Paddy McMenamin shares his thoughts on the year 2020 with an extract from his book Walking Through a Story of Life. All proceeds from the books go to support the charity Darkness Into Light.

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So that was the year that was, this time last year there were rumblings that a new virus was spreading in China, Wuhan province the epic centre, I suppose we didn’t pay much attention initially, the winter flu bug was creating enough problems for us without worrying what was happening amidst one and half billion Chinese? The new year came in with a storm and rained for a month, very little golf and that was just the start. In a year that was going to be significant for commemorations of events a century ago we kicked off with one which wouldn’t be, in a strange piece of thinking the Government thought the people would commemorate two British paramilitary police forces, the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans, what an incredulous decision by Minister Charlie Flanagan and one which was abandoned as quick as it was announced as the ordinary people let their feelings be known. Another decision which was controversial in the reverse, the administration at Stormont after 100 years decided to legalise the Irish language!

In February we had a general election which brought a Sinn Fein tsunami and left the political world stunned, but before we would have a new government the COVID virus would hit us head on, it began slowly here in comparison to Italy, the US and China, despite the understated response to the virus initially the Paddy’s Day parades were cancelled for the first time in many years. In the US Leo met the Donald, it would be the last time they would meet as Taoiseach and President. In the Republic we went into ‘lockdown’ for two months, schools, colleges, pubs, shops, golf clubs, football, rugby, GAA, it was an amazing time but the health of the people had to come first. There were contradictions with the approach in the 6 counties as Arlene insisted that they follow the path taken by Boris at Westminister, it was a strange decision, the virus doesn’t recognise borders, artificial or not?

At the end of June a full four months after the winter election Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Greens agreed to form a Government, the cobbled together coalition succeeded in keeping Sinn Fein out of power despite being one short of having the most seats and by far picking up the most first preferences and the peoples votes as the largest party in the whole country. Michael Martin became Taoiseach but within months was embroiled in some of the most amazing incidents a new Taoiseach had ever faced, firstly Greens leader Eamonn Ryan had to apologise for using a racist slur in the Dail, then the Greens leader in the 6 counties expressed opposition to the coalition programme for Government, Barry Cowan, Agriculture Minister  was sacked after issues over a drink driving charge and provisional licence, Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan resigned after voting against the Govt, Minister Dara Calleary and Senator Jerry Buttimer resigned after ‘Golfgate’ at Clifden, EU Commissioner ‘big Phil’ Hogan resigned after Golfgate, Dara Callerary resigned as Deputy Leader of FF and National Secretary, Supreme Court Justice under serious pressure to resign after Golfgate, Leo had to apologise after giving a copy of a confidential Govt document to a friend, George Floyd was killed by an American cop and set off a sequence of events which brought the issue of racism to a world audience, sportsmen the world over ‘take the knee’ in protest against racism.

Croagh Patrick climb cancelled, also the Rose of Tralee, the Irish Open changed to Ballymena, Census 2021 postphoned until 2022, the Euros postponed until 2021, the All Ireland championship played off between Oct-Dec in a straight knock out, Galway European City of Culture cancelled, Ploughing Championships, Electric Picnic, Dublin Horse Show, Galway Races, Bloomsday, it has been a year of all years, a century since the last pandemic, the so called ‘Spanish flu’, although it actually didn’t have anything to do with Spain but because they were neutral during WW1 the press was more open and they started to report on this deadly virus which was being spread around the world by demobbed soldiers from the conflict, thus the flu was dubbed ‘Spanish’ and the epithet stuck. The numbers were incredible, anywhere between 50 and 100 million, in comparison WW1 had 20 million deaths! I had never heard of the pandemic until one day we were painting a house in Termon and an old Uncle of Micky Nancy’s, ‘Ned Billy’, who was in his 90’s and bed bound but very alert starting telling me old stories from his youth at the start of the 20th century. He told me about living through the Tan and Civil wars, also about his time working on Red Clyde when the British Government sent troops into the streets of Glasgow to stop the General Strike of 1926, it was fascinating listening to him but the most amazing tales were from the time of the Spanish Flu in 1918-19, Ned Billy told me that people were terrified, they wouldn’t go to wakes or funerals or dig graves, people found lying dead in ‘shucks’ along the road, for me personally the most amazing thing was that he told me my Grandad’s brother died during the pandemic, I had never heard this previously, my Grandad Johnny Russell had lived until 1958 but apparently his brother James died during the virus, my Grand Uncle, never heard it mentioned in family circles but then that generation didn’t talk about things during ‘bad times’ as they called them! In later years when they released the Census forms online I checked out Mum’s family in Doon, Termon, in the 1901 Census my great Granny was alive and well, Ellen was 57 which would have put her birth in 1844 just as the great famine was starting, so close to history! My Grandad old Johnny was 26 which put him at 81 when he died in the late 50’s, his brother James was 24 and puts his death in 1918 during the virus at 41, I have no way of verifying this as the parish records only go back to 1920 but old Ned Billy was so alert even in his mid 90’s that I have no reason to question his memory. Another interesting entry I found in the census, there were five children, one was called Anne whom my Mother was named after, I had never heard of her, she didn’t appear in the 1911 census when she would have been 37, possibly emigrated to Scotland or America, maybe got married or had even died, my mum’s aunt Anne whom I had never heard of?

