Christmas in Cork Penny Dinners

No matter the day of the week or the time of the year, there’s always a welcome at 4 Little Hanover Street. That’s the home of Cork Penny Dinners and the welcome is never warmer than on Christmas morning.

There has been a Cork Penny Dinners for 170 years or so. Its website says “Our aim is a simple one – to give everyone who calls to our Centre a hot nourishing midday meal. In addition, our clients get sandwiches and fruit to take away as an evening meal. There’s an open door and a warm welcome. We never judge, we serve. We are open 7 days a week all year including Christmas Day.”

This Christmas will be a special day in Cork Penny Dinners, with a hot dinner given to anyone who calls in. The day begins – like every other day – at 6am when the volunteers arrive and begin to get everything ready. Officially, the door opens at 8.30am but nobody calling earlier is ever turned away.

Catriona Twomey, Penny Dinners’ co-ordinator, says that until recently Christmas dinner was prepared – like every other meal – on the premises by volunteers, but demand has become so intense recently that the River Lee Hotel has stepped in to help, supplying the dinners ready-made.

“Last Christmas Day, we served well over 200 Christmas dinners,” says Catriona Twomey. “This year, we’re expecting the figure to be even higher. Ruairi O’Connor is the general manager of the River Lee Hotel, and he and his staff have been absolute lifesavers. We’ve reached the stage now where we really couldn’t manage without their kindness.”

It’s not only at Christmas time that Penny Dinners sees an increase in demand for its service. In 2011, the charity was supplying approximately one hundred meals per week. In 2016, that figure is closer to two thousand meals per week.

What’s more, Penny Dinners volunteers say they are now serving meals to people the charity never saw before, not “just” homeless people or “just” those with drug or alcohol dependency. Now they are feeding people who have jobs, families with small children, people just about meeting the rent or paying their mortgage and who can’t afford food.

Penny Dinners also supplies a weekly shop to several households, literally to put food on the family table.

Add to that our spiralling homelessness crisis, and it’s little wonder that the charity finds itself under unprecedented pressure. Cork Simon Community reports that since 2011, the number of people sleeping rough in Cork has increased ninefold from 38 people in 2011 to 345 people in 2015.

In October, Cork Simon’s Outreach Team met 90 people sleeping rough in Cork. Year-on-year, that’s up 90%. On a nightly basis, an average of 20 people per night slept rough in Cork during October, year-on-year up 110%.

Cork Simon also reports that during the week of October 24th-30th there were 240 adults in Emergency Accommodation in Cork – a year-on-year 17% increase.

During one week in October, there were 36 families homeless in the South West (Cork and Kerry). Year-on-year, a 63% increase. There were 98 children homeless in the SW, year-on-year, that figure has more than doubled.

This is the second Cork Penny Dinners Christmas since its premises were refurbished from top to bottom under the supervision of celebrity hotelier Francis Brennan. The entire operation was filmed by RTÉ’s “Room To Improve” and shown in last year’s Christmas special.

The refurbishments were paid for by donations from local businesses and members of the public. Francis Brennan called the response from tradesmen and the public “incredible”, saying they had all helped bring Penny Dinners’ premises into the 21st century.

“The people of Cork supported us beyond belief,” he said. “The old building was stuck back in the 1940s. Even the floor was squishy, it went up and down when you walked on it.

“But the new building now is just so lovely. The kitchen is fully modernised. There’s a 1,000 years of a difference.”

What was before a narrow, cramped kitchen was replaced with a new state-of-the-art industrial kitchen and walk-in cold room. The dining area too has been overhauled and repainted, new floors have been laid, a new roof was built, and the entire Little Hanover St building has been insulated. With more light and air, the place feels bigger, brighter and even more welcoming than before.

On Christmas morning, Penny Dinners volunteers will drive all around the city – and further afield – to collect clients who cannot travel to the party. Those who are homeless and living in emergency accommodation in hotels and B&Bs are also very welcome to call in.

Santa Claus is expected to arrive at midday, fresh off the Cork Penny Dinners Polar Express to Kent Station. Mr Claus, a regular visitor to Little Hanover Street, promises to have gifts for all. He will join the Penny Dinners Christmas party, which promises to be an occasion of great fun and joy. Music this year will be supplied by special guests Jack O’Rourke and by the High Hopes Choir.

There will be presents for everyone and all those who call will receive a household hamper. Care packs will also be distributed to all who need one. Each pack will contain hats, gloves, scarves, socks, toiletries and magazines.

“There’s always a good atmosphere here every day,” says Catriona Twomey, “but I suppose this is about trying to restore Christmas for people. It’s a big honour for us here to be part of that and, really, nobody gets as much out of this as we do.”

In Penny Dinners, Catriona says, class and creed end at the door and nobody judges anyone here, not the volunteers and not the clients.

There’s a real respect here for the dignity of each person who calls in and that’s reflected in the informality of the place and the first-name friendliness shared by all.

There is sometimes a blurring of the lines between who is a client and who is a volunteer. Often, Catriona says, those who once needed a meal return to help those walking that same road now.

