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24 hours that changed everything: An oral history

People across Ireland – including key decision-makers – tell the story of Thursday 12 March 2020.

IN THE PRECEDING days Ireland had looked on in mounting horror as the death toll in Italy climbed higher and higher. Travel advice was updated and then updated again as officials scrambled to keep up with the pace of change across Europe. 

St Patrick’s Day parades across the country had already been cancelled. The previous night, Wednesday 11 March, the first Irish death from coronavirus was announced. The Taoiseach’s traditional US trip was cut down to just a few key events. 

The Italians had already gone into nationwide lockdown.

There was an expectation that similar measures would be announced for Ireland.

No-one was sure when.

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Dr Cillian de Gascun, Director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory: 

“I was doing the press briefing the previous evening. I think we had reported maybe nine new cases. Generally after the press briefing we go back up to one of the rooms upstairs, just for five or ten minutes and chat on the questions, on things maybe we could have answered better, things to look up.

“I knew the figures for the following day. So at that stage, we were reporting figures for up until noon of that day and I think the briefings were a little later back then. That number was nine. But the numbers for the following day were to be 27. I told Dr Holohan. Based on that – and it was really sort of impressive to see – he convened an emergency meeting of NPHET that night.”

Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health: 

“I knew, okay, I knew we’re in trouble here. There’s something happening here that’s different and we need to take stock of it … I said, we need a meeting, we can’t sit on this. We need a meeting of the NPHET.”

Paul Reid, Chief Executive Officer of the HSE: 

“I was in the office and got a call from the Secretary General [at the Department of Health] Jim Breslin. I’d to go across to the Department.”

Cillian de Gascun:

“Obviously, a lot of people at this stage would have gone home. Everyone was called in for that meeting at nine o’clock and so we had food in the Department. The Department got Chinese from up the road.

“That was where the first batch of decisions was made and we went on past midnight.”

“I went home and I couldn’t go to bed. I was up till about two or three just because I was wired on the significance of the whole thing. And it’s funny, like I remember leaving at a quarter past 12 thinking ‘wow a long day’, but I subsequently found out that because the Taoiseach was away the Minister and the Tánaiste were waiting in the Department for NPHET to finish. I was perhaps feeling sorry for myself and the CMO and his team were there till well after three o’clock in the morning.”

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Cillian De Gascun alongside Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan at the Department of Health.


Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Tony Holohan: 

“The Taoiseach was out of the country at the time, the Tánaiste was acting, and the Tánaiste and the Minister came here kind of to anticipate being here at around the end of the NPHET meeting. But in the end, I think they sat around for a while waiting because we didn’t finish until, I can’t remember … was it between one and half or something like that?

“And we came out then and we briefed the Tánaiste and Minister for Health … There was a call to the Taoiseach. And the decisions were made.”

Christina Finn, Political Correspondent at TheJournal.ie:

“I was in Washington covering the US trip and the Ireland Funds dinner was on that night. The Taoiseach had arrived at Blair House, where he was staying, on the Wednesday evening, had a quick change of clothes and headed to the dinner.

“Officials travelling with him weren’t sure the event was even going to go ahead as things were escalating in the US too at that stage and there’d already been announcements about mass gatherings – but the message from the organisers was that they were keen that it would.

“The event is pricey, about $1,000 a plate. It was filled with Irish-American business people and politicians. Irish reporters go too of course – but thankfully they don’t make us pay for our dinner.

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Leo Varadkar greets Congressman Dan Kildee of Michigan at the Ireland Funds Gala Dinner.


Source: Niall Carson

“At around 9.20pm – so 1.20 in the morning Irish time – news alert beeps rang out from journalists’ phones: Trump had banned travel to the US by people from 26 European countries.

“I remember we all turned our heads immediately towards the Taoiseach’s table. It was massive news, particularly as he was due to meet Donald Trump in the morning. The Taoiseach got up from his seat and headed upstairs with some of his team.

“We were waiting to hear if Varadkar would speak to us – we didn’t know anything about the NPHET meeting at this stage, of course. I was in touch with my editor back home and set about filing on the Trump travel ban.

“As all that was happening yet another big story broke… Of all people, Tom Hanks had been diagnosed with coronavirus. Everyone else in the newsroom was at home in Ireland – presumably sleeping soundly – so I filed on that too. 

“It was, frankly, all rather bizarre and unreal. I was so distracted with getting the stories filed I hardly noticed a crowd of Secret Service men hurtling passed me alongside Nancy Pelosi.”

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Source: Niall Carson

Regina Doherty, Minister for Social Protection: 

“So I recall, Twitter was reporting that Leo had been taken out of that Ireland dinner, wherever the fundraising dinner was, to get a briefing on the travel ban, but in actual fact it wasn’t anything to do with the travel ban. It was to do with that all-night meeting that had happened in the Department of Health.

“It was then decided that the Taoiseach would obviously make an address to the nation the next morning, which he did.”

Tony Holohan:

“Looking back on it now it was an unprecedented set of measures, like, we’ve never done anything like this as a country before. Shut all the schools, the universities, and a range of other recommendations.

“I absolutely felt the burden of those decisions, I really did feel that. Like, you look at them in retrospect, in comparison to all the measures we ended up taking – you might sort of say, ‘ah sure, that was the easy bit’. You know, that’s how it might feel in retrospect, but it didn’t feel easy then.”


Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Christina Finn: 

“The Taoiseach’s staff were in touch with officials back home to set up the choreography of the next day – so that as soon as Varadkar finished speaking at Blair House senior ministers would start a press conference back home to get into the detail.

“I’m told the Taoiseach and his team broke up and went to bed around 1am and arranged to meet again around six. He’d still planned to do the engagements the next day as normal – breakfast with Pence, meeting with Trump. 

“It felt like things were moving a lot faster in Ireland than in the US at the time. The other main thing I remember about that night – the whole trip really – was having to decline handshakes a lot.”

