I would like to thank the Sisters of Mercy for inviting me to give this years’ Catherine McAuley Lecture. Indeed I am very conscious of the fact that I am following on our President Mary McAleese, Poet Brendan Kennelly and Prison Governor John Lonergan, all well known in public life.

To say I am deeply honoured or humbled to be here sounds a bit clichéd, I would prefer to say that I just happen to be here – like so many other things in life – we never know why or how we end up where we find ourselves but nothing is ever by accident – I really do believe that, and that we must be aware of some sense of mystery and make the time to reflect on the wonder of it all.

I like to think that I am here standing in the very building Catherine McAuley lived and died in only because I happen to be alive and working in the city she worked so hard in at this time in creation and I suppose because of the work I am doing which in many ways is with some of the people so many years ago she ensured were not forgotten about and were cared for. That fact alone has prompted me to pose some questions not only about the time we live in, but rather what would she have thought of it all and what would she have done or more importantly what would she be encouraging us to do now.

Forgive me for taking the liberty in attempting to understand what someone else would have done, however, I feel this is the best I can do in remembering this great woman.

To this end I have read some literature on Catherine and reflected on the work of some of the women known to me who followed her:

• Sr. Aquinas, a relative of my mothers who was matron in St. Patrick’s Hospital, Cashel, Co. Tipperary, where I spent a short time working – I marvelled at her energy and commitment given the limited resources available to her.
• Sr. Calasanctious, who strangely enough I have had a series of amazing contacts with and who just some years ago wrote a marvellous description of the county homes and indeed on her work to date in Longford. She was instrumental in ensuring that two men known to us and homeless in Dublin got their dying wish – that was to return home to live out their last years and die in the county of their birth – Longford.
• A cousin of my mothers formally Sr. John Bosco now Sr. Nora.
• My brother-in-law’s late aunt was a Mercy nun in England – Mother Camillus, whose death was recorded in the Arundel and Brighton Diocesan Magazine in Feb./Mar. 1990 (A + B News):

“At the age of 22 (in 1929) she came to Uckfield (which is in East Sussex) dressed for action and that dress was still unchanged 60 yrs. later. She spent long secret hours in the Convent Chapel. She had spent 60 yrs. working in education at Uckfield, 36 yrs as Head Teacher and was greatly loved by all.”

• Mentioning ancestors I am reminded of some of my mother’s relations who sailed to New Zealand in years gone by some of their descendants were known to Sr. Mary Hanrahan, a fact I only discovered when she contacted me last May and I note that one of Catherine’s first Sisters was a Catherine Leahy.

Your sisters are well aware of your orders work in the field but it was interesting to note that the sisters who went to Uckfield which of course was rural in 1896.

” had been doing work in the slums of South London since 1839 even before the work of The Salvation Army and Dr. Barnardo.

At the time the well known poet Francis Thompson who was living on the streets and rescued wrote an essay “Catholics in darkest London” asking the church to involve itself with the poor who were totally dependent on charity.”

Fr. David Sutcliffe P.P. writing in the St. Michael’s Convent of Mercy Centenary Booklet.

I have often wondered why so many great women took on the names of male saints!!!

I should first describe the work I am involved in myself and how TRUST came to be:

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.

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”.

Up to 40 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 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.

We meet people whose bodies are:

• Ravaged by disease
• Stabbed by knives
• Burned by cigarettes
• Pressure sores from sleeping out in all weathers, sometimes sleeping in urine soaked clothes for weeks
• Infected and untreated minor skin conditions and major skin problems e.g. leg ulcers
• Lice infected heads
• Scabies
• Bodies suffering from malnutrition
• All the medical conditions common to the general public but exacerbated by their living conditions
• Minds and souls dispirited by feelings of despair and inadequacy
• Human beings taken over by addiction to society’s drugs, some even prescribed including alcohol and gambling
• Human beings pushed from service to service – just like figures on a chess board
• Some unable to get relief for minds at breaking point only solution at times a brown envelope of medication
• Some trying to create some sense of normality after years locked away in institutions and others just relocated from one institution to another in the name of progress
• Many who have attempted suicide and some who sadly decided to end it all

We attempt as best we can to meet people as they are, listen and do what we can as fellow human beings – it’s not easy. Sometimes the only hearing people we meet get is when they are being researched – that is why we have grave reservations about the quality and quantity of research taking place currently.

