what they were looking for. It was as if when you took away the infrastructure of consumption that punctuates our daily life, everything became slightly meaningless and samey. It was as if the blanket of white stuff actually stripped away the thin veneer of civilisation that is the retail and hospitality landscape. And we were all trudging around some kind of no-man's-land. But people were determined nonetheless to consume. They gathered around anyone selling hot coffee or confectionery, or a pint. These were traumatised people, who had spent far too much time with their families already. There were men who hadn't cycled up a mountain or had a pint in days, women who hadn't been for coffee, lunch or a Pilates class all week, and on top of that, they were all eating too much because there was nothing else to do, and also because they had got those supplies in, so dammit they were going to eat them. They were giddy to be out in the air. They had no purpose, no destination, but they were out, roaming D4, and that was enough.

The festive mood turned darker over Friday. The snow kept coming relentlessly in the East, and Galway too. The Six One news, which has grown to 90 minutes at some point to contain the catalogue of misery from around the country, is compelling viewing. While they try to lighten it up with the odd wedding-against-the-odds or suburban igloo, there is an underlying grimness, ably conveyed by a biblical George Lee, who never misses an opportunity to shake us out of our complacency by telling us how bad things are. They even go back to him at the end of Friday's bulletin for a final word. Make no mistake, he says, it might not have been exactly what we expected but: "It's different, but baaaad." The JCB attack on Lidl kind of shocked us all too. Is this how quickly things fall apart?

And of course as the weather receded the recriminations began. Everyone had a different experience of this weather. In true Irish style, the level of snow varied by parish. So some people are saying we need to calm down and don't they have this in Amerikay all the time and life goes on. And others feel the devastation is not being adequately acknowledged. Those who say we overreacted, who were positively disappointed not to wake up to hardcore blizzards on Friday morning, are the same kind of people who are disappointed when they go to the doctor and find out there's nothing wrong with them. While this is actually a good result, they'd nearly prefer an illness or at least some tablets to justify the sixty quid.

By yesterday, it was time to move into the next phase, recovery. The supermarkets were finally opening again. We all needed more bread and milk, and we needed to get away from our families. Now we were supposed to get worked up about floods coming with the thaw. But all we heard was thaw. We would deal with floods if and when they came, just as long as the snow went away. By now, even the kids had had enough, especially when they realised that snow turns dirty and slushy and icy before it disappears.

There's damage done no doubt, and much of it will probably only become apparent in the coming days. But still, you'd like to think that, after last week, we are a nation slightly more connected, slightly closer to our neighbours, and feeling slightly better about the all the good things about being Irish.

And we are also, it should be said, a nation that looks down its nose slightly less at a good old-fashioned white sliced pan.

Sunday Independent

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