Sr. Caoimhin Interview
Transcript of a taped interview with Sr. Caoimhín Ni Uallachain and Eoin Hickey
24th November 2010 at Chapelizod
(Note that where spaces denoted by … are used it is to indicate a pause rather than lack of clarity of the recording.)
EH: Sister, can you tell us about when you first came to Ballyfermot?
SR C.: I first came to Ballyfermot in 1970, and I came to Ballyfermot at precisely the …. with the hope of being able to do something for the poor. I had been in Eccles Street and the first Sisters who went out to found a national school in Ballyfermot were coming home to dinner every day to Eccles Street where I was. I was hearing first hand about the huge school, the biggest in Europe at the time that had been opened by the Dominicans for the people who had been moved out from the city centre. I was hearing all the stories about the biggest class sizes, the biggest school in Europe at the time and houses with no services whatsoever, thousands of people. I was hearing about it at that time …. the poor. When I was free from being principal [of Eccles Street] and the building of the [new] school for Scoil Catriona I decided to come out to Ballyfermot to see what I could do for the poor.
I went into the school and, began teaching and it was out of that that the Matt Talbot Community arose because I was looking for the poor.
I approached the priest and I ended up attending a meeting of young teenagers in a room in the tech’, some of them from the school and the boys off the street.
[We started a] Self Help Group and that’s where I learned their language and I learned their needs and I met the boy that made the difference. The boy was like a zombie, he wasn’t drunk, and I said “why are you doing that to yourself?” and his answer was “to get through the day”. I was shocked out of my mind that a human being, just like my own brother, my younger brother, had grown …. a beautiful young man of about eighteen and he was in such pain inside himself, because of his circumstances, that he had to fill himself full of …. he was smoking glue to get through the day.
EH: So that led you to creating the Matt Talbot Community Trust?
Sr C.: No, it led to me befriending that group of boys and within four years having collected volunteers who would help me to think about what we would do, …. came up as a group of thirty people, educated people, people teaching in Ballyfermot, business men, priests in Ballyfermot – a big community and we came up with the idea that we would form a community and get a bit of land.
The parish priest Fr. Brendan Rogers helped us to get that the bit of land from the Bishop and we started in the back, just behind the Church [of the Assumption] to get them in off the street. We built a little building, we raised the funds. The people who gave me money were the business people up the road and we built a shell of a place. First with two rooms and toilet facilities and a little office. We built that the let them in off the road.
We asked them what they wanted, a cup tea and to play music, out of the rain, that’s where it began.
EH: That led some years later to the Matt Talbot Community Trust?
Sr. C.: It’s very important to remember that they are very closely linked [the Candle Community Trust and the Matt Talbot Community Trust]. They are the same organisation in reality doing the same thing but for two groups, now this is how that happened; we were working until I became sixty years of age. I thought it was too old and I retired. I got a house in Chapelizod to live in. Now the place was so small that the new director that came in …. The little children leaving school….
I had being trying to get some place for them. I had tried over years, what he [the Director] did was to let the little fellows out so as to let the bigger fellows in. They came around the corner into my home in Chapelizod and that became the Matt Talbot Community Trust.
It was ten years before I got a place outside of my home in Chapelizod. That became the Matt Talbot Community Trust. Matt Talbot because of my father being a Dubliner knowing Matt Talbot. The drink was one of the central problems in the Ballyfermot and so The Matt Talbot Community Trust began in 1986 and …. it began actually as part of Candle, in Candle but the year after…. because of the numbers here and they were older people. Candle went on as [with] the younger people up to about the age of eighteen and Matt Talbot began for older people. They were going into jail and they needed somewhere to come back to when out of jail and as there was no room for them in that small place they were here [Sr. Caoimhin’s home]. It took ten years and before the Dominican Sisters left Ballyfermot I asked them for an acre of land which they gave which housed a whole new centre for Candle and they accepted it. Michael O’Regan O.P. who was running [Chairman] Candle at the time would only agree – would only accept it on condition that the old place would be transferred to the Matt Talbot.
I was with [on] both boards and it was the same organisation but there was no room so they were below and we were above.
EH: What exactly had you in mind for the organisation, what was its purpose?
