Hello, Neighbor: Coronavirus and Cocooning in Roscommon, Ireland : Rough Translation Ireland's "cocooning" policy during the coronavirus lockdown asked people over age 70 to stay at home and not to leave for any reason. Suddenly, neighbors and strangers leapt to help them with everything β€” if the cocooners would let them.
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Hello, Neighbor

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Hello, Neighbor

Hello, Neighbor

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Hey, you're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. When the people of Roscommon, Ireland, took to their homes this spring to shelter in place, they were not alone.


SEAMUS DUKE: And a very good afternoon to you, and welcome to the Tuesday edition of "The Rossie Way."

WARNER: The Rossie Way is a local radio show where the interviewees are all people that you might have met around Roscommon County.


DUKE: I know there's a few little prayers that you have for us.

WARNER: So you have the parish priests calling...


UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: Oh, sacred heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in thee.

WARNER: ...A local scout leader...


UNIDENTIFIED SCOUT LEADER: We had a big virtual camp with our scout group.

WARNER: ...A barber...


DUKE: Something that a lot of people haven't thought about is haircuts.

WARNER: It's kind of like "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" except for grownups. There's even a visit from the mailman.


DAN DOONER: On the line is former Roscommoner and Saint Brigid's footballer and local postman Frankie Dolan. You're very welcome, Frankie.


WARNER: Two words you will not hear on this show are coronavirus and COVID-19.


MARY: Today I have - it's a buttermilk chicken.

DUKE: And be lovely for the tea.

MARY: Lovely for the tea.

DUKE: (Laughter) All right, bit of chicken, sourdough bread.

WARNER: ...Bit of "The Hustle."


DUKE: Oh, the Lord blesses and serves.


WARNER: Though it sounds like it's been on for years, "The Rossie Way" way was only created this year. And the reason it was created, and even the audience it was aimed at reaching, had everything to do with the way Ireland decided to tackle the pandemic in those first weeks of shutdown in March.


WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner.


PRIME MINISTER LEO VARADKAR: At a certain point, we will advise the elderly to stay at home for several weeks.

WARNER: When the government of Ireland announced their lockdown in March, they made a special guideline for anyone who was immunocompromised or age 70 or over. If you were in that group, then you were asked to stay in your home and not to leave, ever, even to buy groceries or just to take a walk.


VARADKAR: We call it cocooning. And it will save many lives, particularly the lives of the most vulnerable.

AOFIE: Cocooning, so staying in a silky coating of care within their home.

JIMMY HOBAN: And I didn't have any say in this minding because I'm still feeling great. I'm still feeling healthy. And you seem to be thinking to yourself, oh, my God, I've been minded before my time.

WARNER: The dividing line that this drew between those over 70 and those under, it would change this place and these people in ways that they hope will last.

DERMOT COX: It’s brought about something in Irish society that has been missing for a long time.

WARNER: The rest of that story when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. I first heard about the story of Roscommon and how it weathered this cocooning period from my friend Aofie who lives in Dublin.

AOFIE: Here in Ireland.

WARNER: Her mother lives about 90 miles west in the County of Roscommon. And her mother is 78, so well within the category asked to cocoon. As Aofie tells the story, almost as soon as the cocooning order came down, her mom started getting these phone calls.

AOFIE: Suddenly that night, the next day and into the following week, my mother was being called by networks of women, friends and neighbors and ex-colleagues who immediately stepped up to the mark to do for my mother all the little jobs and errands that would usually bring her out of the home.

WARNER: Someone tells her I'll look after your ponies because I know you can't get to the stables; another offers to go to the post office for her.

AOFIE: And I get fish every Friday, so I'm going to add extra salmon cutlets, if that's what you like. So it was very specific. So it wasn't a kind of a generalized ask, did she need help?

WARNER: It was like her whole daily schedule had been discussed and divvied up in advance by neighbors who, at least some of them, she didn't even know that well.