The COVID-19 virus while not having the numerical stats in comparison to 1918 has still been a killer in a massive way, at the latest count there have been almost 1.5 million deaths due to the virus with 60 million cases confirmed. The US, UK, Brazil, India and Mexico have been particularly badly hit. The reality is that every one of the million and a half are individuals who mostly had lived a long life, they aren’t a statistic but someone’s Grandad, Granny, Uncle, Auntie, husband, wife, the saddest aspect of all is that when they went into hospital with the virus they weren’t allowed visitors so families didn’t see their loved ones for the last months of their lives, it’s so sad. While we will all know some person locally the majority will be lost in the enormity of it all. While there is no difference in the status of the person involved, all individuals, all human beings, society being what it is will focus on some high profile victims of the virus, that they died on their own like everyone else is a poignant reminder of the severity of the virus. During the past year we have lost Ellis Marsalis, Mark Blum, Tom Dempsey, Bruce Williamson, Frank Collotta, Herman Cain all celebrities of sort and Li Wenliang, the Chinese Doctor who was first to warn of the virus and then succumbed himself while helping others. In Ireland we lost many well known faces during the year, some not all from the virus, John Prine, Arty McGlynn, Gaybo, Danny Doyle, Karl Shiels, Brendan Grace, Sam McCready, in the UK Bobby Ball, Eddie Large, Tim Brooke Taylor et al, they were all well known from the tv but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter, all sadly succumbed to the dreaded virus.

The sporting world has been badly hit by COVID in 2020, worldwide events were either postponed or cancelled completely, the biggest cancellation was the Olympic Games in Japan which were put back to 2021, football around Europe was devastatingly hit with the Bundesliga, EPL, La Liga, Serie A et al all postponed and some like the SPL and Dutch Erevedesie handed out titles if the leaders were far ahead. The power of Sky seen to it that the EPL had to be finished or they would claw back billions in tv money so the English clubs were back playing in empty stadiums at the end of summer where Liverpool claimed the inevitable title after 30 years. The Champions League and Europa were all played out in single game knockout again in front of empty stadiums and Internationals similarily with of course the Euros having been postponed until next year. Season 20-21 began with empty stadiums and has stayed like that, it really isn’t football as we know it, the great Jock Stein once proclaimed, ‘football without the fans is nothing’, this season has shown that!

Throughout the world football suffered, the African championships, CONCACAF finals were suspended also Copa America postponed until 2021, in Russia completely suspended, in Scotland the 2020 Cup Final is being played in the week before xmas! In athletics the London and Boston Marathons cancelled for the first time in their history. Formula One has plans to restart behind closed doors whereas Wimbledon cancelled completely, a world title heavyweight fight between Joshua and Pulev was postponed, in rugby the 6 nations was postponed and finished out in empty stadiums in November, in golf the Masters was suspended and played behind closed doors in November at Augusta, the ‘Open’ at Royal St George,was cancelled until 2021, the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open due to be played at Mt Juliet was postponed and eventually played at Galgorm near Ballymena in September, it was a disastrous year for sport and for the fans, it’s all live on Sky now but played in front of empty stadiums with no atmosphere, sometimes you wonder can the players lift themselves in this unnatural environment?

In Ireland, no less than anywhere else public events took a massive hit, Croagh Patrick climb cancelled, also the Rose of Tralee, the Irish Open changed to Ballymena, Census 2021 postphoned until 2022, the Euros postponed until 2021 although that won’t concern us now,  Galway European City of Culture cancelled, Ploughing Championships, Electric Picnic, Dublin Horse Show, Galway Races, Bloomsday and our Golf Society Captains Day eventually played in October 12 hours before the second lockdown, just golf, no food, no drinks, no presentation, it was unfortunate for Mr Heinz our wunderbar Germanic Captain but c’est la vie in this year of all years.

