She Dared to Smile
"She turns up today without a mask and worse still, with a smile"
(This piece was originally written in May 2021 but I declined to publish it at the time given the legal situation then.)
Is it because she has the same name as my mother? That she is the same age as her? Or that, like my mother, she simply will not wear a mask? Perhaps the story of Margaret Buttimer, a 66 year old grandmother jailed for the weekend for refusing to wear a mask in court, would have resonated with me even without these echoes of my own dear mother but their presence certainly means the story weighs more heavily on me than it might otherwise.
It is, essentially, impossible for me not to think of my mother when I read about how Buttimer will spend the weekend in a cell before returning to court on Monday where the Judge will insist, as a condition of her release, that she wear a mask and apologise to the court. Like at the end of 1984, her defeat is not sufficient - her broken and reprogrammed spirit is needed too. It seems an impossible situation for her, with the Judge intent on humiliating her and the media already suggesting that her position may be the result of a mental imbalance - as if that could be the only reason behind any resistance to the new Covid regime. And yet she has borne the situation with such calm and grace - her only real defence being that “she answers only to God”.
Our increasingly secular world might scoff at her faith but you really do need a strong conviction in order to stand up against tyranny and God has been a proven source of such conviction for many throughout history. Wherever she finds it, she has needed great resolve just to come this far. Whatever happens on Monday, I deeply applaud her. In a world, where every celebrity, every politician, every leader including even the Pope - the putative head of her religion, has agreed to parrot the same message of blind compliance, a woman like Margaret needs incredible strength to swim against the strongest tide that I think has ever reached our shore.
My own mother has been swimming against this tide for 15 months now. An extraordinarily pleasant person, I grew up thinking that it was perfectly normal for one’s mother to be near deified by everyone she encountered. There was no one she couldn’t talk to, no one who wouldn’t help her, no one, frankly, who didn’t love her to some degree or another. When I used to visit her in work, her desk was festooned with presents and cards from friends and colleagues eager to remind her just how much they appreciated her. It was almost embarrassing, especially when their affection for her reflected (undeservedly) onto me.
When Covid came along and the government sought to put up barriers between us all, my mother, someone who spent her life overcoming such barriers, instantly rebelled. She simply didn’t partake in any of it. She worked right through the height of the pandemic, going into work every day despite supposedly being in the high-risk category. She met anyone who was happy to meet her. She, along with my father, insisted that I continue to visit weekly with my children at a time when kids were seen by the majority as nothing more than disease-carriers. And, of course, she did not wear a mask.
I used to worry about her going to the shops in those early months when the mask mandates were introduced. You see, the other thing about my mother is that she loves shopping. I have never visited her without leaving with something she bought either for me, or my children, or my wife. She is never out of the shops and actually insisted, pandemic or not, that she would visit each and every one of them in order to, as she put it, “give each of them some of my money”. This tendency, borne out of a desire to help shops struggling after the government’s risible decision to turn off the economy in a futile attempt to stop an airborne virus, combined with her decision not to wear a mask, seemed like a recipe for disaster.
But then, you see, I had forgotten who my mother is. What is difficult for me, seems easy for her. While I walk maskless through shops, coiled like a spring in anticipation of a confrontation, she moves fearlessly and confidently. She has resolve, you see. She has conviction. And it is recognised.
The current state of play is that the manager of the large supermarket chain she visits greets her warmly upon arrival and then personally bags her shopping for her. The local chipper where she occasionally gets lunch welcomes her like a member of their family. The one shop that initially gave her hassle were won over with the warmth and charm I took so much for granted when I was growing up. At this stage, she is a quasi-celebrity and no one questions her. They’re just happy to have her.
As they should be.
Could she have achieved this without her face, without her smile? Would a pair of frightened eyes, peering out from behind a mask, endear themselves to people like this? My mother has managed to retain her warmth, her character, her very humanity throughout this awful period. And that is precisely what Margaret Buttimer is trying to hold onto as she sits in her jail cell right now preparing herself for another duel with a Judge determined to break her will.
Perhaps, you disagree with Buttimer and think her silly and selfish for refusing to wear a mask. It is, we are constantly told, a simple thing to do and a way of protecting others (It’s not - it’s performative nonsense). But, accepting that she believes what she believes - that it would be wrong for her to wear a mask - only a dishonest person could doubt her courage. And she has displayed mountains of it.
I’ll wait to see what happens to Margaret on Monday but whether the Judge bullies her into submission or not, she will have my admiration. And also my gratitude. Because, we need people like Margaret and like my mother. People who remind us who we are and who teach us old-fashioned lessons about how to stand up to bullies and how to stay true to yourself.
We need such lessons more than ever right now.
April 2022: Margaret Buttimer was eventually sentenced to six months in prison in January 2022 for repeated refusal to wear a mask in public spaces. I’m not sure if she’s actually still incarcerated at this time but if she is that means she is currently in prison for a “crime” that is no longer criminalised. Either way, she never waivered from her position and she never wore a mask in any of her court appearances.