Tony Holohan: 

“I got a taxi home is what I remember at three, half three in the morning or something like that. And I normally walk early in the morning, it’s my thing. And it was like so I was kind of pissed – can I say pissed off? – I was kind of pissed off because I knew that I just wouldn’t be able to fit a walk in and get the requisite amount of sleep and still get in here at half seven in the morning or whenever I had to be in.

“So anyway, that’s what I remember feeling. Pissed off about the fact I couldn’t have a walk. It’s an important part to my keeping myself sane.”

Regina Doherty:

“I got a phone call from Simon Coveney very early on that Thursday morning, not only to tell me what was going on, but to tell me to get my bum into town.”

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Trump’s travel ban and the decision by Italy the previous night to close all shops except food stores and pharmacies had dominated the morning headlines in Ireland.

The news about Tom Hanks – by far the most well-known figure to be diagnosed with Covid-19 – added a layer of surreality to Thursday’s early radio news bulletins. 

For days, rumours had swirled on Whatsapp and social media that schools were about to be closed for a period of weeks. The Department of Education had put out a statement that Tuesday insisting no such decision had been made.

At this point, some Irish employers had made the decision to direct staff to work from home.

Supermarket managers around the country had already observed increased stockpiling of items like toilet roll and tinned goods.

Geoff Byrne, Chief Operations Officer at Tesco Ireland:  

“I think it was obvious at that stage what way this was going and that stuff was going to happen. You could see it moving across Europe. The crisis management team, they were meeting for an hour day — they were now full-time and doing nothing else.

“We were already having the toilet rolls problem and there was already stocking up on products. People were starting to stock, I’d say at least a week out, buying more pasta and I would call it ‘air raid shelter food’. That sort of stuff. Disaster planning. So you knew something was going to happen.” 


Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Alan Mongey, President of the National Association of Principals & Deputy Principals (NAPD) and Principal of Coláiste Bhaile Chláir in Claregalway:

“In the days leading up to it, a lot of it was not to raise anxiety levels too much amongst people – to try and keep a calm and even keel on everything for as best we could. Because if teachers get stressed, you can be 100% certain that the students are going to be stressed.”

Ann Piggott, English teacher at Pobalscoil Inbhear Scéine in Kenmare: 

“Even if I just leave the rumours for a start … Even just going into school, and knowing that this thing was potentially reaching us and talking to my classes and telling them, you know, ‘wash your hands’, even as simple as that … They were looking up at me as if they’ve never heard anything about it before.

“I suppose I knew what was probably coming at some point, but I didn’t think it would come so soon or so suddenly.”

Anthony Blake, Siptu union rep working in logistics on a site in Dublin 4: 

“Gradually, as it was coming nearer the day for the lockdown, people were getting worried about going into work. There were some people with small kids, some things depended on people’s age … some people had diabetes or underlying conditions.”

Donal Barry, Chairperson of Higher Education Colleges Ladies Football: 

“Our O’Connor Cup was planned for Kerry on the Friday and Saturday. We had 18 teams coming to Kerry for the weekend and funny enough that morning, at about half-nine, I got a phone call from the CEO of the LGFA, Helen O’Rourke saying there’s going to be an announcement made later and it might affect what’s going on over the weekend.

“Colleges then started ringing in. DCU rang in and said, ‘Listen, you know, we’re a bit nervous about coming to Kerry at the weekend. Will it be on? Won’t it be cancelled?”

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Newspaper headlines carry details of the first Irish death. Nine new cases had been confirmed the previous evening.


Source: RollingNews.ie

Niall Rochford, General Manager at Ashford Castle in Co Mayo:

“From a guest perspective, we were trying to make it as normal as possible, however we did have to change things like breakfast buffets to reduce table numbers, and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning and hygiene, hygiene, hygiene everywhere. 

“Something that we were used to very much in the background had to become very much to the foreground so that people saw we were taking it seriously.”

Shona Bourke, owner of the Rye River Café in Kilcock, Co Kildare: 

“It was just that feeling of uncertainty about how it would affect us in general. I suppose it always felt some distance – it was happening in other countries and all of a sudden it was coming to Ireland, and we were being told with certainty that people would be sick and people would die.

“I suppose that really scares you. Especially when you employ people locally that you really care about, you know, that you’ve become part of a team. So I think the number one priority for me was to keep people safe, my staff, my customers, my own family – because we all work together.”

Donal Barry (ladies football):

“Even at that stage, silly … well I suppose they’re silly things now at the time, we thought they were massive things … like, we had planned to clean out dressing rooms after teams had moved in and moved out and even for feeding the teams, we had a one-way system where they would go in one way and out the other way. We had kind of an idea without ever knowing what we were doing, if that makes any sense?”

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Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Mary Favier, GP and President of the Irish College of General Practitioners: 

“I was supposed to fly out to the States on the Wednesday, the 11th, to a meeting in New York. I only cancelled that on Tuesday and said I wouldn’t go. I was really only cancelling that because of the circumstances in New York at the time, New York was getting bad.

“We had already started making changes in our own practice, but also I had started to be involved both in GP education and giving, you know, instructions to GPs about how best to manage their practices and manage things like PPE, and then I also started to be involved in national meetings with the HSE in the Department of Health.

“Things had been ramping up very quickly in the previous two weeks. We’d had our first case on February 29th but we had started the preparations before that. There was a really strong heightened sense of activity and awareness.”

Paul Reid (HSE CEO):

“It was very clear. If you take from the 27th of January, from when we started our first crisis management team, we had been preparing around capacity in our acute system, how we procure PPE, how we procure ventilators, what were the issues for community teams in terms of working with a wide range of facilities?”

Phil Ní Sheaghdha, General Secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation: 

“We were worried, particularly around our ICU capacity. And we were in contact with our colleagues overseas who were concerned, particularly in Italy. We’re affiliated to the European Nursing Federation and we were getting some information from them that this was a very contagious virus.

“We were worried about PPE, we were worried about the availability of PPE and our members had started, our infection control nurses, had started training. We had some training done in relation to Ebola, and it wasn’t exactly the same. It was similar … so when you’re ‘donning and doffing’ – that’s the term they use.

