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Celebrating death in a pandemic: Hallowe’en under lockdown

paulinegarvey5 November 2020

Photo by Pauline Garvey

How to celebrate death in the context of a global pandemic? Every year in Ireland, Hallowe’en is celebrated on 31st October.  Popular belief ascribes the celebration to pagan Celtic rituals (Samhain) that was later embedded in Christian belief systems to mark ‘All Souls’’ or ‘All Hallows’ Eve’. ‘All Souls Eve’ was traditionally believed to be a liminal time when the distinction between the land of the living and the dead is particularly permeable, and when the spirits of the dead wander amongst the living. Nowadays, children dress up as ghosts, ghouls or witches and go house to house collecting sweets and treats as they go.

But how do you celebrate death in the context of a global pandemic? Hallowe’en is interesting because the Irish ‘do’ death with enthusiasm. Funerals are widely recognised as being particularly important ritual events, the time and place to show support for families of the deceased, and often a whole-village event in rural areas. Many older people avidly followed death notices online, and people expect to go to funerals of friends, neighbours and relatives. At the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, one frequent complaint in the national media related to the prohibition of having more than ten people attend the funerals of family members. However, over the duration of my research, we found that although people attended funerals of family members and friends, they were much more reticent about death. As one woman said to me: ‘we’ve tackled every other taboo, but death remains the last one’.

Unfazed by the nuances of celebrating death in the context of a global pandemic, Dubliners seemed to start preparations with marked enthusiasm and several weeks in advance. From early October, people were dusting off their plastic ghosts and ghouls, fake cobwebs covered garden walls and hedges, fairy lights adorned doorways. Bloody handprints were a popular decorative motif this year, as were over-sized spiders perched on house exteriors.  Just before the festival, the Irish government imposed Level 5 restrictions in order to suppress Covid 19 infections. Level 5 imposes the highest level of restrictions possible, and people were/are confined to 5km distance from their home while visits between households were banned – except in a few exceptional circumstances (see below). On the actual day, and for social distancing purposes, the ’mumming’, or going from house to house, was banned, and households with children had to scramble to create alternative amusements: one household encouraged their children to go from room to room in their own house, while others organised treasure hunts in their garden, or arranged nighttime picnics. Another household put the medieval plague doctor outfit away in preference to staging the bloody remains of a corpse, complete with spaghetti coloured with red dye for guts and egg whites for eyeballs – to put a more upbeat, positive spin on the event, they joked.

The move online, of course, seemed a natural progression, and Dublin City Council urged people to ‘Go virtual for fun: There are plenty of online events that can be enjoyed within the confines of home!’[i] and provided online events such as The Big Scream, a free-of-charge event on Zoom. Widely advertised too was the teaming of Dublin City Council and the Irish tourist board (Failte Ireland) to celebrate the Irish author of Dracula in their launch of the Bram Stoker Festival, complete with online tours of gothic treasures in the National Gallery and ghoulish stories told by comedians and writers.

Examples of Halloween activities this year.

Hallowe’en has long lost any serious associations with death and is now a children’s festival. Here though, older adults who had cocooned during the first lockdown last March have been offered some respite with government recommendations that single-occupant households or would-be cocooners create ‘support bubbles’ with one other household. This means that would-be cocooners are not necessarily so isolated but can nominate one other household they can see socially, while also observing level 5 restrictions. For grandparents, this allows some measure of social interaction and an opportunity to liberally distribute sweets to grandchildren, within the confines of the restrictions – and without being told off by parents.

[i] Sweeney, Tanya 30/10/20 ‘Lockdown Halloween: the safe way to have grisly fun’

The Irish Times, Oct 30, 2020.

