Ryan Tubridy interviews Alice Leahy
Link to the Irish Examiner here.
A priest, gardaí, and people from groups such as the Alice Leahy Trust were at the graveside to mourn two deceased homeless men from Poland as they were buried in Dublin earlier this week
They began digging the grave shortly after 8am last Tuesday. The teeth of the mechanical digger clawed at a film of frost and down into the cold ground.
It was all done in a matter of minutes, the displaced earth carted off in a dumper. Timber supports were placed at the side of the hole, straw dropped in to make a bed for the coffins.
A hearse drove at speed along the road that runs at the edge of Dardistown cemetery. It stopped and a simple wooden coffin was slid from the rear of the vehicle and carried by workmen to the side of the freshly dug grave.
“Miroslaw Sierakowski, 21 October 2021” was inscribed on a brass plate. He was 36 years of age.
The hearse took off again. Over the following 20 minutes, a small knot of people gathered at the side of the grave, next to a row of silver birch trees. They were from agencies that provide services to homeless people, the Alice Leahy Trust, The Order of Malta, The Mendicity Institution.
The hearse returned and a second coffin was taken from it. The inscription on this one read, “Robert Matacz, 10 June 2021”.
He was 47 when he died.
The coffins were then lowered into the grave, one on top of the other.
As best could be determined, the two Polish men probably were acquainted but weren’t friends and nobody could recall seeing them in each other’s company. Yet they were now joined in their final resting place, in a different country and society from where their lives took shape.
Monsignor Eoin Thynne stepped forward to say a few words. As he did so, another Ryanair plane descended from a sky heavy with grey clouds, coming in to land at Dublin Airport which adjoins Dardistown.
In all likelihood, the two deceased men separately entered the country on such a flight, their first view of this land of promise taking in the vast rows of headstones just before touchdown.
From there, they would have travelled by bus or taxi past the graveyard’s entrance, probably giddy with the kind of excitement known to recently-arrived immigrants.
Now their final resting place would symbolically note that they hadn’t got very far in the country in which they had invested their dreams.
The monsignor touched on fragments of the two men’s lives. Robert had used the services of Alice Leahy Trust on a frequent basis, as he had with the other agencies. He was always mannerly and polite. He had worked as a delivery driver. He had a twin sister, and his mother had died young.
Miroslaw had a great sense of humour. A few years back, during a heavy fall of snow, he had arrived at the gates of the trust and helped clear the paths. He was laughing at the big deal that was being made of the weather. “You Irish, you don’t know what snow is,” he said.
He called the people in the Alice Leahy Trust his Irish family. The last time he visited was October 4, 2021, six days before he died. He passed in four cigarettes and asked that they be shared out among the agency’s other clients.
Both men had worked at various jobs before the vicissitudes of life intervened to disrupt the dreams they must have harboured on immigrating to this country.
Throughout the pandemic, funerals were robbed of the warmth drawn from crowds gathering in around the bereaved. The spectre was one of the saddest through a strange and frightening time.
Yet beyond the confines of graveyards, communities did what they could to comfort those who had suffered loss, forming lines along the route, phoning, messaging, waving, transmitting that while they can’t be there in person, their collective spirit is pushing in around the graveside.
Thankfully, the ritual of funerals is, like everything else, returning to some form of normality.
For those who have been thrust onto the margins, bonds broken with family, the final journey remains lonely, unmarked and doesn’t do justice to the occasion. In the place of a eulogy, only fragments of the deceased’s life can be assembled.
Rather than the hum of conversation as friends and family reminisce, there is this quiet gathering of a few people who work with the unmoored, now bearing witness in the void.
The various agencies have plots reserved for those whose remains will go unclaimed and require the dignity of a final resting place. The grave for the two Polish men was provided by the Glasnevin Trust, which also reserves plots for this purpose.
At least 30 people have been buried in this manner in Dardistown over the last two years. In Cork, there have been two such burials in the same period at St Finbarr’s Cemetery, a woman from the Congo, and a Moroccan trawlerman recovered from the sea.
When Monsignor Thynne concluded, Alice Leahy said a few words, noting that the sad ending for some immigrants in this country was a replica of what had occurred in previous generations for many Irish emigrants who died alone and were buried far from home.
