Easing of cocooning measure evokes sense of freedom as leaving certificate students tread into unknown waters

To those of you who, like myself, have been in lockdown, I say a big big hello and welcome to the free world again!

Last Tuesday, when we were ‘allowed’ to leave the house and go for a short drive, I got into my car and took off. Over the weekend I had asked Aengus to check the battery in case my car wouldn’t start, but it started and away we went like a bird, two birds in fact, the car being one bird and me inside being the free bird.

So, where did I go? Well I went all around the town. I went down by Dunnes Stores to see a huge big tent that had been erected there for when the queues get very long. I came up and then I went down Church Street, and apart from the brave Centra shop in the middle of Church Street, which was alive, open and doing good business, the rest of the shops had closed doors. I thought, how sad is that, how many lives are almost in ruins, how many jobs have been lost, will the momentum of business ever pick up again?

Anyway, across the town I sailed, and down by the Castle and then around and back up and across the bridge again. I went down Lloyds Lane off Church Street, which leads to the River Shannon, and I sat in the car and looked at the beautiful swans on the river with their proud necks up high, sailing serenely around. I got out of the car and walked up and down a little bit around about it (that was my exercise ), sat back in again and watched the swans, and one or two people who passed by waved and I waved back, but no talk because we’re not allowed to talk to anyone. So then I came back up and down Pearse Street and home again.

Listen, readers, it’s difficult to put in words how free I felt, how elated I felt, how entranced I was to see the town of Athlone again.

Since then, I’ve been making lots of such little trips. I got out as far as the Hodson Bay Hotel, a little over the allowable five kilometres but not much. There, I parked at the water and watched young children in the beautiful summer-like weather swimming in and out and dancing around with great abandon.

I fell to thinking, when they’re much older and grown up, they will recall living in Ireland as a child during the coronavirus era. I hope they remember with joy their lovely time in the summer weather at Hodson Bay in the Lough Ree waters.

Readers will know that from the very beginning I had an issue with the word ‘cocoon’ and I expressed it very strongly at many times in print and in person on various radio programmes.

I looked up ‘cocoon’, and the meaning of it is ‘to envelop in a protective or comforting way’. Now, this is my problem: when you are completely alone in a lockdown, how could you call that ‘enveloped in a protective or comforting way’?

I would like to know from the Government of Ireland who came up with the word, because to me it is a con job of a word, in that the person is meant to feel he or she is in a wonderful, warm, comforting spot. Far from it; I call what we have gone through a ‘lockdown’.

Now I don’t regret at all if it saved lives, or if it contributed to the overall improvement in the health situation for coronavirus. But I do object to being put into a category of people who could be fooled by the use of a word like ‘cocoon’, which certainly does not describe what was the experience of people.

Enough about that, but I have got it off my chest in this column and I’m glad to have done so.

The main issue of last week, of course, was the Leaving Certificate. Readers will remember that some time ago in one of his briefings, Leo Varadkar said the Leaving Certificate will go ahead on July 29, “by hook or by crook”. And so we were all led to believe. However, coming up to about a week ago, Education Minister Joe McHugh began to be less optimistic about July 29. We were never really told why, but it appeared suddenly from various voices in the Opposition, and from educational circles, that July 29 would not be an appropriate time.

As the readers will now be aware, there has been a whole change. The Leaving Certificate in its traditional form will not be held, not on July 29 or any other date this year of 2020.

Instead, there will be a complicated manoeuvre involving the teachers assessing their own pupils’ work, and that will be then enveloped in a standardised school and Department of Education technique. It sounds complicated, and it will be. I myself would prefer the traditional Leaving Certificate, and I would not be alone in thinking that. My belief is that each young boy or girl going in to do the Leaving Certificate is in fact an anonymous person, just an exam number, nothing more and nothing less.

Therefore, the results that come out are just in every respect, and allied with the fact that there was an appeal system instituted some years ago, means that you could be sure that your papers were corrected and marked up in a completely anonymous fashion.

Now, if the health committee said it couldn’t be done in a proper fashion from July 29 onwards, of course I accept that for the greater good. I wish the new system for the year 2020 every good luck as it treads into unknown waters which can have social, political and litigious repercussions. But I want to assert surely that this should be just a once-off to fit an extraordinary situation, and should not at all pave the way for future reviews of the Leaving Certificate by the Exams Commission.

Looking at the face of the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, over the last few days on various TV programmes, I know that he is exhibiting as good grace as he can in the current circumstances.

Let’s end this debate now by wishing all of the Leaving Certificate students of 2020 the best of good luck and good fortune as they begin studying for this unknown journey.

The weather has been truly magnificent and has made all of the daily difficulties and irritations fade away under the benign summer-like temperatures we have been having. As I compile this piece, it has got distinctly cooler, but it’s still sunny and dry, so we’ll be thankful for that.

In the meantime, enjoy your little outings, enjoy the sun, and look forward with good heart to the future.

Stay home as much as you can, and above all stay safe.

Until I talk with you all next week, slán go fóill.

Mary O’Rourke


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