About Donal O'Keeffe

I'm still not sure I have anything much to say that I couldn't fit in a tweet over at @Donal_OKeeffe but I suppose let's see how we go.

Evening Echo Interview with John Creedon 2017 #CreedonsShannon

CreedoIt’s the summer-time, and in what is now an annual tradition, John Creedon is out and about, but this time without his vintage 1967 Volkswagon van, “An Sean-Bhean Bhocht”. This year, Creedo is taking to the water.

“I’m tearing around again,” he laughs over a coffee in Cork’s Imperial Hotel. “No Sean-Bhean this time. I’m on a boat – boats – and I’m hitching and hiking and thumbing and driving boats and passengering and paddling and rowing.”

Following his success with RTÉ TV programmes like “Creedon’s Cities”, “Creedon’s Weather”, “Creedon’s Wild Atlantic Way” and “Creedon’s Epic East”, the veteran Cork broadcaster is now tackling “Creedon’s Shannon”.

In the opening episode, Creedon visits the Shannon Pot, the tiny pool on the slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain in County Cavan where the Shannon officially rises – or does it? As Creedon asks, “Is the Shannon actually fourteen kilometres longer than we were taught in school?” To find the answer, he ventures north of the border and meets with hydro-geologists. All will be revealed, he promises, in the first programme, which airs on Sunday the 23rd of July.

Down through Lough Allen, Lough Ree and Lough Derg, and as the river swells and narrows, “Creedon’s Shannon” looks at how the Shannon has shaped and influenced Ireland. Over the course of three episodes, Creedon travels 360 km and twelve counties aboard cruiser, barge, yacht, gandalow, ending in the Shannon estuary, where Ireland’s mightiest river meets the broad Atlantic.

Creedon describes his television shows as “snapshotting Ireland”. He says he feels refreshed and energised by his encounters along the Shannon. “I know the word is overused, but I really do feel humbled – and terribly lucky too – to meet so many lovely people,” he says. “I love their accents and the welcome I get.

“I was only thinking recently I would find myself listening to maybe nine or ten news bulletins a day and I ask myself, is there any reason I’m stressed? If you were to consume enough news, you wouldn’t trust anybody! Whereas my life experience is that ninety-nine point nine-eight percent of people I have met are actually sound and don’t actually want to kill me! So this is a very life-affirming experience.”

“Creedon’s Shannon” sees Creedon visit the Arigna mines, recreate the lost city of Clonmacnoise and make poitin on Lough Derg. Along the way, he meets island folk and river people.

“I love it,” he says of exploring Ireland and the Irish character anew. “I remember that world very fondly from my aunties and uncles in West Cork, collies and big old horses in hayfields, or even corner-boys in Cork, you know, ball-hopping and humour and language and all the rest of it.”

Creedon talks fondly of a 91-year-old man he met on the shores of Lough Allen – Jimmy Furey – and says he is heartbroken that his interview didn’t make the cut in the finished show but it will feature on RTÉ’s Player.

“There I am,” he says, “on a Tuesday afternoon, when the rest of the world is at work, and I’m sitting by a turf fire talking to this fella about eel-fishing, which is how they made their living.

“They had about eighteen acres of bad land, they had four or five cows, they used to bring a churn of milk to the creamery alright, by donkey and cart, but yet they had to go to Mass by boat. He used to bring his mother to Mass by boat when she was in her eighties or nineties across Lough Allen. And catch eels. And sell them to a dealer who would send them on to Billingsgate Market or to France and I’m kind of going ‘Okay, I know rural Ireland too, but there was no eels, and there was no going to Mass by boat. Hang on a while, I’ve got the meadow bit, but –‘”

Creedon says he is blessed to have found a way to explore his interests in folklore, archaeology, history, wildlife, tradition, language and people.

“My own natural instincts have lead me over this direction. It was never the plan – there was never a plan – but here I am. I was always a gun for hire and I always had a family to provide for, but now I get to do this.

“I’m really lucky,” he says, segueing to his beloved football team. “It’s like having Cork City playing the way they’re playing at the moment, with that swagger, banging in goals for fun, fans you can be proud of, full houses, loyal support, chartering jets to get to our European matches and there’s no fantasist with a sheepskin coat telling us what colour to wear.

