On Easter, while on her afternoon stroll, Irish novelist Denise Deegan realized she still had not yet called her mother. “Hello” she said cheerily into her phone. “Hello,” a man on the street replied.
Looking at the man’s face, she realized the voice belonged to actor Matt Damon.
Living through a pandemic already had her feeling as if she were in a movie, “and then you look up and Matt Damon’s there,” she said in an interview.
Sightings of Damon have become common in recent weeks in Dalkey, a seaside resort southeast of Dublin, where his presence has added yet another surreal layer to life under lockdown.
It’s not just that one of the world’s biggest stars and his family must stay within 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles) of home, like the rest of them. It’s that an actor who played a father trying to protect his family amid a sprawling pandemic in the movie “Contagion” is now living through an eerily similar reality alongside them.
The scenario also has Dalkey residents rallying against a new common enemy: outsiders who ask too many questions about their Matt O’Damon, as some now call him.
If you were going to be stuck somewhere, it’s not difficult for residents to understand why their village of 8,000, about 9 miles southeast of Dublin, would be a smart choice. “You could say that Dalkey would be where people would aspire to live in if they won the lottery!” said one resident, Noreen Farrar.
The Damon sightings in Dalkey and neighboring Killiney, which together are sometimes referred to as “Ireland’s Amalfi Coast,” began in mid-March. According to an assistant to Damon’s agent, this was when he arrived in the area to shoot scenes for “The Last Duel,” a soon-to-be-suspended medieval drama directed by Ridley Scott. It was also not long before the pubs closed and police began checking if people were straying beyond their permitted 2 kilometers.
Most encounters begin the same way: Matt Damon smiles, and the resident pretends not to know who he is. “I think it’s an Irish thing,” Deegan said. “We don’t want anyone who is a celebrity to think that we are in any way sycophantic.”
Mary Caviston, owner of the Corner Note Café, did not recognize the gentleman in a baseball cap until after she had taken his order. She then played it cool. But once he and his family had finished eating, she made a request. “Would you very much mind just a photo outside for the Corner Note?”
He seemed happy to oblige. A few hours later, she shut her doors indefinitely. “It was a high note to go out on,” she said in an interview.
Whereas Bill Murray encounters are surreal because of their outrageous absurdity, Matt Damon encounters are surreal because of their almost freakish normalcy: The “Bourne” franchise star would pop into the pub, for instance, or jog past someone on a hill.
A photo of Damon at the beach with a bag from a SuperValu market seems to have been his ticket to local acceptance. Delighted memes and glowing articles in the Irish press proliferated. Unlike his celebrity peers in the United States who have been skewered for trying to connect to commoners, Damon had become a symbol of togetherness while living in a gated residence in one of the priciest neighborhoods in Ireland.
Damon’s choice to stay put rather than return to his $16.7 million Brooklyn, New York, penthouse could also have been wise from an epidemiological standpoint. On April 16, Irish officials declared that they had suppressed the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak in the population at large, a feat that some attribute to the early response of Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, a medical doctor.
And not only had Damon found a relatively safe new home, but his new admirers also became an army of protectors. This was made clear when The New York Times reporter assigned to write this (me, for better or worse) requested anecdotes via the town’s unofficial Facebook page.
“Leave him be!” was a common theme, presented around 100 different ways. (Cornelius Hibernis O’Flaherty’s comment was the most poetic: “Dalkey is surrounded by the sea and in these bright and sunny lockdown days with the air fresh and the birdsong everywhere, Matt and his family should be left alone to enjoy time out amidst the natural Spring splendour.” )
“Love love the fact that everybody is looking to protect him like our own,” Cjhelle Griffiths wrote. Sally Kirwan agreed, “We really are the greatest of all nations.”
Unlike Americans, many commenters explained, the Irish respect everyone’s privacy. That’s why “stars like it here,” wrote Mick Mullen, taking care not to name-drop two of his other neighbors, Bono and Enya. “Us Irish don’t get star-struck.”
One woman was brave enough to say that was not exactly true. “Suddenly none of you care that Matt Damon is around and you’re all above it and yet there is constant chatter on here of people seeing him and pics put up with him with Dalkey residents,” Paula Burns wrote.
In private messages, at least one resident confessed to wanting a Matt Damon encounter. Deirdre Fitzgerald, an administrator of the forum, also outlined a plan to orchestrate one.
Two months ago, her family’s restaurants and catering company had 50 employees. Layoffs tied to the outbreak have since shrunk that to five. Her brother now prepares all takeout orders, and she is the delivery woman, marketing agent and “washer-upper.”
“We’re trying to keep ourselves alive and kicking,” she said.
She lives near Damon, and so she planned to drop off a Burger Box, a do-it-yourself hamburger kit offered by her restaurant, and a note asking him to send back a photo.
She was optimistic. “He’s very friendly,” she’d heard.