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Within minutes of chatting with Martina, I am crying with laughter. She’s telling me how, during lockdown, she started going through all the recipe books in her house that were previously just there for decoration. “I made a tea brack. I never made a tea brack in my life! I became a 50s housewife version of myself. Steeping oranges! I haven’t time to start steeping oranges. But I started doing what you’re supposed to do – planning meals and thinking about what you had to get in the shop for the week. There was no retail therapy. Tesco was like Harrods. I became the woman I never wanted to be.” 

In normal times, Martina is a woman on the go. No apron and feather duster for her as she organises events and groups in Hilltown. With the Clonduff Development Enterprise, she is part of a team that is organising the redevelopment of St John’s Church in the heart of the town into becoming a community hub. All of this in addition to raising Aoibhin and Eimear. But the pandemic turned all our lives upside down so now here Martina was, planning excursions to the shop and making baked cheesecake. 

At times, like for us all, the realisation that this was a scary time hit Martina. Coming out of her weekly Tesco trip, she saw a friend in the queue to go in but the two woman couldn’t reach each other to have a chat. “I couldn’t go across that queue to her, she couldn’t get to me and I went and sat in my car and cried. Because for a while, we had WhatsApp groups and sharing jokes and that but after a time, that died away and it became this lack of connection. And I cried. And she told me after, she cried too.” 

Martina Byrne
Martina Byrne

There was tears too over home-schooling as Aoibhin prepared for the transfer test. “I picked up the packs from school and for nine weeks, we studied for the transfer test and it was hard to put on ‘the teacher head’; we were struggling. And then the test was cancelled and there was no real reason for school work.” Martina isn’t sure that the transfer test is the right way to select children for school but not having it worried her too. “The criteria now is harder for people who don’t have connections to the school. At least with the test, a child could get in whether they had a sibling in the school or not. And that’s gone now. I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t like the transfer test either but why can’t they use an assessment of the child throughout the year? I hadn’t realised they had to do the test in the big school. How stressful is that? Trying to tell your child to stay calm and not worry about what’s going on around them when others are panicking or crying.” It’s such a complicated issue but Martina is right to say it needs to be fixed and she wasn’t afraid to go on to Radio Ulster and say so. No better woman for it too.

But with the removal of the pressure of the transfer test, it became harder to keep the routine of the day. It wasn’t easy to just put the girls in the car and go somewhere because nobody was sure if going somewhere was allowed. “There was a lot of scaremongering. You can’t do this or that. You forget how scary it was. I remember in March, the rain was pouring down and I was doing a jigsaw in the house and I thought to myself ‘how am I going to stick this?’”

Martina’s husband runs a garage so he kept working and although we often say men need to work, he found it difficult and that was a revelation for Martina. “He was working away, busier than ever because so many of his staff were furloughed. I felt that his life was just going on but it was very stressful for him. I didn’t give him enough credit because my life had changed so much but he was wiped out trying to keep the business going.”

But some things stopped and Martina isn’t sure when they will come back. “The Community Centre closed and with that the Mother and Toddler group, all the adult groups and events. And there’s no sign of them coming back. How can a choir meet up when there’s social distancing? It takes so long for things to become established and will we ever get them back?” The Community Centre is a lifeline in many places. Hilltown has a thriving list of social groups for young and old. To lose those will be a catastrophe for those who rely on them to meet others and to get out of the house. Martina knows how important that interaction is and how hard it’s going to be to ask people who volunteer to run these things to take on the extra burden of enforcing social-distancing and keeping everyone safe.

Martina becomes thoughtful. She knows the repercussions of taking these connections from people. “No two people have the same story. People were stuck at home together or alone. People were trying to work and home-school at the same time or just trying to keep the days from all feeling the same.” 

“Remember when we were all out clapping for the NHS? My reason for doing that was to get out and have a chat with my neighbour, because she was isolating and I couldn’t see her. So I was clapping but I was clapping slowly because I wanted to have a yarn with her.” We’re laughing again.

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