“We were getting the information from the Chief Clinical Officer’s office of the HSE, Dr Colm Henry. We were also comparing it with what was happening abroad and they were two weeks ahead of us in most locations. So we were looking for the cancellations and the lockdowns.”

Colm Henry, Chief Clinical Officer at the HSE: 

“We were watching the experiences of China and Italy knowing it was coming but not quite being certain of the impact. What was happening in Northern Italy clearly informed our thinking and planning.

“But it’s important, as I keep emphasising … so much has been learned about this virus it’s easy to forget how little we knew then.”

Mary Favier:

“I think we learned so much from the Italian experience. That sounds terrible but the Italians did us a huge favour. We had a lot of connections with medical colleagues in Italy, particularly Northern Italy. And they updated us hugely on all the things that were happening and how bad it was. And so that put the frighteners on us.”

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Empty streets in Venice on Monday 9 March.


Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Bryan Dobson, Presenter of Morning Ireland: 

“After I came off air the managing editor came and took me aside and said would I stand by and that there was a possibility for a statement from the Taoiseach which we’d be taking live from Washington, and it would be very unusual.

“That was the first time I became aware that something was up. I mean it would be very unusual for the Taoiseach on a trip to Washington to be taking that moment out to make an announcement or to make a statement like that. Once you heard that was on the cards, you had a pretty good idea there was going to be some significant development. It’s a day where they have the breakfast with the Vice President, and I’ve covered those things and I know it’s a very packed schedule.

“The statement was from Blair House which is a guest house that’s used by people who are visiting the White House in an official capacity.”

Christina Finn: 

“We were told the Taoiseach’s morning address was being moved forward by two hours to 7am. So 11am back home. As it was such an early start we knew it had to be something big. 

“We made our way to Blair House in taxis. We had to go through security, get searched, get our bags searched and show our passports to be checked.

“We all set up outside the doorway and I remember there were a good few minutes where the flags were being sorted. The Irish flag beside the podium was lopsided. Couldn’t have that, so cardboard had to be put underneath it to steady it. It was all very tense.” 

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Bryan Dobson: 

“We went on air. Brian O’Donovan, who’s the Washington Correspondent, was across us as well obviously. He has a camera crew standing by, who’ve set up their position.

“We were expecting the announcement. It took a while before he came out, maybe 20 minutes or so but you get into the usual. We were kind of talking around. I think at that stage the word had begun to filter out what might be on the cards, but it was kind of obvious you know. 

“It wasn’t a big shock when it came. Although when you actually hear these things announced it always has that extra impact doesn’t it?” 

“We have not witnessed a pandemic of this nature in living memory, This is uncharted territory,” the Taoiseach said in his Blair House speech. 

“We said we would take the right actions at the right time. We have to move now to have the greatest impact.”

He announced that all schools, childcare facilities and third level institutions were to close at 6pm that evening until at least Monday 29 March – two-and-a-half weeks later. 

People were urged to work from home wherever possible. All public buildings and tourism sites would also shut. Mass gatherings of over 100 people indoors and 500 outdoors were to be cancelled. 

Shops, pubs, restaurants and cafés could stay open – but all bars and food businesses would be asked to bring in social distancing. 

The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus at that point stood at 43, with one death announced. Varadkar said there would be more cases, more people would get sick, “and unfortunately we must face the tragic reality that some people will die”.

Tadhg Daly, Chief Executive Officer of Nursing Homes Ireland: 

“I was in the office on the 12th – we were all there – I remember gathering around the computer watching the Taoiseach make his address. I took a photo of it and sent it to the lads in the office, I can’t remember the caption I put on it now, but there was a sense of foreboding.” 

Karen Clince, Managing Director of Tigers Childcare:

“I never thought it was going to be that bad and that we were going to take that stance so quickly. I was shocked. And I was over in the UK at the time, we had only opened over there three weeks previously and I was kind of putting in my footwork there on the ground.”

Avril Stanley, Festival Director of Body and Soul: 

“There was just that feeling of, like just something kind of sinking in very slowly that was on the periphery of my awareness that was saying ‘you know, things are changing, and we don’t know where we’re going’. And I could feel that palpable sense of fear rising, both in myself and across the country where people were heading into that place of subtle panic.”

Jennifer* – a nurse based in Dublin: 

“I was in the West on a break. I wasn’t even in Dublin. I wasn’t at home. I wasn’t hearing my family freak out, which maybe was a good thing. I had my boyfriend there to calm me down because I was like, ‘Oh, my whole ward is gonna be different … I’m going to get Covid-19, I’m gonna bring it home and everyone’s going to get sick!’ And so they were thoughts that did go through my mind.”

Cillian de Gascun:

“Because of just having been in the meeting a few hours previously, I was very keen to see how it all translated into the public arena and what the Taoiseach took from it. It was really striking. I have to say I thought he spoke well on the day and I thought there was something very strange to see him doing it in the States, something that’s so significant for the country, but to be giving a speech from outside.”

Bryan Dobson: 

“I think very often politicians are advised not to make major statements when they’re outside the country because you’re detached to some extent but you know time was clearly a big factor here and there wasn’t any time to delay, to try and contemplate the decision, and he had to do it.”

Shona Bourke (Rye River Café):

“I feel like when I was watching Leo Varadkar speaking that he definitely gave us a feeling of optimism, even though it was such negative news. I think it was, you know, together, we can do it. Everybody just has to play their part.”

Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Finance: 

“I didn’t have a sense of people being stunned actually. I had a sense over the previous 24 to 48 hours that it was becoming apparent to the country that this was a massive national challenge. Because by that week, you know, you could see what was happening in other European countries. There was an increasing awareness of what was happening in Italy.

“So I think, by the time the Taoiseach spoke, he was speaking to a country that knew that this was a huge, huge, huge crisis.”

Tony Holohan: 

“I’ll be honest and say I felt supported. I felt supported by the political system, which is a good feeling because I know that colleagues of mine, if you like, in other countries won’t have felt that. But that’s what I felt.”

