Shiela The Elephant became a familiar sight on the Whitewell Road in North Belfast as Zookeeper Denise Austin brought her home to protect her during the Belfast Blitz in 1941. She's perhaps Northern Ireland's most infamous elephant. Copyright Belfast Zoo.

This pandemic has been like one very long pregnancy. Not convinced by my analogy? Let me compare my first pregnancy with the first wave of the pandemic.

September 1989

Newly graduated I’m working unpaid with a local community theatre group. I’m feeling slightly unwell. Nausea, tired, sore breasts, periods stopped. I explain these unheard-of random symptoms to my GP.

“Is it possible you’re pregnant?” he asks. I shake my head

“No, absolutely not. Impossible,” is my instant reply

I’ve moved to South Belfast with my partner.

“So, you haven’t had sex? You’re not in a relationship?”

Yes, I had and yes, I was, but the thought had never entered my head. Even with the suddenly embarrassingly obvious text book symptoms. It seemed my brain was in deep denial. He ordered a test. What if I am pregnant? How will it affect our life?

January 2020

Empty Nesters, we moved to South Belfast a year ago. News filters through from China about a new virus. Countries start to shut their borders. Our government does nothing. They seem to be in denial. Perhaps it will never happen here, I think, and if it does will it really affect our life?

1st Trimester 1989

I’m pregnant. I can’t believe this is happening; my partner is excited. I start reading every pregnancy and baby book in the Ormeau library. We need to prepare for this. I start making lists.

February 2020

The Coronavirus is here. I can’t believe this is happening; my partner is excited. We start watching every news bulletin, reading every report. We need to prepare for this. I start making lists.

2nd Trimester 1989/1990

Time to start shopping, spread the costs. Other parents advise us that the most essential item is a washing machine. Babies are messy. Moses basket? Changing table? Pram? They can sleep in a drawer; you can change nappies on the floor and carry them in a sling. But they will wear several changes of clothes a day. And nappies, apparently babies go through a lot of nappies.

March 2020

Talk of a Lockdown. Time to do a big Tesco shop and stock up on pasta and tins of tomatoes. There are no loo rolls in any shop. Apparently, people in pandemics go through a lot of loo rolls.

3rd Trimester 1990

“Morning” sickness has gone. This pregnancy lark is actually quite fun. The gift of time. I’ll start an exercise class. I get sciatica and can’t move. I’ll learn a language. Why? It’s not as if we will ever be able to afford to travel with a baby. I’ll read ‘War and Peace’. My pregnancy brain kicks in so I can’t concentrate on anything, except Neighbours, EastEnders and Dallas. I can’t even have a drink at the pub. I start eating strange combinations of food. Toast burnt black with garlic pickle and peanut butter. I drink Ribena, which I hate, by the gallon.

None of my clothes fit, even the maternity clothes. Elasticated waists are my friend.

I can’t sleep, and when I do I have the weirdest dreams. How can I feel so tired when all I’ve been doing is sitting on the couch? My emotions are all over the place. Crying at sentimental adverts or at nothing. The phone calls start from friends and family I haven’t heard from in years. “Yes, I’m fine. Not doing much. Good days and bad days.”

April 2020 to March 2021

This lockdown is actually quite fun at first. The gift of time. I’ll start an online exercise class. There isn’t room to stand in front of the telly in our living room, let alone do jumping jacks. I could learn a language. What’s the point? It’s not as if we are ever likely to travel again. Maybe I’ll finally read ‘War and Peace,’ but find I can’t concentrate on anything. However, we do watch all 110 episodes of the original ‘Charlie’s Angels’. We can’t even go out to the pub for a drink. To avoid going to the shops we start eating strange food combinations of unloved tins from the back of the cupboard and mystery meat from the bottom of the freezer.

Then one day my jeans won’t do up. A combination of lack of exercise and my partner’s new baking hobby has piled on the pounds. Nightwear becomes daywear. Elasticated waists are my friend.

I can’t sleep, and when I do I have the weirdest dreams. How can I feel so tired when all I’ve been doing is sitting on the couch? My emotions are all over the place. Crying at a child’s picture of a rainbow or at nothing. The phone calls start from friends and family I haven’t heard from in years. “Yes, I’m fine. Not doing much. Good days and bad days.”

And I wait and wait and wait. Counting the days, weeks, months. I am fed up, fat, bored, aching, sleep deprived and I just want this to be over!

