Terry Prone: Ireland’s ‘greatest generation’ have suffered greatly in the pandemic

When you’re a crisis manager, the first thing is your phone alerting you to a problem. Second, it starts ringing with “have you heard?” calls. Thirdly, the texts start to come in from those directly involved in the crisis, whatever that crisis is. The sequence is immutable.

The texts and emails from those in the maelstrom tend to start the same way. Just as messages from publicists tend to start with an utterly spurious hope that you’re keeping well, the messages from those involved in an emerging stinker story tend to begin with this formula: “I’m sorry,” they say, “I never seem to contact you except in a crisis.” 

Now, it’s sweet of them to feel transiently apologetic on that score, but it’s also funny. 

If your house goes on fire, you may be exceedingly grateful to the lads in the red outfits and the breathing equipment who come and douse the conflagration with their hoses, but you don’t set up a long term relationship with them or send them Christmas cards. 

You don’t feel rotten if you subsequently have to call 999 when another chip pan goes up. You may feel guilty because you didn’t learn from the first time, but the State emergency services are accustomed to brief, full-on, adrenalin-soaked encounters without follow up.

In the private sector, it’s much the same. 

The professional who gets you to do the right thing when you’ve done the wrong thing serves an invaluable purpose but that’s not the foundation of long-term friendship. 

The professional who reaches in, takes the shovel out of your hand and gets you to climb out of the hole you were digging may be useful to you at the time, but you don’t want them to hang around thereafter, because they would serve only as a vivid reminder of one of the worst days of your life.

Because that sequence happened to me directly after the Clifden golf event, I’m not going to address that issue this morning. 

No doubt Fergus Finlay, on mature reflection, will have something searing to offer tomorrow.

Me, I have a wider worry, a wider rage, and it’s this. 

We are witnessing the destruction of Ireland’s version of what America’s Tom Brokaw described as “The Greatest Generation”. Brokaw was writing about his parent’s peers. The ones who fought in the Second World War, then came home to re-build America. 

Ireland’s unacknowledged ‘Great Generation’ was the one born in the early fifties. They landed into an Ireland of squinting windows and overt church control, of unspoken but powerfully constraining norms, of unasked questions and unqueried rules. 

They were drilled, the majority of them, from Senior Infants, their little hands joined together in recurring prayer to a deity so unforgiving, he stuffed the souls of babies dying without baptism into an eternal holding pattern called Limbo.

The Irish great generation came from an earthy background where clergy tried to put smacht on chaos. 

Remember Friel’s The Loves of Cass Maguire where the priest happens upon a couple having it off in a field and thunders a question: “Are you comfortable in your sinning?” only to evoke the honest answer from the male involved: “Please father, no, the grass is damp.” 

We were teenagers in the Swinging Sixties, when our pals who went to work in London could get the pill and engage in a sexual freedom unimaginable in the Ireland of the time. We were the opposite of ‘Ozymandius’; we had long legs exposed by Twiggy mini skirts with one go-go-booted foot in the dark ages and the other in the free future. 

Our parents swapped banned books and thought of themselves as part of a new, liberal Ireland where you might know your place but your place was fungible. 

They talked of John Charles McQuaid as if he was contemporaneous with witch-burning, and had their Catholic hearts lifted by the new generation of nuns and priests like Des Forristal, Peter Birch, Peter Lemass, Sr Benvenuta, Tom Savage and the guys producing Radharc who put liberation theology on the map.

We felt woke long before woke was woke. Young women fell on the Women’s Pages of The Irish Times, Irish Independent and Irish Press, where feminists like Mary Maher, Mary Kenny and Janet Martin were building teams of angry argumentative women who wouldn’t tolerate rules that had applied to their mothers.

We couldn’t quite believe it when the past reasserted itself with the almost audible clanking of chains. 

Every time it looked like the major issues were sorted, they unsorted themselves in public tragedies. 

Just when we had convinced ourselves that neither shame nor fear applied any more to single mothers, a dead teenager was found at a grotto with her dead newborn. 

Just when we had discussed homosexuality on The Late Late Show and watched Gaybo smack down the back row bigot in a way that left him no prejudice to lean on, gay men were beaten to death in public parks.

The point is that Irish men and Irish women in their late 60s and 70s — the ones patronised by cocooning and genericised by the apparently kindly word “vulnerable” — represent a generation that has undergone more challenge and change than any since the Famine. They’re the generation that started with certainties. Eternal verities, even. 

About sexuality. About abortion. About the Church with a capital C. And they’re the generation that has shucked each apparently protective carapace, despite the constant contemptuous expectation that they would vote “the way old people vote”. 

They stepped up. Again and again, they — we — stood up. They withstood the demolition of idols, individual and corporate, and found it possible to think and work and change in the absence of those idols. 

Change management? They’re the first generation to do it, right throughout every aspect of their lives, rather than simply learn about it.

Then came Covid-19. And they became the disappeared. 

Public portrayals had them opening their doors and waving gratefully at departing bringers of alms in the form of cartons of groceries left on the doorstep. Or worse: they were seen as the nameless, featureless incubated patients in ICU beds. 

Or worse again: they were seen — constantly — with their individuality removed entirely by the camera operators’ skills, reducing them to gnarled hands and slippered feet.

Because they were sent home, older people, when — rarely — they appear in mainstream media do so predominantly as representing their age group. 

Programmes bring them on to express the anger of their age and for no other purpose, thereby reinforcing the underlying perceptual condition, which is that old people have no function other than to be old, preferably in a feisty way and on a good landline.

Many of the disappeared now see a vaccine as a passport, not just to the hugging of grandchildren, but to the resumption of full citizenship.

And some of us doubt it will come quickly enough to prevent the permanent extinguishing of a great generation.

Read More

Post Author: Izabella Jaworska

Izabella Jaworska 56 Southend Avenue BLACKHEATH IP19 7ZU 070 7077 0588