Reflections on the lockdown

We asked members to share their experiences of life in lockdown. In these strange times, we wonder, how quarantine is impacting our lives as scholars, students, and academics. Working from home is now the reality for so many globally. New work and research practices had to be put in place quickly, as the pandemic took hold, changing day to day. Universities and institutions changed to online provision, and libraries have been quick to update and extend online access. New professional development classes on virtual learning environments and communication tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams were rolled out. These measures all necessary to make sure all our citizens are protected.

However, it is not just ‘business as usual’ for all. Working from home is a luxury that many do not have access to: for many, home life may not be conducive to work, or even social distancing, and many parents are also juggling home schooling with their own work. Combined with this is the concern about family members, and friends, and the security of jobs, in a market where precarious labour was already the order of the day. It’s hard to work on long term plans when we are unsure what the future might look like, or how and when quarantine will end. The mental or financial implications mean that this is not just as simple as working from home and institutions cannot expect the same level of productivity.

For those who work with archives or special collections, or those with upcoming deadlines or vivas this adds pressure to their work. It also offers us an opportunity to stop and take stock of where are and what we should prioritise. Without the noise, if it is possible to block out the stats and updates, can we find new, inventive ways of researching and teaching, do we find time to read and slow down, and emerge from this time safe, and well? Here’s what our contributors had to say:

Diane O Doherty

PhD Student, Limerick Institute of Technology

An introvert missing social situations? Who’d have thought, I, as a PhD student, research assistant and early career researcher would miss social interactions?

My researcher job in Limerick offers me the opportunity to work as part of several teams, but on a daily basis I work mostly independently. I have also spent the last five years finishing my PhD, again working very much independently.

I thought I had this working remotely and independently malarkey down as a fine tuned skill, one that I thought would lend itself in these times of crisis. I may thrive working independently, however I have found isolation from work colleagues and friends very difficult to come to terms with on a daily basis.

Due to the global pandemic occurring outside each of our doors there is an obvious need to take our own physical safety into consideration, but I, as an early career researcher, did not consider my own emotional safety. The connections we make with friends and colleagues over coffee breaks and lunches, workout sessions and commutes fulfil our lives and help us to weather arduous tasks that work and life might throw at us. I thought my many years working independently would have prepared me for this extended separation from others but alas, I was in for a surprise.

In those early days and weeks I can count on one hand how many times I reached out to others or even spoke to another soul bar my partner with whom I live. It was difficult to define ‘my new normal’ in coming to terms with working from home, technological glitches and finding new ways to connect. Realising that this new normal may be with us for some time has allowed me time to re-evaluate how I work, how important it is for me to connect with friends over virtual coffee on a Friday morning and the realisation that there are external things out of my control – no amount of worrying and stressing can change that. The use of my work calendar has also helped to create protected time for coffee breaks and lunches, and also cut off points in my work day. Like many others, the temptation in working from home can make us feel the need to continue working outside of our ‘normal’ hours. We all know Einstein did this, and Newton did that in other times of crisis, but don’t feel too hard on yourself if you only managed to make some scones and get your work done.

Adopting these new forms of communication and work practices have significantly improved my overall outlook on life, work and the future ahead.

Dr Whitney Standlee

Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Worchester

‘In these curious weeks of almost isolation that I have been living, when I have been drawing upon the strength that is within for all things – for the keeping of my temper, for the enduring contentedly of daily small irritations, above all for the courage of being alone’ (Katherine Cecil Thurston, writing to her fiancé Alfred Bulkeley Gavin on 3 September 1911).

Katherine Cecil Thurston wrote a good deal about women and isolation: her novels The Circle (1903), The Fly on the Wheel (1908) and Max (1910) all feature central female characters who are outsiders attempting to redefine themselves, with mixed degrees of success, in new societies that hold the promise of fresh and more fulfilling identities. For Thurston’s characters, a space of solitude is a necessary prerequisite to the formulation of these new identities. It is only through isolation from the world as it has been defined that they are able to recognise the type of world they want to enter into and the kinds of roles they want to claim.