Wild swimming during lockdown

paulinegarvey9 September 2020

A swimmer enjoying the water on the Dublin coast. Photo by Pauline Garvey

For some time, researchers have written about the possible benefits that come with wild swimming. This activity has been growing for some time, according to John Leech, chief executive of Irish Water Safety[i],  who said his organisation has witnessed a “huge increase” in the number of people delving into open water swimming in the last decade. The benefits of open-water swimming are manifold, he suggests, and he particularly emphasises the benefits to mental health.[ii]

However, although swimming has been a popular activity along Dublin’s coastline for some time, this summer  – during the Covid-19 lockdown months – it seems like it has spread in numbers and enthusiasm.  With warm evenings throughout this summer, ever-larger groups of people of all ages could be spotted in bathing shelters and beaches, or along rivers. Bathing shelters along the coast were hives of activity and individuals who had never been in the habit of swimming before have taken to the water.  Parents of primary school children who were on lockdown and distanced from friends were meeting up at popular bathing spots and socialising through swimming. Other sports enthusiasts took to the water too, particularly those whose activities had suspended during the lockdown. But it was not just about health: seaside parties started to spring up on the water’s edge, particularly after pubs and restaurants were locked down. ‘Outdoor swimming’  fell under the Government of Ireland’s Roadmap to reopening society on 18th May 2020, and more than ever, the Dublin coastline was a hive of activity. WhatsApp was integral in organising and coordinating these events, and men and women, parents and children and different age groups could meet in socially distanced ways.

Geographer Ronan Foley has carried out research on sea swimming along the Dublin coast, as well as inland spaces. His research was focussed not only in the activities but in the blue spaces where swimming takes place and he discovered that swimming places are significant in ‘building up personal and communal resilience and emerge as important public health assets’. Not only are they important for personal histories and identity, but they are an ingredient in creating spaces for communities of shared care and physical activity especially for older people or people with differences”[iii].

One striking feature of all this is the number of people who have taken to swimming for the first time.  One 60-year-woman who had never swum in the sea on a regular basis before not only embraced the sea but wrote into a national newspaper in July stating:

‘…as a confirmed scaredy-cat when it comes to water, I took the plunge during lockdown. What an amazing new experience.  […] …a surprising positive experience during this pandemic’.

Now, she calculates the tide times around her Zoom calls. [iv]  She is not alone.  A local 67-year-old politician made national headlines diving into the sea along the north coast of Dublin, prompting the deputy prime minister  Leo Varadkar (Tanaiste) to tweet about his ‘beach bod’, while members of the public commented on his great shape and one person wryly noted that it fits well with the government’s plans to raise the pension age.  These items, which appeared in newspapers and social media, swiftly circulated on countless WhatsApp groups both in the local area but also amongst groups that were set up to encourage people to meet safely outdoors, and swimming was one go-to.

These findings have particular relevance for older people in Ireland. A 2018 paper published by Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) argues that proximity to the sea had an impact on depression scores for older people. Linking the research with data from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) they found that those with sea views were found to have a “significantly” lower risk of depression[v]. But besides the views, and the activity, is there more to this new interest that is associated with the lockdown? Foley makes an additional point about the water’s edge. These places are ‘are public, open, free and shared, where people of all generations, shapes, sizes and capabilities all meet up in ways they might rarely do otherwise’[vi].  Health and wellbeing might differ but the swimming might well outlast this lockdown.

References

[i] https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/the-addictive-magic-of-swimming-in-the-sea-in-winter-it-s-life-affirming-1.4074180

[ii] Kelleher, Patrick 23/11/2019 The addictive magic of swimming in the sea in winter: ‘It’s life affirming’. The Irish Times

[iii] Foley, Ronan 30/12/19 The joys of outdoor swimming, RTE Brainstorm, https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/0102/1019936-into-the-blue-space-the-joys-of-outdoor-swimming/

[iv] Making a Splash, letter submitted to the Irish Times 25/7/20

[v] See Foley

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/older-people-with-sea-views-may-have-significantly-lower-risk-of-depression-1.3726672

[vi] Foley, Ronan 30/12/19 The joys of outdoor swimming, RTE Brainstorm, https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/0102/1019936-into-the-blue-space-the-joys-of-outdoor-swimming/