Everyone gets a chance and everyone gets to feel a little bit better about themselves.

In the heart of the city, Cork Penny Dinners offers a warm, friendly and non-judgemental environment for one and all.

For anyone who needs a bite to eat, for anyone who needs a place to catch their breath and for anyone who needs a reminder that there is still good in the world, there’s always a welcome at 4 Little Hanover Street.

Allieviating “the great distress which exists amongst us at present”

Cork Penny Dinners is one of the oldest charities in Cork, dating back at least to 1888 and possibly to Famine times. Local legend says it was founded as a soup kitchen in the 1840s by the Quakers.

The name “penny dinners” dates back to then, when a penny was the price of a quart of soup and half a loaf of bread. In February 1847, the Adelaide Street soup kitchen served 1,400 quarts of soup per day. So great was the demand, fires could not heat soup fast enough. Instead, stem was piped from Ebenezer Pike’s adjacent shipyard and blasted into the vats of soup, cooking it much quicker.

The Cork Examiner of the 15th of March, 1888 reported the formal beginnings of Cork Penny Dinners, saying “the zeal of charitable ladies” in Cork had been harnessed at a meeting in the Imperial Hotel and a decision had been taken to establish a facility at 5 Drawbridge Street, where tickets costing one penny would be sold to allieviate “in a safe and very effectual way the great distress which exists amongst us at present”.

128 years later, that “great distress” exists amongst us still and Cork Penny Dinners is still helping. In 2011, Penny Dinners served roughly 100 meals a week. In 2016, that figure is close to 2,000 meals a week.

Penny Dinners is not currently looking for new volunteers, but donations are always very welcome.

One innovative way in which businesses can help is to sponsor a day. A donation of €500 will pay for food for a day and Penny Dinners will name that day after your business.

One organisation doing so this Christmas is Fermoy Golf Club. Secretary Manager Denis Twomey told the Evening Echo: “We do a charity draw every year and this year we wanted to help this great cause. Members contribute €5 and all proceeds go to Penny Dinners.”

Please think of putting together a small box of gifts and dropping it to 4, Little Hanover Street, any day before 2pm. Some things are always needed. Here’s a short list of suggestions.

Fresh fruit and veg. Tea towels. Tin foil. Cling-film. Hand soap. Brilllo pads. Refuse bags. Washing-up liquid. Domestos. Tea. Coffee. Tinned fruit. Sugar. Custard. Peas and beans. Biscuits. Butter. Dilute orange. Gravy granules. Breakfast cereal. Tea. Coffee. Salt. Soup. Jelly. Custard. Toilet paper/kitchen rolls.

Cork Penny Dinners: 021 4275604

High Hopes and Jack O’Rourke

This year’s Cork Penny Dinners Christmas party will feature musical guests of honour the High Hopes Choir and rising Cork star Jack O’Rourke.

The High Hopes Choir was first established in 2014 by David Brophy, former conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and is Ireland’s first choir for homeless people. Working with the Simon Community, Saint Vincent De Paul and Focus Ireland, Brophy initially worked with two choirs, one in Dublin and the other in Waterford. A year later, the project expanded to include a third choir, this time based in Cork.

“Every song tells a story,” High Hopes co-ordinator Glenn Alexander says. “And every single member of the High Hopes Choir has a story to tell – a story that may contain unfathomable loneliness but it also contains courage. It’s also a story that conveys remarkable hope.”

Last year, all three choirs united, their combined voices carrying the message of homeless awareness to the highest office in the land, performing for President Michael D Higgins at a garden party in Áras an Uachtaráin.

Fresh from their triumphal performance at the 28th Sligo International Choral Festival, the Cork High Hopes Choir headline the entartainment at this year’s Penny Dinners Christmas Party. In Penny Dinners, the members of the Cork High Hopes Choir are local heroes and they’re sure to enjoy a rousing reception this Christmas morning.

Jack O’Rourke’s debut album “Dreamcatcher” was released earlier this year to critical acclaim, entering the Irish charts at number 19 and rising to number 5. The album was awarded first place in the lyrics category of the International Songwriting Competition. The adjudicating panel included Bill Withers and Tom Waits.

“This is a seriously good album from a seriously good songwriter. **** ” – Tony Clayton-Lea, The Irish Times.

“Musical, coupled with O’Rourke’s expressive, supple voice, this makes for a highly accomplished debut” – Lauren Murphy, The Sunday Times.

“Jack O’Rourke’s music has a grace and a glory to it that will stop you in your tracks and make you forget where you were going! ‘Silence’ is one of the songs of the year for me.. ‘I’ll Forget You In The Morning’ took me away too …. Beautiful honest songwriting delivered with a transporting musicality that will take you there… wherever you are going!’ – Fiachna O’Braonáin, RTE Radio 1.

Jack O’Rourke is currently touring and his album “Dreamcatcher” can be downloaded from his website.

Originally published in the Evening Echo 13th December 2016


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