Difficult times nowadays call for innovative and often high-tech measures and when it comes to innovation, luckily the Irish are on the front line.

With the Republic of Ireland's R number creeping up recently, I phoned an Irish friend in Offaly (along with Laois and Kildare one of newly partially locked down counties) who told me that people are currently so worried they cross the road to avoid speaking to a neighbor, mainly in the fear of contaminating them if they themselves were COVID-19 positive but asymptomatic, and of course the fear of being contaminated is also omnipresent.

Almost six months down the line, we were all hoping for better news. The media reports that a clinical trial approved vaccine could be on the market by the end of the second quarter of 2021. However, to get to June 2021, we have to survive the winter, which might be the biggest challenge, especially for those living alone, hunkering down in isolation once again. Irish people have proven themselves to be one on the most disciplined nations when it comes to respecting COVID-19 rules, but that comes with the price of loneliness and isolation for many and the lengthiness of the situation may prove to be more than some can handle. Many homesick diaspora, are just too worried to travel home. Neither are they keen on feeling like “Typhoid Marys” while they wait for the14 days quarantine to pass before visiting friends and relatives. Although many of us miss Ireland so much it hurts, we worry about the possibility of  being contaminated on the journey home and subsequently infecting our loved ones. No one wants to be that person and yet we need to maintain a strong link with home.

With all this in mind, a team of five people led by Mark Nolan, came up with a new and innovative concept; Dinner@7, as a way to reduce feelings of isolation and to enable people to feel connected. A spokeswoman for Dinner@7 stated that this concept is particularly advantageous for people living alone and that there is medical proof that loneliness can be as bad for the health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day! Dinner@7’s concept is to create virtual dinners for people to get together, in the same way as over a traditional dinner, and each dinner will be around an interesting theme. On their website you can find details of the membership fee which will be a 10 euros monthly fee (approx. 11.80US$). However, as this start-up is in the process of being launched, the first 100 places are offered free! They hope IrishCentral readers will be among the lucky 100 to be awarded free membership and Shauna Kelly-Lefevre, an experienced coach and manager and one of the founding five told me the home and away connection will have a very central role in the service offered.

Shauna, like myself, is based in Paris and over the years I have delighted in her genuine “passion for people.” Throughout the COVID crisis, she instigated and participated in many group initiatives set up to enable people deal with isolation and social distancing. “Mnà na hEireann, Paris” which she founded kept many of us from going stair crazy during lockdown and negotiating the continuing COVID-19 era, with daily craic and comfort on tap through the Mnà Facebook group. Her wish is to offer everyone opportunities to meet and have fun and support, before crossing to the other side of this period, back into the Real World, with new friends and acquaintances in tow…

Dinner@7’s concept is guided by core beliefs: Togetherness, Tradition, Passion, Connection and Communication. Now I know you might say that true togetherness cannot be achieved over a virtual dinner, however I participated in a couple of rare and memorable zooms during lockdown where my mind was pretty blown by the level of intimacy achieved. Over the past few months we’ve all picked up a few tips along the way to usurp the first disturbing vision of our “zoom face”.  Dinner@7 have also developed a T-Score page to evaluate members video call set-up’s ability to achieve togetherness and intimacy. They are happy to suggest how to enhance your zoom image and to help you attain a more “at ease” and camera friendly presentation. With that under the belt, we can concentrate on a tip they give on their presentation video which is to avoid looking at your own image, and to make eye contact with whoever you’re speaking to on zoom. It seems with zooming, as in person to person contact, the best communication skill is to really listen to and look at whoever is speaking to you. Connection is rightly so much more than just high-speed internet, it’s the way we interact with each other and form meaningful relationships with people.

I got into the bad habit of snacking all day during lockdown and I’m delighted that Dinner@7 want to bring back the tradition of sitting down to have a proper meal together. For generations, families had dinner together every night and it was a way to connect with each other while dining and to share their days. Dinner@7 envisages eventually having a dinner option available every single evening, which could be a real joy for many over the coming months.

Based in Dublin, Mark Nolan has been planning this launch for some time. He has over 20 years’ software industry experience. Fascinated by technology, and ahead of the posse, he tried his first virtual dinner back in 2011. Amazed by the sense of intimacy achieved, he was more socially prepared than most for the COVID-19 lockdown and wants to put his experience to work for others. His new lifestyle sector service can enhance our new norm, even though for many of us it’s not the norm we would have chosen, however it will tide us over. For others, they may actually adopt the new norm and interweave it into their lives moving forward post COVID-19.

But does Dinner@7 anticipate any love matches? Any event that gathers people together, ends up with a few matches being made and luckily there’s a matchmaker on board! Hugh Redmond, has been matchmaking for over 10 years, and enjoys putting tradition back into dating and bringing people together. The team also includes Tzarina Middelkoop an IT specialist with a passion for psychology and Jean-Pierre Cuvelliez, a successful businessman who enjoys good food and is a gifted cook; a welcome skill when conversation will circulate not only around the evenings’ themes, but also around what people are actually eating. Dinner@7 also provides delicious recipes on their site which I’ll definitely try out over the coming weeks.

I joined the 12 August Dinner@7 zoom with the theme of “The best meal you ever had”. After initial introductions, we were broken into breakout rooms of 6 (or less). According to the late Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, aka the "perfect hostess", a diner party should never have more than six participants; so they nailed that one! With Mark Nolan at the helm of my group, the craic was mighty. Being Irish we didn’t stick religiously to the theme and feeling at ease with each other we also shared some of our worst and embarassing meal experiences including hilarious cross-cultural faux pas, and hosting events which rivaled Bridget Jones’s legendry blue soup dinner!

So don’t tidy away that zoom equipment yet but zoom on and make new friends. “If you’re not in, ye can’t win” and with current free subscriptions, you’ve nothing to lose. I hope I get a chance to dine with some of you in the near future. Check the website www.dinnerat7.com for dates and details of the forthcoming themes.

Stay safe wherever ye are and go n-éirí an bóthar libh!

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