Karen Clince (Tigers Childcare):

“It was a bit surreal and I suppose, in London, nothing had happened at that stage and there wasn’t even talk of it. I was with my staff team at the time and I remember I was telling them what was happening in Ireland and they were just saying ‘that will never happen here, we will never close here’.”

Emma Kelly, Irish journalist based in London:

“It was a very odd situation. Looking at your phone and seeing schools are closing. This is happening. That is happening. But literally nothing was happening in London.”

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Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 pictured on 12 March.


Source: Steve Parsons

Ken Reid, Political Editor at UTV: 

“I had been in Heathrow Airport, I would have been on the 12th, the day of the Taoiseach’s speech coming back and Heathrow Airport was spooky. You noticed the number of people who were wearing masks and how quiet it was compared to normal. So it was already in the psyche there’s no question about that. 

“There was a reluctance to close schools here but Arlene Foster did indicate quite early that when the schools closed, they wouldn’t be open again until the autumn, she was quite definite about that.”

Ann Piggott (Teacher):

“I was surprised that the schools had closed so fast. I think that was my main thing. I remember thinking it was a really good decision, an unexpectedly good decision and so sudden. I think I was shocked at the suddenness of it, that they made the move so quickly.”

Alan Mongey (Principal): 

“Kids were starting to get emails from parents at home and the messages started to go quite quickly. It’s amazing how quickly it went around the school before we had an opportunity to speak to the students. It went around like wildfire.”

Poppy Kane, sixth year student at Rockwell College in Co Tipperary:

“We were coming out of class and the sixth years had PE and I remember there were people running around and it was odd.

“I remember seeing everyone gathered around a table. I was like, ‘What is going on?’. And one of the boys started, like, jumping up and down, like obviously happy. I was like, ‘what’s happening?’, and he showed me the phone. They had watched it in a different class, so I was seeing the article 40 minutes later saying that the schools are closing and I remember I just got really emotional and my friends were like, ‘Poppy, what are you doing? Like it’s two weeks off of school’ – that was kind of everyone’s first reaction.

“And I just remember thinking I’d been so nervous about the fact we only had 11 weeks left together and my first thought was now it’s been cut short. And it surely won’t last for only two weeks if it’s big enough to close all the schools? 

“And I just remember, it was the weirdest thing. Everyone was so happy and we had PE then and everyone was happy. And everyone’s like, ‘Oh, we have two weeks off, it’s like a holiday, it’ll be great’. I went to the bathroom and I got a bit upset and then I went back up.”

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Journalists awaiting the ministerial press conference in Dublin watch the Taoiseach’s speech on their phones.


Source: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images

Niall Rochford (Ashford Castle): 

“I think how Leo Varadkar spoke that day – clear, concise, measured. I think actually it really did reassure – a sense that this is really serious, but we’re going to manage this, we’re going to control this with a plan. I think in any scenario, any crisis, that’s exactly what you need to hear. 

“As a result of that then, I had a little bit of reassurance and confidence that I could go and speak to the team in a clear, concise and honest way that this is going to be very, very difficult and difficult decisions will need to be taken, but we’re all in this together.”

Geoff Byrne (Tesco): 

“I remember with the schools closing, us thinking, ‘That that’s pretty significant, actually’. And if I’m honest, I think we probably thought, ‘It will probably get a little bit busier now in the shops – there’ll be even more stockpiling and it will get even busier’ is what we thought. What happened was probably a bit more than that.” 

Dave Allen, booker at Whelan’s of Wexford Street in Dublin: 

“I actually didn’t hear it live because I was walking from the car into work. By the time I got into work the lads were like, ‘no gigs over 100 people’.

“It was, like, so in theory, we could have had the gigs on that night. But the decision was kind of made with everybody, that’s just … it’s best just to cancel straight away. We had a sellout gig in our main room. We had a gig that was sold out in our upstairs room. And then we had a gig in Opium, which was China Crisis funnily enough. So we had to cancel all three of those.

“China Crisis had already landed in the country. And so we had to ring them up while they were checking in to the hotel, just to say ‘go home’.

“The other thing that struck me was how quickly everyone just accepted it, you know, no one worried about money or said, like, ‘oh, who’s gonna pay for this?’ or ‘who’s gonna look after that?’ It was just ‘yeah that makes sense’, pretty much across the board.

Avril Stanley (Body & Soul): 

“For us as a festival that gathers 10 to 15 thousand people over three days and three nights? How can we even have a sense of clarity around whether we can wholeheartedly commit to delivering a show when we’re potentially putting people’s lives at risk?”

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Goldfrapp headline the Body & Soul Festival in 2014.


Source: Allen Kiely

Minutes after the Taoiseach finished his address in Washington a ministerial press conference began in Dublin. Tánaiste Simon Coveney said the measures “will disrupt every day connectivity, a connectivity that makes us who we really are”.

Tony Holohan confirmed the closures were recommended the previous night after the emergence of new information on the numbers and types of cases. 

Ministers Simon Harris and Heather Humphreys warned against coronavirus panic-buying. Later, Education Minister Joe McHugh said exam year students should be prioritised for support. He urged students to take books home.

The remaining St Patrick’s Festival events were cancelled shortly afterwards. A slew of similar announcements covering music, theatre and sport followed.

Coveney confirmed at the press conference that a special Cabinet meeting was to take place as soon as it was over.

Regina Doherty: 

“We had been working on a scheme in our Department to look after people if they fell ill or if they had to self-isolate because they’d been in contact with somebody who was ill. So, like, we had worked for two weeks on developing that scheme, presented that scheme on the Monday, had huge conversations as to the cost of it – two-and-a-half billion, which is an enormous amount of money.

“Literally, that was a Monday afternoon meeting, here we were on the Thursday and the world had utterly changed. And now we were closing everybody down the next day. So like all I could think of was ‘Holy God, how am I going to fix what needs to be fixed?’” 