AOFIE: You know, even in terms of one neighbor, who, again, she would not have been in touch with that often, offered to come by and start the car every few days and just take it for a little spin to keep the engine running. So that level of just very detailed, mechanical almost, maintenance of her life.

WARNER: How'd she feel knowing that all the things that she had done outside were now going to be taken over by neighbors?

AOFIE: At the very beginning, she almost didn't want to accept them because I think my mother has been very independent for most of her life, and so she herself would be doing this for herself.

WARNER: Aofie's mother is a private person. And she did not feel comfortable speaking on tape for this story. But as it happens, our producer Tina Antolini has visited Roscommon. And she reached out to a Rossie friend, who put us in touch with other friends...

TINA ANTOLINI, BYLINE: Hi, is this Jimmy?

HOBAN: Tina, is that you?

WARNER: ...Which is how we met Jimmy.

HOBAN: My name is Jimmy Hoban. I'm a retired secondary schoolteacher. And I'm living here in Roscommon town. The word that struck me over the last few months - and it's interesting, Tina, that I was in now what they were describing as the vulnerable category - vulnerable.

ANTOLINI: Jimmy moved here in 1974, which, by Roscommon standards, does not make him a native. But he's not quite a blow-in, an outsider.

HOBAN: So you could safely say at this stage, I've got the Roscommon visa. There's no problem. Yeah, I have settled in, yes.

ANTOLINI: For Jimmy, the plunge into vulnerability was as sudden and surprising as it was for Aoife's mom. One day, he was living a busy, retired life.

HOBAN: Very energetic, thank God, health-wise, very active in this, that and the other. I'm involved in the solstice choir.

ANTOLINI: The solstice choir has done shows across Ireland.

HOBAN: There's about 120 of us in the solstice choir, as we call it.

ANTOLINI: But now that he was cocooning, those same choir members whom he'd seen as contemporaries started sending him offers of help.

HOBAN: Whether it was picking it up, going to a pharmacist, going to a shop and suddenly you started thinking, oh, my God, yes, I'm actually older than I think. I'm actually older than I feel. I've gone into a category where people are kind of contacting me to see can they get things for me, can we look after you? It was amazing. It's a change of mindset. Suddenly, basically, to a certain extent, I mean, to say people have all kind of gathered round at you, pointed a finger and said you are vulnerable, you're old, you need minding. And you think to yourself, oh, sweet Jesus, no, how could this have happened overnight?

KATHLEEN SHANAGHER: It's nearly, like, a disclosure of your age.

WARNER: Kathleen Shanagher is 52 years old and one of the elected county councilors of Roscommon.

SHANAGHER: They say a woman should never tell you her age. But suddenly, she's not seen out and you're going, well, now she's over 70 (laughter). I never thought she was 70. Does she look like she's 70 or he does - oh, well, he does, sure look at lot of him, but herself, didn't she keep herself (laughter)?

WARNER: Roscommon is the kind of place that can seem like it's from another era, like the 700-year-old Roscommon castle in one of the public parks. But it's modern enough that people have busy lives. They have their friends and their social groups, but they may not actually know their neighbors. And a lot of the traditions that once kept people connected, they've gone away.

SHANAGHER: The postman years ago would go up and into a house and probably chat, how are you, Tommy, and have a cup of tea. And at Christmas he could have so many whiskeys he might not be able to cycle the bicycle. But everything now is all so streamlined and time conscious and deadlines that the older people that are living at the bottom of the lane that would have the postman coming up were asked to post a postbox.

WARNER: Forget about whiskeys with Tommy. The postman doesn't even go near Tommy's door.

SHANAGHER: Like in America, you know the way you have your postbox. Now in Ireland here if you drive along the laneways, people now have their postbox at the end of the lane because it's all about time.

WARNER: As an elected official, it's almost Kathleen's job to be a bit of a Roscommon booster. But talking to her, you get the sense that long before she held office, she loved this place more than the average Rossie.

SHANAGHER: You see, I'm the type of person that I prefer to be helping out and doing it, you know? There's very few times I go somewhere that I don't end up pouring the tea or making the sandwiches and, you know, kind of just getting in on it.