Sr. C: From the beginning, and I would like to emphasize it, it centred on the people it was serving and for years all those who helped were volunteers, local community volunteers and other people that I had connections with. It was centred on the person and that person at that time was a young man, because the girls were coming to school, the boys were already on the street. Exactly the time when I was beginning was the time when the drug problem arrived in Ballyfermot and Ballyfermot has totally changed as a result of the drug problem. Alcohol was the centre of the problem – still is the centre, but in addition…. now it became the drug problem which got worse and worse, it changed the whole scene.
EH: So within that scene the Matt Talbot’s role was ….?
Sr. C.: The role of the Matt Talbot was…. they were all volunteers, it was volunteers for years including the board of management. We had a group of thirty volunteers for years and for ages there was only one [staff] – I was only able to pay one – me. I have never accepted a salary in the whole thirty years. The idea was to befriend and support, exactly as a family would their children, whose family had fallen to bits or who had through death of a parent, through dysfunction, family problems, through drugs or drink or whatever – that young men, still uneducated, were on the street and weekly were being …. The Dominican Sisters, to a great extent, were able to hold on to the girls, not all of them, some of them were also offloaded because they were ‘disturbed’ and I utterly refused to accept that in the school.
But the boys on a weekly basis were being – I remember in one case where a parent came weekly with the child, but he was put out of the school because they couldn’t teach a class of thirty with a disturbed child. They were the boys, they were on the street and what did we want to do with them? We wanted to do …. and that was a picture in my mind – the early Church, I knew that they were God’s children. What enabled me to come through a very, very difficult time was I knew that God loved them. I knew He wouldn’t let them down, I knew there were lots of people who would support me in that. That they had a right as God’s children to become fully human and to belong to the tradition they had. Father Rogers backed me to the day he died on that and he was the one that went to the Bishop because this pastoral need was so dire, because these children were drinking out on the streets coming to the convent at night, robbing and because they had nothing to do, nowhere to go and the key thing was that nobody cared.
I cared and I gathered people from the community and from outside the community that cared, and that’s the meaning of it.
Later on the girls began to find themselves out on the street and you cannot …. In the beginning we had to meet these boys because they were alienated from their families. I never let a parent, in the beginning, bring a child. The child had to decide to come and the key to that is that the child must be centred and he can only be helped if he wants to be who he really is. So in once sentence: ‘Give a man back to himself’, as any parent wants to do for their own son, set him free to share the gifts that God gave him, to recognise those gifts, to discover those gifts, to share those gifts, what every parent wants to do for their family. My example, you can’t do that, even the family can’t do it, without the support of the community and the community in my mind was the first Community, Christ had raised from the dead, gone back to Heaven, given hope to the world and the people who followed him created a community where they shared who they were and what they were. Central to what He left them – the Mass, that was my idea and always was.
Now, as I had no money and no support for a long time, except for these volunteers, but when we got the support and when we were able to get the Department, and when we began to get funds, of course the parents and the community came in more and more and the families and in the end the parents used to say ‘why does he talk to you and he won’t talk to me’ were ringing me up and telling me about their sons and I would say ‘Send him down to me’.
We became great friends with the parents and eventually the parents joined us and we began to broaden…. what you have here now with Grainne [Director M.T.C.T.] is a fully fledged idea. I saw that when I was bowing out. In a identical get together [AGM 2009 when Sr. Caoimhin formally retired from the board of The Matt Talbot Community Trust] where we had soup and sandwiches down in the West County [Hotel] I saw that my vision of the early Christian community was realised. The person who gave me the bouquet was the mother most in need who had been with me since the age of sixteen and they [The M.T.Women’s Group] were now in their forties, they were present and the volunteers who had been with me and the parents whose children had died, some of them very tragically, one of them came up from Kerry. These were the people who were there – we were there as the community that I had dreamed up from the beginning, so the Matt Talbot Community Trust is what it always was.
EH: Are things any different today Sister, have things changed, should Matt Talbot now be looking at things differently?
Sr. C.: I want to tell you that it began in 1976 and it was the eighties …. so the whole spirit of candle and Matt Talbot …… Now the MT began in the eighties, the older group, but it would never have been the Matt Talbot if it hadn’t the history of community and the years where Fr. Brendan was coming in and doing next Sunday’s Gospel. not as something two thousand years ago…. Who are the devils of Ballyfermot that we have to put out today? – drink and drugs, in other words [he was] bringing next Sunday’s Gospel into their lives. Father Brendan did that for them, so the community grew …. When they came and got a welcome, they got a meal, they were helped out of jail, their needs were met so by the time the Matt Talbot came they followed me down to my retirement house because they were only eighteen and they still didn’t have the whole story.
