The Society of St Vincent de Paul was started here in 1844 at the onset of the terrible famine. Since then, SVP members, past and present, have bore witness to the people and communities affected by poverty in all its forms.
Our great colleague Prof John Monaghan RIP contextualised the time span of our service in Ireland by saying “we have been here assisting those in need through the famine, two world wars, a war of Independence, Civil war and numerous economic recessions”. The service we have given to the people of Ireland week in week out over this period has been outstanding, but as a Nation, the fact that we have had to this is of great shame.
On a personal level, if I needed reminding of the reoccurring social issues for those living in poverty, it was while listening to RTÉ ‘s Drama on One - Haughey/Gregory. It retold the story of the late Tony Gregory TD’s negotiations in 1982 with the late Taoiseach Charles Haughey to allow the latter to form a Government. Part of the deal agreed was the building of 440 houses in North inner-city Dublin (Tony Gregory’s then constituency and also where SVP’s National office is located) and a further 1600 to be built in the rest of the city. It was also decided that substantial money would be invested to create jobs and support education in the North Inner City, one of the most deprived areas of the Capital.
At the time Tony Gregory reported that there were 5815 families on the Dublin Corporation housing list, 2407 families were sharing accommodation with other families and 2162 families were waiting for transfers because the accommodation they were living in was too small for their needs. Does any of this sound familiar? I recollect this time well, as a young man, I was one of the many forced to emigrate due to unemployment. My own parents also emigrated to England in the 50s and ironically in recent years friends of my parents confided in me that in that decade they received the price of tickets for the boat to England from the Society to seek work. In fact, they boarded that ferry to the U.K. only yards from where the National Convention Centre now stands the location for our 175 members gathering.
It is a fair question for anyone to ask why the problems that affect those experiencing poverty have still not been addressed after all this time. SVP members are sadly the historians of poverty in Ireland and have seen at first hand up to the present day the sadness and despair of those we visit. Good people trying to do their best but unable to pay their rent, put food in the cupboard, or pay for their children’s school requirements.
Larry Tuomey’s excellent historical presentation on the Society’s work down through the years at our 175 conference was a sobering reminder of the slow progress we have seen in the plight of those experiencing poverty.
Can we say things are not as bad as there were in the 60s 70s 80s? Ask that question to a mother existing with her kids in a hotel room or the people queuing for food. What would their answers be?
We continue to answer the thousands of calls that come into us every year because that is our core work and calling, but above all, we want to see the day when we are no longer needed, I doubt anyone of us believes we will see it.