For me, the isolation that accompanies the COVID-19 lockdown has presented both challenges and opportunities — combined, of course, with that sense of sadness that permeates all of this unprecedented moment of change. On my final day in my office at the University of Worcester, without realising it would be my final day for such a long while, I packed my bags (a carrier and a backpack) with a few extra books. I decided to bring my university laptop home, as well….thankfully. I say ‘thankfully’, because although I knew I would be social distancing as much as possible from that point on (the department were encouraging us to do so), I had no idea that I wouldn’t be returning for such a long time…that so many books I would be longing for would be left on my shelves. Life changed, changed utterly in that moment.

What has occurred since has not been all inconvenience and heartache. On the positive side of things, the always incredible support of lecturing colleagues and our subject librarian for English Literature have been an amazing boost in the midst of isolation. And, speaking of our subject librarian, I need to shout her out: she is the incredible Allie Taylor, who, as an Eng Lit grad herself, understands the subject at an intricate level and seems to know what we all want/need intuitively. She should have a giant S (for Superlibrarian) embroidered on every shirtfront she owns.

And who knew that virtual meetings would prove more efficient than face-to-face meetings? I suppose it should have been anticipated: there are fewer cookies and coffees; people are less likely to joke and also less prone to wander off-piste from the meeting agenda more generally. But the most wonderful benefit of doing things virtually has come in the form of teaching, and that is the revelation that students who tend to be quiet in class can be incredibly talkative when offered chat boxes as a way to participate in class discussions. An example: a student who had said almost nothing in face-to-face large-scale group work was suddenly offering, to the entire class, comparisons between Algernon Blackwood and William Blake that were insightful and sophisticated when we moved online. Definitely something to be celebrated, learned from, and used more often even when ‘normal’ teaching resumes.

The downsides include the lack of personal contact: the fact that I don’t see students’ faces often, if at all (‘I don’t want to turn on my camera, I’m in my pyjamas!’). This means that I also don’t have the ability to see that one student who is trying to gain my attention but too shy to put herself forward; the lack of those moments that we, as lecturers, can confront and overcome with just a moment’s eye contact, a small smile. These types of interactions simply aren’t achievable online – it’s impossible to emotionally read a video screen, a chat box, an icon.

Meeting colleagues in the corridor and having a quick chat, knocking on their office doors and having a longer chat, having a weekly coffee and having an even longer chat: no online experiences can replace that. And those more formal online meetings?: efficient, yes, but lacking the camaraderie of the coffee, the cookies, and all of that bonding that occurs when our conversations head off-piste. Mostly, though, I am missing those final moments of face-to-face dissertation supervision with my third-year students. Though I have loved visiting with them online and telling them what a great job they all did, it just isn’t the same as smiling across the table, shaking their hands and beaming at them with all my might to convey just how proud I am of all of them. (And what WILL happen to shaking hands, knowing what we know now?)

I do long for so many books that are just sitting on the shelves in my office, too, and for those books that I thought would be waiting for me to read in libraries in Oxford, Dublin and London this summer, none of them available online…yet. But mostly it’s the people, isn’t it? Those moments that will never be regained; those smiles and handshakes and the frisson of success and congratulation. Those final moments with those students in their final year. It’s the people I miss most, and hope I will meet again. May they all stay safe and well.

This post is dedicated to the memory of one of the University of Worcester’s Health Sciences students, Julie Omar. Due to COVID-19, Julie had returned to her former career of nursing to aid the emergency services at Alexandra Hospital in Redditch, and tragically lost her own life in the battle.

