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25/10/2021

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN: Dreaming of better days around the Loughshore

People in Ballyronan and The Loup are looking forward to being free from lockdown at some point.

LIFE IN LOCKDOWN: Dreaming of better days around the Loughshore

A bitter wind rocks the car as I pull up alongside the Ballyronan Road. Four or five cars sit outside the Mace, with people darting in and out, grateful for the face mask taking the brunt of the breeze.

Johnny Fox's bar sits invitingly beside the shop. An afternoon in there would take the edge off the weather, and probably the ever-lurking sense of Covid dread as well.

Cars come and go from the Village Fuel Depot across the road, where an attendant moves in and out servicing those in need of a refill.

Johnny Fox's Bar waiting patiently for the day it can reopen.

The old-fashioned custom has all but died out during an era in which self-service pumps have even cut out a rudimentary verbal exchange at the checkout.

Regeneration of this Loughshore village is well underway. Down at the Marina, Lough Neagh's churn merges with the hopeful roar of construction.

Work is underway to bring four luxury on-water glamping pods to the village, as well as general improvements to the entire facility.

The nearby wood is next on the agenda for improvements, but people are continuing to enjoy it in its current guise.

A family brave the elements to bring the dog for a walk through the wood. In the car park, people are huddled in their vehicles, steam from takeaway coffees escaping through open windows.

A woman drags on a cigarette as she stares out past the Marina on to a Lough that could pass for a north coast beach, with waves breaking onto the shore.

Lough Neagh's water encroaching on a viewing point.

In the wood, the water level is encroaching on the path, leaving viewing points in ankle-deep water and concealing tree roots from view.

Walkers take shelter in the woods from the wind and rain, but with the world still in Covid's relentless grip, its refuge may run deeper than that.

Ballyronan sits in the BT45 postal area, an area that has consistently posted the highest rates of the virus within County Derry.

Its local government district, Mid Ulster, currently has the highest rate of positive cases per 100,000 of population and has remained a hotspot throughout the pandemic.

Almost a year ago, in the early throes of the virus, there remained a perception that rural areas wouldn't suffer. How innocent everyone was.

Community

Three miles up the road lies the archetypal rural Irish village, The Loup. Church. School. GAA club. Local shop. Chippy. Pub. All the staples of a close-knit community are there.

As I park up, two men emerge from the church, eyeing me with a little suspicion as they squint in the face of the low sun.

A thrush hops its way through the front yard, before taking flight over the roof of McVey's pub, where a neon sign declares the off-licence open for business.

The gates of St Patrick's GAC, The Loup.

Flower pots attached to the pub's sign do a violent dance, at the mercy of a wind that threatens their existence. Two walkers pass by, stopping to allow the post van out of a side street.

The gates to the GAA pitch are open. I pass a runner on the way up the road. By the time I get parked up, he has slipped in the gate and is halfway around a lap of the track.

There is a pre-season feel to the cold breeze and monotonous pounding of pavement and gravel. We never knew we'd miss it so much.

Back at the Vivo, there is life. Mask-clad customers are filtering in and out, grabbing their groceries and stopping for a quick chat. All the essentials.

People are cautious, and there is a reason. After some persuasion from a fellow member of staff, Joe McVey fills me in.

“It's much more strict. People really have to get the message; this is a very dangerous virus and we've had a lot of cases,” he says, shuffling backwards to allow a social distance for a customer to pass.

“Just after Christmas we had a spike of around 25 cases. They're all under control now, and we haven't had anybody hospitalised, but we've had a lot of cases in the local area.

“It's been pretty intense, but we have battled our way through it. It's been tough, but retail has kept going.”

Joe McVey says all safety measures are being taken in the local shop.

With the shop holding such a central role in the local community, and as one of the only businesses in the area permitted to open, there is a certain amount of pressure involved.

“There is a lot of responsibility with it. The shop itself has implemented very strict hygiene laws and we're very careful,” says Joe.

“We ask people to wear their masks, we have the sanitisation station out and we try and adhere to all the laws.

“You have to go to work and try and serve the community. People still need their food and we try to keep the business open.

“I just go in, do my shift, keep myself safe and that's it. Good general practice gets you through it.”

Feelings of isolation have been more acute during the latest period of lockdown.

A creeping sense of hopelessness has been exacerbated by Dr Michael McBride's announcement that some restrictions would be in place until at least the Autumn months.

Despondency is rife, but Joe is determined to keep moving forward.

“The only place people can go to is the shop or the pharmacy, there are no other businesses open,” he says.

“A lot of people come in, pick up their daily provisions, have a chat with you and we make sure everybody is keeping safe.

“We're looking forward to hopefully getting out of the lockdown, but I can't see that in the foreseeable future.

“The situation at the moment is it's going to be here for a long time and we're going to have to get used to wearing masks and keeping ourselves safe.”

A battered sign outside McVey's, The Loup.

I double back through Ballyronan on the way home.

Even amid the bleak outlook of the pandemic, it's not difficult to conjure an imagined summer.

Crowds in the beer garden.

A refurbished Marina thronged with families. Laughter. Joy.

All abstract concepts among a climate of surges, social distancing and R rates, but in the residential areas that populate Ballyronan and The Loup, they'll be dreaming like the rest of us.

It won't be long 'til the summer comes.

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