A birthday party on Zoom.
By Maura Mulligan
The World Health Organization states that people should “stay connected and maintain social networks,” along with daily routine as much as possible in order to maintain mental health. With that in mind, I decided I should somehow celebrate a lockdown birthday last month.
As a child in Mayo, I knew my birthday was on May 21 but we didn’t mark birthdays back then apart from being told that we were now a year older “and should have more sense.” I don’t remember any of the neighbors reveling in the passage of years either.
I celebrated my 17th birthday a few days after my arrival in New York back in the 1950s. My cousin, Nora ordered a birthday cake and invited other cousins I hadn’t met before. Nora’s Dad, my Uncle Pake, who paid my passage, performed a sean nós dance and someone sang a song. I’m not sure what my little cousins, Eileen, Noreen and Peggy thought about this strange girl with the funny accent who came to live with them but they did enjoy my two-layer chocolate on vanilla birthday cake and so did I.
Fond memories of that first birthday in America combined with the World Health Organization’s current recommendation, I was inspired to invite my céilí class to a video dance party followed by a glass of wine and a chat. With help from Corina - the New York Irish Center’s volunteer extraordinaire my guests were admitted to the Zoom room as easily as if we were in my usual dance space at Ripley Grier Studios in New York. Everyone stood up moved away from laptop, tablet or phone and got ready to dance.
As we were all in our own space, céilí dancing with its chains and circles was a challenge for later I decided. Instead I reached back to my childhood and found an easy reel step I’d learned when Dancing Master, Séamus Forde came from Knock to teach in Achadh Mór hall. I still remember how excited I’d been as a 10-year-old “leppin” on my bike, cycling the Cahir road past Bruff Cross to climb the Achadh Mór hills, pass the graveyard and get to class in the new hall.
Maura Mulligan in pre-Zoom days.
For music accompaniment, Mr. Ford made an “O” with his lips and whistled. You could hear the tune pause occasionally when he’d take a breath. It couldn’t have been easy to whistle and dance at the same time but he did it well.
Except for the odd screech of someone’s device, whistling was not part of my Zoom birthday. Marie Reilly and her fiddle joined us on screen. When I showed the step a few times, Marie lashed into “The Sally Gardens” Reel. Instead of seeing if everyone was following my lead, I floated into Nirvana, becoming one with the pleasant easygoing pace of the music while counting the step: “one, kick two, back three, hop four.” Some guests there for the craic were making up their own steps while those who really wanted to learn had difficulty with the mirror image effect. Suddenly, someone shouted, “I can’t see you,” only to be followed by someone else’s “ditto for me. You’re blurry.” The word, blurry created images of fading into the spirit world - not a place you’d want to think about on your birthday. A jig called “The Geese in the Bog” inspired some to continue dancing - practicing steps they learned once upon a time. For me the tune recalled a memory of working in the bog. As a child I’d helped with footing the turf - a back- breaking job that involved placing five or six sods of turf upright and leaning against each other. This formation, called a gróigeán enabled the sods to dry in the wind. My sisters and I would stop work when a gaggle of wild geese flew over our heads on their way to Woodfield Lake. Staring at the geese gave us a chance to rest. Then we’d take time to argue over who had made the most gróigeáns while the geese honked their approval of our attention to their arrival in East Mayo.
Marie’s final bow stroke ended my reverie. Time to check in with my guests and see how everyone was doing. Most were working from home and had just finished their day. From someone’s window we could hear the New York City seven o’ clock applause for the health care workers. We shared news about our own experiences in dealing with the pandemic. I got a laugh when I admitted to phoning my all-time favorite pizza place, Patsy’s Pizzeria in New York, and asking if they’d deliver to New Jersey.
Friends from my Nollaig Na mBan team popped in to join the dance class in wishing me a happy birthday. I was pleased to remind them that we’d raised almost $1,400 for the Dwelling Place of NY (a transitional shelter for homeless women) during our Bealtaine Zoom celebration on May 1.
After toasting “the birthday girl” we shared experiences about adjusting to the new norm. Some expressed concern for older loved ones: Hara was taking care of her ill mother. When I asked about work in progress, history lover Karen told us she’s writing a piece about ghosts on the empty streets. Bob mentioned his book in progress. We look forward to celebrating with him when he crosses the publishing bridge. Speaking of bridges, Deirdre told us that the City Island Bridge had been replaced with one “completely lacking in advantages and appearance compared with the original one bearing the words, ‘Welcome to City Island.’”
Here alone on my own island, about to cross the bridge of tidying my shoe rack, I’m composing a possible Zoom dance – a kind-of céilí move using shoes to represent missing dancers in a set. It will undoubtedly look ghostly but will be appropriate for these times. I offer it in memory of those forced to celebrating new life in another realm.
Maura Mulligan is the author of the memoir “Call of the Lark.”