Now we didn’t have the funds nor the place to fit them back into the community. We had given them some notion of who they were but it was the Matt Talbot from then on that began to educate them, to fit into life in general in the community. That’s the change, the change now is that each man gets his programme, he gets the support he needs, psychologically or medically or in terms of his living conditions, of his relationship, of is health. He gets that and he chooses what he wants to do and he is assisted in getting that, so that he ends up being whatever his dream is and the important bit is that it’s always the man who’s most welcome…. is the man, no matter how old he is, he now might be twenty or thirty or even forty because he might have spent ten or fifteen years in jail.
The reason that the prisoners are very, very central is because, very shortly [after we] began, when the stark situation economically of the eighties left them that they had no option …., nobody was working, they ended up in jail for robbing to feed their children. So as prisoners …. at one stage I had eighty friends in prison, I was visiting them regularly and it became very central.
Life changed, the Tiger came and we got a lot more money for special education and that need didn’t remain the same but the drug problem got worse and so we have a situation …. and the women and the parents needed assistance, and because many of them [parents] hadn’t even finished their education…. They were landed out of the city centre and the schools could only take ‘babies’, so from ‘babies’ to sixth class they came out from the city centre and went [back] in and out of town to be educated, so you had a lot of people in Ballyfermot who needed support. They got to know us through the sons. I remember a parent saying to me ‘how is it that the boy who didn’t make it, who went out on the street making trouble, is getting more help than the boy who went to school?’, and that was the truth.
So it developed with the needs, because it always has. The man who needs the support, who doesn’t know who he is and can’t take up responsibility for his own life….
EH: So how has it changed today?
Sr. C.: Worse, much worse. Ballyfermot has changed, the main reason for that is the drugs situation. There was no money and the values were changing. Sadly the people of Ballyfermot were losing God and that was partially the fault of the Church. The Church was in need of renewal. The people who recognised that first were the people that were abused by the priests of Ballyfermot.
EH: We see today the church locked tightly, all day, every day….
Sr. C.: Sadly, some of the most tragic priests were in the Ballyfermot community, and that turned, and the Brothers also, there were problems, and the people in the Brothers withdrew. So it’s everybody needs renewal, but because we’ve lost our way completely, in values…. I had children coming in wanting to join us, standing in the doorway with designer shoes, and they wanted us to look at their shoes. Their values were the shoes they were wearing. That’s how much they had lost who they were and that’s why the struggle is the same, but you have to give them back their values. Now they have even lost their values but they still have their lectio divina. We still have the spirit of the Ballyfermot people. The Ballyfermot people haven’t lost their Christianity. [Ballyfermot] is where love is still alive. You take the worst family in Ballyfermot in terms of economics and drug addiction. – they love their children in the way they are not loved in many other areas in Dublin and elsewhere. The Ballyfermot people have their Christianity but they don’t call it Christianity, that’s the tragedy. They’re uninstructed but they are the Christians of today. Far more, so sadly, than some of the parish priests that are serving them, but many have to find their way back to God. They have to realise that they are children of God. They learn that up in prison. We go to the prison every month and they are wide open, they get the basic message. Do you want to be who you really are and do you want to take control of your own life, do you want to be a human being in your own community? Discover your gifts and share them with your own family so that your family does it …. and they rise to it to get themselves off drugs. It is worse in terms – we’re back to the eighties in terms of economics. Thank God the Tiger had to die. We have to realise that those values will never make you happy. Money will never make you happy. The lads up in prison will tell you, they have tried it and it doesn’t work, so we have to get back to who we really are and respect….
People say that was then and this is now. Yes, did your mother ever talk to you like that? I used to tell the girls in school – ‘you don’t have to wear her fashion in hair, you don’t have to wear her fashion in clothes’ but there are some things that never change, so listen to the values that your mother and your grandmother give you and you will have a better chance of understanding who you are and of taking care of you own children.
EH: Before we finish, on a practical note, if we are going to commit ….
Sr. C.: I just want to say this: I think that the staff and the board will protect it. The staff have to realise that because the quangos that began in the Tiger years…. take any of these, they thought much more of themselves….than of the work they were doing. They became institutions in their own right to give salaries to people…. and we have to get back to the fact that we began to be servers, as Jesus was a server. That’s what I saw myself. I saw myself as serving in the way that Jesus served. Jesus came to a place like Ballyfermot in the eighties and now in 2010. He came to a place where the uppities dressed and had the first places and had all of the power and all the control. So power and control and money are places where you won’t find happiness and He was trying to turn that upside down. That’s exactly what we tried to do and we have to get back to it.
