When I got a call from your Director, Michael Cleary, inviting me to address you I couldn’t possibly refuse because I can clearly state and have done so publicly over the years that Foroige – Macra na Tuaithe as I knew it had a major part to play in my own life and I have no doubt in the development of TRUST the agency I co-founded and now direct. I will discuss the work of TRUST later.
I sometimes feel like a golden oldie as sometimes we are unkindly referred to when I talk about my own involvement in Youth Clubs but we are all here in this world at this time in creation because of those who have gone before us and what better way to thank them than by reflecting on their contribution to our own personal development.
I am indeed deeply honoured to be here today amongst so many of you carrying on the great volunteer movement perhaps we could easily take for granted or dismiss at a time of so called great progress. I feel doubly honoured to be here with people from a similar background to my own and what more suitable setting for reflection in this “The United Nations Year of the Volunteer”.
Let me first set the scene by letting you know of my own involvement in Macra na Tuaithe. Macra na Tuaithe as you know was founded in 1952, interestingly the first meeting was held on 14th March 1952) – Springtime as it is today here in Westport. A total of 12 Clubs were established on an experimental basis in that year all in association with Vocational Schools and sponsored by Macra na Feirme. The name was first used in 1953 and changed to Foroige in 1981. I would have been in one of the earliest groups. Quote from “Not Just a Bed for the Night” a book I co-wrote a few years ago and published by Marino:
“We were a properly constituted branch with secretary, chair and treasurer; we met each month, held debates and had guest speakers.
A hallmark of Macra is the doing of projects. Mine was a guinea-pig breeding project, which was very important to me in my teens. Major Hughes got me six guinea pigs. I made a hutch for them in their orchard and it was my job to keep them fed, watered, clean and healthy. Through the Hughes’, I made contact with the laboratory at Trinity College Dublin, which used guinea pigs for research. I now would question how we treat our animals globally in the area of research and of course human research.
Every few weeks I would load my guinea pigs into special boxes, strap them to my bicycle and cycle three miles to Fethard station, put them on the train to Dublin and telegraph Trinity so that they would be met at the other end. At one stage I had sixty guinea pigs. The project won me the runner-up Young Farmer of the year award in South Tipperary. Eventually I lost some guinea pigs to the foxes, Trinity’s need lessened and the project came to a natural end.
But I had learned a lot. I had learned about responsibility, reliability, keeping accounts and records.”
My life in rural Ireland was to some maybe unusual but it was the foundation for the future. I had contact with I.C.A., Country Markets and An Grianan, where I spent some time on scholarship.
An Grianan of course funded by the W. Kellogg Foundation which gave £30,000 to Macra na Tuaithe in 1958 and more than doubled that in 1969.
My first radio interview was on “Down the Country” about my Macra na Tuaithe project. Fred Desmond who I think is father of our great Irish actress Brenda Fricker I remember clearly speaking so fast that not only was I breathless but I am sure those listening to me were too.
The long bicycle trips to New Inn some miles away often on cold wet nights to participate in Question Times and Debates were exciting and challenging. Cahir was a real focal point for more inter-Club events and indeed many of those we met on the stage were later to become well known figures in National farming circles e.g. Joe Rea, T.J. Maher, Billy Shortall etc.
Nostalgia is not a word in my vocabulary but as I prepared this my thoughts flooded back to our white washed annex where we held our meetings:
• The smell of the sheep’s wool collected from the bushes and ditches later carded and made into lumra rugs.
• The woollen squares we knit for Fr. Domique Piere for refugees this is considered to be new today not so.
• The lined jotters we kept our minutes in.
• The St. Bridget’s Crosses we made from rushes collected from the river outside Cashel.
• The jam-jars we covered with rushes.
• The patchwork bags we made to keep our knitting in.
• The various projects we did and discussed.
• The speakers who visited us to tell us of lands a far.
• The scrapbooks we kept.
• The teams of us looking at old buildings.
• The weeds we pulled on the small path in the local graveyard.
• The visits we made to The County Home now no longer called County Homes.
• The plays we acted out.
I could go on and on, but on reflection all so powerful and crucially developmental.
I have forgotten but I am sure there must have been arguments and frictions because all are part and parcel of development as I am sure you are acutely aware – thankfully we always remember the good times.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Olivia Hughes who was one of the great women of Ireland whose story has yet to be written, her life was one dedicated to creating a better community for all through co-operation, craft work and education in the widest sense etc.
