Alice Leahy with one of the regular callers to Trust, Ronald, and the former Lord Mayor of Dublin, Eibhlin Byrne.
by Eamonn Lacey of The Nationalist
Taking the ‘outsider’ in is how a remarkable Fethard woman has lived her life.
For the last thirty five years, Alice Leahy has lived with and cared for homeless people, treating the disadvantaged of Dublin as a neighbour, a friend and human beings.
The classic Smokey song ‘Living next door to Alice” – the band even performed it in the ballroom of her home town a long number of years ago – springs to mind when it comes to the special relationship Alice has with ‘outsiders’ forgotten by the system.
Whenever that song was rendered, an appreciative audience would inevitably roar back good naturedly posing the question who exactly was Alice. If that question was ever asked in this country’s capital city the roar would be a deafening one from the homeless in the parks, on the banks of the canal, from the doorways and the cross section of society including solicitors, nurses, doctors, journalists, religious, sporting stars all of whom would have called on Trust for refuge over the years.
The likely response would reflect the phenomenal work of a woman who had reached out to vulnerable men and women on the margins of society for the last thirty five years with Trust and for many years before that through her work with Simon.
Because of Alice and her wonderful staff and group of volunteers, the homeless have had somewhere to go, somebody to listen to and somebody to trust.
Thirty five years ago Alice Leahy co-founded Trust and her inspirational leadership and determination to speak out against exclusion, against bureaucracy and against a system that prevents spending time with people that lies behind its success.
She believes that agencies set up by the system to provide for homeless were not doing so while Trust and other voluntary groups who were at the coalface and put the personal needs of people on the margins first were dismissed.
The Fethard woman is as passionate today about her role of ‘speaking out’ as she was in the seventies when she walked away from her safe pensionable job as a nurse.
She firmly believes that the capacity to make a difference is within everyone. She remembers as a student nurse challenging the matron about the quality of patients meals and that instinctive ability to take on an injustice has been her trademark as an advocate for the real, every day, basic needs of homeless people.
Alice has continued to live her life by those standards, never missing an opportunity to speak out to ensure that every human being is treated the same as another and her desire to see that everybody was entitled to the same dignity and respect as anybody else.
That ability to pose the questions that few dare ask was honed in her days in Macra na Tuaithe in Fethard and she has never lost that .
Even though she has experienced the frustration of dealing with the ‘system’ for decades, she can still feel infuriated by the mechanics of it and its inability to deal with the individual behind the statistics they, the managers of the system, love talking about..
Only recently, while speaking at a housing seminar in Athlone, she sensed the hostility of the ‘system’ as she spoke on the issues close to her heart.
“I just could not get out of the place quickly enough. It is extremely difficult to get the message across and you could feel the hostility in the room when you challenge the system. I wanted to tell them that when you are working with the most vulnerable you cannot cherry pick,” said the former Tipperary Person of the Year.
Alice said people working in the system, the managers of the services, had lost interest in listening to the ordinary person.Spending time talking to and dealing with people who need the services they were supposed to be providing was now beyond them.
“These people managing the system are becoming more and more remote, they have lost touch with what is happening on the ground and with the people they are supposed to serve,” she said.
Alice uses every day to get across the message how important it is to “waste time” with people.
She genuinely fears that in Dail Eireann, debate is stifled because of time constrains and that in journalism the ‘soundbite’ is king and nobody wanted to meet and spend time with people any more.
She abhors the ‘ticked box’ mentality that dominates the system and that is so embedded in society now.
“People leaving university now are buying into this ‘ticked box ‘ concept doing research work that concentrates on ticking boxes rather than dealing with real people. If you don’t give time to people how do you know what is going on. It is sad to see young whiz kids going down this road of filling out the forms, ticking the boxes and creating the statistics but that tells you nothing about the human being,” she said.
“Efficiency is now about dividing people and red tape, we have lost the willingness to be brave and speak out,” she said.
Alice believes that Trust is as relevant today as it was when she co-founded the organisation thirty five years ago.
It has been an incredible success story of survival.
She recalls being at a meeting in Dublin Castle prior to the establishment of Trust and she heard a senior official remark that Trust would not last six months.
She cannot believe how quickly time has passed, something brought home to her recently when she was contacted about attending a Leaving Cert 50th anniversary function.
“I don’t believe I am here that long, but it is a reminder of just how quickly life passes by,” she said.
Alice said she still had an enthusiasm and the adrenalin for the job she does on a daily basis.
“There is a huge energy around Trust. We have a great team here. I believe in what we are doing,” she said.
“In an ideal world we should not be here, but we don’t live in an ideal world. There should be enough people working in the services to provide for the most vulnerable people but that is not the case,” she said.
The introduction of an education programme by Trust which involves a national essay competition is something that Alice is very proud of and she is delighted with the response to that initiative.
“Education is the key, we have to get the message across that everybody should be made welcome and that everybody is important,” she said.
Alice believes that Trust would always have a role to play to combat the belief that many people hold that ‘it’s your own fault’ if you are homeless.
“Sadly if society continues to think in those terms the most needy will be forgotten about. The system wants to put people who need services in one location but if that happens we will inevitably end up with more people in desperate need,” she said.
According to Alice it will never be a case of mission accomplished for Trust, there will always be people who don’t fit in and there will always be a crying need for Trust and other groups to allow the State ‘off the hook,”
On a daily basis her aim and that of everybody associated with Trust is to help the ‘outsider’, to care for them and do the very best they can to provide comfort, friendship and basic needs. “Our aim is to make people fell better going out the door.”
She remembers herself felling like an ‘outsider’ when she moved from home to Dublin leaving Tipperary and ‘beautiful Slievenamon’ .
“I always felt an outsider in Dublin. I love Tipperary, love listening to Slievenamon, you never forget your roots. Trust is there to embrace the outsider,” said Alice who moved to Dublin to train as a nurse in Baggot Street Hospital at eighteen years old in 1961.
Treating everybody as the same is a lesson she learned at a young age growing up in Fethard . Her family lived on the Annsgift estate of the Hughes family.
Four generations of her father’s family had worked on Annsgift and her father was the family steward on the estate.
She came from a family of three boys and two girls and they grew up on the basis that everybody should be treated the same.
Her family had Christmas dinner with Major Hughes and his family every year and although a Protestant, the Major lent Alice’s family a green van to drive to mass each Sunday.
“There was a mutual respect, not a master/servant relationship. Because I met no class distinction I am able to treat everyone the same,” said Alice.