Saturday 15 December 2018

Eamon Sweeney: In the end, we're all in this together

Paddy Carr, who managed Ballymun Kickhams to the Dublin county football final last year, and Eilis Flood take the dogs for a walk in Slane during last week’s icy blast. Photo: David Conachy
Paddy Carr, who managed Ballymun Kickhams to the Dublin county football final last year, and Eilis Flood take the dogs for a walk in Slane during last week’s icy blast. Photo: David Conachy
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

So how was it for you? How would you, as it asks on those forms we never fill in, rate your Beast from the East experience?

We all experience these things in different ways. In my trade the first thing which comes to mind during an extreme weather event is generally, "What am I going to write about?," or, even more seriously, "How are we going to fill the pages?" It strikes me that if Paul Dunne goes well in that WGC event in Mexico, he might end up getting more coverage than any Irish golfer ever got before.

As the cancellations mounted over the past couple of days, I thought of the time during a similar big freeze in the 1980s when the Irish Independent named 'Jack Frost' as Sports Star of the Week, accompanying this accolade with a fetching photo of a snowman. Jack's son might well have a shot at perpetuating the family tradition this week. So, as a gesture of solidarity with the beleaguered sports desks of the nation, I'll be writing about snow rather than sport in this week's column.

Though actually that's not the real reason. The real reason is that while we may experience Emma and the Beast in our own different ways, that experience is at its root similar and draws us closer together. That's what happened when Hurricane Ophelia made wreck in Skibbereen and the vicinity a few months back and it's happened again as the blizzard howls and the snow ices the West Cork countryside. It's an important thing. It has to do with community, something which is also fundamental to sport at its best.

Red weather warnings somehow exacerbate the feeling of community, of all being in the one boat, not just at local but also to a certain degree at national level. We make common cause with our neighbours against the elements. A wry humour takes over. There may have been some panic bread buying but there have been an awful lot more wisecracks about panic bread buying.

For once, we're all on the one team. Maybe that's because, as the gospel of St Matthew says, "God makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike." You don't have to believe in God to see the truth of that one. Personally speaking, and this is hardly an uncommon reaction, as I watched the Beast work its magic I felt overcome by this fierce wave of affection for everyone doing the same thing and a hope that they all emerge unscathed.

Sometimes you hear a sports star talking about how the death of someone close to them "puts everything into perspective". Days like the ones we've just been through do a similar thing. Trudging through the snow to town yesterday morning I passed a small housing estate. There's a long strip of grass at the front and on it were kids making snowmen and throwing snowballs, parents helping out, the odd dog frolicking confusedly. My own children produced a variety of snowmen and snowdogs and attempted an igloo.

The sight of all that activity hit me right in the heart. It made me think of how simple and easily satisfied our most profound desires can be. It reminded me that the vast majority of people you meet as you go through your day are decent and kind. And of how lucky we are to live in a country where a few days of snowfall is the most disruptive thing the country is likely to experience. Perhaps we're not always grateful enough for that.

One of the things which brought the seriousness of the situation home to people was the cancellation of this weekend's sporting fixtures. Sport is one of the great national communal experiences. It's mind boggling to think of the amount of organisation required for, and people involved in, a normal sporting weekend at this relatively quiet time of the year. Yet today the fields will lie silent. It leaves an odd gap and adds to the general feeling of disorientation.

Yet it also made me think of the national sporting community, so vast and so apparently disparate yet united in a common pursuit. Racing people on the Curragh, football people in Kerry, hurling folk in Kilkenny, the Sunday League soccer players all over the country, those from inner-city boxing clubs and suburban golf clubs, cricketers in North County Dublin and small Down villages, secondary school basketball stars, cyclists, coursing people, that huge unsung army engaged in the whole panoply of martial arts, swimmers getting up early to do their lengths, international rowers, locally notorious road bowlers, sailors, shooters and showjumpers, they all had to sit out the blizzard in the last few days and there wasn't one of them who didn't staunch the boredom by imagining what it would be like to be back in action once the Beast had gone his merry way.

They, and we, were all in this together. Some of them would have been among the people who checked on elderly and vulnerable neighbours and gave valuable, practical help. Some would have swept paths and gritted roads. People have contributed to the gaiety of the nation in other ways. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to get a great kick out of the house in Cork with 'Send Bread' scrawled in large letters in the garden snow. Or out of all those kids on the news, sledding down hills on a variety of contraptions, skiing behind cars and generally making the most of the fact that their everyday surroundings had been briefly and wonderfully transformed into an adventure playground.

Because while the last few days have been a colossal pain in the arse for many adults, particularly those trying to run a business or travel in and out of work, they have been a fantastic, unscheduled extra holiday for children. If you're tempted to bemoan the effect of the snow maybe you can look at it as a sacrifice we've made for the sake of our children. Because they're going to remember this one.

When my daughters mentioned their igloo building plans, it took me back to a similar structure from the National School yard 40 odd years ago. I could remember not just the way we packed snow into cardboard boxes and the look of the igloo itself but how it felt to stand, with slightly hunched back, inside it. This snow will make one hell of a mess when it melts but it'll also have made an awful lot of memories. That might just make the frozen pipes, the wind chill and the cabin fever worthwhile.

Maybe I'm sentimental about these things but I think extremity brings out the best in the Irish character. We tend to do a lot of complaining about the small stuff but see the funny side of larger upheavals. We crib about the slush but laugh at the snow.

A friend of mine always insists that the best footballers "need to have a bit of hardship in the background". And really, doesn't the whole country pretty much qualify on those grounds? Having a history which largely consists of one calamity after another tends to endow you with a bit of resilience. As does the presence of those from an older generation, when things were much harder than they are now, something they like to remind us of at times like this even if they would need to be about 200 years old to have genuinely witnessed The Night of the Big Wind.

There are two ways to react to days like these. One is to hunch over your computer, waiting to take offence with someone who walked too close to the sea or went outside during the red warning, to name and shame the bread hoggers, to berate Leo Varadkar for not using a giant fan to blow Emma and the Beast away from our shores. The other is just to crack on with things, trying to keep the head and seeing the funny side wherever possible. That's how the majority of people act which is why you couldn't have better company in a blizzard. Where else would you hear people insisting, despite there being no evidence whatsoever, that all this snow portends a really fine summer?

Hopefully you're not reading this while pinned down in a shop where two gangs of bread looters are shooting it out, the leader of one of them screaming, "You can have my sliced pan when you prise it from my cold, dead hands." In which case feel free to berate me for my overly sunny view of the Irish character.

As I slipped and slithered my way homewards yesterday afternoon I bumped into a friend of mine, a fine footballer who won Cork and Munster club medals in his day. We had the usual chat about the weather and the GAA and then, when we'd walked away from each other, I heard him shout my name. I turned. "Stay safe," he said, "stay safe." That's what people are like. I hope you and yours stayed safe.

Normal service will resume next week.

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