MASKING UP Daniel Carey wearing a mask on his train journey bringing him back home to Mayo on Thursday last.
It’s Irish Rail, Jim, but not as we know it.
Last Thursday, I did something I haven’t attempted since March 15. I got on public transport. After four months in Dublin, it was time for a visit home.
Since Leo Varadkar announced the closure of schools and colleges, Covid-19 has made my world very small. I live at Dublin City University, where I’m in the third year of a PhD in media history. Apart from weekly trips to the local Spar and daily walks around a nearby park, I rarely left campus. Until last week, the National Botanic Gardens – 2.2km from DCU – is as far as I’d been.
There are six kilometres between DCU and Heuston Station. It’s forty minutes by bus, or an hour and 13 minutes on foot. With a wheelie suitcase, a rucksack and two canvas bags for company, I opted for the latter. Two hours after setting off, but 55 minutes before my west-bound train was due to depart, I arrived in Heuston.
Once inside the station, I headed for the Insomnia coffee shop, where customers were advised to use hand sanitiser and observe social distancing. I bought a sandwich and a small bottle of 7Up (which, at a cost of €7.70, almost constitutes a ‘substantial meal’), and occupied one of two tables. Hearing an announcement about the 12.45 train to Westport briefly put me into a panic. Then I remembered I didn’t live in Westport anymore, and was getting the Galway train 40 minutes later.
A large bilingual sign told people to ‘please wear a face covering’. Mask-wearing in the station was above average, though far from universal. More than half the seats dotted around the building were marked off limits. Some shops were open, others weren’t.
The announcement that the Galway-bound train would leave from platform seven came 12 minutes before departure time. I expected it would prompt a mad dash reminiscent of the old days at Croke Park when tickets could be bought on the day, but what followed was more dignified than that.
Standing room only
The train had only only four carriages, which I presumed wouldn’t be enough to allow everyone to get a seat given the necessity for social distancing. So it proved, and I spent the Heuston-Kildare leg of the journey on a corridor, but with enough luggage that there was a natural two-metre distance around me. The man opposite me in the corridor wasn’t wearing a mask, but he was facing in the other direction. He got a seat when we arrived in Sallins.
Periodic announcements told us that alcohol was forbidden. We were also told to observe social distancing, not sit in seats that had been designated unavailable, cough or sneeze into our elbows, and not to travel if we have a fever or cough.
Customers were also asked to wear masks. By my count, something between 60 and 70 per cent of people did so, including (thankfully) the two women who occupied the place opposite me after I had secured a seat. Fifty per cent of the seats were designated unavailable, with people told to only sit on the window seats. The couple on the other side of the aisle didn’t wear masks for the journey, although curiously, they put them on (or half-on, anyway) as we pulled into Ceannt Station in Galway. Smalltalk with strangers appears to be an unmourned victim of the pandemic; the closest I had to a conversation was a man who said ‘Up Mayo!’ after spotting the green and red headband tied to my suitcase.
My choice of reading material was another sign of how things have changed in the last few months. Having finished Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, with its vivid depiction of plague in 17th-century Lombardy, I’m halfway through Ida Milne’s Stacking The Coffins, which recounts the impact of the 1918-19 influenza epidemic. I put on my glasses, having remembered to wash them with soap before leaving the house, which allowed me fog-free vision despite being masked up.
We went through Monasterevin, site of the two-week siege in 1975 that followed the kidnapping of Tiede Herrema, the Dutch businessman who died last April at the age of 99. Somewhere around Tullamore, I felt sufficiently relaxed to fall asleep.
There have been a few milestones in the past month. Liverpool won the Premier League. Ireland (finally) got a new government. A friend got engaged. I turned 40, an event marked with a Zoom call to DCU colleagues and a socially distant outdoor get-together. And just before 4.30pm last Thursday, I got home for the first time since March. Next Thursday, I’ll do the same journey in reverse. Who knows? If new legislation leads to an increase in mask-wearing, I might be brave enough to get on the Luas.