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Simon Harris and Simon Coveney walk to the press conference ahead of a Cabinet meeting that afternoon.


Source: PA

“We had a Cabinet meeting that Thursday … then we had to kick in ourselves in our own Department, and Finance had to kick in incredibly fast to try and find an income replacement scheme for not just small numbers of people that we had expected – and actually I don’t say small numbers, we’d expected large numbers of people to have to access the Covid illness payment over the coming months – but those numbers paled in comparison to the amount of people that were going to be told to go home tomorrow and not work.”

Paschal Donohoe: 

“We were, for large parts of our economy, moving into a next-to-nil demand environment. And because we were moving into a next-to-nil demand environment, income in the companies was going to be negligible.

“We realised that we were going to have to put in place something like the wage subsidy scheme. And we were beginning to see that other countries were doing it.”

Regina Doherty: 

“I think actually that was the last time, that meeting, that we had in our Cabinet Room, if I remember rightly that was on the 12th of March. And from there our Cabinet meetings were split across three rooms and remotely.”

  • Related: The key dates in Ireland’s initial response to the global Covid-19 pandemic >

Tadhg Daly (Nursing Homes Ireland):

“One issue at that stage was whether we had enough laptops – you know, practical questions like that. I remember we couldn’t get new laptops at that stage, I was onto our suppliers and managed to get some reconditioned ones.” 

Jennifer* (Nurse): 

“The fear factor for work was not knowing whether or not the hospital was going to be completely different when I went back in.”

Phil Ní Sheaghdha (INMO):

“The first thing they looked for were those who had recently, within the last two years, worked in ICU and sought their redeployment. They were the most easily retrained. And then they looked for people who had left prior to that to re-train. So all of that work was going on all of that time.”

Greg Ennis, divisional organiser at Siptu:  

“The meat industry was deemed essential. From the very start, with people on the ground, there were concerns about physical distancing and close proximity and all the rest of it – because of the nature of the industry. None of us were experts yet in this, and how certain things could spread the virus. 

“What people didn’t grasp early on was this wasn’t an industry where you could have staggered shifts, people work closely together in these jobs.”

Shona Bourke (Rye River Café): 

“I have four children that all have an underlying heart condition. So there was always this in the back of my mind – if I still have my two sons down in work, am I exposing them? Do I need to close? But there’s the financial implications, you know, there’s health and the finances, and obviously everybody is thinking about health.

“I think at that point, we had made a decision on the 12th that we wouldn’t have our children working there anymore, and that I wouldn’t be in the cafe anymore. So it would be my husband running it.”

Brian MacCraith, President of DCU: 

“We had already decided we would be moving lectures online so really the Taoiseach’s speech confirmed it. 

“I live on campus with my wife. I was in the States, my wife was here, and she just told me about hearing the sounds of student’s suitcases on the pavement carrying down the Ballymun Road. She said it was quite ominous, and that image has really stuck with me.” 

Ann Piggott (Teacher): 

“I also remember – well, I suppose everybody was worried about elderly relations. I was worried about my mother in case she got it or my aunt or my uncle, you know.”

Tadhg Daly: 

“I knew this was going to be challenging, but I could never have imagined how life-changing it is for all of us, absolutely not. Even working through it over the last couple of months, I suppose we kept very focused on what we were trying to do and didn’t get sucked into wallowing on what might have been. 

“I knew it would be significant but the way it panned out for nursing homes and older people – even society at large, it changed how we operate and live and work. At that early stage I wouldn’t have had any sense of that.” 

Alan Mongey (Principal):

“We pulled the Leaving Certs together in particular for a long time. We sat with them for an hour. We’ve 200 Leaving Certs. We set a map out or a plan for them on that day for the next two weeks – ‘We’re gonna deal with this in two week blocks’. You know, because there was a lot of uncertainty. Is the Leaving Cert going to go ahead? What could happen? 

“These are 18-year-olds. They’re clever, they’re bright. They could see what was happening at the time. Certainly, I said to them, ‘We won’t be back this side of Easter’. I said this wasn’t going to be two weeks – be prepared that we won’t be back until after Easter. I said we can’t guess and we can’t presume what will happen, but there’s a fair chance we won’t be back in May either.” 

“You know, I kind of said to them: ‘If it comes to pass, that the orals or the practicals or the Leaving Cert doesn’t go ahead, I made the point to them, you can rest assured that the entire system will do the best by you.’”

Poppy Kane (sixth year student): 

“I remember that striking me as well as like – no one knows what’s going on. I’m – so we have all these questions that need to be answered but realistically, no one knew them.”

Cillian de Gascun: 

“I didn’t stockpile anything, but I could understand – like I said, I’m a virologist this is what I do – so I could understand why there would be the fear there because it is an unknown and people were operating on the basis that they’d seen lockdown in other countries, the shops might not be open in a week, might not be open in ten days.”

Geoff Byrne (Tesco):

“I don’t know if you remember Storm Emma in 2018 and the national shutdown? That caused chaos in the supply chain — all of a sudden there was no food in like half a day. We had to do a big review after Storm Emma and we said, ‘Hang on a second. Our supply chain has to be more robust than that. It can’t just empty that quickly.’

“The other thing is that some time last year —  actually it was across Tesco group — every business in Tesco did a simulation, a crisis management-type simulation. And it was really interesting. We got all our people in a room and the typical scenario was something like all the stores are closed, or your head offices is blown up, that sort of stuff… and you thought it through and said, ‘What could cause that? War or stuff like that.’ And actually, one of the scenarios, really the most likely was some sort of awful virus.”

Tadhg Daly: 

“The afternoon of the 12th I saw lots of frantic activity outside the supermarkets, the queues.”

Luke* – a Garda based in south Dublin: 

“I’ll always remember our skipper coming in to us and saying ‘right, go on up to Tesco and keep an eye’. I remember it clear as day. I was chatting to my partner about what I’m going to do with the kids as the schools were closing. My wife’s mother usually looks after them when we’re stuck but she was ill.

