Cara Dillon: Hot chocolate at sunrise, writing poetry and a Bedouin tent in the garden was bliss during lockdown

Gail Bell asks experts and people in the public eye what keeps them going. This week: award-winning Irish folk singer and musician, Cara Dillon


Up and at it – what is your new morning routine? How has it changed?

My alarm goes off at 7am. I check my blood sugars and then have breakfast with my family. I was diagnosed with Type 1 - insulin-dependent - diabetes 13 years ago and even though I live life to the full, it can be a constant battle, trying to keep your blood sugars stable. After the children go to school, I usually go for a walk, either on my own or with my husband, Sam, and our new puppy, Cooper. My routine hasn't changed that much at all, although during lockdown I loved waking at 5am to have a hot chocolate and watch the sunrise with my daughter. I also loved listening to birdsong at that time of morning - it was my favourite time of day.


What might you eat in a typical working day for...Breakfast?

Breakfast has never changed: it's always sourdough toast with marmalade and a good stove-top coffee.


Normally soup, salad or an apple with peanut butter, depending on how hungry I am.

Evening meal?

Evening meal is normally pasta of some description or another with lots of vegetables.


Have you been able to work from home – if so, how have you found it?

I have recorded a few online concerts, the main one being Live at Cooper Hall in Somerset where I live. Sam and I have continued to write songs and music. It's the first time since I was 19 that I haven't been gigging and I have to say it was bliss to stop and be still. I will always look back and relish those endless days with our children.


Best/easiest lockdown meal?

Home-made pizza.


Weekend treat?

I became a bit obsessed with Moroccan food and so on the weekends the house became filled with the smell of spices and home-made flatbread. We even made a Bedouin tent in the garden.


How have you kept physically and mentally fit during lockdown?

I love going for walks - there are amazing walks by the river and in the woods near where I live. I also discovered a love for writing poetry which has brought me so much happiness and has been really therapeutic. I wrote down how I was feeling, what my day was like, how I was missing home back in Dungiven. Poetry was a great discovery during lockdown and now I constantly have a notebook sitting beside the bed. There's also one in the car which I keep for long journeys to gigs, and one in the kitchen. I'm always scribbling stuff down.


What has been your daily outdoor exercise?

Walking and gardening. Going for a walk is a great thing for bringing blood sugars down and keeping it all under control.


How do you relax?

Hanging with my family or going for walks in the woods or on beaches - all with flasks of tea and home-made treats. Then back home for a good film.


Teetotal or tipple?

I love a nice glass of wine.


What book are you currently reading?

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa.


Best Netflix?



Most surprising thing you've learned about yourself?

That I can cope.


On a scale of one to 10, where have you been in relation to cabin fever and where are you now?

Honestly, I did not have cabin fever once. I'm too happy at home. I was delighted to 'pause' and switch off for a while and I didn't realise how much I really needed to do that. Since being a teenager, I have been touring and doing loads of gigs - and was very motivated to do that, throwing lots of effort and time into it - but suddenly I was forced to stop. For me, that was like, 'Wow, this is what it's like to be at home for more than a couple of weeks at a time'. I absolutely loved every minute of it.


What are the three things you missed most during the beginning of lockdown?

I missed my mother and my family desperately. Sometimes I thought my heart might break. I missed the sound of my friends' laughter. I missed the joy of performing to a live audience.


Where will you go and what will you do when restrictions are fully lifted?

I've been home to Dungiven a few times now and that was always my priority once restrictions lifted. I am the only one out of six of us who has left home, so it's a really, really big deal to be able to get back as often as I can. Later, I hope we can go somewhere nice and warm for a wee holiday - my children want to go to Greece so that may be the next destination.


Biggest gripe?

Nowadays, it's masks hanging off people's faces. In the past, a very limp handshake would give me the shivers.


Have your priorities in life or perspectives changed?

I realise it's important that I make time for myself now too.


Any new skills or hobbies?

Writing poetry - it's so different to writing a song. In songwriting, you are always trying to shoehorn the lyrics into the melody, then trying to come back to a chorus, so it can be quite restricting. I found this new freedom in writing poetry, then I realised I have always been writing poetry to some extent because most of the songs I write start off with a poem... before they get muddled up and shoehorned into a song.


What would you like to see change for good when this is all over?

I would like to see people continue to show the kindness and compassion towards each other that I witnessed during lockdown; there was a great sense of everyone pulling together.


Has coronavirus changed your attitude towards your own mortality?

Yes - I'm nervous about death and do not want to leave this planet yet. I have so much more I want to see, do and be.

Cara Dillon is one of a line-up of special guest performers who will take to the Grand Opera House stage tonight for The Great Irish Songbook, as part of Belfast International Arts Festival. Performers include Dervish, Glen Hansard, Eddi Reader, Brian Kennedy, Karen Matheson and The Open Arts Community Choir.