All this time I was of course influenced by my own family, my sister Eileen was also in Macra at the time and my mother who was one of the founder members with Olivia Hughes of the first branch of Country Markets in Fethard. I should mention that she has been active since that day and is currently Secretary again having resigned that post some years ago.
Guessing who was sending letters from “The Country Shop” in Dublin was a great pastime – all were from key people many now no longer with us from the Voluntary/Co-operative Movement, Dr. Muriel Gahan, The Sommerville-Large families, the Stokes, Keoghs, Longs, Ryans etc.
Many of those people were also involved in The Voluntary Hospitals in Dublin – they (the hospitals) have sadly been confined to history.
The temptation is to go on for too long and therefore run the risk of boring you.
I should however refer briefly to some voluntary agencies I have had involvement with since – leading to the present time. It does I think point to the importance of such agencies and the vision of commitment of those who set them up. It also helps us to acknowledge our own commitment and place a value on it.
When I moved to Dublin living in hospital, very little free time and very little money and a vastly changed environment could have meant complete alienation from voluntary work. But no – the hospital – Royal City of Dublin had a great voluntary ethos but it wasn’t until much later that time and experience allowed me to participate.
One night I attended a Legion of Mary meeting to see what was happening in the city and there I met Fr. Donal O’Mahony who later set up Threshold. He visited the flats in a slum area, Benburb Street and I with some friends visited the frail and elderly once a week. Later I met people there from V.S.I.
Here are my words from “Not Just a Bed for the Night”:
“In 1971 I joined Voluntary Service International, an organisation founded in Switzerland to bring together people of different races and backgrounds to work in social reconstruction projects. The Irish branch of VSI was formed in 1965 and Benburb Street was later adopted as a social project. Members began wallpapering and painting the Benburb Street flats of old people.
In 1972 VSI conducted a survey of the population in Benburb Street. There were 519 people living in 139 flats with as many as five people living in one room. Physical conditions were deplorable, educational standards low, unemployment high. The survey caused questions to be asked in Dail Eireann. A public official admitted, “I wouldn’t have a dog living there.” VSI also asked more philosophical questions, and I quote from the survey:
Can we not avoid creating another Benburb Street? The public experience of substandard housing and of eviction to such accommodation of rent defaulters should show that the cost to the taxpayer in social welfare, medical services, law enforcement and prison maintenance is substantially greater than the lost income in rents.
Have we learnt that lesson? The Benburb Street flats are now long gone but subsequent housing programmes would indicate that we are still herding potentially problem families together in one place.”
Many of those I met there are now working at senior level in Government Departments. A great example of how work on the ground done voluntarily can indeed help to bring vision and knowledge to high office and indeed some of these personnel are those who continue to support and understand Groups like Foroige. Isn’t it that understanding and support that creates real partnership?
The Simon Community was later to play a very important part in my life. I have a painting of Anton Wallich-Clifford, the founder of Simon in my sitting room, he is no doubt with us in spirit as I am sure all who have gone before us are egging us on. Shortly before he died he sent me a card describing “The Family” which is I think what we all are – (description of the card).
It would take too long to discuss further Simon and indeed I shall be brief when describing TRUST, which I was involved in setting up.
TRUST – Our philosophy:
The philosophy of Trust is based on two central principles:
• The recognition of every individual’s right to be treated as an autonomous and unique human being.
• The need to restore the dignity of individuals whom society has labelled deviant and undesirable.
What does Trust do?
TRUST is a non-political, non-denominational voluntary body set up in 1975 to provide medical and related services for people who are homeless. We work in premises provided at a nominal rent by the Iveagh Trust. Up to 30 men and women call each morning, the majority of whom are sleeping out (aged 18 to 85). We see new people daily and often have people calling who were housed – settled – and become homeless again.
Washing facilities are available and each month we give clothes to approximately 350 people who are homeless (members of the public including Rotary and church groups donate the clothes and shoes). We have a chiropody session once a month and avail of the services of an optician, dentist, and practice nurse and local GPs. We refer people to the relevant health services and help them to avail of them.