“The drive up to Tesco isn’t long from the station. We were there laughing, thinking about lads fighting over a bag of spuds. We turned the corner and it was bedlam. Nobody getting in or out of the place. It was just wedged.

“We had to go in and talk to the manager and say ‘you’re going to have to do something about this as someone is going to get injured’. He decided to close the shop for an hour to restock the shelves and bring a bit of calm. Nobody was arrested but there was just this air about the place, like someone could just say the wrong thing to someone else and we’ll be in the middle of madness.”

Noel Durack, butcher at Supervalu:

“There was panic buying, there were queues outside, the whole lot. People weren’t sure when they could get in, what was the story, how many were allowed in.” 

“I’m there five days a week. You’d notice the panic buying but you wouldn’t do it yourself. You were there all the time and there was no hassle. Our manager assured us – and he was saying it to the customers too – there’s fresh food, we’re not going to run out.”

069Food Shopping
Empty toilet roll shelves at Tesco in Newbridge, Co Kildare.


Source: Rollingnews.ie

Geoff Byrne (Tesco):

“It was around lunchtime when a couple of store managers rang in to say — and it was only a couple in one or two really busy areas — who rang up to say, ‘I’m gonna have to close the shop for a while for safety reasons’.

“The store manager in Clare Hall, which is one of our busiest shops, rang me to say, ‘Listen, Geoff. I’m gonna have to close the store for a while’. I said, ‘Really? Why would you do that?’ He said, ‘It’s not safe’. He said it was so busy that people couldn’t get up and down the aisles and he said, ‘Look, I’m gonna have to shut it down for an hour and let them through’ and all that stuff. I said, ‘Okay fair enough. That’s your call.’”

Bryan Dobson: 

“That passed very quickly in my recollection, there was the rush to buy toilet roll for some reason but within a day or two people seemed to see that there was going to be all kinds of things happening and changes in our lives, but the shelves running empty wasn’t going to be one of them.”

Geoff Byrne: 

“The only reason there was a run on bog rolls is because there was a problem in Australia. That was actually a funny thing in the build up to this – that for some reason in Australia they ran out of bog roll right? Then, on the other side of the world in Ireland, everyone is talking about bog rolls… So the only reason we ran out of bog rolls is that the Australians ran out of bog rolls and everyone panicked.

“It got to the stage where were were almost having to say… we couldn’t fit enough food on the lorries coming out of the distribution centres because they were all full of toilet rolls. I actually had to make a decision one day and say to the lads, ‘Don’t put any more toilet rolls on the lorry. It doesn’t matter. Everyone has rooms full of them!’”

1241 Shopping


Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Luke* (Garda):

“We were relieved by another pair as we had other things to do that day. But I remember being in the car and seeing the traffic jams … I’ll always remember there was this one fella. We were in the bus lane of a dual carriageway and he swings out in front of us. The lights go on, we pull him in and he says he wants to get to the shops. He says he heard that the supermarkets are only allowing small amounts of food to be bought.” 

Cillian de Gascun: 

“I would know sensible friends and colleagues who would have bought additional supplies of water and that sort of stuff just because of the unpredictability of the whole thing and the uncertainty of the whole thing at that point.

“The advice we were giving to discourage people from doing that was that it wasn’t necessary to do that. But I think when people have access to the internet, to Twitter, to social media it’s very easy to build up a level of fear. What we’re trying to do from a communications perspective is we want people to, I suppose, respect the virus, for want of a better word – but there’s a very fine line between that and fear.”  

Geoff Byrne:

“Early on, we probably thought supply chain and stock availability was the key thing. But we were almost up and over that and I actually quickly came to realise that the safety of our people is the most important thing, not just because it’s the most important thing anyway – but because if we didn’t get that right and people end up sick or in isolation, that would be what would cause the system to fall over. If we had be swathes of staff not being able to come to work that would have been the real problem.

“We have a lot of  health and safety professionals in the business which is helpful but there was a lot of going out and talking to people in shops. That was how we worked together to make sure we could keep the show on the road.

“Our checkout people could have been dealing with a thousand people a day on a busy enough checkout, potentially putting them at risk, and the depots are the same actually.”

1516 Food Queues
The scene at the Clearwater Shopping Centre, Finglas, in the wake of the Taoiseach’s speech.


Source: RollingNews.ie

Mary Favier (GP): 

“It was apparent from the very early days that a huge amount of non-Covid work was going to be displaced by the Covid work and Covid anxiety.

“That’s proven to be the case, that combination of patient anxiety and fear about literally leaving their homes versus coming into the surgery and then their desire, well intended, not to overburden us because we were so busy.”

Paul Reid (HSE CEO)

“You knew you were taking very significant actions that would have a very significant impact on society. We were confident that they were the right things to do at that point in time.

“When we saw what was happening in Europe … a lot of our own staff, a lot of the public, were quite scared.”

Jennifer* (Nurse)

“I would have been be quite anxious because I felt like I was going to infect my family and I felt like they were gonna treat me like I was infectious.

“But in a really twisted way, that was kind of the best way to go about it because nobody else in my family got Covid-19 when I got it because we all treated it like I was infectious from day one, in that I was being so careful.

“My clothes from work were in a bag, I didn’t actually come into the house until they were being washed … I was washing my hands and doing all the things that we were supposed to be doing and not socialising with anybody outside my house. My family, in my household, were so good at following the guidelines.”

Avril Stanley (Body & Soul):

“I’d never imagined that I would witness a global pandemic in my lifetime, or reflected on what that would mean for every man, woman and child worldwide. I mean, it’s such a profound shift in reality that no one could prepare for or know how to navigate without really clear guidance.” 

Shona Bourke (Rye River Café):

“We have 14 tables of two people in the café, which sort of seats 28 to 30 people. I think we tried to remove five or six tables at the start. I think we actually started off with four tables that we removed, and we still couldn’t get the one metre distance.