The exceptions shine through.
In 2019, Tipperary man Joseph Tuohy died in north London after a hard life.
An appeal went out to bring his body home and ultimately he was afforded a funeral fit for a king in Dublin, complete with piper, a soprano, and hundreds of mourners who came to acknowledge that some lives never cop a lucky break.
Now and again, there is also the odd story about a successful rescue from the trajectory towards a premature death among those described as homeless.
On Tuesday morning, two men who attended at Dardistown were Garda Damien McCarthy and his retired colleague Joe Gannon. They, along with Garda Alan O’Dowd, assisted Ms Leahy’s organisation in repatriating a man last year who wanted to go home because things hadn’t worked out and he was living on the streets.
Romi Ramtohul had frequented the same agencies as the deceased Polish men. He also had struggled with finding a place for himself in society after coming here in search of a new life.
Unlike so many though, fate smiled on him and, with plenty of help, he ultimately made it back home to Mauritius. It was a rare good news story from the margins.
After Ms Leahy spoke the small gathering stood in silence.
Within an hour or so, the busy cemetery would be back to handling standard burials, with corteges crawling through the entrance, mourners arriving in droves to lend comfort to the bereaved.
The small ritual on this cold morning came to a close. A woman from the Order of Malta stepped forward to the grave with a bunch of daffodils. A pair of lights shone through the clouds as another plane began its descent.
In the distance, where rush-hour was well underway on the intersecting M50 and M1 motorways, the traffic sounded like the sea.
Sir, – Having come through two years with curtailed community living, the welcome letter, even if some were delivered at Christmas time a month after postage, was very much appreciated by many people living in isolation. Throughout that time the community gardaí and friendly postmen and postwomen reminded us of what is good in Irish society and they continue to do so in all weathers. Now the recent An Post increase of 15 cents on the postage stamp –the second substantial increase in recent times – will come as a blow to so many people who love to send and get a letter.
Our public services have changed dramatically. Some will argue it is for the better, however that is debatable. The focus on public service needs to be on the consumer, who doesn’t need to hear a repeated message that they are 12th or 20th in the queue. Not everyone can use or wants to use technology. Broadband services are not readily available to all on our island and their needs should not be forgotten. Politicians and advisers, please note that the simple letter can make one’s day. – Yours, etc,
Director of Services,
Alice Leahy Trust,
Link to The Sun here.
PAT Austin is one of hundreds of people across Ireland who spent the festive season on the streets.
Although homeless for around eleven years, the 51-year-old remains hopeful that his dreams of having his own home will finally come true in 2022.
And Pat revealed how he has the Alice Leahy Trust to thank for giving him back his “dignity and respect” as he continues his fight for the right to live with a roof over his head.
The drop-in centre – established by former nurse Alice Leahy in 1975 – offers a wide range of services to people who sleep on the streets in the capital and have nowhere to go during the day.
These include showers, washing facilities, clothing, footwear, food, toiletries, advice on interactions with various State agencies, filling out forms and medical assistance for minor ailments.
The centre also provides advice on medication, referrals to specialist services, foot care, contacting families and healthcare professionals as well as working with hospitals and community gardai.
Those using the centre come from all ages and from all walks of life and include men and women who are battling drug, alcohol or gambling addictions.
And as Pat and others continue to use the facility, which is funded by donations from the public, he paid tribute to Tipperary-born Alice and her team for the role they have played in helping homeless people for almost five decades.
Pat has been coming to the centre in Bride Street, south inner city Dublin, for the last six years.
He provided us with a rare insight into life on the streets.
Pat said: “If it wasn’t for Alice Leahy and the staff I wouldn’t be here today.
“Alice is an angel who has helped thousands of lives over the years while her staff are all extraordinary people who bring compassion and kindness to the people they meet.
“When I am on the streets I am invisible – it’s as if I don’t exist. When I am down on all fours it’s the men and women of the Alice Leahy Trust who lift me up.
“But when I come to the centre all the negative thoughts that I have leave me, and my dignity and respect are restored.
“If I was to win the lotto I would give it to them because they are wonderful people doing a fantastic job for the most vulnerable in our society.”
