This was not the way I expected to end my time in York. Had you asked me three years ago how I thought the final weeks of my undergraduate degree would unfold, it certainly would not have been in lockdown for nearly three months, unable to see my closest friends and, more upsettingly, unable to say goodbye. But here we are.
What’s the plan then? Well, let me take you back to the beginning of the year, when it was merely Brexit which dominated the news. [Ah, remember those good, ol’ days?!] Buckle up! Here begins my latest project: New Chapter, a blog documenting the next chapter of my life, after university.
– 18th January 2020 (66 days before lockdown) –
I caught a flight over to Ireland from Manchester. I had been called to interview for a job at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Moving to Ireland had never occurred to me before this; however, were I to be successful, this would be an opportunity I could not really turn down. And lo! I was offered the post of Bass Lay Vicar. More accurately, I was offered the title ‘Lay Vicar of the Prebendary of Monmohenock’. I might need longer business cards!
Another prospect was on the cards though: Florence. An English-speaking church was looking to hire a gap-year director for their choir, with a handsome remuneration package. Although not one for the hot weather, I was sure that a year in Northern Italy would be remarkably pleasant. The interview for this job was in the middle of February though, so I accepted the Ireland job and would have to be suitably wowed by Florence to give back-word to Dublin.
– 1st February 2020 (52 days before lockdown) –
I was teaching at a Saturday theatre school when that news alert popped up on my watch. My first thought: ‘we’ve had enough bad press!’ I had friends staying at the York hotel where the patients had been staying. Phrases like, ‘it’s just like the flu’ and ‘isolated cases’ were banded around; the whole thing was made out to be little more than a bad cold. One of my nine-year-old students even said, ‘It’s nothing to worry about! It won’t reach Yorkshire!’
‘Streets are empty. People are afraid’: Cities become ghost towns as coronavirus sweeps globeThe Independent (Monday 24th Februrary 2020)
Coronavirus sweeps the globe; central Europe was overwhelmed by the disease; countries start to shutdown their cities and close their borders. The death toll increases. What was ‘just the flu’ only a few days before was now global plague.
At work, I innocently helped to perpetuate this belittling. Herd immunity seemed to be the way forward, or that’s what the government told us at least. Being in close proximity with my fellow cathedral musicians – singers – put us at a very high risk of infection. Little did we know at that point that the world which we all took for granted would, arguably, come crashing down around us.
An interview in Florence was now impossible. My flights were cancelled [Lufthansa have only just refunded me!] and the 25th anniversary of the EU’s open-border Schengen Zone was spent with borders closed. Could I get to Dublin? What else could I do?
PM: ‘Stay at home, this is a national emergency’The Guardian (Monday 23rd March 2020)
– Monday 23rd March (Lockdown day) –
The unthinkable: police patrol the streets enforcing a lockdown across the UK. For the most part we came together (by remaining apart) and stayed indoors, doing our bit to help. Despite the horrifying statistics from around the world, there was something terribly heartwarming about a country, riddled with division for many years, putting aside its inner turmoil to work towards a greater solution.
Within a dark room of pain, loss, and doubt, hope was found in the Clap for Carers initiative, in the PE lessons with Joe Wicks, and in the time to slow down and reflect on what really matters in life, amongst many other things. In my newfound free time, I started [again!] a daily vlog series with my housemate, Immy, and a song quiz for the University’s Music Society.
With the university closed and no graduation in sight, where did that leave my plans to move to Ireland? To be quite blunt, I had no idea. So with brute force and ignorance, I soldiered on. I spent my lockdown planning a great escape, all whilst completing an ongoing university course and writing a dissertation.
Here’s how I managed it:
- House: I searched Daft.ie every day for a place, within my price range, in a location I wanted. FaceTime viewings were the best way to get a feel for a place. This helped to filter out the dodgy ones: good landlords will be willing to show you the room you will be renting. Fortunately, a house share came up in an idea location – close to the university and cathedral – and, although above what I was wanting to spend [€870/month!], it included all of the bills and a regular cleaner. The landlord, Jonny, was wonderful and showed me around. He was the only person offering an actual lease agreement! Given the rogue global situation, having something in writing provided extra security. Dublin has a culture of subletting and this really concerned me, considering that is a huge red-flag in the UK. A deposit later, the house was secured and I had somewhere to go in June.
- PhD Application: I was fortunate enough to have excellent support from both my York supervisor, Jo, and my prospective Dublin supervisor, Andrew, at Trinity College. With this guidance and a few weeks of tinkering, my research proposal (if you are interested, ‘The Reception of Contemporary Liturgical English in Church Choral Traditions, 1970–2010’) was accepted by TCD. For the year 2020/21, UK citizens are regarded as EU citizens by Irish universities and, therefore, only have to pay EU fees. Entry in 2021 might result in international fees being charged. ‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’ for this year in order to source funding for the subsequent years at the reduced rate is far preferable to being even more unable to pay the fees myself, were I to be unsuccessful at scholarship applications this coming year.
