Finger-wag away, but save your ‘absolute shock’ for what matters

Dr Tony Holohan wrote a tweet on Saturday night that made the news headlines. He was “absolutely shocked” by what he saw while driving through Dublin city centre. The chief medical officer witnessed crowds of young people gathered as if for a “major open air party”. Absolutely shocked.

Meanwhile, the attractively designed posters on bus shelters all over town were encouraging people to have an “outdoor summer”. Maybe they meant a different kind of “outdoor summer” than the one Dr Holohan was shocked by. I’d say if you are 18 it’s hard to know what kind of “outdoor summer” they actually meant.

The urge to finger wag and moralise is strong in many of us

Dr Holohan was not alone in his reaction. On Sunday morning, a video of the rubbish that had accumulated along South William Street was widely circulated on social media. People blamed the parents, and remembered the good old days when their mammy made them take their rubbish home in their pockets. People wondered what was wrong with young people today. People were upset and outraged at the sight of the litter. The person who tweeted the viral rubbish video was speechless about the mess. “No words,” he said. No words.

The urge to finger wag and moralise is strong in many of us. I try to resist the urge because I know if I was 18 I’d be in the thick of the major open air parties. It’s a good idea to commune with your inner 18 year-old at this stage of the pandemic. She would not be shocked by what’s going on in our city streets at the weekend when the sun shines. She would understand. She’d say “of course, what did you expect?”. She’d say outdoor gatherings are the safest gatherings and she’d tell Dr Holohan to take a chill pill. She’d smile when she said it, “like no offence, Doc”, and then she’d crack open a can.

I bring my inner 18 year-old into Dublin town on Sunday night. I call a younger friend and we meet near Grogan’s pub. We stroll along South William Street where people stand drinking pints or sit on pavements in groups, eating burgers and drinking beers. We wander down near Dublin Castle, where people have gathered on the stone benches in the early evening sunshine. We cross a bustling Dame Street into Temple Bar, buy take-away plastic glasses of white wine and sit on some steps close to Meeting House Square. And as we sit and sip some teenagers, including a young woman with long blond hair and a sweet smile, comes along. We get talking. Words.

It gets deep quickly. Young people, says the blonde woman who tells us her name is Moya, need to live their lives. It’s been hard for young people to grow in the pandemic. “We need to grow,” she says. Moya lives in a council house. She wants to be a midwife. She’ll start studying midwifery in September. For the moment she says she is volunteering with a homeless organisation as a paramedic having spent eight months with the Red Cross.

Moya sees things most of us don’t see. The other day, she helped a homeless man who was going to jump off O’Connell Bridge. He was “bawling his eyes out, saying he couldn’t see his kids because of corona. I coaxed him down. Got him to show me videos of his kids”.

She also looks after her mother who has mental health issues. She talks sadly about her Nana who despite being fully vaccinated is still petrified to go to the shops. Moya thinks it’s hardest on older people, shut away in nursing homes, not able to see their families. “I got depressed when I was very young but depression can happen at any age,” she says.

After several suicide attempts Moya, who has bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, spent eight months in St Patrick’s psychiatric hospital in the adolescent unit. She’s doing well now, she says. She has an app on her phone which tells her, down to the second, how long it is since she self-harmed. She checks it now. She is six months and 19 days “sober”.

She is fascinating about dialectical cognitive behavioural therapy, the treatment she has been receiving. She went into St Pat’s because “I tried to pass away a lot of times, lockdown affected me really badly”. During her last attempt she “died” for 29 seconds before being resuscitated. “But I’ve now realised it does finish, and this coronavirus will be over and you can go out, but I think a lot of people don’t realise that and that’s why there are a lot of deaths. My friend Darren hung himself a year ago, he was 19.”

That’s when she got the suicide awareness tattoo, a small black semi-colon. I look at the arms of the small crowd of teenagers she’s with and they all have one. She tells us all of this while nursing a can of beer, her girlfriend smiling shyly beside her. Moya has just turned 18.

So what’s happening tonight? They’ll just bop around town, she says, go wherever the gardaí aren’t. Another friend arrives, a teenage boy with a Buzz Lightyear tattoo who doesn’t drink or smoke. “I’m like the babysitter, I mind them,” he says.

We’ve chatted for an hour. We exchange numbers and say goodbye and I think, as she leaves, that if the No Words Brigade and the Absolutely Shocked Crew met more people like Moya and her friends, they might think a bit differently about young people enjoying themselves in town. They might remember there are lots of things in the Ireland of 2021 that we should really be “absolutely shocked” about. Safe open air gatherings of people who have been locked down for far too long and need the release of socialising is not one of them. See also: litter.

Finger wag away, but make it count. Finger wag about homelessness. About funding for mental health services. The property crisis. Wag your fingers about the complete absence of any planning and imagination and facilities and provisions for the “outdoor summer” authorities had a whole year to plan for.

Sometimes there are no words. Really. No words.

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