“I love that club to bits, and I love that band of boys and girls and men and women. It’s an honest endeavour, it’s a joint venture between all of us, there’s maybe 1,500 shareholders. We all threw in our fifty quid or a hundred or whatever and we’re trading nicely and it really gives me great joy.”

Creedon says his hugely-popular 8pm weeknights RTÉ Radio 1 show is second nature to him after thirty years as a broadcaster. “‘Tis zipping along grand. ‘Tis aisy! I liken it to being in my den with my friends. And the graph is going in the right direction, thankfully, up another 9,000 (listeners) in the latest JNLR.”

As he leaves the Imperial and heads off to the RTÉ Cork studio on Father Mathew Street – stopping every few yards to chat with people – John Creedon reflects again that he’s a lucky man.

“If my younger self was told ‘D’you know all those records you love playing? Well, you’ll still be playing them when you’re a grand-dad and d’you know something, you’ll earn your living playing them!’

“I would never have believed I could be so fortunate.”

Creedon’s Shannon begins at 6.30pm on Sunday 23rd of July, on RTÉ1. The John Creedon Show airs at 8pm, Monday to Friday, on RTÉ Radio One.

Originally published in the Evening Echo, Tuesday, July 18th



An open letter to the Irish Times


Dear Sir,

I buy a copy of the Irish Times every day. Over a week, it costs me €12.90 and I usually consider that to be money very well spent.

I am saddened that you chose to publish online an article written by – but not identified as – a member of the white supremacist “alt-right” movement. The article contained racist phraseology and was published even as its author was tweeting racist comments about refugee children.

This is not to suggest for a moment that the Irish Times should ignore the so-called “alt-right”, but neither should you publish their propaganda as clickbait.

This week I will not be spending €12.90 on the Irish Times but will instead take that sum, top it up to twenty quid, and donate the money to the Irish Refugee Council.

Please consider this my small protest against a very bad decision on your part.

Yours sincerely,

Donal O’Keeffe

A walk through Fermoy’s garrison past

The small gravestone still reads “Sacred to the memory of Jane, daughter of Edwd. and Maria Jennings, 39th Regt, who died Jan 31st 1869 aged 2.”

Across Fermoy’s military cemetery – behind Fermoy Soccer Club and the Famine graveyard – other children are remembered. “Bertie Gordon, Died 28th July 1898, aged 2. Thy will be done.”

“Sacred to the memory of William James The beloved son of Emily and Willm. Babbington 2nd Connt. Rangers Died 15th March 1885 Aged 16 months.”

“Emily Helena (indecipherable) Daughter. But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand.”

“Infant mortality would have been astronomical then,” says Dr Aoife Bhreatnach, “but what is doubly tragic is that a military family might bury a child here and then be posted to the other side of the Empire.”

Bhreatnach is a historian specialising in garrison towns and she shares a wealth of knowledge as we walk what was once Fermoy’s British Army barracks, and what is now sports grounds.

Fermoy’s modern history dates from 1791, when Scots businessman John Anderson purchased lands once belonging to the old Cistercian Abbey.

France’s failed 1796 invasion of Ireland terrified the British Government, and it sought land for military bases. Fermoy was an ideal location and Anderson offered them a free site.

In 1807 Rev J. Hall described Fermoy as “rising fast into importance and containing about two thousand inhabitants, besides barracks for as many soldiers. A few years ago, Fermoy consisted of only a few miserable huts.” At the height of Fermoy’s time as a garrison town, 3,300 troops were stationed there.

Bhreatnach paints a fascinating picture of life in a garrison town, with uniformed soldiers part of everyday street life. Troops paraded to Sunday religious services, marched to and from train stations and performed manoeuvres and reviews in public parks.

The British army was a vital part of the town’s economy. Barrack quartermasters purchased wholesale alcohol for the officers’ and soldiers’ messes, where copious amounts of wine, beer and spirits were served.

“Approximately half the accounts of McAuliffe’s public house on Barrack Hill were with the military,” Bhreatnach says.

Bhreatnach notes that from 1893 to 1903, 30% of the customers in Hickey’s, Fermoy, were military officers and senior NCOs. Hickey’s also supplied garrisons in Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Kerry. The laundry of those clothes also proved a valuable source of income for charitable institutions such as Fermoy’s Presentation Convent.

