‘I called it the lock-up. It was terrible,” says Christy Curley (75) when asked about what life was like in our nursing homes during the darkest days of the pandemic lockdowns.
he care homes were the real frontline of Covid, and it is difficult for most of us to imagine what life was like for the residents who suffered many sad losses, often experiencing fear and helpless isolation.
And yet, alongside the all-too-common tragic stories lay resilience, courage – and some who even managed to thrive despite the shrunken boundaries of their lives during the level 5 Covid restrictions.
A project by the Dublin City Council Culture Company aims to make sense of what happened and to gather the stories of nursing home residents, telling them in the form of a graphic novel by artist Alan Dunne. That was turned into a graphic short, launched at the Culture Company’s HQ in Richmond Barracks in Inchicore.
Culture Company chief executive Iseult Byrne explained that having struck up a relationship with residents at the nearby Croft nursing home, in Goldenbridge, and Hollybrook Lodge in Inchicore, they felt it was important that they be allowed to tell their stories.
“We all went through a trauma, including people in nursing homes, and we do need to acknowledge that in order to ensure that we can move beyond it, in terms of our own wellness,” she said, adding that she hoped the project can form part of that recovery.
One of the stars of the novel is Christy, who was admitted to the Croft Nursing Home before Covid due to deteriorating health.
“I’m down to one lung because I have been smoking all my life,” he said. “At seven years of age we would go around collecting empty milk bottles and the shopkeeper would pay us in cigarettes.”
I have told the Irish Independent that when images from the novel were projected onto the side of Dublin City Hall at Christmas 2020 as part of the Winter Lights campaign, it held a very special and poignant significance for him.
Originally from Gardiner Street in Dublin’s inner city, he was arrested in 1959 at the age of 13 for taking a piece of old wood from a derelict house to use in a pigeon coop. He ended up before a judge in the old Children’s Court, then located in City Hall.
“My parents were in bits in the court,” he recalled. “Two more honest and decent people you could never meet.
“It’s amazing – I came out of there when I was only 13 in a black mariah van and 63 years later I was up on the wall in lights. It was emotional.”
Christy spent a month in Marlborough House where he was physically abused. Decades later, he spent his compensation from the State’s Redress Board on a wheelchair, claiming: “If you were waiting on the HSE you’d get it when you were dead and they’d put it on your coffin.”
His whole life was spent working hard – from driving lorries, to working as a bricklayer’s mate to working down at the docks and on the coal and timber boats.
There were also some episodes of petty crime in his youth, he admitted, saying: “If things fell off a lorry it’s because I pushed them off.”
“It took me a long time to learn my lesson,” said Christy, who still feels guilty over this period of his life.
“Life is only starting for me now,” he said of life in the nursing home. He has learned to paint portraits, which he donates to charity, with an exhibition in Dolphin’s Barn library two years ago. He has also sung on Zoom with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
“I never sang a note when I was out but in here I’m like a lark in the morning,” declared Christy.