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Veterans Martin Keaney, William Scanlon, Dan Murphy, William Hourihan and Hugh Ferguson who live in the ONE home in Cobh with chef and ex-navy man Eddie Hannigan, and house manager John Lawlor.
Defence Forces

'I was dying, now I'm living': Veterans who faced homelessness reflect on year living together

ONE is calling on the Government to commission research on issues facing veterans as increasing levels of homelessness are being reported at grass roots.

“I WAS DYING in the flat I lived in before I found this place. I don’t want to be dramatic, but that’s how it was, I was dying, and now I’m living,” says Cork man and former soldier Dan Murphy.

The room full of veterans falls silent following Dan’s admission.

That is until ex-Navy PO Martin Keaney pipes up, “He’s living, and killing us all off in the process,” and they erupt into laughter.

This group of ex-service men have spent the last year living together in a newly refurbished home for veterans in Cobh, Co Cork, that is run by Óglaigh Náisiunta na hÉireann (ONE), an organisation that aims to keep ex-service personnel off the streets, and in some cases helps them transition back to independent living.

ONE also runs homes in Dublin, Athlone, and Letterkenny that altogether house 51 veterans who would otherwise be homeless, or living in unsuitable conditions. 

It is hoping to open new accommodation in Cork city by June, as the Department of Housing has granted ONE a loan of €‎1,079,775 to transform an old garda station into a six-bed home. 

There is already a waiting list for the new home, as ONE is aware of multiple struggling veterans in the area. 

The next home the organisation plans to open will be in Limerick, as it is in the process of engaging with the Department of Defence in regards to an unused state-owned property. 

The ONE was set up in 1951 so that ex-servicemen could come together in the spirit of “unity and comradeship.” 

Chief Executive Cormac Kirwan says that it was the death of three ex-servicemen in the late 80s, one of whom was found outside of Griffith Barracks, that was the “key trigger for change” in the aims of ONE as it began to tackle the deprivation, and physical and mental health issues that veterans face. 

ONE President Diarmuid Higgins, who lives in Cobh, campaigned for the home there to open for years as he knew veterans in the area needed help, and after 21 years in the Navy, he knows all too well how difficult it can be to adjust to life after the military. 

“On my last night in the Navy I wanted to ring someone and say that I’d made a mistake, I wasn’t leaving. That’s how scary it can be.

“You have a second family on the boat who understand what you’ve been through, and it’s hard to leave that behind,” he said. 

The five men living in the house on Harbour Row in Cobh have experienced the same hardships that veterans have dealt with for decades. 

Yet, as they are keen to point out, sky-high rents and a lack of properties on the market is the main reason why they, and many other older single citizens are facing homelessness for the first time in their lives. 

The Journal attended the veteran’s first Christmas party together since moving into the new home. They told stories about serving in Lebanon, manning Navy ships in dangerous waters, and the Spike Island riot with ease. It was their experiences of homelessness and living in dire conditions that they found difficult to discuss. 

Dire Living Conditions 

Dan is 60-years-old. He signed up for the Reserve Defence Force (FCA) at the age of 16, and served with them for ten years before joining the Permanent Defence Forces full time for three years.

After leaving the Defence Forces he worked as a scientist in Norway, where he was involved in a head-on collision with a truck that left him struggling to walk.

Dan found himself back in Cork, with no income, caring for his sick mother and desperately trying to find rental accommodation.

He ended up in a flat that had 62 steps to and from the front door, which he had to go up and down on his backside every day. 

The lack of access, and the condition that the flat itself was in, was impeding Dan’s recovery and making it difficult for him to get out and about.

Now he has found a new lease of life, and a renewed sense of comradery from living with the other veterans, who – jokes aside – describe him as the life and soul of the place. He has access to a stairlift, and a mobility scooter that he uses to get around Cobh.

John Lawlor, the House manager for the Cobh home, described the flat Dan was previously living in as “one of the most squalid environments I have ever seen a human being in”. 

‘Homelessness in Ireland has changed’ 

John, an ex-Navy man himself and an accredited psychologist, said that the reality of homelessness has changed in Ireland, and that increasingly, older people who can’t find rental accommodation are couch surfing or ending up on the streets.

“If there is a former service-person out there who is about to be made homeless, they need to know that you don’t have to be down and out to get help from the ONE, or to be dealing with full-blown addiction issues. Veterans can be very proud people, and that can make them reluctant to get help,” John explained.

Hugh Ferguson, 76, guarded power stations near the border during the Troubles, served for six months in Lebanon, and rose through the ranks to become a Quarter Master Sergeant overseeing an FCA unit in Galway.

After 22 years in the Defence Forces, and a career in security in the US, Hugh returned to a very different Galway with a changed housing market. 

“It was a hard adjustment coming back after all those years, but then so was leaving the army, we didn’t get the support they do today. When you are due to leave prison they prepare you for it in the last few months. In the army we didn’t get that, but we were also institutionalised in a way, so it was very difficult,” Hugh explained.

The dangers of Lebanon 

In Lebanon, Hugh lived with a continuous threat of danger hanging over him. One of his fellow soldiers, who was just 19 years of age, was shot and badly wounded on the first night they got there. He and his comrades would be woken up during the night to the sound of alarms when their base came under fire. 

At the time, he simply “got on with it”. 

“I wanted to be there representing Ireland, we all did, that’s what we signed up for,” he said. 

After five years living in a rental outside Galway city, Hugh became aware that he was going to be hit with a rent increase that he couldn’t afford.

“That was the most stressed I have ever been, not knowing when I went to bed at night whether I would still have somewhere to live the next month, I lost sleep over it. 

“I was living on my nerves. To be in my seventies and not have a long-term plan … it isn’t a position I thought I’d be in,”Hugh said.

Now, a year on, he is “totally relaxed” living in the Cobh home. 

“I didn’t know there was anything like this place. All our rooms are ensuite, I was so impressed,” he said.

Similarly, William Hourihan, 64, found himself back on the rental market with nowhere to turn when he was served an eviction notice in 2021.

“I was told I had to leave. I didn’t know what my options were, I thought I’d end up in a hostel or worse. 

“It’s not just that I couldn’t afford to rent – it’s that the properties literally aren’t there for you to view and apply for,” he explained.

William served in the FCA for seven years before becoming a Prison Officer, a transition which he says is highly common, as the prison service recruits veterans. 

The Spike Island riot 

In his 26 years working in Mountjoy, Cork prison and on Spike Island, William survived several attempts on his life, including being strangled by an inmate, and having been saved by another prisoner who called for help. 

William also battled with escaped inmates during the Spike Island Riot in 1985.

He was off-duty in Cobh, enjoying a few pints, when he was called on to get in a boat to the island where around 80 protesting prisoners had seized weapons and burned buildings to the ground.

“I took off my wedding ring before we set off. I knew it would be gone if I got knocked out.

“We were there all night – fist to fist with the prisoners, with a few batons and shields.  I really thought that I was going to die, it was the worst experience I have ever had.

“When I returned to the house I was soaked through, and I had changed into a prisoner’s jumper. Underneath, I was black and blue,” William said.

riot-exhibit-spike-island-prison-museumcobh-county-cork-ireland Alamy Alamy

The Cork man says that he and the other guards were told that a commendation was going to be put on their files, but they discovered 30 years later, on the anniversary of the riot, that they had never gotten them.

Despite the ups and downs of service, William and the others said that the best part of their careers was the comradeship, and the life-long friendships they formed. 

“That’s why we all get on well living together. We are used to sharing our space, you never forget that time spent in the barracks. I was only in the FCA for seven years, when I was asked my army number before moving in here I could rattle it off straight away,” William said.

WhatsApp Image 2023-01-12 at 15.28.37 (1) Chef Eddie Hannigan at the home in Cobh, who the veterans describe as the 'glue of the place.'

Nowhere to rent 

Many of the veterans in the ONE homes outside of Dublin will be there longterm. In the home in the capital, which sleeps 35, the majority of the residents transition back to independent living. 

Martin Keaney, 59, plans to do just that. He was the last veteran to move into the Cobh home, and he hopes he will only be there as a “stopgap” until he manages to find a place to rent. 

“I got divorced recently. My house was sold last Friday. It’s gone now. My son asked if I wanted to move in with him and his family, but they have busy lives. I didn’t want to burden them,” Martin said.

The Cobh native started working in the engine rooms of Navy ships in 1981 as a PO ERA. He dealt with rough conditions and long haul trips, including voyages to deliver ammunition to Lebanon.

Like the others, Martin started a new career after the Navy, but he has been out of work since the beginning of the pandemic.

Martin said that he is unable to access certain social welfare payments like HAP because he is still technically a property owner until the sale on his house goes through. It has left him struggling to afford rental accommodation while he searches for a new job.

“This is a fantastic place. I thought I was going to end up in a hotel, which I wouldn’t have been able to afford long term, or a hostel. This type of safety net should be there for everyone,” Martin said.

Veterans struggling in Cork city 

Paddy Mulley, Secretary for the Cork city branch of ONE said that there is an increasing number of veterans who need help in the area. 

“The new home in Cork city should be full on the first day it opens. We help veterans in the area who are struggling to afford the basics, for example we got pyjamas and supplies ready for an ex-serviceman who was going into hospital for cancer treatment, and didn’t have anything to bring with him. 

“Cork Penny Dinners often put us in touch with veterans who are struggling, and just recently the Gardaí referred a man to us who was living out of the back of a van. 

“Sometimes it is difficult for veterans to engage with services, but it can be that bit easier if we are their starting point,” Mulley said. 

The home in Cobh, and the new Cork city project are the products of years of campaigning and political lobbying by ONE members. Though the organisation has made huge progress, it also faces financial challenges. 

“One of the biggest issues we have is a lack of  empirical evidence on the number of veterans in different parts of the country and the levels of homelessness they are facing. 

“That is because there has been no study done on veteran issues in Ireland, whereas in the North Queen’s University Belfast has published two such studies, and they are used to inform policy,” ONE Chief Executive Cormac Kirwan explained. 

ONE is not a part of the Department of Defence, rather the government has a ‘Service Level Agreement’ in place with the charity. As part of the agreement, the department pays ONE an annual grant of  €130,000. 

It has also secured  €490,000 from the Dormant Accounts Fund to support ONE’s work. 

ONE’s 2021 financial statement states that their home in Dublin is the only one that receives state funding (from the Dublin Regional Homeless executive). It costs them roughly €7,700 a year to house each homeless veteran – some veterans also make a weekly contribution towards the upkeep of the homes. 

It costs ONE over €1,000,000 a year to provide their current services, not including capital costs. It receives approximately €435,000 in State and Local Authority funding. 

The organisation believes that the level of homelessness in the veteran community will increase and intensify, and therefore they are working to develop new fundraising initiatives, and to secure additional funding from the Government. 

The Department told The Journal that officials meet regularly with members of the organisation to discuss veteran matters. 

They further said that the Government is planning to establish an Office of Veteran Affairs as a matter of priority, and that calls for research to be done on the number of veterans in different regions, and the issues they are facing are currently under consideration. 

ONE estimates that there are 140,000 veterans in Ireland (from the FCA and Permanent Defence Forces combined). That estimate is based on figures presented by the Department of Defence to the Public Accounts Committee 22 years ago. 

The organisation chiefly advocates for veterans who are not in receipt of a pension, “as there are only 13, 000 who have a pension from their service” according to Kirwan. 

It is thought that around 28,000 of those veterans are in the Cork/Kerry area. 

“It is important to get more evidence on veteran issues because it turns the heads of politicians, and money follows policy”, he said. 

That is also why ONE is trying to get independent veteran associations to sign up for their ‘I Am a Veteran’ strategy. 

WhatsApp Image 2023-01-12 at 23.23.07 Chief Executive of ONE Cormac Kirwan with representatives from their Cork city branch, and representatives from the 4 Battalion Infantry Association.

Veterans from the 4th Infantry Battalion 

Kirwan pitched the benefits of joining the network to representatives from the 4th Infantry Battalion Association – veterans who were part of one of Ireland’s oldest military units based in Cork, which was controversially disbanded in 2012 as part of a major reorganisation of the Defence Forces. 

The association wrote to the Commission on Defence Forces to make the case for the Battalion to be reinstated, arguing that the Government had made a “poor decision” when they disbanded it, that had a detrimental effect on service men and the country. 

“Our vision is to bring all veteran associations under this network, so we can utilise it to leverage support, services and funds,” Kirwan told the 4th Infantry Battalion members. 

Bill Egar, President of the 4th Infantry Battalion Association, was impressed to hear of the ONE’s plans to hire a third Veteran Support Officer, who will be a fully qualified counsellor in the Cork/Kerry region, and of their plans to roll out a 24/7 helpline for veterans. 

Bill, who came to the Battalion in 1960, told Kirwan that he was “preaching to the converted” when he spoke about the need for veterans to unify to make progress on mental health supports. 

“Most of the veterans in the region came through our unit. Lots of them have died, we have seen people end up on the streets, we’ve seen them fished out of water, it was bad in the 6os right through to the 90s,” he said. 

John O’Neill, also from the 4th Battalion, said that there are ex-service personnel in Cork who are unsure of how to apply for social welfare benefits like the fuel allowance and HAP, and some who don’t realise that they are entitled to them. 

“It is good to know that we can link in with ONE to get them sorted,” he said. 

All of the men in the home in Cobh also know other veterans who are struggling. 

“We are blessed,” William Scanlan, the fifth veteran living there said. 

“I was renting out a flat that wasn’t fit for purpose before I got here. It was a roof over my head, but I wouldn’t have invited my kids around. I was on the housing list for 20 years before I got here, so this place has been life-changing,” the ex-Navy man added. 

House manager John says that the story of the Cobh home is a “happy one.”

“The wider story of homelessness in the veteran community is worrying, but what has been achieved here, and the transformation I’ve seen in the veterans over the last year, shows what can be done,” he added. 



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