DENPASAR, INDONESIA: It’s St. Patrick’s Day today – a festival celebrated the world over for all things Irish. For most of the 5 million or so who live on the island, it’s a national holiday.
Around the world, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated, from Melbourne to Meydan, Dublin to Dubai, Beijing to Birmingham.
There are some 200 million worldwide who claim Irish heritage, and everyone else is free to join in too. Whiskey, it’s said, was invented to stop the Irish from ruling the world.
Now, in this age of coronavirus, St. Patrick’s Day is more of a fizz than a festival. No gatherings. No getting together. And, crisis of all crisis in Ireland, the pubs are shut. Elsewhere too.
Around the world, St. Patrick’s Day parades are cancelled. Chicago famously dyes its river green this day each year.
On a regular basis, certainly when I’m driving, I like to tune into Today FM in Ireland. It has music that I like and the on-air banter is fun.
And one of its big promotions and contests over the past weeks was for two lucky winners to travel to Dubai, stay at the Bonnington Hotel in JLT, and join in the St. Patrick’s Day concerts and parties at McGettigan’s.
Alas, that is no longer possible.
We live now in an age of social distancing — a time where we are required not to shake hands, to keep at least 1 metre away from others and avoid all necessary interaction.
On St. Patrick’s Day, that is cruel and unusual punishment indeed.
No gatherings. No banter. No social interaction. No shaking of hands. No bending of elbows.
This Covid-19 has a lot to answer for.
Here in Bali, it’s not as if the day of all days to be Irish is having much of an impact. The only green to be seen is the tropical canopy.
I met some Australians here who claim to be Irish. Doyle’s originally from County Wexford and who’s great-grandfathers left Ireland for a better life.
And there were Casey’s too from Cork, whose forefathers left during the Great Famine — a blight on the staple potato crop that killed 1 million and forced 3 million more to leave and seek better lives in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, America, Canada — anywhere there was safe refuge.
Are we not a bit like that now — at a point where there is a cataclysmic event that will change our lives forever?
Irish immigrants quarantined
When Irish immigrants landed on Ellis Island in New York harbour after a treacherous month-long voyage, many were quarantined lest the typhoid and dysentery some carried spread to the general population.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
My mother, God rest her soul, used to tell stories from her mother, of the time of the Spanish Influenza.
It was a virus that took hold in the dying days of the First World War, decimated the sick and those weakened by war, and is estimated by experts to have killed 50 million – more than double the numbers who died fighting in the trenches of Flanders between 1914 and 1918.
Weddings were cancelled, mass burials were the order of the day, dances and gatherings were cancelled, socialising was frowned upon.
Social distancing, they would call it now.
But at least now we have the public health capabilities now at our disposal to thwart this virus as best we can. No gatherings. No socialising.
One of the great innovations of modern-day Ireland has been Ryanair, a budget airline company like no other. It has revolutionised travelling in Europe.
You can fly from Dublin to Prague for €6 (Dh24.65) it you want.
If you buy a coffee and a sandwich on the flight, it’ll cost you more than the seat you’re sitting in.
Ryanair, love it or hate it — which most travellers do according to survey after survey — has made air travel almost like taking a bus.
The company is hugely successful, regularly records annual profits in excess of €1billion and sets a low bar on how passengers can be treated simply because it’s cheap, reliable and yes — cheap.
Ryanair is now saying it may ground its entire fleet for a month.
That, more than anything, symbolises just how critical this crisis is.
My inbox is filling with messages from airlines saying that they are cancelling flights, cutting services, laying off staff.
It is an unprecedented shutdown, with the only nearest comparison being in the days immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
But even then, air travel resumed within two weeks and we all got used to the enhanced security measures at airport departures.
Life returned to normal.
And this too shall pass.
I was speaking to some staff at the hotel where I am staying. They are worried.
Occupancy is at 15 per cent when it should be more than 90 per cent. Some have been told to stay home because there is no work.
They try to be friendly and asked where I went.
To a coffee plantation, I said, telling them of drinking Lumak coffee.
If you don’t know what it is, the layman’s explanation is that it’s brewed with coffee berries that have been eaten by a civet — a cross between a cat and a fox — and passed through the other end.
These clumps of civet poo are then collected, thoroughly washed — so they assured me — with the excreted coffee seeds then being peeled and roasted, ground and made into Luwak coffee.
Honestly, I’m not making this up.
I also said that I tried durian coffee. If you’ve been to Asia, you’ll know all about durian fruit. It’s forbidden to carry it on public transport systems or in shopping malls.
The only way to describe the smell is to tell you that if you’ve sniffed raw sewage, you’ve sniffed durian. The inside of the fruit itself is supposed to be buttery and rich.
I haven’t the guts to try it. But I did try the durian coffee. And it tasted like it swells.
Durian for 'social distancing'?
We laughed. Then it hit me in a flash. Use durian fruit to impose social distancing! No one will come near those in isolation.
In saying good to the Aussie Doyle’s and Casey’s, who were returning home to two weeks of mandatory isolation —with police patrols checking to make sure they were following the strict rules — we wished each other all the best and stay safe.
And we shook hands.
I hope the horror I felt at feeling clammy and sweaty hands wasn’t visibly obvious. But no sooner were they dearly departed than I reached for the nearest bottle of hand sanitiser.
You can’t be too careful, you know.
On this St. Patrick’s Day of a very strange 2020, the only alcohol being consumed in vast quantities will be that in the little bottles of sanitizer.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe