Coronavirus Commune: meet the families who found a way to thrive through the crisis
As a result of the pandemic, IMAGE contributing photographer Isabelle Coyle and friends established a new way of living in Sligo. Lizzie Gore-Grimes meets the five adults, six children, one teenager and three dogs living in the coronavirus commune.
It seems bizarrely appropriate that as I come off the phone to Isabelle, The Beatles ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ is playing on the radio. It’s like gorilla glue that song, I still haven’t managed to get the perky little tune out of my head. But the vision of Desmond and Molly Jones with their ‘couple of kids running around the yard’ and ‘happy ever after’ life ‘singing in a band’, does feel like the perfect soundtrack to Isabelle’s story.
“We certainly didn’t plan it,” she says. “But the outbreak of Covid-19 has seen us set up home with two other families and I couldn’t be more grateful for the support we have found in each other and the experience we’re having.”
Isabelle, a freelance photographer, and her tree-surgeon husband Eoin bought their modest “one-and-a-half bed” cottage in Sligo in 2014. “Ironically,” Isabelle explains, “Eoin always spoke about future-proofing ourselves by buying a house with no mortgage and living a more sustainable life where we would want for little.”
As Eoin is a skilled carpenter and DIY all-rounder the couple went on to spend the next five years working on the house themselves to extend it to four bedrooms and install a Scandi-style two-bed wooden chalet in the garden. “With five children in total, ranging from 19 to 5 (Eoin had twins before he and Isabelle met) we needed the space,” says Isabelle.
Last year, an opportunity came up for the family to return to Dublin for a year or so. “Eoin was constantly commuting between Sligo and Dublin for work so we decided to go for it so we could spend more time together as a family, and for a change of pace too.”
The first thing we did was hold a meeting with the parents to discuss our responsibilities. Our main concern, obviously, was to keep everyone safe
On moving to Dublin Isabelle and Eoin offered their chalet to their friend Alannah and her son George (9) to rent, while Alannah looked for a place to buy nearby. Alannah was due to rent the chalet for six months before another family (old friends moving home from Australia) – Ali and Lewin with Willow (8) and Heath (6), were going to move in, in February.
“I thought it was going to be mayhem at first”
The plan was seamless until Covid-19 struck and Isabelle and Eoin needed to return home to Sligo – which now had two other families living there. “Alannah was still waiting for her cottage to be ready in February, when Ali and Lewin arrived from Australia, so we suggested she move into the main house,” explains Isabelle. “Then on March 15, I called them all to make room at the Inn as we were coming back!”
“I thought it was going to be mayhem at first,” says Isabelle. “We were five adults, six children, one young adult and three dogs. What was going to happen?
“The first thing we did was hold a meeting with the parents to discuss our responsibilities. Our main concern, obviously, was to keep everyone safe within the group. So we set out a plan.
It has been really interesting allowing the children to choose what they want to learn – topics so far have been space, rainforest and different religions
“When we started the children began with a very structured daily timetable including schoolwork, creative time, exercise, quiet time, outdoors, baking, woodturning and other fun things we thought up. As the weeks have passed that timetable has become much more flexible.
Woodwork, skate-boarding and outer space
“But it has been really interesting allowing the children to choose what they want to learn in a day – topics so far have been space, rainforest and different religions. Instead of dragging them out of bed to go to school they are excited about their day ahead which they’ve designed for themselves.
We keep shopping to an absolute minimum; we only leave if absolutely necessary. Our eldest son Fionn has been doing most of the cooking
Ali agrees that while at first she also had reservations, the families are gelling really well. “Willow is learning dance routines from Freya, Heath is having a ball learning wood-turning and skate-boarding with the dads and the adults have each other to keep our sanity.
“My kids understand what is happening in the world as we don’t hide it, we talk to them about it and they ask questions. They are missing all the people we came home to see, their grandparents and cousins of course, but they are thriving here.
“This is not how I envisaged our return home to Ireland after 12 years. My photography business is on hold, Lewin’s work is on hold, spending time with my family is on hold. I will miss my mother’s 70th birthday but we feel so lucky to have our good friends, health and a garden full of happy kids.”
Commune living teaches sharing on a grander scale, it is the learning children get not from just you as a parent but from other parents
Kindness and support
Alannah, a counsellor, psychotherapist and wellness coach, made the decision to move out west with her son George late last year, looking for space to breath and a break from Dublin prices. “Commune, even the word conjures up an image of a religion or cult,” she says. “But for me, as a single mum, it has brought kindness and support into my life – support that I have never felt in the nine years of parenting alone. Support that means I can take a quiet walk alone.”
“Communal living brings families together, it teaches sharing on a grander scale, it is the learning children get not from just you as a parent but from other parents. It’s about finding the joy in the small things and respecting those around you.”
It’s a bit weird for me that I don’t have much privacy here but it’s a small sacrifice to make
Small sacrifices, hope and friendship
This new set-up is a big change for Fionn (19), Eoin and Isabelle’s eldest son who was living in Berlin before the virus forced him to return to Sligo. “I had to quarantine in Dublin on my own for 14 days before joining the family here, which was very lonely. As we are already quite a big family, having two more families here is busy but not too crazy. I help in the kitchen and have been doing lots of cooking, it feels really good to have so many helping hands.”
“It’s a bit weird for me that I don’t have much privacy here but it’s a small sacrifice to make and I’m glad to do it. I feel a responsibility to everyone here and we are all working together. As the older brother I get to run around the garden and am learning to play ‘Tip the Can’ and ‘Sardines’ and loving it.”
Isabelle feels optimistic about the future for all of them. “With so much sadness and pain elsewhere, we are just so incredibly grateful to be here together, for as long as we need to be.” Alannah too feels the same way, “It’s about hope. In a time of fear, we have found friendship that binds us together, makes us smile and makes us feel safe.”
Photography by Ali Stewart. Follow Ali Stewart on Instagram @alisonstewartphotography as she continues to document their commune life in Sligo.