The biggest blow in sport of course was the All Ireland championship and the Provincial titles, the GAA had to make a major call and decided for this year they would play off all fixtures on a once off knock out between October and xmas with no spectators in attendance, it was a harsh blow but at least there would be a championship and what a championship 2020 has turned out to be. In Ulster Tyrone bit the dust on day one as Donegal got off to a flier, Monaghan were cruising against their neighbours Cavan but all of a sudden the Breffni men prevailed, Donegal made short work of Armagh and Cavan came back from a ten point deficit to shock the Mourne men which left a Cavan/Donegal decider similar to last year, but would the result be the same? In Munster perennial winners Kerry were sauntering towards another provincial decider when Cork hit them with a last kick winner to put the cat among the pidgeons,Tipp prevailed in the other side of the draw to set up a final with the Leesiders on a day of all days for Tipperary football. Connaught would provide the usual ‘old firm’ of Galway and Mayo, it was nip and tuck for the 70 odd minutes but two missed frees by Shane Walsh at the death let Mayo squeeze through and their first title for five years. Leinster has really turned into a non event in recent times, the five in a row All Ireland winners blew Meath away in a demonstration of power and skill to make it 10 in a row, pity Celtic aren’t finding it that easy in Scotland in their quest for the same 10 in a row! The Dubs laid down a marker, they are still the team to beat and to be honest it’s hard to see anyone doing that unless in this year of COVID Mayo ditch the curse and the virus and bring ‘Sam’ home to Castlebar before xmas?

The Ulster, Munster and Leinster finals were played over the weekend of the 20th November, a historical moment in time, exactly 100 years since the original Bloody Sunday, the GAA family organised events to commemorate the day 14 football fans were murdered by British forces at Croke Park, before the Leinster final there was a miving ceremony at the old canal end where Tipperary player Michael Hogan was shot dead, Brendan Gleeson read a beautiful eulogy to the 14 who were killed amid 14 blazing torches on Hill 16, on the field the Dublin players wore special commemorative jerseys and celebrated their victory at the spot where Hogan lay dying, it was a special night. The next day Tipp took to the field with replica jerseys as those worn by the Tipp team in 1920, it was an emotional 70 minutes as Tipp for the first time in 85 years won the Munster championship. In Ulster the juggernaut that was Donegal were 1/14 on to defeat the Breffni men for the second year in a row but Cavan hadn’t read the script and a goal in the last minute or so send them through to the semi as Ulster champions for only the second time in 50 years, there were tears aplenty as the county who were hit the hardest with the virus celebrated with joy and sent a warning to the Dubs that they weren’t going to Croke Park to make up the numbers! The most amazing thing from the weekend was that the semi final pairings ended up as, Cavan v Dublin and Mayo vTipp, exactly the same as it was 100 years ago in 1920, if you believe in fate and that kind of thing then maybe put 10euro on Mayo for ‘Sam’? Whatever happens in December it has been an All Ireland championship to savour unlike anything that went before, who will prevail? Can Mayo end the curse and bring Sam back for the first time in almost 70 years? Can the most celebrated team in Ulster football with 40 Ulster titles and 5 All Ireland’s end the Dubs dominance? Will the Dubs set up a record 6 All Ireland’s in a row to add to 10 Leinster titles in a row to lay claim to being the greatest team of all time? Or will Tipperary rewrite the history books and bring a fifth All Ireland a century after their last one in 1920, but played in ’22, wouldn’t it be a fitting epitagh for Michael ‘Mick’ Hogan, the Tipp defender shot dead on the pitch by British forces at Croke Park, the spiritual home of the nation that he fought to achieve? So finally we’ve come to the end of this stroll around Ireland and it’s golf courses, history and people, like Albert Speer we’ve covered a lot of miles, he accumulated the miles in the gaol yard while the geographical locations were in his mind, I’ve written the journey with memories from the past, everywhere mentioned I’ve been there at some stage in the past 50 years, it was some journey, hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!

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Walking Through A Story of Life by Paddy McMenaminPaddy’s book, Walking Through a Story of Life, was published in December 2020 and is available here. All proceeds go to the charity Darkness Into Light. Learn more about Paddy on the Contributors page.

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