Evening Echo column: Penny Dinners for the new poor

Two years ago Cork Penny Dinners served about 100 meals a week. Now it’s over 1,500.

They are supplying meals now to people they never saw before, not “just” homeless people or those with drug or alcohol dependency but people with families, parents of small children, “the new poor”, people who just can’t make ends meet. They also supply a weekly shop to several households, literally to put food on the family table.

Cork Penny Dinners is on Little Hanover Street, within sight of the Courthouse.

I walk in and one or two of the people sitting at tables turn and smile. To the right is the kitchen, all clatter and steam as volunteers bustle about. This is not an extravagant space and that will become a recurring theme. Nothing is wasted here.

A man my own age welcomes me, his hand stretched out. “How’s it going?” he asks. “Will you have a cup of coffee? C’mere, the soup is just cooked. Would you eat a bowl of soup?”

I would indeed – tomato and it smells fantastic – but I’m here to meet Catriona, the co-ordinator. She’ll tell me later the title is superfluous – “We’re all equal here, just as it should be” – but for now I take a pew (literally, the seats are pews) and enjoy a cup of coffee.

I tune into the conversation at the table next to mine. Three men are having their lunch. Sausages, mash and veg, with a dessert of jelly and ice-cream. They’re discussing the subject of lookalikes. A tall young man tells his neighbours that Bryan Cranston once attended a convention dressed as Bryan Cranston but nobody recognised him.

A man in his forties, getting up from the table, turns and says “Sure didn’t Dolly Parton lose a Dolly Parton lookalike contest?”

“And Charlie Chaplin,” says a man with an English accent. “He came fourth or fifth.”

“In a Dolly Parton contest?” says the first man, to laughter. “I’m not surprised!”

Everyone is very friendly and the atmosphere is informal but there is an unspoken respect for privacy. As I wait for Catriona, I’m offered a refill for my coffee but I’m given my own space too.

When Catriona arrives, she brings an easy warmth to the room and a kind word for everyone. She tells me she had to go out for more food as they ran out today. She tells me Penny Dinners have never needed to have their own fundraiser, that strong is the community’s support. That said, they have never had this level of demand for their services before.

Fintan (not his real name) comes over to return a bag of books he borrowed from here, Roddy Doyle being his favourite. When he leaves, he’ll take with him a bunch of videos on loan. He got into trouble, he says, trying to pay off his daughter’s electricity bill. He says he cannot praise Catriona highly enough “and she knows I’d say that behind her back too”. He’s a recovering alcoholic, dry four years now and doing his best. “There is no place like this place and it deserves recognition”.

“Toby” is an older man, I’d guess late-sixties. “This place is more than the grub, are you with me? It’s about the social side too and it puts a bit of a structure on the day. There’s no airs and graces, d’you know? No judgement here.”

“’Tis a very ‘Cork’ kinda place,” I venture. “Am I right in saying there’s some blurring between who’s a client and who’s a volunteer?”

“Why wouldn’t there be?” he says, “Sure you have to give something back. The next man or woman might be worse off than you.”

Catriona says the hardest thing, in a way, has been seeing the “new poor” coming in. “The Government is saying things are getting better but they’re not. They’re really not.” People come in, she says, and the best she can do is try to put them at ease but some find it hard to cope with the distance between where they think they should be and where they are. This is the reality of Austerity.

Niall is 22. He started here on work experience for two months last year. He’s volunteered since. “It’s hard to pass the place,” he says. “There’s a sense of family here and that’s something you can’t break away from. The more you’re here, the more respect you have for people.”

Legend has it Cork Penny Dinners was founded by the Quakers in Famine times but Catriona feels history may not have been so clear-cut. She feels it might have been more a case of whoever was around at the time deciding to help those in need, perhaps like today. That said, the Quakers have been involved all through the organisation’s history and it’s a legend that she feels doesn’t do any harm.

Cork Penny Dinners exists solely on public donations. Right in the heart of Cork, it is a warm and decent place, full of warm and decent people.

“People are welcome here from all walks of life,” says Catriona, “It’s not about religion, it’s not about politics; all it’s about is that people need a place to come for food, maybe just some place to sit in for a couple of hours. That’s what it’s all about.”

If you’d like to contribute or get involved, please call (021) 4275604 or email mail@corkpennydinners.ie.www.corkpennydinners.ie

(Originally published in the Evening Echo, Friday 18th of July 2014)

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