In recent years, Fermoy Sub-Aqua Club recovered from the O’Neill Crowley Quay riverbed a quantity of pocket watches. They date back to an incident during the War of Independence. In September 1919, Liam Lynch and a column of Cork No. 2 Brigade I.R.A. – including Michael Fitzgerald – ambushed a group of British soldiers on their way to Fermoy’s Wesleyan Church (Now Avondhu Motor Factors).

One soldier, 20 year old Private William Jones, was killed, and another, Private Lloyd, was injured.

Private Jones was – reputedly – the first British soldier killed in the War of Independence.

Today, there is a monument where Private Jones died. It remembers Mick Fitzgerald, who died a year later on hunger strike in Cork Gaol. Fitzgerald’s death – and the subsequent deaths of his fellow prisoners, Joe Murphy and Terence McSwiney – brought global attention to the cause of Irish independence.

British forces sacked the town in retaliation and in reaction to the coroner’s inquest, which recorded a verdict of ‘Accidental death, unpremeditated’. The soldiers’ actions were highly co-ordinated but it was claimed “the men” had acted spontaneously.

Lieutenant Colonel Hughes-Hallett, posted in Fermoy at the time, recalled: (They) “proceeded to every shop or place of business of the coroner and the members of the jury… the jeweller’s (Barber’s), the Boot Shop (Tyler’s) and (Lombard’s) and the foreman of the Jury, etc, were all faithfully dealt with. Trays of rings and watches were soon being flung into the river. A chain of men… smashed bottles on the pavement, and drink flowed in a stream down the gutter.”

The Irish Times reported a later town meeting and a bitter exchange between Colonel Dobbs – representing the British army – and Mr Kelleher, vice-chairman of the Urban Council. Dobbs agreed to a request that he confine the troops to quarters, but – angered by the jury’s verdict – warned that he would not be responsible if they got “out of hand” again.

Dobbs: “You have not the pluck to say that (Private Jones) was murdered.”

Kelleher: “There is pluck enough in the town.”

Dobbs: “Why didn’t you come forward to assist, when the men were shot? Not a man, woman or child had the pluck to come forward and give assistance.”

Kelleher: “No one came near us when our windows were broken.”

Dobbs: “Damn the windows! You have got no industry, you are simply living on the army and but for them you would be taking in each other’s washing. When this thing happens and you lose a few hundred or a few thousand pounds, you come and cry for protection.”

The British army left Fermoy in Spring 1922. In August, in the midst of the Civil War, the Barracks were torched. Afterward, a member of the Urban District Council complained that the local authority lost £3,400 in rates and an additional £450 in special water rates. The financial loss devastated the town, especially in the first economically-depressed decades of the new State.

Post-Independence, Bhreatnach says, Fermoy used street names to put its garrison past behind it. “Barrack Hill became Oliver Plunkett Hill, Mess House Lane was dubbed Colmcille Street; New Barrack Street became Sheares Street and West Barrack Street was renamed Bridget’s Street.

“Erasing the military associations gave the town an opportunity to assert a particular form of cultural nationalism, prudently focusing on uncontroversial early revolutionaries (the Sheares from 1798) and ancient saints. Erasing one past allowed local communities to pay homage to another image of Ireland.”

Almost a century later, walking with Dr Bhreatnach across Michael Fitzgerald Park, Fermoy’s GAA grounds, formerly the British Army New Barracks, I’m struck how close to us and yet how far away our history remains.

Dr Aoife Bhreatnach tweets as @GarrisonTowns. irishgarrisontowns.com

Originally published in the Evening Echo, 29th December 2016


Direct Provision is no place for these families

“I do not tell him about Santa,” Cindy (not her real name) says, lowering her voice so her three-and-a-half year old son doesn’t hear.

“He hears about Santa from other children but I have to keep his expectations low. The presents he will get will come from charity.

“We are very grateful for the kindness but he cannot get his hopes up. I do not want to break his heart.”

It’s just before Christmas. Cindy and her son have met me for a chat in a hotel lobby in a Munster town. Over the fireplace, Christmas lights wink on and off. Cindy’s son, Aaron, shouts “Broken! Fix!”

Cindy stops him from going at the lights and tells me that she, her husband and Aaron have lived for the past two years in a Direct Provision centre outside of the town. Most locals are barely aware of the centre.

“Christmas Day is the same day as every day,” says Cindy. “The staff will not be there, so we have cold food they leave for us and the day is very long.”

