Maureen Hernon and Mary Bell settle in to loungers in the oratory of St Mary’s Nursing Home in Shantalla in the city.
It’s 10.30 on Friday morning of the week when phase one of lockdown restrictions were eased – and both women, residents of the home, are waiting to be entertained.
They’re dressed to the nines and immaculately turned out – St Mary’s healthcare assistants have had to up-skill in hairdressing since Coronavirus reached Ireland.
A private audience with musician Val McNicholas, a Swinford native who now lives in Taylor’s Hill, awaits the glamorous duo.
“Maureen,” shouts Val through a glass partition which has new technology that facilitates safe, socially distant visiting.
“This one’s for you, í nGaeilge,” he says, before strumming his guitar and singing a rendition of Ave Maria in Irish for Maureen, a native speaker.
Mary, from Mayo, and Maureen from Furbo, beam when the music starts. It brings back memories of weekly Monday sessions they used to enjoy before visiting was curtailed due to fears of Covid-19 reaching the home.
“We’d get the staff and residents to sing as well. Anything can happen,” says Val of the sessions that can now safely resume. “We tell stories and tell poems and we get the residents and staff to do their party piece as well. They love it, they light up.”
Visitor restrictions have been in place due to Covid-19 for nine weeks, but the home has now converted its small chapel into a safe space where family and performers like Val can visit.
A glass wall separates Mary, Maureen and St Mary’s staff, Carol Preisler, Director of Operations, Linda Cunningham, and Mary Carpenter, Director of Nursing, from Val and the Connacht Tribune.
There are two gaps in the glass, fitted with Melapholes – a technology that allows visitors and residents to interact safely, face-to-face. It’s similar to technology used in prison visiting rooms but the comparison ends there.
“They (Melapholes) won’t let the virus through and they amplify the sound, for people who have difficulty hearing,” explains Ms Carpenter. “We were long enough having no visitors,” she adds.
Ms Priesler agrees it’s a welcome addition. “It’s so families aren’t outside, looking in bedroom windows. At least here they can sit down, and have a chat, and it’s more comfortable, there’s more space.
“We started it the last couple of days, and we’re doing it on a booking basis, so that there is social distancing for the people coming in, and so that there is staff available to be with the residents on this side. It’s worked out really well.”
Jack Finnerty, a local craftsman, installed it. Before this, residents and families kept in touch through letters and more modern modes, but Skype and teleconferencing isn’t for everyone. “This is simpler and it’s better,” says Ms Priesler.
Covid-19 has ravaged some nursing homes, particularly in Dublin, but St Mary’s hasn’t lost any residents to the virus – Ms Carpenter credits that to having time, compared with the East coast, to up-skill and put policy and procedures in place.
“This is a community, this is a home but all of a sudden we’d to flip into almost becoming an acute hospital. It was very unusual, that’s not what we’re trained for. We had time; if we got a case now – hopefully we won’t – but we’d be ready and trained,” she says.
Meanwhile, the residents are enjoying the concert and conversation.
Maureen Hernon, a keen gardener, was eager to chat with the Connacht Tribune.
“I’m from Furbo . . . I was born in Barna, and I worked in the telephone exchange in Galway, and then I retired from there,” she says.
Mary Bell adds: “I’m from Mayo originally, from Hollymount and I grew up on a farm. I’ve been in Galway in recent times.”
Both agree Val’s music and the new visitor arrangements are great.
Val’s sister, a nun and former music teacher who has Alzheimer’s, is a resident in the home and many of the weekly performers who volunteer their time, have connections with St Mary’s.
“It’s our giving back, if you like,” says Val.
‘Give even one big GAA game to Ballinasloe’
It’s the most centrally located ground in the country but Ballinasloe’s Duggan Park won’t host a single inter-county match this year – much to the annoyance of one local councillor who wants the GAA to allocate at least one big game to the venue.