We meet some people who are so cut off from everything around them that they at times appear to be reachless.

Some people we meet are contented with their lives, never complain and leave us feeling grateful for the opportunity to reflect on what is life all about.

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.


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 chaired the Sentence Review Group up to recently when it was replaced by a Parole Board. (The work of the Parole Board can only be assessed in the future.)
• TRUST was on the Consultative Board of the Homeless Initiative.
• We make submissions in response to requests from government agencies and are involved in relevant research on the issues relating to homelessness.


• TRUST is involved in on-going training of specialist groups.
• We feel in TRUST that attitudinal change is vital – now more than ever before. To this end we run a one-day training day – The Homeless Experience.

This programme aims to raise awareness on the issue of homelessness and to help focus individuals and organisations on their responses and possible interventions.

The programme is aimed at individuals and organisations who want to deepen their understanding of the issues relating to homelessness. Many who come in contact with people who are homeless may have concerns that need to be explored and understood, and this programme provides a forum for this process.

• TRUST National Essay Competition on the theme “Outsider” which was co-sponsored by Dept. of Justice Equality and Law Reform and The Irish Times with prizes presented by the Dublin Rotary Club ran over the last Transition Year, we had a major response and it was so encouraging to read the essays from young people.
Information on this competition and prize-winning essays can be seen on our web site www.trust-ireland.ie.

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. Mary, a nurse in St. Francis’ Hospice works voluntarily and one man who experienced homelessness works daily voluntarily.

For many years I walked past this building a few times a day because I lived and worked just on the other side of the bridge. I did visit the hostel I think, but strange as it may seem knew nothing about the life of Catherine.

This fact alone is interesting because in some way it points to the fact that some remarkable people were pigeon holed, something that still happens and unless you were part of that environment you didn’t discuss it. Another factor I think is that the role of the institution took over with all discussion around running and maintaining that institution rather than looking at the philosophy around it and particularly the philosophy that inspired its foundation.

In today’s world particularly around social issues much could be gained from revisiting the thoughts of the founders particularly in relation to health and social services.

My own non questioning of the history of this place may also have been linked to my own feeling of inequality in the training schools for nurses where those run by the religious charged enormous fees which at times were prohibitive. I should mention at this time that I sadly regret the non involvement of religious in hospitals (as indeed highlighted by The Irish Times 16 August) and indeed the voluntary commitment in the small voluntary hospitals now part of history like Adelaide, Meath, Dr. Steevens etc. not run by the religious but with a truly Christian ethos something we have now lost. The care was superb, wards were clean – even if old and the patient felt he/she was well cared for.

Everyone knew the matron was in charge – indeed there was another side to this world but to my mind the good outweighed the bad and many of us here tonight should perhaps have put more effort into preserving part of these institutions. We have I think thrown out the baby with the bath water. We need only read our national papers to realise above.

This fact was recently referred to by an eminent surgeon in Irish Catholic and The Irish Times Thursday 16 August 200:

“A leading surgeon and founder of Dublin’s Blackrock Clinic has said he fears the caring ethos of hospitals run by Catholic religious orders will die out as the hospitals are sold off for profit.”

“Speaking to The Irish Times yesterday, Mr. Sheehan said religious orders may be “running scared” because they now had so few members remaining in the community. “They seem to feel the solution is to sell off the hospitals, but they are not looking into the possibility of calling in the laity, such as was done in schools like Blackrock College.”

“In these situations, religious orders had established lay boards or management teams and appointed order members to ensure their prevailing ethos of charitable service was maintained, Mr. Sheehan said.”

The poor relation of the big teaching hospitals were the County Homes. The County Homes for those not long enough around did play a major part in this country’s attempt to care for the poor.

The Irish Poor Law System was put into place by the Poor Relief Act of 1838 and still today people I meet remember their parents talk about the workhouse – the paupers of the time lived and generally died in those cold buildings and sometimes the staff caring for them as well – I am sure. We remember at times the Famine and dare I say we tend to glamorise it by way of commemorating it. But the workhouse or poorhouse still bears the stigma of shame.

