"I'm more seeing hearses now and funerals than I would cars on the road" - Covid's frontline volunteers 6 months ago

"I'm more seeing hearses now and funerals than I would cars on the road" - Covid's frontline volunteers

"My mum’s phrase - from a Kerrywoman - is, 'You’ll be rewarded in heaven!'"

There are an entirely different band of volunteers making a difference in Tallaght as Ireland takes small but steady steps forward.

This weekend, had 2020 gone the way we were expecting it to go, staff at Tallaght Stadium would be gearing up for a Monday night game between hosts Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers.

2020 has gone another way, though, and don't we all know it.

Instead, for the past six weeks and for many weeks ahead, the League of Ireland ground is being used as a Covid-19 testing centre. Each day, between 150 and 300 cars arrive at the stadium and just about manage to weave in and out of the cones. There has been some shaky driving out in re-jigged the car park but that is perfectly understandable.

"It’s basically like a drive-thru," says Joanne O'Dowd. "They come in… and it’s very daunting for people so you have to keep them as informed as possible, and get their details, keep them calm and make sure they know what’s involved."

Joanne is one of the South Dublin Volunteer Corps that are lending their time and efforts to assisting HSE staff as they test members of the public for Covid-19. There are medical bays set up inside the stadium but the volunteers - as well as retired Irish Army veterans - are out front to process those coming in and to sort out all the paperwork.

Joanne O'Dowd of the South Dublin Volunteer Corps pictured at Tallaght Stadium. (Credit: Ian Boyle, JOE)

Ever since the Irish government urged members of the public, who are not essential workers or going out for supplies, to stay home, Joanne's day job in a hair salon has stopped.

"I’m a hairdresser," she says, "so I’d be working, normally, full-time. Obviously, when I couldn’t go to work any more, I just couldn’t stay home and do nothing so I decided to volunteer… It’s a great opportunity, not just to get out of the house but to contribute to the community, help others and be part of something that will impact our future."

Joanne lives in Templeogue with her two sisters. One is a member on An Garda Siochána while the other is working from home. On her days she is scheduled to work a shift at Tallaght Stadium, she takes a drive that now takes less than 10 minutes and gears up in a bright orange hoodie and cap, before popping on gloves and a mask and grabbing her clipboard. That drive, back and forth each day, drives home Ireland's new reality. Joanne says:

"It is eerie. I'm more seeing hearses now and funerals than I would cars on the road. There’d be a lot more gardaí about too."

Those pulling into the stadium's car park are coming because they have already been in touch with their GPs and, having fulfilled levels of criteria from a Covid checklist - have been given a time and date. Some will drive up themselves while others will be in the passenger seat or lying in the back while a friend or family member drives.

The volunteers are a tight crew at this stage, despite the fact that most of them had never met beforehand. You have the likes of Joanne, Holly Casey and Helen Byrne mixed in with wise souls like Fiona Sweeney, Celine Blount, Tom McWalter, Mayolein Moohen and Bernard Murphy.

"I enjoy meeting people, enjoy helping people, and it just brings out the best in me and, I’m sure, in the other people," says Bernard. "Because everybody has a smile. You can’t see our smiles of course - we have masks on - but we’re smiling underneath that mask. Our eyes are smiling. We're here to help you."

Bernard Murphy of the South Dublin Volunteer Corps, who have been based at the Covid-19 testing centre at Tallaght Stadium since March. (Credit: Ian Boyle, JOE)

Bernard has been volunteering for a number of years now but has been able to devote more time since he retired a few years back. He lives in the Tallaght area and is delighted that he is able to do something during such an uncertain time. "It's surreal," he says. "I have been going up to the stadium since all this started but I don't think you ever get used to it. It can be quite scary for the people coming in to us, so I look at my main job as trying to put them at ease the best I can."

"You will try and chat, and you hear all the conversations of all the other volunteers," Holly Casey tells us. "And with pretty much everyone, there’s a little joke or a bit of chat. There’s something kind of personal going on."

"Yeah, it’s nice to see those interactions sometimes," Joanne comments, "especially when it’s a tough day. Because it is heartbreaking for the families, but you just have to keep going and help as many people as you can."

One thing that has helped greatly, since mid March, has been the stretch of fine weather. Having weeks upon weeks of sunshine in Ireland is almost as bizarre as anything this pandemic can throw at our nation.

"We've been blessed with the weather, the last six weeks," Bernard adds, "Really have been blessed with the weather. So much so, would you believe in Ireland, that we actually did a dry run of a rainy day!

"Obviously, we're handling paperwork and, at the moment, the system we have is, we check their paperwork, and that it's all up to date and they're the person that should be on the paperwork that we're talking to. We put it on the windscreen of the car and then it is obviously taken off when they reach the [testing] station, and the details logged, then, in the station. But you can't do that if it's raining.

"So we had to try a different method of what we should be doing if it rains. So we had a couple of runs at that, you know. So we're ready for rain. We don't want it to come but we're ready for it if it does!"

Holly Casey of the South Dublin Volunteer Corps pictured at Tallaght Stadium. (Credit: Ian Boyle, JOE)

Just like any cross-section of society, the volunteers have been taking in the daily Covid-19 updates and absorbing the news from government officials and health experts.

Holly was happy to follow the guidelines for the first few weeks of what was effectively a lock-down but she is not so sure if more stringent measures, and law enforcement, are necessary.

"I don't think, as a general public, we're getting enough information from the mass media in terms of what else is going on, and why the restrictions are still in place. Because we have peaked in terms of the deaths, as well, and even in terms of what we're getting, it's not all that accurate. With all of the death tolls, there are people that have died with Covid-19 but not specifically from it. Things are very mixed - and it's similar in the US and UK - but my whole thinking on it is shifting. I'd like to see some challenging of the [current] narrative."

When the volunteers are not debating lock-downs or when to get back to something resembling normal, they are trying to get on with their days and lift each other's spirits.

"We are all so close," says Joanne. "I absolutely love Bernard; he just brightens up the whole day. He keeps singing. He’s so much fun.

"Well," Bernard remarks, "singing is probably too good a word for it, let me tell you!"

The present is something to get through, and to help others to navigate with a kind word or a gesture. Like most of us, thoughts of a brighter future keep the frontline volunteers going.

"I would like to see it go back to normal," says Holly. "I know that’s quite a long, long way away, by the sounds of it!"

Back in his home after another long day at it, Bernard smiles when he is asked what the first thing he will do when the shackles come off.

"That’s the constant chat now," he says, "between the HSE, the nurses that are there and ourselves, you know. When this is all over, we’re going to have one big party!"

Sign us all up.