WARNER: Every year, you'd find her in a reflective orange vest directing other volunteers at the annual Roscommon Lamb Festival. And Kathleen was the first woman president of the Roscommon Lions Club. She led Roscommon town to multiple regional gold medals in the national Tidy Towns competition.

SHANAGHER: Yes, and indeed when you're going around to meetings, you usually meet the same people, the poor tired souls who are wheeled out, but you look at - nobody forces us. We attend and we do the work. And you just - it's great.

WARNER: Kathleen had been resolved to be part of a small but smiling minority of civic volunteers infusing the town with community spirit. And then came coronavirus. This March, she was home watching television. And she saw the announcement about the lockdown and that people aged 70 or over must cocoon.

SHANAGHER: You know, they say - the way people say, where were you when John Lennon was shot, and where were you when you heard Elvis died - you know, these occasions in your life and you say, gosh, where was I?

WARNER: Roscommon has one of the oldest populations of any Irish county and the highest percentage of people over 80 years old. So if old people were the most vulnerable, Roscommon was going to feel the impact.

SHANAGHER: Even for the morgues, like, you know that we had - the arts center here in Roscommon was going to be used if the hospitals were full for bodies and for people to be laid out, you know, coffins, the whole lot.

WARNER: The way to avoid that scenario, everyone said, was to get the vulnerable people to stay in their cocoon.

SHANAGHER: It was. That's the whole thing was, making sure that people did what they were asked to do, not going out but also that they were looking after themselves.

WARNER: Over the next few days and weeks, Kathleen watched as all sorts of people started calling to ask how they could help. And this time, it wasn't just the usual suspects of volunteers. All sorts of groups were talking amongst themselves to figure out who was cocooning and how they could keep them comfortable. The drama club, the gardening association, the football league and just groups of neighbors all made it their mission to help people stay in their homes.

AOFIE: And I guess what really struck me was that the offers were quite lavish.

WARNER: Aofie's mom, who'd always looked after herself just fine, initially tried to say no to the offers of salmon cutlets and other help. But eventually, she consented. Her neighbors were so insistent.

AOFIE: And so it wasn't just offers of weekly shopping or bringing the newspaper, but there were lemon drizzle cakes and barmbrack, which is a kind of a fruitcake. Or a lot of times there were floral arrangements left at her door. And one woman would stop her car on the Wiscon Road and occasionally break branches from a cherry blossom tree to bring this to my mother, who couldn't go out herself anymore, to have a little bit of that in her kitchen. There was no bare minimum in the giving. It was this kind of extraordinary marshalling of forces and creativity around what's the most I could give to give the most pleasure?

WARNER: There is a single Irish word for this kind of extraordinary spirit of giving.

AOFIE: A Gaelic Irish word called flaithulach. And it's very hard to translate. But flaithulach is a concept of generosity, which is a very princely, lavish, kind of munificence that is kind of over the top in its exuberance. It lifts them up to a kind of greatness.

WARNER: And how did your mom feel being the recipient? Did she feel lifted up?

AOFIE: I mean, she did. And it gave her incredible pleasure. But one thing I did notice and through conversations with her on the phone is that it also created I think from my mother almost a sense of anxiety of how can you possibly repay this? And to this day, my mother worries about this because it's a level of generosity that requires a kind of response in some ways.

SHANAGHER: Junior Mac, I'd hate to think that they feel they're indebted to me. And I kept making that clear to them.

WARNER: Kathleen, the county councilor, offered to do the shopping for one cocooning senior named Cait McCormick, who suggested she also do so for another friend, who Kathleen had not met, named Mary.

MARY DARMODY: Oh, my name is Mary Darmody.

WARNER: Mary is a retired nurse in her 90s. She's got a busy life with church and friends. But when she got the news about cocooning, her first thought was that she did not want to call any of those friends for help.

DARMODY: Well, I could have friends but, you know, you don't like kind of, you know, asking them either, you know? Because everyone likes their independence.

SHANAGHER: Oh, Kathleen, that's the way she'd say it to me, I hate - now Mary, we're after having this - not again. I have to go shopping anyway.

WARNER: Kathleen had to persuade Mary to let her do her shopping.

SHANAGHER: One shopping list and two shopping lists and three shopping lists in the one shop, there's no problem. I've said, Mary, there's no problem. And I say, Mary, if they have it in the shop, I'll get it. So I said be specific.

DARMODY: I used to tell her to get sardines in brine.

SHANAGHER: Sardines in brine. Is it B-E-I...

DARMODY: I didn't want them in tomato sauce, you know, or whatever else.

SHANAGHER: I was like, oh, my God, where are they? And, you know, little things, blueberries, like, I never bought blueberries in my life. And it's like (laughter), no wonder Mary looks so well for 90. She eats so healthy. I never bought one sweet thing. I used to keep saying, would you like bar of chocolate? Oh, no, no, no. And I was thinking like, (unintelligible). You know, is gas - like, you know, it's just you get to know people's diet.


WARNER: It was as if cocooning had turned the town's older population into a public project where people would say you get this person, I'll take that one, the needs of each one distributed among a bigger group of people than their immediate friends. And even the post office got involved.

SHANAGHER: Now during the COVID, the postman was asked please go up the laneway and not only with the post but ask would any shopping be required, collect messages. So the whole thing has gone back to what it was previously.

WARNER: No more driving by the postbox to pick up your mail and drive on. Now if you were cocooning, the postal worker would come up to your lane and maybe even peek in your window just to see how you were getting on.

SHANAGHER: Even if he just tapped on the window and got a smile and a wave, he knew that person living in the house was still OK, you know, that they weren't sick or anything.


DUKE: I was looking at Facebook there a few weeks ago, noticed a post from yourself just highlighting some of the services on offer from postmen and women across the county. Just fill me in.

DOLAN: Yeah, it's...

WARNER: So you remember the community radio show "The Rossie Way" where Frankie Dolan, the postman, also a former footballer, is interviewed? He's there to tell people that when he's at your front porch, you can ask him a favor.


DOLAN: If they ever need anything at all, just to leave a note in the letterbox or where I'd see it. And just let me know what you need. And they'll be no problem picking it up for them and giving it to them the next day.

DUKE: Perfect. That's Frankie Dolan, postman.

WARNER: Much like "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was created to take the scariest feelings of childhood and make them manageable, "The Rossie Way" attempted to take something as claustrophobic and disorienting as cocooning and make it feel cozy.


FIONA: OK, here we go.


WARNER: As Kathleen Shanagher puts it, "The Rossie Way" was about introducing the town to each other on the theory that if you know your neighbors, it's easier to ask them for help.

SHANAGHER: Some people find it very difficult to admit that they need help because they're probably too proud. They don't want people to know their business.


DOONER: Great stuff, as always, Fiona.

HOBAN: In other words, there's seem to be a feeling, look it, this is bigger than any one of us. We're all in this together. And we all have to pull together. Do you understand?

ANTOLINI: Jimmy Hoban never got over the weird feeling of being in the vulnerable category. But all these offers of help did remind him of an old Irish tradition among small farmers, a tradition known as meitheal.

HOBAN: A number of farmers in the area would come, would form a meitheal group, and they would help out the individual farmers. They'd come to me today. They'd cut the grain. They'd cut the crops. They'd cut the hay, whatever it was.

DARMODY: If you were cutting hay, they'd all come and help - or cutting wheat or oats or stuff like that.

WARNER: Mary was a child on her family farm, and she remembers all these neighboring farmers showing up to help out.

DARMODY: There was no payment. You did it for them, and they did it for you.

HOBAN: And you'd go to somebody else's farm tomorrow, and you'd do the same thing.

ANTOLINI: Those farmers also felt vulnerable to forces of nature that were beyond their control. One bad drought or too much rainfall could mean disaster. Meitheal was created for a time when collective action felt necessary for survival.

