AS THE Scottish Government unveiled its plans for the country’s progress through the phases back to normality following the introduction of lockdown to combat the Coronavirus pandemic, the Irish community and the many organisations which keep Irish culture alive in Scotland were among those who welcomed the news that restrictions will soon begin to relax.
With innovative solutions to social restrictions put in place, the Irish community has seen our culture continue to thrive against the odds thanks to online Irish language lessons, virtual gigs and even bespoke coaching guides for young Gaelic footballers forced to train alone. Now, with the prospect of a route to the end of restrictions beginning to grow, attentions are being refocused on the current efforts to maintain Irish culture in Scotland through the lockdown in preparation for the day community life can begin again.
“We’re delighted to see the start of a roadmap out of the current crisis and while it might be a while before our activities return to normal it is great to see how well folk have responded to our classes on Zoom and we also hope to soon put online, and on the radio, some ‘virtual’ Emerald Lunch Club events to bring a bit of cheer and Irish craic and culture to the older folks in our community,” Evin Downey of Conradh na Gaeilge told The Irish Voice as he reflected on just some of the projects he is involved in. “Tugaigi aire, we hope everyone stays safe.”
Among the most painful of the effects of lockdown restrictions have been those on funeral and church services, and Fr Eamonn Sweeney of St Patrick’s Church in Coatbridge spoke about the impact it has had on one of Scotland’s most Irish parishes—noting that sadly many of his parishioners were unable to undertake their annual pilgrimage to Knock in County Mayo.
“We travel as a group every May to Knock Shrine, with the Pioneers Association and parishioners—and even friends from as far away as Port Glasgow and Greenock—but that was obviously knocked on the head this year along with so many other things,” he said. “We streamed a special Mass on YouTube for those who had intended to travel, but we really haven’t a clue now how or when we can rearrange. It will all depend transport and accommodation.
“We have sadly had a lot of cancellations in the parish—baptisms, marriages, confirmations. Our First Holy Communions were wiped out by it. By Phase 2 we hope that we will be allowed to open the church for private prayer, and we will be guided along the way by the working group led by Sir Harry Burns.”
Despite this considerable impact, however, Fr Sweeney has still found ways to reach out to parishioners and is eagerly awaiting the days when normality will begin to creep back into daily life. “My ministry has been greatly curtailed,” he said. “It’s very painful because this is the ministry for which I was ordained. At the very start I found it very difficult. We aren’t able to bring Holy Communion to the sick, as we do regularly in the parish, and the only physical presence I can have for parishioners is at gravesides or crematoria. Once we began to stream Mass it gave me a great sense of being connected to the parishioners.
“There has been some very powerful feedback. People are benefitting from it, and although they still cannot receive Holy Communion they are able to make a spiritual communion while watching Mass.
“Our tea room is a refuge for many people. It gives them a routine, of going to Mass and then socialising with friends in the tea room so it is always busy. We don’t know when we will be able to reopen there, but it will be determined by the guidance. We know there will be a lasting effect after this is all over, particularly to people’s mental health, so we look forward to being allowed our community life again and supporting one another.”
Sport on standby
The GAA too has had to take stock of this present crisis, and in doing so Peter Mossey, Chairman of GAA Scotland (above right with Fr Eamonn Sweeney), sees opportunities for when the sport can resume again in Scotland—particularly in the community and cultural roles the GAA can play.
“The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought terrible hardship and unprecedented challenges to many, particularly to those who have experienced the illness or bereavement as a result,” he told The Irish Voice. “For many others the changes brought about by this pandemic in terms of employment, lifestyle or work may be life changing in the short, medium or long-term. It is also clear that we will need to adapt and learn to live with the virus for a considerable time in the future, and therefore our thoughts must turn to making the most of this situation we find ourselves in.
“We are challenged to think of the ways where some good might come out of the difficulties we are facing, and how despite challenges, there might also be opportunities or even some positives. “I believe that the sharing of these difficult experiences in the absence of playing the sport we love will induce empathy and strengthen the bonds of camaraderie and help us to place a greater emphasis on how important the GAA has been and will continue to be in our lives. We will reflect on the value of sport and physical exercise on not only our fitness and physical well-being but also on our mental well-being and on the value of our games as a social networking activity.
“This period of lockdown will help us appreciate much more the community aspect and the dissolving of cultural barriers which we so often say but do not fully appreciate, and how society as a whole is a beneficiary of our activities within the GAA.”
With some major projects drawing the attentions of those working in the GAA even in this time of lockdown restrictions, Mr Mossey looked at how this time could be used to help improve the situation and aspirations of the association for the future.
“The lack of games will help us reflect on some aspects that within our busy lives we have not got around to doing—such as devoting more thought and action to individual GAA club strategies as we think about the future in the immediate, medium and long-term,” he said. “This applies also at both club and County Board level—taking time to revisit our overall Scotland GAA strategy which we are in the process of implementing, and pick out those aspects that can be advanced in the absence of games.
“Examples are our aspiration to be an integral part of the Causeway social and business network, who have set up a series of online, interactive and socially rewarding activities; and the setting up of a subcommittee to consider our Scotland GAA 125 year celebration in 2022. GAA members may also be interested in embarking on a new challenge such as Irish dancing, playing music or learning the Irish Language.
“We can also advance the networking between a number of stakeholders that is required to implement our strategy on reviving Pearse Park redevelopment following a long period of inactivity at this unique venue a we aspire to bring this back into play as a venue for sporting and cultural activities in the east end of Glasgow.
“Invoking a spirit of innovation and creativity in finding new ways to set up social and activity related interactions to maintain and continue to evolve our GAA network, clubs and individuals have thought up inventive and exemplary schemes to keep their players and members occupied and active, and the County Board level our meetings have continued using online platforms— something that may be sustained well beyond the lockdown period as it removes the geographical separation and inequalities of travel distance, as well as being more environmentally friendly.
“Finally and perhaps above all I believe this can further strengthen the values of shared humanity, empathy, inclusion and care for others. These are values that have always defined Ireland as a nation, and are being brought into sharp focus during this crisis. This should bring us together as an Irish diaspora abroad, strengthen our links with the GAA both in Britain and in Ireland, but also with other Irish organisations in Scotland and with the Irish Consulate in Edinburgh.”