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Dublin: 9°C Monday 25 October 2021

A soup kitchen founded in Victorian times is feeding the working poor. That’s some centenary

Donal O’Keeffe reflects on a visit to Cork Penny Dinners, one of the country’s oldest soup kitchens.

Donal O'Keeffe

“IF ANYONE in Cork is in need of our services we are open 365 days a year. We never judge. If you’re hungry we’re here.”

So reads the pinned tweet on Cork Penny Dinners’ Twitter account and it’s a fair summation of one of the warmest, kindest places in Ireland.

In 2012, Cork Penny Dinners served about 100 meals a week. Now it’s over 1,800. That’s a staggering increase and it puts the lie to any pre-election spin that things are getting better.

Penny Dinners volunteers say they are serving meals now to people they never saw before, not “just” homeless people or those with drug or alcohol dependency.

Now they are feeding people who have jobs, families with small children, people just about paying their mortgage or meeting the rent and who can’t afford food.

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

If you’ve never heard of Cork Penny Dinners, it’s a walk-in service for everyone and anyone who might be in need of a hot meal.

Usually located on Little Hanover Street, at the moment it resides – temporarily – around the corner in a disused print works on Gravel Lane, within sight of the Courthouse.

Cork legend has it Penny Dinners was founded by the Quakers as a Famine soup kitchen but – according to those working there today – the truth may have been more prosaic.

Certainly, Quakers have been involved over the years, as have members “of all faiths and none” but the best theory I heard is it was probably founded by whoever was willing to help at the time and the details filled themselves in afterwards. Like a lot of the best things in life.

Open arms

Regardless of how Cork Penny Dinners got here, though, the important thing is if you’re hungry, or lonely, or just need a place to sit down for a while, you’re welcome.

I visited Gravel Lane the other morning and was struck – even more than usually – by how busy it is.

To the left are four long tables and each one is full. Some people are dressed shabbily – and I immediately hate myself for noticing – but most people are dressed (in that most Irish of words) “respectably”.

The helpings on every plate are generous and the food looks and smells delicious.

Some people look up from their meals, curious at a new face but friendly and indifferent in equal measure. To the right is the kitchen, where volunteers bustle about, weaving in and out of each other’s way in a ballet of clatter and steam.

The reason for the temporary relocation is that – thanks in part to RTÉ’s At Your Service and paid for entirely by local businesses – Cork Penny Dinners’ home is being completely refitted.

The programme will be shown over Christmas, and Penny Dinners co-ordinator Caitriona Twomey says she hopes it will help to raise awareness of the work they do.

12316145_906702782754725_2379397350696422024_n RTÉ's Francis Brennan visits Penny Dinners as refurbishment work continues. Source: Caitriona Twomey

Caitriona tells me that in Penny Dinners, class and creed end at the door and nobody judges anyone here, not the volunteers and certainly not the clients.

Some volunteers deliver food to clients’ homes, so those clients can avoid the stigma of being seen to need charity. There’s a genuine respect here for the dignity of each person who calls in and that’s reflected in the first-name friendliness shared by all.

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

There’s a sense of place and a sense of belonging and Caitriona says that’s exactly as it should be.

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

New poor

On my way out, I meet a Cork Corporation worker who tells me he and his colleagues have been delighted to assist with the relocation. “31 years on the job,” he says, “and I was never prouder than I am to be helping these people.”

Cork’s Simon Community says that in 2011, there were 34 people sleeping rough in Cork. Last year that figure was 284. As of the end of October, there are 311 people sleeping on the streets of Ireland’s second city.

Catastrophic as our spiralling homelessness crisis is – and it is – it’s just the tip of a social crisis we have barely begun to acknowledge.

Christmas 2015. Ireland of “the new poor”, where so many Irish people are doing their best but just can’t make ends meet.

We’re told Ireland is out of the recession but if we are, we got there over the backs of the poorest and the most vulnerable.

We have created a two-tier country where those most in need have been let slip through the cracks and those with the least have been forced closer and closer to the edge.
A century since the Rising and Irish society is being held together only by charity.

In Cork, a soup kitchen founded in Victorian times is feeding the working poor. That’s some centenary.

Cork Penny Dinners exists solely on public donations.

On Twitter, Sabrina Dent offers a lovely idea. If you live near Cork, please think about adding a few cheap household items to your trolley every week.

Things like tinned fruit, sugar, cooking oil, tin foil, refuse bags and such are always needed and if you only bought one or two a week, you’d have a box put together in no time. Caitriona and the lads would be delighted with you.

Right in the heart of the city, Cork Penny Dinners is a warm and decent place, full of warm and decent people.

If you ever need a bite to eat, or a place to catch your breath or – most importantly – if you ever need a reminder that there is still good in the world, please call in.

You’ll be more than welcome.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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