HOBAN: I suppose, as society moves on and we all become very, very, very busy, you kind of - you know, you lose that a little bit.

ANTOLINI: And then came the pandemic, another overwhelming force of nature that seemed bigger than everyone.

HOBAN: And I had an incredible feeling of this meitheal of these people, you know, helping out. And it's not even just helping out. It's not just maybe bringing something to your door. It's the fact that somebody would take the time to ring you to find out and ask you how you are, you know? And even though you mightn't want them to do something, you felt good afterwards that they had kind of offered their services, you know?


DOONER: Hello to Grannie Joan in St. Catharine's Ward in the Sacred Heart Home. That's from all the Conningtons (ph). You're very welcome along. Hope you're enjoying the show.

WARNER: If "The Rossie Way" sounds like something out of the past, that's intentional. Everything about it, down to the theme song, is meant to resurrect the feel of an earlier era.


WARNER: But Kathleen says this wasn't about nostalgia for the past but about securing future.

SHANAGHER: I mean, that's the way I'm thinking. I'm thinking, you know what now? This is our town. This is where I'm living. If I'm going to be living here for the rest of my days, well, then I would like to think that down the road when I'm 70, if I was in a crisis or I needed somebody to do something, that people would help.

WARNER: Kathleen is not expecting payback from the people she helps. She'd hate to think that they feel indebted. But the people she does hope might reciprocate are the Rossies younger than she is now who might go above and beyond for her when she's on the other side of that age line.

SHANAGHER: We have to think, what is it going to be like? We're improving it. If we have to be selfish and say, well, what would I like to see?

WARNER: "The Rossie Way" ended its run as an interview show on June 26. They didn't need to keep Rossies in touch with each other anymore. Cocooning was over.

DARMODY: This morning was the first morning that the cafes were opened. We went out and had coffee and it was like freedom day (laughter).

WARNER: Mary Darmody celebrated with coffee, no cake. I asked her, was there anything she might miss about cocooning or maybe about the good neighborliness of the cocooning days?

DARMODY: No. I'll go back again to all the things that I used to do.

WARNER: And as for Aofie's mom, she cracked open the cocoon a little bit early.

AOFIE: On the night before the official lifting of the restrictions, my mother got a call from a friend of hers who said she was on her way out to her. This is a friend who was over 70. And suddenly, the two old friends saw each other for the first time in a long time, and they sat in the garden and had some of this lemon drizzle cake that seems to be offered now in all these gifts and all these visits. And while they were there, they got a call from another one of their over-70s friends who also came by.

WARNER: The three friends shared stories about a mutual friend who had died during the cocooning period. And they talked about what they would do first when they left the house. They'd had enough sacrificing and following the rules. They were ready to have their lives back.

AOFIE: And so I think for them, it was a very symbolic moment in which I suppose they felt after all the grief and all the anxiety of the six weeks, they felt, you know, a lift. They felt young again, I suppose.


WARNER: This episode was produced and co-reported by Tina Antolini. Our editor is Lu Olkowski. The ROUGH TRANSLATION team includes Derek Arthur and Jess Jiang. Editorial guidance from Sana Krasikov, Robert Krulwich and Diarmuid McIntyre. Special thanks to Joanne Gray, Dermot Cox and Eamonn Gleeson for teaching us about Roscommon and about its history. The ROUGH TRANSLATION high council is Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin, Didi Schanche and Anya Grundmann. Mastering by Isaac Rodriguez. John Ellis composed music for our show, with additional music from Blue Dot Sessions.

We love to hear from you, and we'd love to ask you about your civic engagement in this time of physical separation. How have you expressed that? Have you felt it? Drop us your thoughts or your story at roughtranslation@npr.org. We're on Twitter - @Roughly. And please take a minute to give us a rating and a review on Apple podcasts. I know I mention that every time, but it really is important to help us keep doing what we're doing. I'm Gregory Warner back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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