Words by Louise Lynch

Images by unknown. Copyright Belfast Zoo.

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I find it very hard to put into words the experience of lock down. Living through this collective trauma in real time is a life defining experience. It felt and still feels like, we are going through the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance but in a random, unpredictable order. I find as events and time progresses, any given day’s any given hour can be dominated with one or the other or even multiple stages of grief at the same time. Angry denial, total depression, hopeless bargaining, back to anger, numbing into denial, a deep sense of acceptance and it’s only 2pm…. I can’t really put a date on it but I believe sometime around the second lock down, towards the end of the summer 2020, I begin to feel a shift. I started seeing more of what was gained instead of what was lost.

In this weird, non-real but yet very real life I found myself to be able to let go. Let go of “what it should be”, of “what it should look like” and “what should be done”. Work, family relationships, marriage, parenting…all of it. This affected our family life in a very positive way and this atmosphere allowed me to dig even deeper and start something, I probably would have never done otherwise: create art. Lock down and isolation created a safety bubble in which a lot of my fears as a creative person/artist dissolved. It honestly didn’t matter if I will be ridiculed or laughed at because on the large scale of things, an image I created seemed tiny and irrelevant anyway, so I might as well create whatever I feel like. It didn’t fear anymore what other people thought of my work, because I didn’t see anyone in real life and people who mattered the most were supportive. It also didn’t matter anymore that at age 40 I felt like I was too late to the artist party, because time has lost its relevance. And finally, I didn’t have to worry anymore on how ‘creating art’ would affect my photography business because I had no business, bookings or clients at that point due to the circumstances All I had was a new found sense of purpose paired with insomnia and an IG account. It started with self-portraits which were sometimes funny and surreal, sometimes an invitation for conversation with like-minded souls. It connected me with other artists and creators who were inspiring, supportive and encouraging. As I progressed with photoshop skills the output of my images became more complex and it allowed me to think up more and more layered ideas. Finally, I set out a task to create a concept which would somehow combine all of my favourite things: photography, Dublin, history, architecture and nature. This is how the Wild Dublin collection was born on, which then turned into an Etsy art shop and a new business. 2020 has taught me that it’s worth pursuing a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear and for that I’m grateful.

Words and image by Dora Hurley

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Image by Claire Miskimmin

Seattle-born actress Frances Farmer (1913-1970), a rising star in the 1930s, is remembered today more for her unfortunate life story than for her once promising career. Talented and beautiful, Farmer was also wilful, troubled, and self-destructive.

At 22, Frances Farmer moved to New York City to pursue stage acting. She ended up signing a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures and starring in 15 films instead. Farmer originally wanted to be a journalist and even got her degree in the field, but her mother encouraged her otherwise. Farmer decided to go with it when the contract came but always intended to be on the stage instead of the screen.

After a period of increasingly erratic behaviour, she was declared legally insane and institutionalised in 1944. Released in 1950, she spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity. Since her death in 1970, however, she has become something of a cult figure, the subject of three books, three movies (the best known of which is the 1982 film Frances, starring Jessica Lange), several off-Broadway plays, scores of magazine articles, and a song, "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" by Kurt Cobain, which includes this line: "She'll come back as fire, to burn all the liars, and leave a blanket of ash on the ground."

The standard version of the Frances Farmer story goes like this: An idealistic young actress challenges the hypocrisy of her world and becomes the victim of a spiteful mother, a vengeful Hollywood, and a cabal of callous and arrogant psychiatrists. Together they force her into a state mental hospital, where she is brutalised by electric shock and other barbaric treatments; raped by orderlies, fellow inmates, and soldiers from a nearby Army base; and eventually lobotomised. Her rebellious spirit finally shattered, she leaves the institution an atomised half-woman, only a shadow of the vibrant artist she had once been.

Whatever the true story, it has been eclipsed by the mythology. With the medical records closed and all the principal players long dead, little can be said with certainty about what really happened to Frances Farmer. Still, two things seem clear: the behaviour that landed her in an insane asylum half a century ago would scarcely raise an eyebrow today; and yet, had she not been institutionalised, she might well have been long forgotten.

Although she’s dead, something of Frances remains in her incomplete tale. There she stands, in the shadows, in the wings. She takes one last drag on her Kent, exhales, and, trailing a thin blanket of ash, steps onstage into our various incorrect versions of her life.

She’ll come back as fire

To burn all the liars

Leave a blanket of ash on the ground...

Words by Cheryl Gault

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