Pat added: “If I had found the trust sooner then I might not be in the position I find myself today.
“When I’m on the streets I can’t wait to get back to the centre because it gives me my confidence back.
“There are times when I haven’t showered for three days and I’m afraid to go into a shop because I’m worried what people will say about me.
“But I am a human being and nobody is meant to be homeless and nor should they be.
“If I was to mark the trust out of ten for the service it provides I would give it twenty.”
Pat also urged the Government to do more to tackle the dire problem of homelessness.
He said: “On the Thursday before Christmas they looked after me again and I was just so overcome with emotion because they treat you as a person – to say they are fantastic is an understatement.
“I can’t believe the centre doesn’t get any Government funding and I will never forget the work the trust does for me and so many others.
“If our politicians are serious about addressing the issue and causes of homelessness they should be speaking to people like Alice, Jeanette and Mark at the centre, because these are the people on the front line.
“These are the people who know what it’s like to deal with this problem.”
At present and because of the Covid-19 pandemic, anyone entering the centre has to have their temperature taken and only four people are allowed in at the one time.
In the reception area of the facility, seats are also placed so that anyone visiting it can relax in a socially distanced manner.
Before the pandemic, the trust had 26 different nationalities calling in every month.
But in recent times and with many people returning to their homeland due to the pandemic, the centre now helps people from 12 different countries each month.
Also during the pandemic, the centre has seen the return of people who previously used it between eight and ten years ago.
In an exclusive interview with the Irish Sun, the trust’s founder told how the homeless situation in Ireland had worsened over the years.
Alice said: “After working in the field of homelessness for almost half a century now, I would have hoped we reached a better outcome than the one so graphically evident on our streets.
“Unfortunately we have not done so and, in spite of the efforts of many and the spending of immeasurable resources, the overall situation has, if anything, worsened.
“We are a non-judgmental, befriending, social and health service for people who are homeless – we are trying to give a voice and a helping hand to the marginalised in our society.
“The philosophy of the Alice Leahy Trust is based on the recognition of every individual’s right to be treated as an autonomous and unique human being.
“I would like to thank the many people who contribute to make our work possible while recognising that in an ideal world there should be no need for our service. We receive tremendous support all year round.”
The tireless campaigner also urged the Government to recognise how “complex” the problem of homelessness is.
Alice added: “No one agency has a monopoly of caring, compassion or expertise and there are no easy answers.
“Not acknowledging the complexities of homelessness will lead to failure for generations to come.
“We must ensure that wider discussions take place with other relevant disciplines to ensure the next generation can be hopefully redirected from life on the streets.
“It is quite clear that working hands-on with people with complex needs takes time, commitment and a belief that anything is possible.
“However, that is much harder than ticking boxes and the comfort of bureaucracy.
“It is necessary if we are ever to make a real difference.”
Former Garda Supt Joe Gannon, who sits on the trust’s board of directors, paid tribute to Alice and her team.
The retired officer said: “Alice Leahy is a remarkable lady and a national treasure.
“Along with her team of dedicated and committed staff, they have provided welfare in various forms of much needed support to thousands of people over the years.”
During her career helping members of the homeless community, Alice also told of her concerns over increased drug use in society.
She said: “People become homeless because of their drug/alcohol problem and the challenging behaviour associated with it.
“We have a very serious drug problem in our city and in our country.
“Wider society needs to be aware of its responsibility and culpability when it comes to the use of recreational drugs.
“People who use recreational drugs must recognise the reality that they are supporting a vicious industry.”
And the campaigner also told of her pain at seeing homeless people dying on our streets, adding: “Tragically, we see people who are homeless dying on our streets.
“We help sometimes and in spite of our best efforts, it is not always possible to save each and every one.
“We must support and comfort, give all we can in terms of compassion.
“The people we meet who present as homeless have a myriad of social problems related to the complexity of their own personal and unique human condition.”
Broadcaster Pat Kenny has high praise for Leahy and her team.
He said: “Alice has become a tireless advocate and agitator for those who literally have no homes to go to.
“She says unpalatable and sometimes un-PC things that rattle the cages of the policy makers and the powerful.”
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