Cindy is South African. Her husband, Joshua, is Nigerian. She was a supervisor in a marketing company in Johannesburg and her husband was a businessman. She says they came to Ireland because they faced persecution as Joshua was a non-national. She says they were attacked and threatened with murder.

Cindy and Joshua chose to come to Ireland because they didn’t need a visa and came here because they are Catholic and liked Ireland. On arrival, they applied for asylum. Their application was rejected because South Africa is not recognised as a conflict zone. They appealed the decision and their appeal was rejected. They have appealed again.

The cycle of rejection and appeal is a common story, although it is unusual for asylum-seekers to actually pick their destination as Cindy and her husband did. Most asylum-seekers are smuggled here and have no idea where they even are when they arrive in Ireland.

Cindy says that she is shocked at the levels of violence in the Direct Provision centre.

“There are a lot of fights. Gardaí call all the time. It is always women. These are desperate women suffering from boredom and depression. ‘Are you looking at my husband?’ Stupid stuff. ‘What are you looking at?’ Sometimes we fight over food. Like animals.”

As we chat, Cindy’s son shouts and runs around, ignoring Cindy as she tries to calm him. She is mortified by his acting out but then she tells me she is worried about his behaviour.

“He goes crazy here because he usually has no space. Because he spends all his time with us. One small room. This cannot be healthy.”

In another Direct Provision centre in the south, later the same day, I speak with a number of women who tell me that Christmas Day will be for them and their children “A nothing day. Less than a nothing day”.

Like Cindy, “Katherine” too is from South Africa. Similarly, she says her husband being a non-national led to their having to flee to escape persecution. She has two small children, a boy of four and a one-year-old girl. She alleges that the food in her Direct Provision centre is very poor.

“If we have chicken today, we have the same chicken tomorrow and the next day the same chicken in Uncle Ben’s sweet’n’sour sauce. Or if it’s beef on Monday, the same beef on Tuesday and beef stew with the same beef on Wednesday.

“Are we animals? Are we dogs that you feed scraps?”

She says she has not made a formal complaint for fear of being moved to another centre. Bad as she says things are, she fears her family being uprooted again. She claims that when the Reception and Integration Agency – the State body which oversees privately-run Direct Provision centres – inspects the facility, food quality improves dramatically.

I asked the Department of Justice – which is ultimately responsible for RIA – for a comment. I was told:

“RIA has a complaints procedure.. which resolves to deal with problems quickly and efficiently.

“RIA oversees a comprehensive and detailed inspections system of asylum seeker accommodation. Inspections are carried out by an in-house inspectorate within RIA and also by an independent company with expertise in fire and food safety.”

The problem is that people in Direct Provision have deportation orders hanging over their heads and most are terrified to complain.

Katherine’s friend “Jennifer” tells me to call her that, “like Jennifer Aniston”. She’s a young Muslim woman from Pakistan who fled her home because she married outside of her caste.

She and her husband fled under threat of a so-called “honour killing”. Jennifer has two boys. A three-year-old and a newborn.

Jennifer and Katherine are both Muslim and say that Islam doesn’t celebrate Christmas. However, they say they live in a country that has Christmas and they’d like their kids to enjoy that. “We want to belong in Ireland,” says Katherine.

“I have to ask,” I say, “because if I don’t, someone else will say I should have, but how did you both end up on an island that’s the last stop before America?”

“America?” says Katherine, misunderstanding my point. “We would not go to America!”

“Oh no,” says Jennifer, eyes wide with horror. “Not with what is happening there now!”

As they realise their misunderstanding, the three of us crack up laughing. It’s a rare moment of levity in grim surroundings. (Jennifer says she and her husband were smuggled here. Katherine and her husband came here from South Africa.)

“At the end of November there were 1,098 children in Direct Provision. The average length of stay in Direct Provision is around 2 years 9 months,” says Nick Henderson of the Irish Refugee Council.

“The Irish Refugee Council, along with various different organisations and individuals including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Special Rapporteur for Children, Geoffrey Shannon, and most recently Minister Katherine Zappone have called for an end to Direct Provision. In the interim, living conditions should be improved.

“We need a system that embodies the best interests of the child, allows for self-determination and privacy, is based on care and not profit, identifies and supports individuals with special needs and vulnerabilities, allows for independent complaints mechanisms and provides for the right to work.

“Saturday 10th of December, International Human Rights Day, was the anniversary of the direct provision allowance being introduced in 1999,” notes Henderson. “That allowance, €19.10, hasn’t changed since, despite inflation and the considerable increase in living costs. The Christmas bonus for people in Direct Provision was just €16.23 for adults and €13.26 for their children. Christmas can expose existing poverty in our society, not least for people living in Direct Provision.”

‘Temporary shelter’ is damaging people

Direct Provision was originally planned as a temporary solution to provide shelter for asylum-seekers for approximately six months but many people spend years in conditions which have been condemned by the United Nations and international human rights groups.

Direct Provision gives asylum-seekers their bed and board and it prohibits them from working. Asylum-seekers get €19.10 a week. Children get €15.50. Asylum-seekers are not eligible for free third-level education.

Currently we have 4,300 people in 34 Direct Provision centres across the State. A third of them are children; 55% have been here for five years, 20% of that for seven years or more.

Direct Provision centres, which include former hotels, hostels and a mobile home park, are run by private contractors who receive about €50 million per year in State funding.

Until now, parents have not been allowed to cook for their children and many say they have lost their sense of independence. Sue Conlon, formerly of the Irish Refugee Council, notes that some children in Direct Provision – crammed into close proximity with adults (and not just their parents) – are seeing things they should not see and are replicating behaviour they should not understand.

“We have created a system which infantilises adults and sexualises children,” she says. “This is a recipe for horrors.”

Ireland has warehoused asylum-seekers in Direct Provision centres since 1999. Direct Provision was introduced as a temporary, six-month, solution at a time when annual asylum applications were 10,938. Applications peaked in 2002 at 11,600.

Last year we had 1,448 asylum applications.

In EU terms, Ireland has a lower than average number of asylum applications per head of capita. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ireland received 1.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 population between 2010 and 2014. The EU average is 3.5 per 1,000 and, over the same period, Sweden received 24 applications per 1,000 population.

Ireland only accepts approximately 5% to 6% of asylum applicants upon first application. The European average is somewhere between 26% and 28%.

Ireland remains the only country in the EU, other than Lithuania, that does not allow asylum applicants access to the labour market at any stage during the asylum process.

A number of prominent figures, including the former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, have predicted that a future Taoiseach will end up standing in the Dáil and publicly apologising for damage done by the Direct Provision system.

We should demand dignity, kindness and respect for all

In August of this year, an asylum-seeker from Korea, a woman in her thirties, took her own life in the Kinsale Road Direct Provision centre, which houses 200 or so people. She was the mother of a six-year-old boy.

“She lived in the same block as me,” one woman, a fellow asylum-seeker, told RTÉ’s Brian O’Connell in the wake of the tragedy. “Lovely lady, very private, and didn’t choose to mingle with people. It was obvious that she had issues, but she chose to remain private about them.

“Lively. A real live wire,” she says of her late neighbour’s son. “He interacted very, very well with other children. Very sweet and loved his mum dearly. And she loved him as well. You could see. When it came to her son, you could see how much she loved him.”

That little boy is now an orphan and in the care of Túsla.

“Depression, sometimes, is within and you carry it wherever you go. Certainly your circumstances can and might exacerbate a situation you already have,” the dead woman’s neighbour told Brian O’Connell.

Brian O’Connell points out that 90% of asylum-seekers will have suffered from some form of depression. O’Connell notes that sixty-one asylum seekers, including sixteen children under the age of 6, have died in Direct Provision centres between 2002 and 2014. That is, he says, out of an asylum-seeker population during those years of just over 50,000.

If, like many of us, you don’t know the Kinsale Road Direct Provision centre, it is – as you drive out to Cork Airport – on the left-hand corner immediately before, and beside, the Bull McCabe’s Bar. If – as an Irish citizen – you are interested in meeting our guests, the men, women and children living in Direct Provision, the residents on Kinsale Road are always delighted to get visitors.

All you need to do is call to the gate and talk to the security guards. Tell them that you’d like to meet some of the people who are living in our country as our guests. If they turn you down – and they almost certainly will turn you down – then ask to make an appointment.

(The usual excuse is “privacy concerns”, which is an interesting line of argument when some asylum-seekers are forced to share bedrooms with total strangers.)

Please think about bringing gifts of toys or books when you call. Santa will always do his best for the kids in there, but Santa never turned down a kindness either.

As Irish citizens, as tax-payers, we all pay for the Direct Provision system and – as we are responsible for it – we surely have a duty to make sure that our guests are treated with dignity, kindness and respect.

Originally published in the Evening Echo 28th December 2016

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 www.corkpennydinners.ie

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. www.jackorourkemusic.com

Originally published in the Evening Echo 13th December 2016


Visiting the grave of Saint Nicholas on Christmas Eve



Santa Claus by Thomas Nast (1881)

Today I visited the grave of Santa Claus.

The first thing to say, of course, is that Santa Claus does not – and cannot – have a grave, because Santa Claus cannot die and Santa Claus never will die. Santa is – as every child knows – a magical being, given life and strength by the power of belief.

Santa lives in the North Pole and once a year, at Christmas time, he sails the night sky in an enchanted sleigh towed by his flying reindeer. The most famous of those, of course, is Rudolf, whose shiny red nose has saved the day more than once. This Christmas night, and every Christmas night, Santa will visit every child in the world and he will do so as long as children believe in him.

I always wonder, though, if Santa gets a little tingle when he stops to deliver presents to the children of Thomastown in County Kilkenny. Maybe he takes a wistful look over toward Jerpoint Park, to the ruined Church of Saint Nicholas. After all, that’s where he’s buried.

Before Santa became Santa, he was a human being named Nicholas, a very long time ago. He was born, more than one thousand and seven hundred years ago, on the 15th of March in the year 270 in what is now southern Turkey.

Nicholas was the son of wealthy Christian parents and he was a very religious child. When he was very young, his parents died in an epidemic and his uncle, who was the local bishop and also called Nicholas, took him in and raised him. In time, Nicholas was ordained a priest and years later he too became a bishop. He became renowned for his generosity and his secret gift-giving.

Interestingly, he attended the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine, and which would set in stone what would become universally accepted as the details of the story of Jesus Christ.

Legend has it that Nicholas – who believed that Jesus was co-eternal with God the Father (meaning Jesus existed with God and as God since the beginning of time) and was thus as divine as God – became so angry at the heretic Arius – who contended that Jesus was created by God and thus less divine – that Nicholas punched him in the face. Later years obviously mellowed Santa…

(Other details were added to the story of Jesus at Constantine’s insistence.

According to the English writer Alan Moore, Rome was “a city divided by different theological factions, the largest and noisiest probably being the early Christian zealots. Then there was the cult of Mithras, which was smaller but which included the bulk of the Roman Military. Finally there was the cult of Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun, which was relatively small but very popular amongst the merchant class.

“Constantine’s posse came up with a composite religion to unite Rome: Christianity would incorporate large chunks of Mithraism, including the stuff about being born in a cave surrounded by shepherds and animals on the 25th of December, and would make concessions to the cult of Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun, by sticking a big Sun-symbol behind the messiah’s head in all the publicity hand-outs. This is politics.”)

During his lifetime, tales of Nicholas’ great kindness spread and with them rumours and tall tales of miracles he had performed. It was said he saved three young women from shame by giving their impoverished father dowries, which Nicholas may have thrown down the chimney.

He was said to have saved Myra from a famine in 311 by performing a loaves-and-fishes miracle with a ship cargo of wheat.

He was even rumoured to have resurrected three murdered children.

Being human, Nicholas eventually got old and – at what would have been at the time the incredibly old age of 73 – he died on the 6th of December in the year 343.

But that was only the beginning.

His tomb became a popular place of pilgrimage but – and this gets gruesome, so adults look away – in 1087 Italian sailors seized half of St Nicholas’ skeleton and brought it to Bari where those remains lay today in two churches, one Catholic and one Orthodox Christian. Venetian sailors later claimed the remaining fragments of the skeleton and brought them to Venice, where the church of St Nicholas was built.



The Tombstone of Saint Nicholas, Newtown Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny

However, there is another legend about Saint Nicholas.

It is said that two 12th century crusaders brought the remains of Saint Nicholas as far away from danger as they could, to Ireland, effectively taking him to what was then the ends of the Earth.

