The camera focused in on a man’s red, swollen and blistered foot. The foot was being tenderly tended to by a woman. While she was applying medication and a plaster and bandage, she spoke warmly to the man. She helped him put on a fresh pair of socks and asked him to come back again in a day or two.
This was the cameo that I tuned into when casually television-channel-hopping on a recent Sunday night. It was a scene in the RTE “Would You Believe” series, about the charity Trust founded by Alice Leahy, the Tipperary woman who was recently the subject of a feature in this newspaper, and who will be a special guest of honour at the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Clonmel.
One hesitates to describe Trust (which serves the homeless) as an organisation, since that implies meetings and records and minutes and bureaucracy. Of course, it has to take cognisance of all of these things. It has to have structure and organisation if it is to do its work.
But the over-riding impression was that of human compassion and service to people who, for all sorts of reasons, find themselves without a home. It is a service given unconditionally. Tea, coffee, chat, clothes-washing, showers, replacement clothes, foot-care, advocacy, all contained within a small, cramped, over-crowded basement rooms.
This containment and this space-limitation, as viewed on television, reinforced the homely, friendly atmosphere of Trust. There was nothing clinical or institutional about it. It is not in receipt of government or HSE support. Alice Leahy doesn’t want it, nor would she take it, because it would, in some way, make the charity “beholden.” It would circumscribe the ability to speak out, to advocate, for the homeless.
Trust has a group of volunteers. A Church of Ireland vicar and her community in Leix provide the cost of the tea and biscuits. A few women look after the “wardrobe.” A retired man spends a few hours a week “just chatting.” “Trustees” take care of the funding.
Alice Leahy, in her recent interview in this newspaper, spoke about her home in Tipperary, where she first imbibed (because it was part of the atmosphere) her sense of service. It was a sense of doing the immediate, the practical, the thing that was nearest, because it was the right thing to do.
It seems to me, that it was a sense embedded in Tipperary women. I recall my grandmother, a farmer, telling me of answering a knock on the door just before midnight in early winter in the first decades of the last century. It was a traveller-man (or tinker-man as she would say, and that in no way pejoratively). His wife was in labour and in trouble.
She grabbed a few towels and walked a half-mile or so to an encampment at the side of the road. There, under an up-turned cart and lying in straw, she found a woman in the last stages of giving birt She delivered the baby, washed and cleaned-up in water heated over a smoking fire.
Finding there was little in the way of coverings, she walked back to her home, returned with some old sheets and blankets, and next day drove in her pony and trap six miles to Cahir to buy baby clothes.
My grandmother told me this story just to illustrate the poverty and isolation of the times, and not because she thought it was unusual, or that what she had done was extra special. It was, to her, just the ordinary, everyday help which one would could give to another.
Neither did I think it was extraordinary when my mother’s first task every morning was that of bringing tea and toast to an old woman who lived in our street, nor that, last thing at night, she would be given a cup of cocoa and tucked into bed, the front door locked, my mother taking away the key. To my mother, this was just what one neighbour did for another.
In a nearby street, my mother-in-law daily cooked a hot nourishing midday meal for a family of young orphaned teenagers. Other neighbours helped supervise and maintain them in their own home. They grew up and became happy fulfilled citizens.
That was then. This is now. Today, I wonder if my grandmother would open her door to anybody who unexpectedly knocked, night or day.
And would the old woman whom my mother befriended, find herself in some nursing home, well-cared for, but away from her own fireplace and the neighbours who dropped in to chat?
I am certain that the orphaned family would be provided with a relay of social workers, or, more probably, separated from each other and taken into State care.
In these changed times, much that was done as part of neighbourhoods and communities has become the responsibility of the State. Indeed, we demand the State’s intervention.
But, from that brief bird’s-eye glimpse into Alice Leahy’s Trust recently, it seemed to me that nothing can quite replace the sort of care that comes from the heart, from one person’s concern for another. What it appeared to lack in space, posh premises, shining equipment, it made up for in old-time neighbourliness, real warmth and love.
It can only be good for those who give and those who receive and even those of us who saw it on television.