“It is hard today to visualise what faced the Sisters as they moved into these stricken areas. In every town there was at least one workhouse, crowded to excess, in unbelievable conditions. For example: in Tuam 2759 paupers were crowded into one building; Ballinrobe had enormous workhouses, with over 4000 inmates in each; Castlebar had 2800 wretched people jammed into a building with accommodation for only 840. To all these towns and more, the “walking nuns” went, and worked miracles of cleanliness and order and, above all, of love.

Cardinal Moran, then Archbishop of Sydney, in a sermon delivered in the Cathedral in 1901, gave a vivid eyewitness account of his boyhood recollections of the misery of Irish workhouses. He was preaching to the Sisters of Mercy at the Silver Jubilee Mass for the Reverend Mother M. Clare Dunphy, who led the founding group of Mercy Sisters to Parramatta, Sydney, in the year 1888, from Callan where the Archbishop had spent his boyhood. At the Jubilee celebrations he recalled:

When I first visited the Poor House in Callan forty years ago, in 1861, I was struck with anguish – the terrible conditions of the poor people, huddled together without a single comforting idea, without a single spark of religion to console and comfort. It was raining; there upon the old slate flags in their bare feet, exposed to the rain, stood the old people, shivering with cold – no covering on their heads – their numbers aggravating their misery. All these evils disappeared when the Sisters of Mercy were allowed to enter the Callan work-houses … They came as angels of love to comfort them, especially in their dying moments.”

Above quote from a recently published book by Sr. Mary Carmel Bourke, a member of the Adelaide Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy. Reference is made to Catherine’s answer to the call to mercy in this field and as she so rightly points out that today’s pictures of displaced people around the world is a reminder of what it must have been like for our ancestors.

As I stand here tonight I feel particularly close to Johnnie indeed I think of him regularly – this part of the city was his place. I met him first in Church Street Day Centre when I visited one day, he was a small happy looking man with a twinkle in his eye and a ruddy complexion. He was complaining of a nose problem – that was all, referral was made to a hospital and treatment received. Subsequently our paths crossed again, he was sleeping in a car not far from here. He liked a drink, had no possessions, just carried letters, a few personal belongings or mementos in a small wallet tied with a piece of string I think. He never complained, never used bad language and never looked for anything. The lifestyle and weather took its toll on Johnnie – pains and aches, eventually his heart stopped beating but not before he did a radio interview which was broadcast on the Pat Kenny Radio programme, I would like to compliment media personnel who use their skills to remind us of the society we live in and challenge us to think.

Johnnie lived with his family 5 minutes from here (Mercy Centre, Baggot Street), the house he lived in was knocked to make way for development – the family moved to England, he hated the place, got odd jobs, never settled and returned home , home to Dublin. He kept in touch with his sister a nun and carried her letters in his little wallet. We would never be really honest with her about his living conditions, he didn’t want us to be when he phoned her from time to time.

One day the ambulance was called for him and he ended up in a hospital outside the city centre. From sleeping out, a hospital bed can be a change, noise, other people, endless questions, comments made often from the end of the bed made him feel uncomfortable. Reference was made to St. James’ Hospital he immediately thought of St. Kevin’s, The Poorhouse. When the entourage left his bedside he rushed to the toilet, smoke was seen coming out under the door, staff reprimanded him – he left, walked through the night, back to town. Staff worried they didn’t know what happened – they never heard of St. Kevin’s Hospital and the Poorhouse or the Workhouse was only what films were made of.

We found him in an early house – many of you may not have heard of an early house either – pubs that open very, very early. The cigarettes flickered through the darkness, we couldn’t see in but he could see us as he clutched his glass, cold and shivering. He walked all the way back up Winetavern Street, under the Arch and down Patrick Street too independent to let us get a taxi.

Subsequently he agreed to move into a hostel, he was comfortable and his sister was happy in the knowledge that he was being cared for – he died not too long afterwards. At his grave side was the journalist, Ann Daly (now a documentary film maker who with Ronan Tynan made a documentary on our work “A Fragile City” referred to earlier. It was shown on RTE in 1998 and led to our National Essay Competition this year.)