“But the problem in a small community, in a small town like ours, is that everybody wants to sit together. And so if people tried to pull tables together, and you know, we were sort of at that time saying, do we start telling customers that they can’t do that, that they can’t sit together?”

Ronan Lynch, publican at The Swan in Dublin and chairperson of the Licensed Vintners Association:

“We didn’t have any guidelines around how to police things at that stage. It was difficult as there was no social distancing. My initial concern was how it would operate. Our capacity would be a lot higher than 100. There was a lot of confusion about it. We felt that without guidelines from government, I felt it would be difficult to operate.”

Dave Allen (Whelan’s):

“It was an awful lot of work involved for us just to start letting people know and trying to figure out how to reschedule gigs and when to reschedule gigs, and you know, the whole business was kind of thrown in the air within a space of a few hours. But just the acceptance I think for everyone that it just, it had to happen, you know?”

12-03-2020-Time-08 (1)

taoiseach-visit-to-the-us
Source: Niall Carson

Around the country, workers were streaming out of offices. Schools were already emptying. Arrangements were being made to pick children up early from creches. 

The GAA announced the suspension of all sporting activities until 29 March “in line with the government announcements”. 

Leo Varadkar met with Donald Trump in the Oval Office. The pair did not shake hands.

The Taoiseach announced he would fly home that night, a day earlier than planned.  

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Mary Favier (GP):

“I can remember that we were going to have to make some really rapid changes and that we were going to have to really critically look at who could work, who couldn’t work, who was vulnerable, who needed to cocoon.

“So that was just in the sense of the staff preparation, what we needed to do to manage the footfall across the practice in terms of signage, closing doors, disinfectants, alcohol dispensers as you come in … then we went about prioritising patient lists, who were our vulnerable patients, who needed to be called and who needed to be given information.”

Phil Ní Sheaghdha (INMO):

“We had to start mobilising to make sure PPE was available. Over the two weekends, we had a lot of conference calls with the HSE clinical and infection control teams because we wanted policies on where PPE should be worn and that it shouldn’t be dependent upon availability.

“Because we knew that this was a very high risk environment, we wanted maximum use of PPE to ensure for our members that if they were exposed, we could protect them.”

Geoff Byrne (Tesco): 

“I’d say the same as every other office around that time, we decided that most people can work from home. We actually kept the crisis management team in the office for about the first week, because it was helpful for them to have infrastructure.”

Ann Piggott (Teacher):

“I think it was a case of everyone grabbing what they could and went. Some schools for a week or two before that had been told about remote teaching and had got training whereas I think most teachers didn’t and I think everyone left on the Thursday … you know, in a way, it was almost like the snow days when they come, you get three days but then the snow melts.

“But this was very different, and just highly different, not knowing when, how, where you were going to go back – and I suppose also having to realise that you’re going to have to find some other way to teach them online.”

Alan Mongey (Principal): 

“We just spoke to them about – look, if you’re at home try to get into the same routines. Get up early, you know, attend your classes online. Teachers will set you, not every class, but the teacher will send you an email at the beginning of the week to let you know what classes you need to be there for, and what classes you can work independently on. Don’t stay up late, don’t be playing Fortnite or whatever it is, Modern Warfare, half the night. And then mind yourself and your family.”

Poppy Kane (sixth year): 

“I remember my brother, he was in college in Dublin, and he came home that day. And I just remember thinking, it was kind of like there’s this feeling I get when, you know, when you’re walking home from a concert, or you’re coming home from this big event.

“And it was just, it was like something was hanging in the air. And no one really knew. No one had the answers. And no one knew what to say.”

Luke* (Garda):

“It’s hard to describe but there was just this tension there that I’ve only ever felt before when policing protests or marches, like something is going to happen, you don’t know when or what, but that there’s something there.”

dublin-daily-life
Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Niall Rochford (Ashford Castle):

“I think some people questioned why we stayed open but I think we did the right thing. We questioned ourselves at the time about staying open or closing, but I know that the guests we had in the house were not Irish, who really needed a refuge.”

Ronan Lynch (The Swan):

“Obviously, I’m chairman of the LVA, we discussed it and we had a meeting on the Tuesday a week before. We realised something may happen. We felt there might be a temporary closing down.”

Shona Bourke (Rye River Café):

“Myself and my husband had sort of started the conversation about when it was the right time to close. I think, the 12th of March, I knew we were coming up to Patrick’s Day as well, which would be one of the busiest days of the year, but obviously the parades were cancelled.”

Karen Clince (Tigers Childcare):

“I think for parents the major concern was what they were going to do in relation to work, in relation to their children.”

Noel Durack (Supervalu): 

“At the start we just didn’t know what the story was, were we going to be closed, were we going to have a job? It was a worry, in fairness.”

12-03-2020-Time-09

The UK had just announced a ramping up of its response to coronavirus with Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling it the “worst public health crisis for a generation”. Schools, however, weren’t being told to close as yet.

At home, Tony Holohan appeared on the Six One news to explain why the extreme measures announced by the Taoiseach were now necessary. 

The number of new cases of Covid-19 – twenty-seven – were publicly revealed at a NPHET press briefing, bringing the total cases so far to 70. There was a doubling of the number of patients in ICU – rising from three to six. 

Holohan said closing schools was an “important part of the strategy” and didn’t rule out a further extension to the shutdown measures. 

Cillian de Gascun: 

“The challenge with making decisions at that time was wondering how long they would have to be in place for – so I suppose one of the key things we wanted our decisions to be at that stage was proportionate to what we believed the risk to be.”

Tony Holohan: 

“We were doing this in response to what’s now a relatively modest number of cases by virtue of, like, what we’ve seen over the last couple of months. These are small numbers of cases, small numbers of admissions, but it was something that was changing quickly and we knew we had to get in early on.

“So we set up significant recommendations, albeit they were replaced by more significant ones that we implemented early. And so I think they ticked the box of proportionality, it would have been totally disproportionate of us to go, in my view, to the full set of measures to be ultimately recommended at the end of March on the basis of what we had seen.

