Politics

do I know who I am anymore?’

When the New Zealand government announced a nationwide lockdown in response to Covid-19 in March, 2020, newly-arrived Lolsy Byrne was desperately trying to find a flight back to Ireland.

Byrne, a stand-up comedian, had come to New Zealand in March to play a festival in Dunedin. Her plan was to stay for a few months, travelling and gigging, before heading back for the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

Not wanting to take a flight from a medical professional or someone who was in desperate need to get home, Byrne never got a flight home. Instead, she stayed with a relative in Auckland, where she now lives.

Lolsy Byrne
Lolsy Byrne

Luckily, Byrne became trapped in a country that quickly got a handle on the virus. But being in a brand new place in the midst of all the initial pandemic chaos was challenging. “It was really difficult. When you’re on your own, you struggle to make connections, but, luckily, I was able to get involved in the comedy scene over here and they kind of embraced me with open arms and were really really supportive,” she said. “The sense of humour in New Zealand is so like the Irish sense of humour, we all love telling stories and a lot of self-deprecating humour.”

Byrne regularly plays at a Scottish-Irish comedy night for expats in Auckland, run by a Scottish comedian, who also got stuck in New Zealand when Covid broke out. “You find yourself relaxing into your accent. I tend to put on my phone voice a lot when I’m on stage so people can hear me clearly. But then when we do these Scottish and Irish gigs, all these Irish-isms start flowing out of me.”

New Zealand pursued a hardline elimination strategy early on. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s government had closed the borders to non-citizens and introduced a nationwide lockdown by March 25th, 2020. Since then, Ardern has said on numerous occasions that she would “make no apologies” for implementing strict measures to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

This is the longest time since we’ve been back. We usually go back every 18 months

New Zealand has a similar population to Ireland’s, yet 35 people died with coronavirus while 5,609 people died with the virus in Ireland. For most of the pandemic, their strategy of sharp and strict lockdowns earned New Zealand a reputation as the little island that eliminated coronavirus. New Zealanders enjoyed freedoms that few other nations could.

Seeing Ireland struggling through long lockdowns was also challenging for Byrne. She said there was a sense of guilt about leading a normal life in New Zealand, while friends and family back home were doing it tough.

Elimination strategy

However, in August, 2021, a Delta outbreak sent the nation into lockdown. By early October, Ardern had abandoned her elimination strategy, focusing instead on living with coronavirus and controlling its spread through vaccinations. 82 per cent of New Zealand’s eligible population is now fully vaccinated.

Auckland has been in lockdown since August, with restrictions now beginning to ease. Byrne says she’s watching her friends in Dublin going out and performing again, while she’s in lockdown. Although she hadn’t planned to stay in New Zealand for so long, or to live through a pandemic there, she says she feels “ridiculously fortunate and lucky” and wouldn’t change her “strange position “ for the world.

At the moment, only citizens are allowed to travel in and out of New Zealand. Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) for seven days is necessary for any international arrivals.

Steve Doran, from Howth, Co Dublin, says the idea of visiting home now is much more appealing now that Ireland has opened up.

But the travel restrictions would still make it very difficult for his family of four to travel back.

Steve Doran and family
Steve Doran and family

Now, with Auckland in lockdown, Doran said he was jealous watching friends of his at the Aviva when Ireland beat the All Blacks in November. An avid rugby fan, he says he would have been there without a doubt, had the travel restrictions not been in place.

Lockdown in Auckland has taken a toll on Doran and his family, especially his seven-year-old, who misses his school friends, he says. Doran also works in retail, which has just recently reopened in Auckland after months in lockdown. But he worries about potentially losing some of his colleagues who are anti-vaccination if a mandate is brought in.

Travel restrictions and uncertainty around international flights also worries Will Ward from Milltown, outside of Mullingar, who moved to New Zealand 20 years ago. Ward hasn’t been home now for more than four years. “This is the longest time since we’ve been back. We usually go back every 18 months.”

Will Ward
Will Ward

When the case numbers started rising in Ireland back at the beginning of the pandemic, Ward said he would be glued to the Irish media, checking the numbers first thing every morning. “I was really concerned about family back home. I was fearful here in New Zealand, but not for New Zealand, more for family back home,” he said.

When lockdown ended in Auckland in 2020 and Ward started going on trips, camping or hiking, he would ask his family if they wanted photos or not. There was a sense of guilt; he didn’t want to rub his freedom in his family’s faces. “They were living in this vortex of despair and hopelessness and that was concerning because here in New Zealand we were living pretty a carefree existence.”

On a positive note, Ward says contact with his family has “exponentially jumped”.

“The contact with mum and dad has never been as regular or as positive…I think my relationship with my parents is at a deeper level than it’s ever been before.

“For two years, this mortality thing has been omnipresent: You need to say stuff now.”

Kilcastle’s a very small community and even though they’re not minding you, they are in a way. We were brought up as a community

But with travel restrictions still in place, he’s still unsure about when he’ll be able to get back to Ireland. “Not knowing now when I’m going to get back and give mum and dad a hug, that’s the key thing. People are getting older.”

Ward says he’s been reflecting on Ireland and his Irish identity a lot more in the past few years.

When he sees new generations of Irish people now, he’s struck by a “confidence, a self-assuredness” that he said didn’t really exist in his or his parents’ generation. “I started seeing almost like a non-acceptance of victimhood…just a proud nation to be Irish rather than necessarily a connection to struggle,” he said.

Identity

Anne Marie O’Neill, from Kilcastle, Co Clare, has been in New Zealand for nine years.

O’Neill says she lost her home, her job, and went through a divorce during the last recession in Ireland.

Ann Marie O’Neill
Ann Marie O’Neill

She rekindled a relationship with a man she’d known all her life and together they sold everything they had left and moved to Gisborne on the east coast of the North Island.

O’Neill left Ireland after her mother died and says she hasn’t had much desire to move back to Ireland since emigrating. “For me going home isn’t a big deal but what I’ve lost is that connection: do I know who I am anymore?”

O’Neill says she missed feeling comfortable in her surroundings and not having to constantly “tell her story.”

“Kilcastle’s a very small community and even though they’re not minding you, they are in a way. We were brought up as a community.”

In March, 2021, O’Neill’s brother, who she was extremely close with, died of cancer. In the months leading up to his death, O’Neill said he became uncomfortable with carers coming to his house during the pandemic and that he’d also become dependent on the pain medication he was on. She managed his care via WhatApp or Skype calls, calling for hours each morning and evening.

In his final weeks, O’Neill took time off work and “sat with him 24/7 on Skype… we just let it run.”

She said they prayed, played music, and organised his funeral together.

When he died, O’Neill couldn’t leave the country for the funeral. She watched it on a WhatsApp video call, although she said she just wanted to be home and to be immersed in the grieving process.

“It stopped me from embracing my brother’s final days and death with other people. I wanted to be there and I wanted to be proud to be his only sister walking behind the coffin. I couldn’t do that for him.”

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