Cllr Michael Connolly told a meeting of Ballinasloe Municipal Council that the ground is entitled to host major football and hurling fixtures – even though all but one of the Galway footballers’ home league games are assigned to Pearse Stadium with the other one in Tuam.
“If they gave us one match in Duggan Park, it would be something,” he said. “But at the moment, it seems as if it is being ignored.”
The Moylough councillor described it as the most accessible ground in the country and a venue in which players and supporters like to travel to – unlike, he suggested, Pearse Stadium.
He said that it was “a hateful venue” and few GAA supporters relished the prospect of travelling to the “far side of the city” to watch a football or hurling match.
A recent meeting in Gullane’s Hotel to discuss Duggan Park was attended by Deputy Denis Naughton, Senator Aisling Dolan, Cllr Evelyn Parsons and Cllr Declan Kelly among others.
But the Duggan Park Committee then issued a statement saying that the ground is owned by Galway GAA and any use of the facility needed to be authorised – and no authorisation was given to the meeting organiser, former Mayor of Ballinasloe Joe Kelly, for this purpose.
Mr Kelly has been a staunch campaigner for the redevelopment of Duggan Park and has called on the local authority to row in behind this initiative.
They went on to say that there is a plan in place for the development of Duggan Park which is multiple staged which started with the new dressing rooms, flood lights and a new entrance to the venue.
Planning permission is in place for this development and that €500,000 has already been spent in the Duggan Park over the past number of years carrying out these projects.
The work in the ground, they say, is done to an excellent standard by local contractors with the support of the previous Town Council for grants and sports capital grants.
Former tourism magnet officially on register of derelict sites
The fire-ravaged hotel that was once one of the most popular in the county is now officially considered a derelict site – and that has led a local councillor to call for it to be either redeveloped or levelled.
Portumna’s Shannon Oaks Hotel, for so long popular with anglers and golfers in particular, has been boarded up for more than a decade since it was destroyed by fire.
Local councillor, Jimmy McClearn, has called on the owners to reopen or sell the property – adding that it should either be levelled or redeveloped.
“We are a tourist town and we need a hotel. The last thing we want is for a hotel to be shut up,” he said.
“It is a fine facility and on an extensive site so there is no reason why it should be boarded up,” he added.
The Shannon Oaks saga has gone on for the past twelve years – but now the owners, the multi-millionaire Comer brothers, will be forced to pay a derelict site levy if they do not reopen or redevelop.
That amounts to a seven per cent levy based on the market value of the property, which is worth around €1 million even in its derelict state.
The Shannon Oaks was ravaged by fire in September 2011 and four years later, the site was acquired by the Comer Group who, at the time, gave an undertaking that it would be reopened.
Around two years ago, planning permission was granted by Galway County Council to Barry Comer of the Comer Group to renovate the hotel by providing 60 new bedrooms along with 40 apartments to the rear of the structure.
However, there has been little or no movement on the site since then and now the owners are being again asked to give some indication as to when the hotel will be rebuilt.
It is considered an integral part of the tourism industry for the town and that is why pressure is mounting on the owners to rebuild the hotel.
Cllr McClearn said that all he is asking for is the owners to develop the site and provide a hotel there. “It’s not much to ask in a tourist town,” he added.
More than €200,000 worth of cannabis seized in East Galway
More than €200,000 worth of cannabis was seized in during two separate search operations in East Galway on Saturday.
Gardai from the Divisional Drugs Unit conducted a search at a residence in Aughrim and seized cannabis plants with an estimated street value of €146,000 and €20,000 worth of cannabis herb which will now be sent for analysis.
Two men (both in their 30s) were arrested at the scene in connection with the investigation and are currently detained at Galway Garda station under Section 2 of the Criminal Justice (Drug Trafficking) Act, 1996. Both men remain in custody.
A separate search was carried out at a residence in Ballinasloe yesterday afternoon and cannabis herb with an estimated street value of €35,000 was seized. Cannabis jellies and €7,510 in cash were also seized.
A man in his 40s was arrested and later released without charge and a file will be prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions.