In this post I discuss the presence of soup kitchens in Ireland, with an interview from someone who runs a soup kitchen here. See my previous blog entry ''Is Your Phone A Limb?'' here
Soup kitchens conjure up images of the Great Famine of the 1840s. A symbol of hardship in times gone by.
Soup kitchens are still very much in operation today, with a steady presence in Ireland. Pictured above, Skibbereen is one such kitchen that fed many in times of famine. They are in demand because of the never-ending issue of homelessness and poverty in the country.
Curious about just how many people are in need of these services, as well as the ins and outs of running such a place, I contacted Mark O’ Neill, founder of Drogheda Soup Kitchen.
Could you describe a typical day in the soup kitchens, Mark?
We start at 7:30 in the morning preparing breakfast, of which we prepare a hundred. Over the Christmas period it would increase to about 120. Doors open at 9′ o clock. We start serving breakfast from 9 til about 11:30. Then we start to prepare for the dinners. We’d have about up to 300 dinners ready to go. Some dinners are ready made, we source them from Ballymaguires in Lusk. For cooking we might prepare a big stew, some boiled ham, we might do a lasagne, theres a wide choice of three hot meals a day.
We serve our food right through the evening and we shut at 5. We’d have individuals that will have come in for breakfast in the morning, and then they’d come back in around 4 for their bowl of soup, sandwiches and a coffee.
So you see the same people coming in…
Not all the time, but regular enough. Those who come in the morning might be seen once after that, you mightn’t see them at all, at varies. It depends on their circumstances.
We open 7 days a week, 9-5. The figures in Drogheda are 1,700 meals a week, that’s down from 2,300 before. In the Navan soup kitchen, we ‘re up to about the 650 mark per week. Surprising, but the word of mouth has gone out there and we feel it’ll probably hit 800 to 1000 eventually.
Are you particularly busy around Christmas time?
Last Christmas, we expected about 160 to 170 people in because some people get to go home and some are invited into houses and the divil knows what, but we did on average about 89 hot meals at dinner time, and we done about 42 breakfasts. We’ll be open for Christmas in both Navan and Drogheda this year.
What made you get involved in the soup kitchens?
I had five pubs running at once, restaurants, apartments, townhouses and the divil knows what. I sold most of the property in 2007-08 before the downturn. I had two left going into the bad times.
In 2010 I had a quadruple bypass. I was sitting at home, licking my wounds for months on end, I could tell you what was happening on television from one station to another, a couch lounger so I was! After a while my daughter told me some guy had set up a soup kitchen in Galway. So to get me out of the house, she said why don’t you do something like that? I put it off for a while out of laziness, but I eventually got working on it, setting up a committee.
In 2013 we got going with delivering food hampers to houses, because we hadn’t got an ideal premises to do the cooking. We got the spot on Dolan’s Corner with the right money, so we started to develop it. We had to spend a fair amount putting in a fully fitted kitchen, painting etc. but we got it sorted.
It was worth it in the end, wasn’t it?
I’ll tell ya here and now, it was worth it 100 percent. And the bottom line is that when you hand over a food parcel or serve someone a hot meal, there’s nothing as good as it. To see that little bit of glee on their face.
In the beginning when some of them came in, they were pretty undernourished. You see some of them now and they look plump, filled out a bit. It’s great to see, an empty sack won’t stand so the saying goes! It’s fantastic to see the improvement in the individuals and we do have chats with them. If someone comes in and seems a bit quiet we’d go over and ask them how are things, give them a sense of purpose and belonging.
If you woke up under stairs or wherever you slept the night before, you wouldn’t have a lot of focus on the day ahead of you. Here, they come into a warm environment, listen to the radio, have a chat and food, head off for a walk and come back again. It’s a great outlet for them, somewhere to go.
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t imagine it would be a great thing to be out there 24/7 , with no one looking after you. Sad.
Yeah, and it means that they’re not going hungry, getting into trouble and stealing to survive….
Funny you should say that. I’ve been speaking to Guards and that’s what they’ve said. At least they won’t be running into shops doing petty crimes, our facility is there for them. It’s survival of the fittest out there, as the weather gets colder, it’s not easy for them.
Honestly, the individuals we have coming in here only show the height of respect. Absolutely brilliant. Everything is positive with them and they’re so grateful. Originally, we thought we’d run into trouble with people over drink and drugs, but we’ve never had a Garda on the premises since we opened in 2015.
Sure, I might give the odd person a warning and send them away for a week, and say ”now you’ll appreciate the next time you come in”. But as a whole, not a bother in the world.
When you have volunteers giving up their time, of which we have 60 in Drogheda, you want them respected. And that’s what we’ve got. And it’s not that you want a medal or be put on a pedestal, it’s just the mere fact that they’re happy with what you’re doing for them, and you’re happy to do it.
How many people would you serve every day, Mark?
It varies, in the hundreds. You tend to lose some people when they get paid their dole. They might go drinking or drugs or whatever. And people say to me ”why do you feed these people, by feeding them they’ll just have money left over for the drink and drugs”. These people are going to spend it on drink, they’re not gonna so spend it on food, they’ve no cooking facility. If they’re into the drink and drugs, that’s what they’ll do.
We act as an in between service for them, and we hope they use our service to the best of their ability.
We’re also looking after the older generation. In the past while we’ve been promoting in the newspapers. We promote the fact that while they are looked after with housing and pensions, they find it hard to get heat and eat at the same time in their house in the winter. You get a certain amount of the older people on our doorstep. Their children may worry about them while trying to juggle work and may not seem them til the weekend, and the service helps in that way. They know they’re looked after.
What has been your personal highlight of your work in the kitchens, Mark?
When you get a place opened, when you get to that stage…people see all the fundraising you’re doing, but they don’t know what you’ve done with food parcels etc. Although they may note your achievements, they don’t see the other legwork. It took us nine months to get the kitchen open here in Drogheda. People think ”ah sure they’re only out selling pens or whatever, they should be long opened”. They don’t realize the 80 – 90, 000 euro to get the pens together is a lot of money. They think it’s so easy, and they criticize.
But when you get it open, it’s a dream come true. And it’s all with the support of the general public and our suppliers. Some of the stuff might be short dated within a week or two, but if you’re that separate for a hamper, it wont matter,you won’t keep it that long! It’s the now you’re focused on, getting fed straight away.
What I’ve noticed is that from council houses to the wealthier areas in Louth, we’ve delivered hampers to both. Those in flashy cars and homes, they hit hard times as well.
The one thing about our kitchens is the food is grade A standard. It’s as good as a cafe or coffee shop. I’ve had people telling me you wouldn’t get it in the fancy hotels!
When someone comes in the door, it’s all about maintaining their dignity. They mightn’t have a euro in their pocket, but they should be made feel welcome, without the stigma attached.
I visited a soup kitchen recently and they were doing a wonderful job, but there was a row of trestle tables all along, and it felt like you didn’t know who you were sitting beside. Impersonal is how I would describe it.
In our places, two people can come in and take a two seater for themselves, or individuals can take a four seater.
I get you. It’s about making them feel at home and adding a personal touch.
That’s it, I was asked why don’t I get them to pay for the food and put a till on the counter, if they want to.
I told them this – if someone beside me were taking out their wallet to pay for their food and I hadn’t a penny, how would that make me feel? I wouldn’t allow it.
Totally, it would only reinforce the stigma. Anything else to add?
It’s a God given right that a person have one healthy meal per day. It has to be. But unfortunately you’ll get individuals with other opinions like ”why help them, they do it to themselves” But when you’re the one in need, it’s a different story.
And that was Mark. Hope you enjoyed the read.
Website and Facebook :