Geraldine Brassil

PhD Student, Mary Immaculate College

As PhD students during the COVID-19 crisis how do we maintain our productivity and focus? In some respects, there is no change, except for the fact that we probably have much more time at our disposal, which poses its own challenges in terms of effective time management. For me, the answer is to make an early start, before the household wakes up, and discipline begins to wane! A loose schedule is useful, setting out what I intend to do and a timeframe in which to achieve this, the word ‘loose’ allowing for delays in reaching the target! Regular contact and discussion with my supervisor keeps me on track, while availing of postgraduate research webinars provides some structure to the week and alleviates the social isolation that is a necessary part of COVID regulations. Planned conference attendance and presentation is looking increasingly unlikely so it is important to stay in contact with peers and scholars via social media and websites such as IWWN.

Presently, I am engaged in an intensive excavation stage, trawling through online digital archives. A great deal of scholarship has been done on the advantages and challenges of digital versus traditional methods of research. In the current circumstances, my project would be at a standstill were it not for ‘the digital turn’, much of my research in nineteenth-century periodical and print culture highly visible in digital archives. Of course, gains in searchability make excavations less time consuming and laborious (to an extent), and yet, my research list for future trips to traditional archives continues to grow. Using both methods, digital backed up by traditional seems, for me , to be the ideal, the former, convenient, the latter, a solid and complete bank of knowledge (as opposed to digitised material that might not be fully archived), that is somewhat reassuring in its original state.

Finally, one of the things I really miss is access to college and county libraries, to which I am indebted for long-term loans of various books and their willingness to order new and expensive books, so often essential to my research.

Orlaith Darling, first year PhD

School of English, Trinity College Dublin

The afternoon of Thursday the 12th of March saw me – alongside a flurry of undergraduate students – scanning library shelves and picking books basically at random. We were all in the same boat – composing haphazard internal inventories of sources and trying to magic research bibliographies for an unknowable future of studying, writing and teaching from home. As it happens and is often the case, I left many books I needed in my office before retreating to my parents’ house in rural Ireland. This has led to frustration, but also opportunities and new projects that I would otherwise not have pursued. Deprived of the means to plough on with chapters, I have had the chance to revisit old work in a lingering and reflective way, a process which has been constructive in many respects. I have also enjoyed engaging with writing that is not in my immediate field of contemporary Irish women’s short stories (mainly Claire Keegan, Danielle McLaughlin, Mary Costello, Claire Louise Bennett, Lucy Sweeney Byrne, Nicole Flattery, Lucy Caldwell, June Caldwell, Wendy Erskine). I spent, for instance, the last week devouring Anna Burns’s brilliant Milkman. Although I don’t normally work on the novel form, this reading meshed with research I undertook at Master’s level, allowing me to try to develop something. It has also given me greater insight into the gender dimension of my PhD writing.

Many things have been really disappointing – conferences, seminars and workshops being cancelled, decreased supervision, lack of access to a library, and uncertainty about processes like the Confirmation have all been difficult. But at a time when more people seem to be turning to arts and literature for solace, escapism and a way to pass the time, there are definitely positives to be taken. For example, I really hope that profile of small, independent book sellers will be raised. I have benefitted big time from such sellers’ dedication to Irish fiction, having ordered a book bundle from Books Upstairs only to be sent Cathy Sweeney’s new collection of stories which was published by Stinging Fly Press only last month and which I had yet to come across. Cúirt International Festival of Literature, which would under normal circumstances be going on in Galway next week, has moved online, allowing me to attend more talks by writers like Mary Costello, Jan Carson and Eimear McBride, all of whom form part of my research.

I realise that I am lucky to have this space to branch out in what is an infinitely more unsettling, problematic and stressful time for my peers approaching the end of their PhD process, but in a way coronavirus has allowed me to pursue new modes of thinking in my first year of research.

Kathleen Williams

Irish Studies Librarian, Retired. Network Team Member, Archives Page

Working from home in Boston, Massachusetts

Boston was the home of the revolution that resulted in what is now the United States. The ‘shot heard round the world’ was fired only about fifteen miles from Boston City Hall.  What Boston and all of Massachusetts is fighting to oust cannot be fought with firearms.  The weapons needed here and now are personal qualities: bravery, strength, commitment and patience.  We are so fortunate to see all of these in our healthcare workers, first-responders and service workers.