It is believed that the remains of Saint Nicholas were buried at the Church of Saint Nicholas in what is now the lost town of Newtown Jerpoint, two miles from Thomastown in Co Kilkenny. The grave’s stone slab is carved with the image of a cleric with the head of a knight behind either shoulder, said to be the two crusaders.

It is a historical fact that Norman knights took part in the Crusades and the Normans in Kilkenny were well-known as collectors of religious relics.

Who really knows?

What’s important is that in death, Nicholas became bigger than a man, bigger even than a saint.

Nicholas became a story.

And everyone knows that stories get stronger every time they’re told. And if it’s a really simple story, a really powerful story, like a story about a man who secretly gives gifts and wants nothing in return, well, a story like that can become magical.

The story of Nicholas grew as it spread, gaining power as it went. In Europe, it bumped into Martin Luther’s legend of the Christkind – a magical version of the Baby Jesus who gives gifts to children – and absorbed it.  In Britain, it met the story of Father Christmas (think Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present) and absorbed that too. In the Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas, where he’s celebrated still.

By the time the story reached the New World, Sinterklaas was Americanized to Santa Claus and in 1823, the publication of “A Visit From St Nicholas” (“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”) gave new impetus to the legend.

In 1863, the cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa as a portly, white-bearded gentleman giving toys to children and the picture was almost complete. The North Pole, the elves, Rudolf, Mrs Claus and all the other details grew from there.

Contrary to persistent urban myths, Santa wore red and white long before Coca-Cola portrayed him in those colours. In fact, Santa as we know him, in his white-trimmed red suit and cap, appeared on the cover of “Puck” magazine in the first years of the 20th century.


Given life by the power of belief, Santa Claus has come to be the embodiment of Christmas for millions of children around the world, a magical being of great joy and kindness.

Even as he races around the world to reach every child this Christmas night, when Santa comes to KiIkenny, perhaps he will find the time to stop at the ruined Church of Saint Nicholas to pay his respects to the man he was before he became Santa.

Happy Christmas.

Donal O’Keeffe

One year on, it’s clear Ireland’s Marriage Equality referendum was about a lot more than marriage

Marref“There is no equivalency between marriage and sodomy and those who seek to make them equal are only codding themselves and others.”

So began a letter to The Avondhu in March 2015. The writer – a regular “family values” correspondent whose ultra-conservative Catholic views would make a board meeting of the Iona Institute  look like Sunday brunch at the Playboy Mansion – was scandalised at the then-imminent marriage equality referendum.

God was quickly brought in to back up her argument because, presumably, there’s little the Almighty can’t be rolled out to justify. “God is not mocked,” she wrote. “We need only to see the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to know that God will not tolerate homosexual behaviour.”

“Since it is a grave sin, we cannot support sodomy under any circumstance… In Ireland for the past twenty years, in particular, we have been drip fed the homosexual lifestyle.”

TV soaps, apparently, have been to the forefront, “softening up the nation with their carefully crafted  scripts so that our acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, that which is so opposed to God’s laws, has taken a ‘soft grip’ on the minds of the people”.

(At the time, I asked the human rights campaigner and leading member of Yes Equality Colm O’Gorman if “the homosexual lifestyle” mainly involves, as I’ve long suspected, liking Abba. “Pretty much,” he replied, drily. “That and really, really nice shoes”.)

The Avondhu’s correspondent, however, warned “any opposition to the ‘gay lifestyle’ will earn us the term(s) homophobic, intolerant, ignorant and old fashioned. While many may be bullied into silence, Christians are called to witness to Christ and to speak the truth, uncomfortable though it may be….

“We could never have envisioned that in 2015, Ireland would be asked to vote sodomy into the Irish Constitution and be deluded into calling it marriage.” The correspondent saw this as part of an agenda she called “The new ‘Human Rights’”.

It really is a fantastic screed and it breaks my heart not to re-produce it in full. (Sodomy is mentioned three times – and five times in a follow-up letter – leading me to conclude that some people really do seem to spend a lot of time thinking about sex.) It is indeed, as the author said, “homophobic, intolerant, ignorant and old fashioned”. It is also deeply offensive, not just to anyone who is gay, or to anyone who has gay family and gay friends, but also to anyone who just wants to live in a republic of equals and an Ireland of warmth and kindness.

It is also, in hindsight, a lot more honest than much of the dog-whistle stuff about children peddled by the No campaign. The letter spurred some —

Please read on in my column in The Avondhu