EH: On a practical point, pride and dignity are words…. how do you feel … if the MT are to produce a brochure or an annual report or any document and they describe what we do and we use words like ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘homeless’ and ‘disadvantaged’. Some of the participants pick this up and read it and their families read it and they say ‘hey, I’m not dysfunctional …’, so are we hurting their pride by using descriptions like this?
Sr. C.: No. No. That’s a mistake. The people who are writing that brochure are making the mistake. You centre on the human being. The man in Ballyfermot who hasn’t the support that is required to give him…. If I used the word, which is the true word – education, in the true sense, in the basic and widest meaning of that word, which means ‘to draw out from him the gifts which he has from God’, so the dysfunctional end of it is that the supports around him, that help him …. When a child is born he can not survive without a community, he will never grow into himself, he will die if he doesn’t receive the necessary requirements of security and love. If he doesn’t receive these supports around him he will die.
EH: If one is to describe to the greater world what we do, in that description you have to maintain the dignity of the individuals….
Sr. C.: That’s a misunderstanding by the community. There is no individual, no human being on any continent, whether he is blind or deaf or whatever, there is no human being that isn’t equal to every other human being is his dignity and their requirement for full respect as a human being, created by God, and that’s what we don’t realise. He won’t be dysfunctional if he hasn’t been neglected.
EH: What group of people are we catering to?
Sr. C.: We’re doing this in a local community…
EH: What group within that community?
Sr. C.: Our societies, from the beginning, naturally formed into families who were the support for their own children. But a family can’t live without air and food so it becomes a wider community in terms of …., within a compound ….. where we were gatherers, but now ….. localities and then towns and then cities and then provinces and countries. There are football teams belonging to the community…. which is one of the divisions, but it is the widening of the community …. it is the widening of the community and every human being belongs to the widest community, which is every child of God, which in the whole world …. That’s why we have to pay to help the people in other countries because we are all brothers and that’s the message of Christ. Therefore we are dealing …. because we are a small group….
EH: So we should be appealing to the better off in the community as well as to the less well off.
Sr. C.: Yes, the point about it is, we don’t talk about ‘better off’ because for me, the ‘better off’ is the one who knows who he is as a child of God. IF you talk about the better off you are talking about the money value.
So we talk about the local community of Ballyfermot, those who need the basic support to enable them to give their gift to the community. We appeal to their own parents, their own supporters and if they need help, we educate them. We help them to understand what they need to give their own – because we can’t do it ourselves, we simply educate them to be with us because we are only standing in until they understand and then we call on those whose families understood that, and who were together enough as leaders, who recognised that they were responsible for everybody in their local community …. not to be either getting their own security out of jobs, keeping them out of prison, or getting their own satisfaction or getting or having power and control over….
If you are having power and control over them, you are the one with the problem. The poorest child [or] family who is reaching out to the rest of the children is better off than you. So it’s all about how much we understand that we are created to develop. We can’t have a country or a town or a city or a politician or a doctor or anybody until we make them into people first, and they want to share. The whole idea of politicians…., [they] should be people that have gifts that they have received from their families and their communities that they want to share with those who didn’t have the same chance. So we are a sharing community of people, none of us is above the other and if we are, then…. it’s wrong values. Just because we are richer of are better off because we have more power. That will never make people happy.
So we’re not just working – and I didn’t start working for these needy people. From the very beginning I understood it…. that’s why we had people on board, who were leaders in the local community and we appealed to the most human of the politicians, no matter what party they belonged to, as they came into power. These are the ones that helped us to share at these levels. I began to educate all those around me, with the gifts that I had received from my own family and from the Dominican Sisters …. to claim off them the that help I needed to do for my new local community what had been done for me. I went to the parents of the children I had taught, and I went to the broader Dominican Community looking for the assistance that would enable me to do for others what had been done for me and that’s still all we need to know.
We need to understand that the little person who’s called dysfunctional might be the most gifted and the most needed leader in the community. The key is we have to set him free to be who he really is and lead in his own family and then in his own community – that’s where we are.
EH: Thank you very much.