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Malachi O'Doherty

Yes, the future will turn out to be different, but things change all the time if you're paying attention

Malachi O'Doherty


The 'new normal' that follows Covid-19 won't be first social upheaval, nor will it be the last

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A member of the public wearing a face mask walks through a deserted Belfast city centre

A member of the public wearing a face mask walks through a deserted Belfast city centre

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

A member of the public wearing a face mask walks through a deserted Belfast city centre

Fr Paddy McCafferty has been trying to bring the Catholic sacraments to people who are socially distancing and even he must have been taken aback by the amount of abuse he has received for it, much of it from people who grew up within the Catholic community and, presumably, were baptised into the faith that Fr Paddy was doing his best to preserve.

I remember a time when the streets of Andersonstown were decked out with yellow and white bunting, the papal colours, for a bishop driving through. I'm not entirely confident I remember which bishop it was, perhaps Dr William Philbin. That's not important.

What is important is that the streets were packed with people turned out on a summer's evening to see the man drive through because they regarded him as a prince of the Church.

I'm not sure that if the people of Glencairn, or Rathcoole, were told today that Prince Charles would be whizzing past at seven o'clock they would go to as much trouble for him.

My point is that times have changed and, when I hear people talk about "the new normal" and the ways in which they anticipate our world will have been changed by the coronavirus, I recall that it has changed many times before.

It hasn't often changed as radically as some hope it will now. Even in India, commentators anticipate the need for a social wage, an income for everybody, whether they work or not.

But cultural change has sometimes been dramatic and sometimes barely noticed. Take the flurry of interest in the dramatising for television of Sally Rooney's novel, Normal People.

There was a time, not long ago, when the fuss would have been about sex and nudity on screen. In the past few decades, we have seen sex on screen come and go and, apparently, now come back again.

In The Crown, the drama about the life of the Queen, there is an episode which depicts Princess Anne in bed with Andrew Parker Bowles, the man who married Camilla. I doubt it happened entirely as depicted.

As the bedclothes were cast aside and the dabblers got out, we saw that he was wearing shorts and she had a black bra and pants on.

Now, if people want to make love under the covers with their underwear on, that is something they are fully entitled to do. But do the rest of us really believe that that is what they did?

Or even that the director of the drama actually wanted us to think that they were so modest? The whole drift of the story was to strongly suggest otherwise.

There was more blatant sex on our screens in the Eighties than there has been until recently and suddenly again it is no problem after all.

The biggest changes in the lives of those of us over 40 - and I am well over 40 - was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of China.

Younger people won't grasp quite how amazing it is to see Michael Portillo, one of Thatcher's ministers, visit Vietnam and present the story of Ho Chi Minh with the same equanimity he might bring to a celebration of the life of Edward Heath. In fact, I suspect he was a lot kinder to Ho Chi Minh than he would have been to Heath.

But there it was on our screens last week, signalling that the world has turned out to be rather different than many of us expected.

I remember my father, at the age I am now, marvelling at the brevity of life and the rate of change in the world and I suppose I am doing the same thing.

He could remember when a pint of beer was a penny. I can remember when it was 11p. As a waiter in the Unicorn Bar in Castle Street, I served vodka and orange for 3s/7d, about 17.5p.

I also remember when the doctor would come to your house, stick a lollipop stick down your throat to flatten your tongue and make you say "Aaah", which would have been a legitimate expression of wonder for such a service.

Back then, there was corporal punishment in schools. Girls who conceived before marriage would be packed off to convents to have their babies without disgracing their families. Gay people were called queers.

It's only this year that they have been allowed to marry and, when civil partnership was introduced, Lisburn council threatened to refuse to allow couples to enjoy the service in the same room that heterosexuals were married in.

We now have a debate, inconceivable in my youth, about gender and sex not being the same thing, so that a person with a standard male body might identify as female.

The one thing that never changes, or so Churchill moaned, was the ancient quarrel in Ireland but, of course, it has changed.

The united Ireland anticipated by those who declared the republic in 1916 was a Catholic and Gaelic Ireland. Only a few eccentrics argue for that now. The republican project is now pro-European.

I have read many of the histories of the Irish War for Independence.

This coincided with the lethal Spanish Flu, which killed more people than died in the Great War, which was just ending.

Yet, I don't recall that calamity ever being made part of the story of Ireland at that time.

Twenty-three thousand people died in Ireland of that flu, an awful lot more than were killed by the IRA, the Black and Tans and all the other forces put together.

All those IRA men huddled together in ditches with their rifles on a cold November night might have ended up killing more people in their own families than in the Crossley tenders they were waiting to ambush.

Does this mean anything? Well, it means that people remember things which seem important to them now. We trawled our history for stories of British oppression and Irish revolution in order to connect our present experience to past stories and extrapolate from them something we called destiny, the arc of history. All in our minds.

And we warped the stories of the past and the present to make them fit. We always do that.

If we look back at the pandemic of 1918, we will notice the parallels with now, not the bits that don't relate to, or inform, our current concerns.

Fr Paddy's problem is that he didn't change when nearly everything else did.

And people revile him because he embarrasses them with a reminder of how they once were themselves.

Belfast Telegraph