We were able to give a copy of the tape to his brother who arrived too late to see Johnnie alive, he last saw him in England. In the interview Johnnie spoke of his concern for young people today, those sleeping out with no future. He remembered his Christmas in the family home he had no bitterness.

While I am not a historian or researcher I strongly believe in the need to look at what has gone before us this is not an exercise that should be confined to the world of academia which is at times far removed from the world of the many people needing care, love, attention, a feeling of belonging. Both need to come together if we are to look at human loneliness, despair, and hope.

In our work it often is the deaths of people we have met that challenge us, recently so many people have died on the streets – in the recent past a death on the streets would have made headlines and prompted groups to get together. When Pauline and Danny died in the snow in 1992 it was a major news item – others died later and continue to. An emergency hostel for men was set up by the Taoiseach of the day Albert Reynolds – I remember him telling me once that Sr. Calasantious, who I referred to earlier, was someone whose advice he sought and valued – in fact the Army was called in to run it – have we since become too complacent? Is it now too easy to say it’s all their own fault. Something I have learned from daily contact with people who are homeless is that it is a complex issue, not just about housing, but shelter should be available for all in a land of plenty and human contact when required. A contact now in some cases costing money e.g. counsellors.

It can become all too easy to avoid even calling people ‘people’ especially the poor – they are statistics, figures to be juggled with at endless meetings and conferences. It is of course much easier to deal with figures and of course people who are homeless are now always referred to as clients whatever that word means.

“He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts – for support rather than illumination.”

Quote by Andrew Lang, over 100 years ago.

The work of Catherine McAuley is world wide and multifaceted and I am mindful of the painful experiences of the recent past. I also should say at this point that I have had a lot of contact with people who have lived and indeed worked in the institutions I refer to. Some people we meet have had terrible experiences, some too painful to resurrect, others have experiences of loving care and attention.

The Irish Times 16 July 2001 in a report by Patsy McGarry, Religious Affairs Correspondent regarding compensation/abuse. “An elderly religious wondered why it was the case that the role of religious who managed the institutions was always spoken of in negative terms, while the role of the State and its Agencies who were responsible for the welfare of residents in those institutions was so rarely mentioned”.

History will judge us to be no better, perhaps even worse given the wealth of the nation as the State abdicates its responsibility to care for its children, its poor, its mentally ill and its elderly who all made this nation. Our State in the name of partnership is happy to have young inexperienced personnel taking care of those needing much more and some voluntary bodies forced to accept funding to provide same – is this any different from the position the religious found themselves in the middle of the last century and are now being blamed for the difficulties of the time.

• Hostel much cheaper to run.
• Young people appearing in the Courts and in spite of the best efforts of our judiciary unable to get safe accommodation.
• Prisoners on release having served long sentences sometimes for very serious offences unable to get secure accommodation.
Recently we arranged accommodation for a man who had spent 20 yrs. in prison and could not read or write. Yet massive funding is available for highly published training programmes.
• Elderly people struggling to get appropriate in-patient care.
• Elderly people struggling to live independently.
• Hospital patients on trolleys in draughty corridors.
• Hours standing in dirty waiting areas.
• Over worked staff running the risk of making serious errors of judgment.
• The problems related to drugs and AIDS.
• I don’t have to remind you of families seeking accommodation.
• Carers.
• People involved in prostitution.
• People with mental health problems.
• Young families in Bed/Breakfasts.
• The smell of poverty well known to sisters and others in the past still exists and is growing, something that some working in the field have never experienced.

The list is endless but often the one needing most help is the one we don’t even hear about.

There is nothing new in this but what is alarming is the fact that we are complacent, more and more committees usually influenced by political affiliations produce more and more reports to gather dust. All discussed generally in centres of comfort and wealth with the security of spin doctors and cloaked in a language that is meaningless.

• Who is questioning what is happening?
• Do we support those who ask awkward questions?
• What would Catherine have done or suggest now doing.