We who are staying at home need to exhibit the same qualities as well as patience.   The stark reality is that last Sunday’s Boston Globe had sixteen pages of obituaries for Boston and Massachusetts and beyond.

It is very weird for me to be so close to the hospitals and newly created care centers.  It is calm here at home as I realize there is a war many are fighting nearby.

Yet, the constant news, and calls from officials about what to do, not to do, and how to stay safe as well as concern for family members make it difficult to focus on reading and writing.

Matthew Ryan

Grad Student Vilanova University

Spending the first month of the COVID-19 quarantine finishing my MA thesis on post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Irish women’s coming of age narratives provided an outlet into which I could sink all of my pent-up, isolation-induced emotion. More than just that, however, it also reinforced the importance of collectivity and community in a world where such forms of togetherness are often hard to come by. Two of the texts I read for my thesis lend themselves particularly well to this end: Anna Burns’s Milkman, and Lisa McGee’s television show, Derry Girls. They both, directly and indirectly, make the case for community.

Writing about these texts in particular during this time made me think about my research much more holistically than just as a personal intellectual project. Milkman is a story of a young Belfast woman being stalked by a member of the IRA, and as a result, her deepening isolation and estrangement from her community. While it’s fairly clear the novel is set in Belfast during the Troubles, nevertheless, there are no names of people or places. Thus, it manages to speak to both the particularities of “those days” and “that place,” as the narrator often remarks, while maintaining a universalist impulse, so that any reader could pick it up and identify with its themes and problems. Derry Girls is Milkman’s total opposite. It’s a show where Derry itself is the centrepiece, just as much as the girls themselves: Erin, Orla, Michelle, and Clare (plus James, the “wee English fella”). Either way, they both point to the same value: the importance of being present with those you love and care for, whether they’re friendships, family, or even the company of strangers. Milkman’s main character, “middle sister,” descends into depression and despair due to this alienation, and Derry Girls depicts the joy of elective affinities.

Being relatively stuck in my apartment with my fiancée and going over pages that narrate a young woman’s isolation, or re-watching scenes that celebrate friendship as an end in itself, reinforced the already-present longing for this all to be over. Yet, taking the “lesson” of community and collectivity that these texts convey to its logical conclusion, it also reinforced how much more vital it is to abide by stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and otherwise depressing and frustrating measures as best as possible. For, despite the desire of many to break out and spend time with friends, do things they used to do, or just live “normally” again, this would be the height of selfishness. Thus, the spirit of collectivity that Milkman and Derry Girls channel makes them perfect Irish texts to read or watch during this quarantine.

Dr Julie Anne Stevens

School of English, Dublin City University

During the current period of COVID-19 confinement, we may read with added interest writings by those who endured similar conditions. A hundred years ago, Constance Gore-Booth, Countess Markievicz, wrote to her sister from Mountjoy Prison that ‘jail is the only place where one gets time to read’ (11 Dec 1920). She had already spent jail sentences in Aylesbury, Holloway, and Cork, but she found Mountjoy preferable because she could hear seagulls and the Dublin criers from outside the stone walls. What did she do with her time during her 1920-21 incarceration? She studied Irish, talked to visitors such as Maud Gonne, Norah Connolly, and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, and read the Irish Times and books like The Conquest of Peru or The Life of Tolstoi. She took courage from the thought of other women’s endurance during difficult times:

This last year many babies were born, whose fathers were on the run. It’s awfully hard on the mothers. . . . However, the women are as brave as brave, and though they suffer terribly both mentally and physically they put on a brave face and you’d never guess.

Now good luck to you and all friends, from C. de M. (cheerful though captive!). (New Year’s Day, 1921)[i]

[i] Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz, ed. Amanda Sebestyen (London, Virago Press, 1987).