“The bit that everybody has to remember is at a point in time, you can only take decisions on the basis of the information available to you at that point. Something that happens after the fact and isn’t available to you at that point can’t play any role in a decision that you’re making at that point in time.”

Mary Favier: 

“I was reassured by what had happened. But then, as you’d imagine in every single family, at the dinner table, everybody was assessing their own family risks.

“I have two elderly parents, both 90, what would it mean for them? What would it mean that I could potentially bring Covid home – because I was going to be the highest risk person in the household? And, you know, I’ve two daughters in college in Dublin. What would it mean for them?” 

Alan Mongey (Principal):

“When I went home that evening, I was kind of trying to figure out how to identify those kids that might need extra support and how do I get support for them now that the school is shut? And the kids then that mightn’t be able to engage with online learning or devices at home.

“It was those practicalities of worrying about the kids who wouldn’t be able to engage to the same extent and move on as the 80 to 90% kids who were able to. So that evening I was contacting other principals – ‘What do you think? What are you thinking of doing?’

“I’d started to put the feelers out there to see – right, so I have 10 to 15 kids doing the Leaving Cert who don’t have access to a device at home? How do I get 10 to 15 laptops? Very quickly, the system starts to rally around.”

Geoff Byrne (Tesco):

“When the shelves were empty at seven o’clock that evening, I knew that they’d be at least reasonably full at seven o’clock next morning – and the next day, and the next day, and the next day.

“Some of the challenge was just trying to convince everybody else of that – staff, customers everybody. That went on for several days if you remember, it was almost like I had to say to everyone every morning, ‘Look, lads. The shelves are full again,’ and then the next morning, ‘Look, they’re full again. It’s okay. Calm down. We’re not going to run out of food.’”

12-03-2020-Time-11

French President Emmanuel Macron had announced all schools and colleges in the country would be closed following a spike in the virus, calling it “one of the most serious health crises France has ever faced”.

Belgium also announced sweeping measures to shut bars, restaurants and clubs and to cancel sporting events. 

At home, later that night, Simon Coveney said on Prime Time that racegoers returning to Ireland from Cheltenham would be reminded at ports and airports of the need to self-isolate if they show symptoms.

Ronan Lynch: 

“You could sense people weren’t happy going into pubs. For us, I noticed it on Thursday night. People saying “aw it’s a bit busy in here now”.

“Cheltenham week was on. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – busy. We were having a good day Thursday but … you could definitely sense a change. People’s behaviour was changing. People weren’t happy going into a pub that was packed. Definite sense things were changing.”

good-friday-alcohol-ban-to-be-lifted
Ronan Lynch of The Swan Bar.


Source: PA

Dave Allen (Whelan’s): 

“I wasn’t actually there that evening myself. The bar opened – I think that night and even the night after, just the bar. I just remember talking to our bar manager and him saying the next day what a strange atmosphere it was around, and that it was a lot quieter than usual.”

Emma Kelly (Irish journalist in London): 

“I know that week I was still going to the pub. I remember my last night I went out would have been the 13th, the day after.

“I remember being in the pub, I was talking to the person I was with. All we were talking about was coronavirus. It felt so strange. We’re talking about a pandemic and this pub is packed, and people are smoking outside. There’s crowds outside. And then after that I was like ‘no I’m not’ … I was like ‘that’s the end of it’.”

Luke* (Garda)

“I think everyone was trying to find their feet. There was no orders in place for pubs to shut or that travel was being banned, that came later. So, we were just there to reassure people that everything was going to be okay, that the shops aren’t going to run out of food and that those who needed help got it.”

Geoff Byrne (Tesco):

“One thing that I thought was remarkable was the behaviour of people, as in customers – Irish people’s behaviour. We have 150 stores and in that first week we had well over a million people through the doors and I’m not aware of a single incident of poor behaviour. I did see that another in other countries and probably you would have seen stuff online like people fighting over stuff, that kind of thing. It was remarkable how orderly, how well behaved, how good natured people were.

“There was a bit of the Blitz spirit to it almost. Honestly, there wasn’t a single incident of people misbehaving in shops or jumping queues or falling out with people. And that actually really helps. The public were stocking up and buying lots of stuff, but they were calm.”

Avril Stanley (Body & Soul): 

“I think as a country, we’ve all acted in a way where I think people have taken it very seriously. And in truth, I’m proud of how as a nation, we have navigated such a huge and phenomenal shift in our lives.”

Bryan Dobson:

“It’s one of the biggest, possibly the biggest story I’ve covered and I’ve covered through the economic crash and all that. Everything has happened extremely quickly and it really is unprecedented, none of us really have any … we have a roadmap, so called, for reopening the country but we don’t have a roadmap for how this is going to play itself out.

“That’s something I haven’t experienced before, and it affects everybody. There’s nobody untouched or detached from this. It affects people differently and I think there are people suffering more severely than others – but in the sense that we’re all in this together, there’s a truth to that.”

Cillian de Gascun:

“From a personal perspective, there’s nothing that I look back on now and think ‘I should have said that’ or ‘I should have said the other’ – it was such, I suppose, a fast-moving situation in some respects. This time it was the first time I would have been involved in NPHET where there was a clear and present danger, to use a phrase from a movie title.”

Luke* (Garda)

“I went home that day. The kids were already asleep and I sat down in the living room and stuck on the telly. My wife came down and just said – ‘right, what are we going to do?’ That was that.”

Poppy Kane (sixth year)

“It wasn’t just a news article anymore, it was our lives.”

12-03-2020-Time-01

* Names have been changed.

Interviews by Laura Byrne, Ian Curran, Rónán Duffy, Órla Dwyer, Christina Finn, Michelle Hennessy, Stephen McDermott, Dominic McGrath, Tadhg McNally, Garreth MacNamee, Sean Murray, Gráinne Ní Aodha, Órla Ryan and Cónal Thomas. Videos by Nicky Ryan. Design by Shane Delahunty. Edited by Daragh Brophy. 

Get up to date on the latest coronavirus news and facts for Ireland here.

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