What kind of support or acknowledgment do we offer our older sisters? They have worked long and hard developing and running services including health/education, do we ever ask for their point of view? Have they got a decent quality of life? Do we visit or invite them out? Do we allow some of them to shoulder the blame for our country’s ruler’s inability to plan services?

We should never forget that many people in positions of power and others would not have received education or care were it not for the religious.

While reflecting on this I was drawn back to the life of Catherine. Her early childhood no doubt influenced her thinking, her financial poverty, and her freedom to move in areas not to be entered. The people of different religions she had as part of her life, her real belief that things would work out and her ability not to be controlled or subsumed into other religious congregations while learning from and acknowledging each one. She was criticised but carried on, she stood her ground. She made people feel uncomfortable.

Catherine tried to make the world a better place. This year I was invited to the Foroige National Conference by its Director Michael Cleary, who I understand has a sister in this order and I am sure he had a part to play in my being here. Foroige to my mind is one of our greatest national organisations and I am happy to say that its forerunner Macra na Tuaithe had a major role to play in my own education and philosophy of life. I would like to quote from the brochure of this organisation re Citizenship and I am sure Foroige will allow me to. One Catherine would no doubt support and encourage.

“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.”

With a history based on a strong foundation based on practical work, work we hear of today as if it’s new. Visiting Death Row, working in the Crimea, educating poor.

“She soon realized that the social problems of the poor could not be solved by individual almsgiving. They needed organised effort to aid and uplift them, hostels, schools, orphanages, and employment agencies, sale-of-work depots. Above all they needed to be given skills and power to help themselves to be given dignity and a belief in their own self worth to lift themselves out of their penury and idleness and servitude.”

From “A woman sings of mercy” by Sr. Mary Carmel Bourke.

Catherine, a woman founding a religious order with such a rounded philosophy and a strong emphasis placed on caring for one another in the community and yet acknowledging the difficulty of living together under one roof.

Today we single out some women of her age who stand-alone and dismiss many others. She in her fifties started a foundation that is now worldwide. Today many women of her age especially in area of health care are dare I say trampled on and afraid to speak out. Something she didn’t have which we now can use or abuse i.e. extreme wealth, technology including media and mass communications.

How are we using these – a question we as a nation need to address.

Is money too easily available today which can at times prevent us from posing questions:

• Groups building empires far removed from people.
• What value is placed on works of mercy where our newfound language and techniques of measuring success are flawed?
• Buzzwords like performance indicators, benchmarking, partnerships have never been teased out. Do they help us too to ignore the real issues?
• The human conditions of pain, loneliness, isolation, despair, hope, and have almost disappeared from the numerous glossy reports on our national performance even in some sections of the voluntary movement.
• Without the media we may never hear of some of the real injustices but we also need a more investigative and objective media.
• The numbers of particularly male suicides.
• The work of small agencies working with the poor and many who seriously question partnership and NAPS proposals.
• The numbers of people suffering real despair in a climate in which we pathologise poverty .
• The cost of paying for a listening ear.
• The partnership between Unions (representing the work force and depending on it for good incomes) and Planners/Managers who may not be adequately representing the dissenting voice and then the messenger becomes the problem rather than the visionary.

When Catherine in her instructions said:

“There are things the poor prize more highly than gold, though they cost the donor nothing. Among these are the kind word, the gentle compassionate look and the patient hearing of their sorrows”.

I suggest that in this age of on the one hand extreme wealth but extreme poverty of spirit or meaning, our nation could benefit from reflecting on above and perhaps substituting the word poor with people. Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was your Order of Mercy which is currently like many groups, going through change which is all part of growth.

There are times when it is necessary to stop instead of trying to solve all problems and what better way to stop than by looking again at the thoughts of your foundress.

The words of T.S. Elliot written in the 1930’s come to mind:

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, where is the knowledge we have lost in information.”

I feel Catherine is here with us in spirit and I thank her for the opportunity she has given me and others to look at where we stand at this time in creation and in a country of great wealth but which has serious pockets of loneliness, poverty, isolation, pain, violence, despair and pockets of untapped unnamed human resources – cloaked in the new found language of consumerism and management and ultimately lost to our country and our world.