- Bank Account: How do I open an Irish bank account from a UK address? Well, I was a little ahead of the lockdown on this one. Unable to visit Ireland or secure an address in advance meant that opening a Euro bank account was tricky. I applied for an Ulster Bank Standard Account by post and took my documents to a Royal Bank of Scotland branch (the parent company of Ulster Bank) for verification. The account was opened and my shiny, new Euro bank card was posted to my UK address. It felt a little like I was committing some sort of money laundering crime, but I was assured by the RBS branch staff that it was legitimate.
- PPS Number: The PPSN is the Irish equivalent of a National Insurance or Social Security number. I needed this for student finance applications and assorted other state-funded things. Originally, I was planning on visiting Ireland in the Easter holidays and attending a face-to-face meeting (a requisite of the application) to be issued with a PPSN; however, Coronavirus had other ideas. I tried applying using my UK address, to no avail; however, my new tenancy started a few weeks before I was due to move. Using my new Irish address, my application was accepted and posted out, ready for me on arrival.
- Dissertation: Completed it! [A week early, might I add?!]
– Monday 25th May 2020 (64 days after lockdown began) –
The BBC’s drama series ‘Normal People’ was released during this time. Timely. Whilst I am far from being a Connell [I’m not the chain-wearing sort…], it did provide the drive to make his fiction my reality.
Having finished all of my university work, I was free to explore York and its surrounding areas one last time.
One trip was a little further afield: Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. Fortunately, this also allowed me to call into the Cathedral and collect my things from the song school. Nearly two years I spent working at Newcastle Cathedral. People thought I was mad, commuting four hours each day just to sing Evensong. Maybe they were right. But it was worth every second of it. Saying goodbye to this place brought a tear to my eye. I am sorry to be leaving in these difficult circumstances, but I hope to be back as soon as I can.
All that was left to do was book the ferry and hope that travel restrictions would look at least somewhat favourable to moving to a new country. The jigsaw puzzle was nearly complete, except for choosing a day to leave York. Surely this was easy, considering there was nothing to do anymore? Beyond the logistics of cleaning the house for its end of tenancy, what else needed to be considered?
Over the course of the lockdown, some of my York housemates decided to return to their family homes. This was naturally the right and proper thing for them to do. First Molly, then Ed, then a while later, Immy: leaving Luke and me to sit out the final days of our tenancy without our comrades. I knew they had to return at some point to collect their possessions and, if that were to be in the final days leading up to the end of the lease, I didn’t want to have left already and be unable to say goodbye.
Time passed and the uncertainty surrounding England’s Coronavirus regulations meant that those housemates who had retreated were unable to provide a certain date for their return. I booked the ferry. I was to leave the country – the country in which I had lived for my entire life – the weekend before the end of the summer term. This was steeped with all sorts of dread: not only is travelling internationally questionable in this climate, but the thought of departing the UK without saying farewell to my housemates, let alone my course mates, was awful.
The situation changed. I don’t know whether it was the fact that my leaving date was set or the relaxing of the lockdown regulations (or a combination of the two) but my housemates all announced their return for a week leading up to my departure. One final week to spend together. What could be better?
– Monday 8th June 2020 (78 days after lockdown began) –
An idea, originating from my childhood, surfaced in these days, prompted by the announcement of a local canal boat holiday company offering a tentative reopening. I applied for a day trip to have one last hurrah on the day before I caught the ferry. This, by far, was the best day of the lockdown: supporting a local company and doing so with my closest friends.
No, it was not the triumphant send-off I would have hoped to have had. My heart is with all the students, across the world, at whatever level, coming to an end of their studies: those leaving junior school, senior school, college, university. We haven’t had the chance to say goodbye.
But one day we will.
One day, the news will consistently report zero new deaths and zero new cases. One day, families and loved ones, which have been separated by distance or by regulation, will be reunited once again. One day, we will look back at this harrowing time and remember those whom we have lost too soon, but also we will remember the things we have learnt – about ourselves, about each other, and about new things – and the relationships rekindled by newfound video calling technology. We have been physically apart, but by no means have we been socially apart.
As I watched the sunset on York for one final time, a new chapter was waiting to be written. Tentative to turn that page, I asked myself why. Why? Why am I making this huge move in the middle of a pandemic? I could easily stay in York, where I know everybody and they know me, and do a perfectly agreeable masters. I could continue working at Newcastle Cathedral. I could build on all of the things I have been doing for the last three years. I could do that.
I call to mind John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech, persuading the American people to support the Apollo programme to land a man on the moon:
We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon… We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.President John F. Kennedy, speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, 12th September 1962.
It seemed impossible. Science, time, and the Russians were against them. But they did it.
Moving to Dublin – at least moving there at the moment – is not easy. It is not how I imagined leaving York. There is so much I wanted to do and, by staying in York, I could do them. But would I actually get anything more from taking that road? I don’t think so. For me, staying in York would be the easy thing to do.
Starting something new – a new job, a PhD, a new citizenship – is hard. Just as Kennedy sold the case for space on its payoff, I see this move as a way to do more, to do better, to continue to push myself further in ways that I never thought I would. Why? Because I choose to go.
I invite you to join me on this Rocky Road to Dublin. It won’t be easy, but I’m certain that it will be worth it!