Developing a sense of self-worth:
We encourage and help people who come to us to avail of statutory services and to obtain their entitlements; to place a value on themselves; to develop a sense of self-esteem and avoid dependence on private charity. Up to recently, TRUST provided out-reach services to hostels and night-shelters. Much improved though yet still inadequate community care services, and increased funding to voluntary bodies to employ extra staff enabled us to concentrate on our core work and extend our opening hours. We still go out to visit people sleeping out where it is appropriate.
From a letter sent by Dr. Kieran McKeown, Social and Economic Research Consultant after a visit to TRUST:
“I was most impressed by your service. The bright coloured walls and wooden floors were warm and welcoming, and mirrored the bright cheerful staff that welcomed me … I was particularly impressed by the pictures on the wall, which captured the sensitive nature of the people who use your service and speaks of a place where everyone is accepted just as they are. Those pictures tell me that every life is a work of art. I felt I was in a solid, comfortable place and ordinary enough to feel at home”.
We see a major part of our work in the field of advocacy and have been intensely involved in prison and psychiatric work since the beginning of TRUST.
• In 1998, I was on the National Crime Forum.
• I chair the Sentence Review Group.
• TRUST was on the Consultative Board of the Homeless Initiative.
• TRUST is involved in on-going training of specialist groups.
• We make submissions in response to requests from government agencies and are involved in relevant research on the issues relating to homelessness.
TRUST feels that some agencies involved with people who are homeless may not respect everybody’s right to the confidential use and storage of information. Some people who are homeless feel pressurised to take part in research into homelessness in case they may lose their hostel bed or their entitlements. Where TRUST is involved in research, it is only where we believe the research design is sound, ethical and likely to provide useful information.
People working in TRUST
I am Director of TRUST and in spite of the title I work very much on the ground. My colleagues are Geraldine, who is a nurse and Patrick who lives locally. Evelyn does our administration two mornings a week.
Our full-time Volunteer Noel who does all our maintenance but is particularly good in helping the elderly frail people we work with, he is extremely creative, makes all kinds of toys etc. from what we would consider to be rubbish – recycling in the real sense.
Mary is a nurse and Saoirse a student whose father worked full-time with us. We have innumerable people from all sections of the community who help us in so many ways (discuss).
At this stage it will not be surprising to you that I am a great admirer and advocate of voluntary work. However that admiration is linked with a degree of questioning around a number of areas I have listed and perhaps I will elaborate on as I go through them:
• How do we see ourselves
• How do we value our work
• How do we deal with responsibilities we have
• The real difficulties we face in a changing world
• Our strengths and weaknesses in dealing with major social issues
• Our support networks when difficulties arise
• What does real and genuine partnership mean?
• Can we see and admit to our failures?
• Can we work with those seen as failures in our changing world e.g. those who break society’s rules
• How do we deal with difficult volunteers
• Are we equipped to deal with young people
• Do we see the value in and strength of common sense
• Do we value smallness – no project is too small
• Its not always so important to expand beyond usefulness
• There will always be mistakes and weaknesses – but these will only strengthen us if we can discuss and reflect on
• Don’t dwell on guilt or blame – move on
• Keep the lines of communication to Head Office open at all times
• Value and encourage connection between generations
• Don’t be afraid to say something that’s different
• Always remember Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Finally I thank you once again for giving me the opportunity to speak on issues close to my own heart, I compliment you and those in Head Office for the quality and depth of your publications and the example you give so many. I am deeply aware that often we think things are better elsewhere and take our own experience for granted therefore I finish off by stealing quotes from the introduction to your own Citizenship Programme which we could all do well to reflect on:
“To be a citizen of one’s country is to enjoy certain rights and accept certain duties. Some of these rights and duties are enshrined in law.
But citizenship is more than legal rights and duties. It is about a people joined by a common spirit, respecting its different traditions and working together for the good of all. Good citizens take responsibility for the quality of life in their community. They are committed to the well being of individuals and to the development of the community as a whole. They promote caring and respect for other people particularly those in need.
Citizenship is also about creating what ought to be rather than adapting to what is. The present world with its justice and injustice, its love and its lack of love, its strengths and its weaknesses is what people have made it. The future world is not predetermined. The essential task of citizenship is not to predict the future, it is to create it.
Each citizen can help shape the future especially through common endeavour with others, through participating in groups and organisations that work to achieve the common good. The place to start building a better nation, a better Europe, a better world is the local community. The time to start is now.”
Director and Co-Founder of TRUST